05 January 2008

Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek

I am really, really picky when it comes to short stories. It's one of the trickiest genres out there, because it's so condensed, but a good one never seems that way. It's really difficult to give the reader enough information about a character or an event so that they'll actually get engaged and give a shit in such a small amount of space. You just can't do the same kind of development that you can in a novel. You need to find a way to convey a lot through small features or aspects, but without overburdening those specific features with meaning, not to mention avoiding tired cliches. It's also tough to write a story that has a point of some kind without seeming trite.

This book is meant to be a collection of linked stories, which allows for a more progressive development, both on a smaller scale and a larger one. So there'll be a section entitled Nighthawks, for instance, within which you get 10 stories or so about various insomniacs, late night adventurers, etc. And then there's the overarching theme, which I guess is kind of meant to evoke Chicago at large. Now, while I have absolutely no doubt that to a native Chicagoan, the book is extremely evocative and deeply rooted in place, for someone like me who has been living in the city for 3 years, I must say, it doesn't particularly capture some kind of essential Chicago-ness. I mean, it's set there, and convincingly so, but I don't get some kind of unique Chicago flavor out of it. I dunno. I suppose this is because my favorite stories in the book were the ones that _weren't_ all that rooted in Chicago - the ones that could have happened anywhere. For me, the moments of genius in the book were the ones that captured something beautifully true about human nature via its particulars. I've probably talked about this for - it's my grand theory that the best way to get at a universal is through an extremely specific description of a particular. My favorite story of all was barely 2 pages long, and it was just a phone conversation, but there was something so... true about it, I dunno.

Anyhow, so there are some really incredible parts of this book that absolutely blew me away. But there was also plenty of it that didn't really do much for me - they just felt like somewhat self-indulgent nostalgia. Also, this is maybe somewhat unfair, but it drove me absolutely bonkers that Dybek insists on occasionally using Polish words (in italics) and always, ALWAYS they are incorrect. Seriously, he couldn't find anyone to fact-check that shit? Piersyna is not a word in Polish. It's pierzyna. It's a big difference. wtf.

Incidentally, I did see the theatrical adaptation at the Looking Glass when it was on. I didn't like it at all. It kept me from reading the book for a long time, actually. And it makes sense, because the parts of the book that were used in the play - the parts that would lend themselves best for such things, because they have the most "plot" - are all my least favorite parts. It's the childhood memory stuff, that magic of the neighborhood - what to me, is the weakest portion of the whole thing.

But on the whole, I really liked this book. It was a pleasure to read. Even the parts I wasn't that crazy about, I enjoyed reading. I recommend it.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

What was the story you mentioned as your favorite?