Wednesday, November 09, 2011


In my Contemporary American Writers class we dissect the structures of stories: the fault lines, the sources of tension, the motivations of characters. But what keeps the story's innards from tumbling beyond its outline? What keeps a story contained?

We think of poems as having specific structures, of having a form, and they do--quatrains, concrete, haikus, rondeaus. But stories also have shapes, and these shapes should reflect the content and feel of the story. Just as a poem of love takes well to the sonnet form, so should a story of love be told in a form that conveys that love.

Aleksandar Hemon is a master of story containers. A Bosnian caught in the United States when war broke out, he chronicles the isolation and desolation of being an unexpected immigrant when all he loves are scattered across the world or, worse, stuck in Sarajevo. The immigrant story is an old tale, and a modern one. In THE QUESTION OF BRUNO, a collection of stories about disconnection and alienation, Hemon carries us into his world and leaves us with the same unsettling emotions he undoubtedly has felt. Each story has dissonance, and in large part that dissonance comes from the story's container.

ISLANDS, the opening story, consists of 33 scenes, many a few lines long, of stand-alone events told through the eyes of a young child visiting relatives on an island. Much like an island, each scene is individual, isolated, yet when taken as a whole, the scenes become an archipelago of sorts. In A COIN, two sides of events told by two distinct voices, one in letters, one in inner monologue. The expository narrative, however, is told in active voice, in a real voice--we experience events as the letters unreel--and the inner monologue is hazy, unreal, and slowly devolves into a sort of madness. Instead of turning us off from the graphic horror of Sarajevo and its snipers, though, A COIN invites us in with its hypothetical "Suppose there is a Point A and a Point B and that, if you wan to get from Point A to Point B, you have to pass through an open space clearly visible to a skillful sniper. In another example, THE SORGE SPY RING tells two stories in parallel, one a boy's fantasy of becoming a spy, the parallel story based on a historical spy told in footnotes.

Each of the eight stories in this collection have their unique container, none alike, yet simIilar in their sense of unease, of loss, of yearning for home. Taken together, the book reads with an odd asymetry, a lack of balance and neatness which we, as readers, want. Instead, we're delivered an unexpected sucker-punch.

So much yet to learn, to write. So many containers to fill.

Tell me--how do you contain your stories? If you read, what story structures move you? Peace...

BONUS: NYT review and excerpt of the book ==> HERE.


  1. I can imagine those themes growing cloying if the variety in execution weren't strong enough. Or are you attracted to all his notions?

    I have very simple approaches to containing my stories. Something, someone, or some small number of things and ones are always at the center, and the purpose of the fiction is to stay true to them. In my recent novel, I knew exactly where to start and end, and where to skip or jump, because this was one man's roles and experiences of these fictional events. Anything except what was hard and fast to those lines was out. Excesses could be caught and edited later, but in that novel as with most of my short fiction, having core investments directed what was to be written about.

  2. Yes, adhering to that plot line or tension line is essential, especially for a novel. I like the term 'core investments'.

    Hemon's themes do overwhelm but by no means cloy. Each story reads fresh, at least to me, and the sum more powerful than the individual stories. This is why he is a master -- and an experimental one at that.

    I like that he pushes envelopes, and the way he's provoked me, given me new ideas of where to go with my fiction.