The Short Stories of Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones is one of my favorite living short story writers. I say that well aware that he is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Known World, but I haven’t read that, and I’m here today to talk about his short stories. He has two collections, Lost in the City, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and characters intermix between the two books. But what I appreciate most about Jones is how diverse his stories are – in subject matter, in historical time period – but the two threads that run through most of them are Washington, D.C., and Jones’ matter-of-fact tone. Many writers limit their focus on one town, or city, or region, and Jones belongs to that tradition, but have no doubt: inside of Jones’ home city he finds limitless characters and limitless experiences.

Edward P. Jones was born in Washington D.C. in 1950, and was raised there. He went to the University of Virginia. Lost in the City was his first book, published in 1992. All Aunt Hagar’s Children was his third book, published in 2006. But the stories are closely connected. Each of the 14 stories in Lost in the City connects to their counterparts in the 14 stories of All Aunt Hagar’s children. Jones himself described the stories connected by “an umbilical”.

Jones mostly writes “long” short stories, which are often called “novelistic,” a trait he shares with Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. Of course, there’s at most a negligible market for “long” short stories today; but in my personal opinion, the “long” short story can be incredibly powerful and limber.

I definitely recommend these books.

“Train”

“Train,” by the Nobel Prize winning Canadian writer Alice Munro, to be found in her Dear Life collection, is one of my favorite short stories. I first read it in a “Best American Short Stories” anthology, and then I eventually purchased Dear Life and read it again. What astonished me upon my second reading was how different my memory of the story was from the real thing – “Train” was more expansive, more tragic, and more heartbreaking than I remembered. Munro holds back and holds back, until she finally reveals the cruel heart of the story and then examines it. It’s a work of genius by a true master of the short story, and serves to remind us that there is no need for Munro to write novels when her chosen art is more exquisite, more difficult, and more piercing.

Munro, born in 1931, is 90 years old now. She has never been the kind of writer who prances about in the media, but she is no Elena Ferrante, and there are illuminating interviews with the Nobel laureate to be found out there. She doesn’t speak about her writing a lot, but she does sometimes. She really doesn’t need to – the stories say so much by themselves. But for those of us who are fascinated by her stories, there of course could never be too much said by their author.

I haven’t read all of Munro’s fiction, but I’m working on it. I’m at the point though that instead of reading the books of hers I have not read, I’m planning to reread what I already have. A lot of critics compare her to Chekhov, but they are so, so different – the greatest similarities are their mastery of and their commitment to short fiction. Chekhov, despite his sensitivity, could be coldly ironic. Munro, however, merely stands there, witnessing what you’re witnessing in the story, but for her it’s the millionth time.



Currently listening.

Currently listening. Tigue are a trio of percussionists who insist on making music that is leaderless, rhizomeatic, and mostly melody-free. I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it, but it takes some getting used to. However, I’m still noticing wonders in this this album’s intricacies years after buying it.

Bouvard et Pecuchét

Bouvard et Pecuchét was Gustave Flaubert’s last novel, and he left it unfinished upon his death in 1880. He had intended for it to be his masterpiece, surpassing all his other works, but on its posthumous release in 1881, critics were not impressed. It’s not for everyone’s taste, and the lack of a proper ending can be unsatisfying, but Flaubert was at the top of his game here – stylistically and structurally, it’s the pinnacle of his work, and it reveals (at the end of Flaubert’s writing career), his immense sense of humor, which can be surprising to anyone who has read Madame Bovary. The overall theme of the novel is supposed to be a commentary on the stupidity of humanity, but what I think critics miss in this novel is Flaubert’s amazement at how despite humans’ stupidity and the futility of their efforts, their endless curiosity, capacity for self-delusion, and boundless aspiration give them a sort of beauty and eternal quality that – though they may not be divine – are still significant in an uncaring universe. Flaubert famously claimed to have read 1500 books to write this, which is undoubtedly true, the guy was a maniac, and to the interested reader, it’s illuminating to see a sort of catalog of late 19th century knowledge; it may seem antiquated, but along with the dated segments on whale science in Moby Dick, it can cause one to be more skeptical of our own assumed conclusions about the world around us.

Criticism.

This is one of the best books of criticism I’ve read in the past couple years. I read it when it came out, devoured it, really, and then forgot about it. But for my birthday last year, my sister, not knowing I had read it, bought me another copy. Since then I’ve been telling myself to read it again. I definitely recommend it.

Absence

Been too busy to read, but I’ve been thinking about this Simpsons joke. It might seem irrational, but in a lot of arts, Lisa is right. Sometimes by leaving something out, or in some way allowing the audience to connect faint dots to make its own observations, the artist provides for a deeper, more multifaceted experience. Grand gestures can be thrilling; but subtle details and inferences can be equally if not more powerful. Happy Mother’s Day! 😃