Only connect

The author of "Gap Creek" picks five great books of linked stories.

By Robert Morgan

Published November 3, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

One of the special genres of modern fiction is the book of linked stories. Though found in many languages and literatures (think of Ivan Turgenev's "A Sportsman's Sketches" and Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry"), the form is especially important in American literature. Beginning with Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Country of the Pointed Firs," the genre has thrived on these shores, having the advantages of the integration and interconnection of a novel and the intensity and compression of a short story. It is a form that works best through contrasting voices, multiple angles of vision and points of view, as the separate stories aggregate into the larger story of the collection.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
First published in 1919, this classic work may have had a greater impact on modern American writing than any other single volume. Anderson showed a whole generation of writers, including Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and O'Hara, how to peel away the facades and assumptions of American life and look at the contradictions, the hurt and loneliness and cruelties, underneath. His portraits of instinct in conflict with institutions deepened the humanity of our literature and our consciousness. Though he is a kind of regionalist of the Midwest, and of the Chicago School, Anderson is also a master of jazzlike improvisation in his narrative voices, an ally and pal of Gertrude Stein's. His narratives have a wonderful expressive distortion, yet they feel natural, off balance while turning up deeper and deeper truths.

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
Nowhere does the old master give a better sense of the pain and permanence of the legacy of slavery and of history. The many voices and vantages of this collection make it seem orchestral. The air in these stories is charged and haunted by guilt, by the sweep of time, by celebration of the fathers and loss of the fathers. The collection is Mosaic, and a mosaic. And remember, it includes "The Bear."

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
No work of fiction in recent history has a greater richness and originality than these linked stories set among the Native Americans of North Dakota. The stories have a bursting energy that spills over into surprise after surprise. Yet each story ends with a sense of inevitability. No other book gives us a better view of the conflict of loyalties, paradoxes, hurts and pleasures of this inalienable part of our culture. The stories connect up into a continuously unfolding portrait of an extended family that seems almost our own.

I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell
Though this volume is called a novel, it is really a collection of linked stories, all involving the family of young Joe Robert Kirkman. The scene is western North Carolina in the 1930s and '40s, and the stories range from tall tales about beards that grow to fill up whole houses and uncles who sleep in their coffins to plangent stories of those afflicted with addictions to stories of delight in music and dance and kinship. Chappell is both a poet and a comic storyteller, and this book has a fresh sense of high jinks, the absurd and abiding affection.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
This collection of linked stories is probably among the best four or five works of American fiction published in the last half-century. Some readers have suggested that the title story, a long catalog of the objects and emotional baggage members of a platoon in Vietnam carry with them on patrol, is the best modern short story. Other stories focus on the long aftermath of the war, as survivors return to their homes so altered they are strangers to themselves as well as their families. The book reads like an oratorio of alternating voices and choruses. The depth and implicitness of the stories, their surprise and wisdom, have to be experienced to be believed. The definitive work of a generation, the book is at the top of our literature of war.

Robert Morgan


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