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Room for Improvement—Emma Donoghue’s Limp Short Stories

THE CONCEPT OF the “sophomore slump” haunts most popular media: the “one-hit wonder” pop singer unable to catch fire again, the movie franchise that disappoints on second outing. Literary artists seem no less susceptible to an inability to compound artistic triumph. Rather than underwhelm with a weak follow-up novel, though, the breakthrough novelist all too often regresses to the short story.

Recently we have seen Junot Díaz return with a second book of short stories after his acclaimed novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (granted, it was Drown, his first collection of stories that established him); and earlier Yann Martel’s response to his Booker Prize was the distribution of his juvenilia in a revised reissue of the collection The Facts About the Helsinki Roccamatios. (Conversely, Jhumpa Lahiri’s return to short stories after a novelistic sojourn with the misbegotten The Namesake was practically reason to cheer.) Annie Proulx, after The Shipping News, has largely committed herself to the short story, producing three books of Wyoming tales of diminishing quality. David Foster Wallace never finished a novel after Infinite Jest, sticking to longish short stories that often yearned for fuller explication.

The work of these writers differs significantly in tone, subject matter, and quality, but each of them seems to believe that short- and long-form writing could be toggled back and forth, that his or her mastery of one implied that the other was as easily conquered. Now add to their number the Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue, who, at the very moment her career as a novelist seemed most established, has published a collection that conveys a seeming unawareness of the power of the short story to speak through elisions and brevity. Her stories are all explication, a series of novels in miniature.

Donoghue’s novel Room was a trans-Atlantic sensation; its tale of a kidnapped woman and her young son living out their life in narrowly circumscribed captivity not only carried off the old parlor-trick of filtering a complicated tale through the consciousness of an innocent (the son), it also neatly mirrored the saga of Jaycee Dugard—a coincidence that fueled American sales. (Like the mother of Room’s narrator, Dugard had been raped and impregnated by her captor before being freed; the novel made the story of the real-world escape a bit more thrilling and certainly more vivid.) For her part, Donoghue has said that the novel was inspired in part by the Fritzl kidnapping case, which came to light in Austria in 2008; and she was criticized for borrowing the lurid patina from real human misery to create fiction.

Though her new collection, Astray, is comprised of stories first published as long ago as 1998, the criticisms of Room ring yet truer here. At novel’s length, Donoghue was able to distinguish her characters significantly from their real-life inspirations—to justify her work as fiction whose most important reality was created by the writer, not by real-world events. Her short stories, however, cut off at the knees what was good about Room, preserving the novel’s most cloying aspects and its most troubling conceptual flaws.

Astray’s stories are all based on past, real-life events. This isn’t conjecture, or an admission cajoled from the author: the stories (some quite short, with the least substantial coming in at around seven pages) all begin with a dateline of sorts, citing the time and place, and conclude with a note describing the real people who found themselves living out what we have just read. Often Donoghue lays out in her historical asides what ended up happening to her characters here, in reality.

Regarding the citations (“LONDON: 1882,” “NEW YORK CITY: 1735,” and so on), this sort of situating is what fiction ought to do, generally. Room did not begin with “AN UNMARKED ROOM: THE RECENT PAST,” because Donoghue had granted herself the space to spin a story that conveyed its characters’ realities. But this quibble would be petty were it not for those endnotes, each sapping whatever sympathy or interest the reader had at the conclusion of the tale. It is deflating for anyone who cares about fiction to read a sentence like this one: “All italicized lines are taken verbatim from the thirteen letters (May 1848-May 1849) between Henry Johnson and Jane McConnell Johnson published by their great-granddaughter Louise Wyatt in Ontario History (1948).”

Why should a reader credit the writer’s imagination if, after a story too short to convey the depth and understanding of which the writer is capable, there comes an admission that it is not even a work of imagination? Why not just a bound volume reprinting documents Donoghue has found interesting in her years of research? Donoghue’s own psychological insights, such as they are, are not given sufficient length to do more than explicitly state how a character is feeling at any (real, historical) moment. “What a ninny I was,” a character tells the reader as she reconsiders her past opinions. “The hard fact is, he needs her more than she needs him,” Donoghue announces.

Given the author’s past success at conveying the subtleties of mother-child love, either delving into her decades-old work was a bad idea, or the short stories are just too short for what Donoghue hopes to accomplish. Short stories, of course, are not for every writer. At their best, short stories are enigmatic. They deny the reader the satisfaction of a complete narrative by their very nature, and expert practitioners of the form—Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Raymond Carver—use the dearth of words to force the reader to make her own assumptions and associations.

But Donoghue lacks this economy, struggling to convey temporal information without resorting to exposition. Even leaving aside the notes that bookend each story, her storylines feel forced. “What has Caroline ever done but what she had to since she was nineteen and she found herself alone with a nine-year-old brother to raise?” the omniscient narrator asks in a story, we are told in the capping note, about a woman who is saved by the generosity of Charles Dickens. (The narrative story’s ending presents a woman on the precipice, swallowing her pride and writing a letter to a benefactor who may or may not come through—a perfectly ambiguous note to strike and one that Donoghue trundles past, concluding instead with her historical footnote.) Elsewhere, a narrator exhaustively lists a family history of emigration: “Besides, what right has she to make a fuss about leaving for a faraway country when her uncle did it years before her, and her nephew, and her brother, and her two sisters?” Characters speculate about the upcoming election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes: “I reckon this election will be the closest thing that ever was, anyhow.” The election was one of the most contested in American history, but this serves the story only insofar as Donoghue wants us to be really, really sure we know we are in 1876.

Every character in Astray says the most apt thing, spouting period slang that might not seem so assiduously polished were we not constantly being shunted around in time and given impromptu history lessons from the author. Each historical situation pushes against credulity—never do we go to a past year and a new city merely to get a slice of life, but instead we must learn about the unique trials facing those who radically transgress. Given that we are encouraged to do little thinking for ourselves, the extent to which a reader might identify with any of Astray’s characters is limited.

The miracle of Room—that countless readers found themselves identifying with a very specifically drawn situation on the edge of human experiencecannot possibly happen without greater exploration; such empathy with the extreme is impossible if the writer does not buttress her plot with the space for the reader to contemplate bigger and more important mysteries. And it certainly cannot happen fourteen times in under 300 pages. It is impossible to see Astray as an artistic step forward from Room, and not merely because much of it was written long ago. Instead of making a perplexing lateral move into a different sort of writing, perhaps Donoghue could have expanded any one of these stories into the novel it yearns to be. Her readers would surely be willing to endure the wait.

Daniel D’Addario is a reporter for The New York Observer who has also written for Slate, Newsweek, and Out. Follow: @DPD_