As I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I’m in the process of working on an essay concerning examples of the short-story cycle in recent Jewish Russian émigré narrative. I’ve done a bit of work on the short-story cycle in the past, mainly focusing on the writings of Steve Stern, Thane Rosenbaum, Gerald Shapiro, and even the comics legend Will Eisner. And, of course, there’s my intense interest in Jewish American narrative. (In fact, I began my academic career defining myself through this kind of literature, although in recent years I’ve been doing less with the material. Nonetheless, I still continue to focus on Jewish American writings at times, most recently in this latest essay I’m completing and my new book, Unfinalized Moments.) A couple of years ago I was introduced to several Russian Jewish writers in American through my good friend, Monica Osborne. She too works in Jewish American fiction and had been telling me of this latest “wave” in Jewish writing. So I began to read the works of Gary Shteyngart, Anya Ulinich, David Bezmozgis, Lara Vapnyar, Ellen Littman, and Sana Krasikov, and really liked what I read. Shteyngart, in particular, struck me as a wonderful writer, if for no other reason than because of his sense of humor. But I noted that the first books of Littman and Bezmozgis, The Last Chicken in America and Natasha and Other Stories, were structured as story cycles, a narrative form in which I was very interested. Put (somewhat) succinctly, the short-story cycle–or the story sequence, or the composite novel…different critics have different names for this–is a hybrid genre that possesses characteristics of both the “normal” story collection and the more conventional novel. It stands out from the former in that the various narratives composing the text are significantly linked in some way. Whereas the individual stories in most traditional collections are disparate and unique, the components that make up a story cycle maintain a consistency in terms of character, setting, chronology, imagery, and even theme. In this way, story cycles encourage a more novelistic reading, since the narratives more directly, or more naturally, flow one from the other or build upon one another. Yet they stand out from traditional novels in that the narrative unity among its various segments–the stories or “chapters–is much weaker. In this way, a specific story within a cycle could easily stand on its own (such as in an anthology or a reader) outside of the collection, unlike the chapter of a novel, which could lose much of its meaning or impact when extricated from its context. Both Natasha and The Last Chicken in America bear these characteristics. For Bezmozgis, this interlinkedness comes out through a sequence of stories all surrounding the character Mark Berman. In many ways, this is a bildungsroman, and in the first story, “Tapka,” we see a very young Mark who has just emigrated from the Baltic region to Toronto with his parents. They live in, or near, the Russian émigré community in Toronto, and taken together, all of the stories in the collection reveal the protagonist’s growth over time and how in many ways he goes from indifference to possession of his Jewish heritage. (His relationship to his Russianness is another story altogether.) This isn’t a novel in that 1) the book calls itself, in so many words, a story collection, and 2) the stories are arranged and written in a way that each could easily stand on its own without any surrounding context. But they’re all interlinked, not only through the protagonist, but through the setting, theme, and tone.
The Last Chicken in America, while also a short-story cycle, is quite different. The author (or her publisher/editor) subtitles this book, “A Novel in Stories,” but this really isn’t a novel in the strictest sense. Each of the stories could stand alone, such as in a reader or an anthology, much like those of Bezmozgis’s, and as such, the book bears more of the stamp of a story cycle than that of a novel. (However, in this case, perhaps the term “composite novel” wouldn’t be inappropriate.) Littman arranges her twelve individual narratives in an alternating pattern. Every other story (for the most part) concerns Masha, a young émigré from Moscow who, when the book begins, has recently arrived in Pittsburgh with her parents. Six of the twelve stories are devoted to Masha, or her family, and the other alternating six revolve around other members of the Squirrel Hill community (where many of the Russian émigrés have landed). Characters from one story pop up in another, and in some cases a figure mentioned in passing in one narrative becomes the protagonist in another. Littman interlinks all of her stories, the Masha ones as well as the others, in such a way that they seem to “talk” with one another, each one feeding off the energy of the other and gaining more significance within the context of the whole. This is a growth narrative as well, but it’s one not only of the individual, Masha, but of her larger community. In this way, Littman is able not only to show the individual immigrant’s plight in the “New World”–do we still want to call 21st-century American the “New World”?–but how vitally important the social context is to that person’s experiences. The emphasis on community is underscored by the short-story form itself. Each of the stories could stand on its own, but they gain a larger significance within the context as a whole, and this for Littman is analogous to immigrant experience in America. The medium is the message.
Okay, now back to my essay. It has to be finished today.