One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box
by Deb Olin Unferth, Sarah Manguso, Dave Eggers

McSweeney's 2007, hardback

Deb Olin Unferth's short stories have been published in journals that include Agni, Black Warrior Review, Harper’s, Noon, Quarterly West, and Willow Springs. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and is the author of a novel, Vacation, also published by McSweeney’s.

Sarah Manguso is the author of two books of poetry, The Captain Lands in Paradise and Siste Viator, and the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay, which was declared a notable book of 2008 by a number of newspapers. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock, Conjunctions, New Republic, and Paris Review.

Dave Eggers is the author of the best-selling book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for which he received a Pulitzer nomination, and is the founder of McSweeney’s. Subsequent works include You Shall Know Our Velocity, What is the What, and Zeitoun, and the scripts to “Away We Go” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” He is also the founder of 826 National, a non-profit network of writing and tutoring centers.

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"I’m alarmed, knowing I’ll have to remember the scene perfectly, as it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen."

Reviewed by Scott Doyle

I had to fight myself to give the very short stories in One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box (a handsome McSweeney’s set of stories by Dave Eggers, Deb Olin Unferth, and Sarah Manguso) a fair chance. For me, the play of language and ideas is important, but not sufficient; I need story and character and dramatic tension. Yet as Eggers points out in a review of a collection by Lydia Davis, a master of the so-called "short-short", this form is a different animal and should be judged as such. Many of Davis’s stories, he writes, "straddle a line between philosophy, poetry and fiction, categories that seem meaningless because her stories just work."

But if in evaluating the short form we are to adopt a more flexible standard regarding storytelling, other standards, it seems, must be raised: standards of compression, of rhythm, of selectivity, of wringing the greatest resonance from the fewest words. And in all but one of these slim collections, too often that standard is not met.

Eggers is the big name here, so I’ll start with his collection, How the Waters Feels to the Fishes. There are a handful of very short pieces, just a few sentences long, and these are among the more successful. Here is the entirety of Once a Year:
"Once a year, she remembers that she is insignificant. Then she forgets again, because more than she is insignificant, she is forgetful."
Here, and in another story, She Needs a New Journal, there is enough that remains at the edge of the story, unseen, that we are left wondering what is the full story.

And there are times Eggers nails a line that strikes with sharp emotion—such as this line from a story about a car accident: "You have done him and his friends some psychic harm, and you jeopardized their health, and now you are so close you feel like you share a heart." Or this, from a story about a woman remembering all the fights she has not fought: "People had told her to choose her battles, and she had chosen some and neglected others, and now the neglected came to her like an army of lost children."

But more often than not his pieces are incompletely realized splashes of whimsy that come off as just a bit careless, built around flimsy conceits and flimsy insights. Worst are the ones involving animals, such as the title story, and a follow-up, How the Air Feels to the Birds. Also here is a story about the literary taste of certain bears, and one that has something to do with horses who hate rabbits.

The longer stories here generally outrun their substance—like There Are Different Kinds, whose theme is that emotional pain is more insidious than physical pain. Or Alberto, which begins with a boy and his father visiting an ailing grandmother, proceeds to a long conversation about how the father wishes upon returning to scare his wife but then thinks better of it, leaving the disappointed boy with no recourse but to chop the limbs off a dead frog. It's a story in search of itself, and one expects something much more finely honed in a story of only a few pages.

Eggers has a weakness for indecisive characters who fail to speak or act in the kind of defining way that can turn a story and make it memorable. Sooner, for example, is built around a character who alternately groans and sighs. Sighing appears in more than one story—never, I have learned the hard way, a good sign in fiction.

Deb Olin Unferth’s short stories have appeared widely in fine journals like Agni, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review and StoryQuarterly. I’ve seen them from time to time, and never quite "got" them, but was looking forward to the chance to read an entire collection. The stories in Minor Robberies exhibit a good deal more sentence craft than the Eggers collection; there is a cool wit and obvious intelligence to the writing; but in the end I was left, mostly, unmoved.

One of her basic working methods is to present some sort of assertion—and then challenge, explore, revise, and turn that assertion on its head. One She Once Was, for example, about a woman who quits smoking, revolves around the question of who is she, the smoker or the nonsmoker, and when:
"On the other hand, it was her old self who made the decision, not her new self, who didn’t exist yet, so perhaps all along she secretly wanted to be the nonsmoking person she pretended to detest."
To Be Honest carries this same sort of hair-splitting into a couple's relationship. ("But the fact is, he says, he feels like he is, or he felt like he was a second ago, but that doesn’t mean that he is and, in fact, he probably isn’t, so he tells me that in order to be honest too.") In the title story, three sisters disagree as to whether they were robbed three times, once, or twice, or many times. The result, often, is a sequence of word- and thought-play, a hall of mirrors, a riddle—holding the emotional content of the story at a careful arm's length. Don’t care too much, that studied distance seems to say. We’re exploring notions and ideas here, not flesh-and-blood characters.

There is not only distance, but a kind of equivocation at work. A number of stories fall into a maybe-this-but-perhaps-not-maybe-that pattern. Like Ax, which begins, "The story is definitely about a man with an ax and two young people besides, but other than it, it is blurry." Perhaps my dramatic sensibility is hopeless old-fashioned. But to me a successful story usually comes down to: that happened, therefore this. Which doesn't seem to be the point of these pieces, geared as they are around a more philosophical inquiry into the elusiveness and mutability of self and reality.

A striking exception is Single Percent, where beneath the hair-splitting is some real emotional resonance. A woman, addressing an old lover, tries to determine what percent single she's been at various times since they broke up. What could have been just a clever conceit turns into a meditation on loneliness. The distancing of the device works because behind it lies an emotional ache.

Other stories proceed along other lines, utilizing other approaches and other devices, lists among them. With few exceptions I experienced the characters as observed rather than fully inhabited. But her subsequent novel Vacation (also published by McSweeney’s) has drawn good reviews and I’m curious to see what she does in a longer form, because she clearly knows her way around a sentence.

Happily, I found Sarah Manguso’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape much more satisfying. One of the interesting choices she makes is to keep all her stories to one page or less, and to simply number them sequentially. This establishes a pleasing rhythm to the reading of the book.

Also, though this is hardly a "linked" collection, Manguso develops several threads in the book that she returns to throughout—one involving a young girl’s experiences at summer camp, another an adult writer at a retreat.

Though some of the opening stories were, for me, hit and miss, Manguso really seems to hit her stride as we approach #20 of the 81-story sequence. #24 poignantly captures how memory deceives us. In #27, the young girl at camp learns that a first-aid kit is not just a cool box. #31 captures the complexity of grieving, and the short spooky piece that follows concerns a woman who may or may not hear a chain saw at work in the woods. #41 explores the tricky question of identity. #58 and #59 represent further meditations on memory. Many of the stories take place in childhood, and are laced with a fine muted sense of menace.

Two of my favorites, #48 and #62, defy description or summary, but I found myself going back to them. In each, it is as though Manguso has managed to take some unwritten novel sitting in the far corner of her mind and distill it into a single paragraph. Yet not in the way of a Hollywood plot summary. Here, what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. I kept returning to these strange pieces, looking for clues—very much wanting to know the full story, but even more satisfied that the author had left it a mystery. In the best of these I found what was missing in the other two collections: mystery, compression, the weight of what has been left out, the suggestion of a larger story and larger world. I look forward to checking out her other work.

A final note… Dave Eggers gives a generous nod to Lydia Davis in his acknowledgements, and her name comes up in an interview with Deb Olin Unferth; she is clearly a point of reference here. Readers interested in the short-short form are very much encouraged to check out Davis’s work—in her several collections, or in her recently published Collected Stories, which is making many year-end Best Of lists. She also has a very good story in this year’s Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Read stories by Sarah Manguso in McSweeney's
, Debi Olin Unferth in Agni
and Dave Eggers in The Guardian

Scott Doyle lives in Los Angeles and writes mainly short fiction. In print he has a story in the recent issues of New Madrid and River Oak Review, and forthcoming in Confrontation. Online he has stories in 580 Split, Sotto Voce, and Night Train. He is at work on a novel-in-stories.

Scott's other Short Reviews: Alix Ohlin "Babylon and Other Stories"

Axel Thormahlen "A Happy Man"

Dan Wickett(ed) "Visiting Hours"

Richard Lange "Dead Boys
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Lydia Davis "Collected Stories" or "Varieties of Disturbance"

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