Top positive review
A good case for constructing your own greatest hits collection by writing slowly enough that they all count
on October 4, 2017
As I've mentioned before, if Malamud is known for anything its as a novelist, with one of his novels being adapted into a semi-famous movie and another winning the National Book Award. However, he was no slouch as a short story author either, with his first collection "The Magic Barrel" also winning the same award. Its the rare writer that can manage both formats with aplomb, as I've generally found that most short story writers who try to tackle novels wind up overwriting or taking an idea that should have been wrapped up in ten pages and vamping for two hundred, while most veteran novelists attempting the short story find themselves unable to handle cramming in all those themes and twists into about a tenth of the space without really messing with the pacing.
Malamud apparently had it figured out, although what may have helped him was a judicious sense of what to publish and what not to publish. He wasn't crazy prolific, managing about fifty-five short stories during his career, which suggests that he didn't try to publish anything until he a) had a good idea and b) was pretty sure it was finished, which is perhaps a methodical approach that might be a bit boring when compared to those writers who like to slap whatever ideas come to mind on paper and publish before the ink is still dry . . . but in this case it makes for some remarkably consistent writing. I've noted already that what really strikes me in his novels is how precise his prose is, with a sense of weight and space that suggests a calm voice that can both bury itself in the story and remain slightly detached . . . the closest comparison I can think of is Updike, but Malamud lacks what I always felt was Updike's sort of glossy and polished sheen that sometimes felt fussed over in its erudition and as such made it feel like the narrator, omniscient or otherwise, was staring down at the characters from a very great height. Malamud's narrators may be in a variety of places, but never seem too far away.
As the label says, this one contains all of his short stories (and my edition has perhaps the most writerly photograph of any man I've ever seen, a picture of him standing on the street in 1961 in a suit and coat) and if you're wondering exactly how many Malamud stories you need the answer is "pretty much all of them." Even when the stories themselves are merely pleasant and short, the little scenarios he constructs with his prose feel like fully formed worlds, whether they're taking place in someone's apartment or in various parts of Italy, and his characters are constantly possessed of sad and quiet thoughtfulness, a melancholy that only come when you've realized that the world isn't something you can affect as much as tolerate and live despite it.
All the famous stories are here, although since they're arranged chronologically they get buried in the mix and don't stick out until you stumble on them. "The Magic Barrel" is one of them, one of several stories whose ultimate resolutions seem destined to occur unsaid and between the lines, or five pages past where the story actually ends. Several have to do with a character named Fidelman who is hanging out in Italy and while I found the more exotic setting intriguing because I've actually been there, the stories seem to operate on a cultural contrast that doesn't always work with the impact he wants, though the unfolding of stories like "The Last Mohican", "Naked Nude" and "A Pimp's Revenge" is worth it just to watch the interplay.
In fact, most of my favorite ones were the stories that dwelled on the intricacies of interpersonal conflict and how religion and society and human nature affect how we deal with each other. Stories like "The Elevator" and "Rembrandt's Hat" (a late triumph), "The Mourners" are sometimes intensely bleak as people gradually are brought to face themselves and the consequences of their actions or inactions. Sometimes he veers toward a sort of magical realism, as in "The Angel Levine" or one of the more powerful stories "The Jewbird", which winds up starting as a goofy concept before sliding into what could be an intensely savage commentary on the human condition. What's amazing is how compressed his stories feel, unhurried but dense, patiently constructing a house with a single flaw that ultimately sends it crashing down in a tragic ballet of destruction ("The German Refugee" comes to mind).
There's never a bad story in here, with even the experimental ones toward the end retaining a searching vitality and curiosity, even if what few happy endings exists are defined more by thin smiles and tolerant glances than any kind of true joy. No matter what decade he's writing in, he's able to infuse any scenario, whether its the desperate housewife slipping notes into someone's pocket during a dinner party (the aptly titled "Notes From a Lady at a Dinner Party") or probably the only story besides "Jewbird" that made me stop at the end and have to rest a minute before moving onto the next one (for different reasons), "In Retirement", where the character's actions have "bad idea" written all over them but the ache in how it resolves is almost too intensely painful for prose.
But that's how he hits you, when you're not expecting it and once in a while where you are. I've liked both novels I've read from him so far but I wasn't quite prepared for how the accumulation of stories affected me after a while, like walking through an apartment building of empty rooms and sifting through the remains of sadness and perhaps some scant dignity. No matter what, there's a sense of humanity to his writing and a sense that he feels for his characters, even if there's no way he can actually help them. It adds up to a powerful repertoire and story for story makes the case that Malamud was one of our great American short story writers and if he's only relegated to college courses on Jewish writers and the occasional book club that's a darn shame.