Frank O’Connor, one of the masters of the form, was repeatedly asked what differentiated a short story from a novel or novella, and over the course of his career he come up with some interesting answers. For example, interviewed by the Paris Review he suggested that one of the crucial dividing lines was not length, but dramatic time:
Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We
don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely
suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that
explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like
As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all,
it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the
character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has
on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to
take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man
padded out the short story.
It’s a definition that has its merits, but one that also has its obvious problems (how many would be prepared to describe Joyce’s Ulysses as a short story?), something that O’Connor realised as he later went on to write at greater length about what characterises a short-story in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story. In this interesting study he latches on to one distinctive element of the classic short story “its intense awareness of human loneliness”.
As problematic as his earlier definition (though to be fair to O’Connor, I think he was aiming at descriptions rather than definitions), given that there are plenty of novels – as E.L Doctorow points out here – that focus precisely on that loneliness.
But loneliness and time are two useful lenses through which to look at Irvine Welsh’s The Acid House because if there’s one thread that runs through this eclectic collection, from the playful Sexual Diaster Quartet through to the horrors of The Granton Star Cause or the numb and numbing novella Smart Cunt it’s loneliness and that moment beloved by short story writers like O’Connor and Joyce, the ephiphany.
Welsh’s characters stumble on alone, avoiding sharp reality through a combination of drugs, football, music, violence and sex – usually combined together in ways that make the average reader flinch. And if his epiphanies are as likely to be introduced through a savage beating – like that dished out to Brian, the protagonist of Smart Cunt who comes to the realisation that he is indeed a smart cunt after being beaten with casual but savage violence- than gentle snowfall, they’re epiphanies nonetheless.
There’s a tendency throughout to shock for the sake of shocking – something he shares, perhaps with Chuck Palahniuk – and a dependency on a punch-line delivery, but these stories are worth reading for a number of reasons.
First off there is the language – Welsh captures, to this non-scottish ear, a rhythm of dialogue that rarely if ever sounds forced. It makes the characters on the page come to life and demand attention. Like O’Connor before him, whose stories Julian Barnes suggests ‘aim for the ear rather than the eye’, Welsh bases his stories on the words spoken, they propel the narrative – in some stories, for example sport for all there is only conversation (and only one-half of it, at that).
Another reason to read The Acid House is because of its spirit of adventure. Throughout the collection Welsh plays around with form and expectation just as surely as he falls back on those punch-line endings. It doesn’t always work, but because it’s mixed up with suspense, tension, and transgression that takes little away from the overall story.
Tags: chuck palahniuk