Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sheila Heti, _The Middle Stories_

I WAS IN the middle of the McSweeney's Books edition of The Middle Stories -- and in fact the copy I acquired was from the somewhat collectible run with hand-embellished photographs attached to the cover -- when I learned that the author was not at all pleased with the McSweeney's edition, which not only deleted stories from the Canadian Anansi Press edition but also rearranged their sequence. Fortunately, I was able to attain an Anansi edition with a minimum of trouble and recommenced at the proper beginning.

The original order is more effective, I think. There is a faux-naïf tone Heti often draws upon --the deadpan, matter-of-fact tone in which fable and fairy tale narrate deeply disturbing events -- and indeed the stories towards the beginning of the book have frankly fairy-tale elements (frogs giving courtship advice, women living in shoes, family members who are dumplings). Those closer to the end, however, are a little more urban, a little more realistic, more likely to have such proper names as "Dubrovnik" and "the Roman church." The fairy-tale tone in which the profoundly unsettling is told calmly and patiently, without any particular effort at emphasis, persists in the latter stories as well, to telling effect.

I don't whether Heti would care for the comparison, but the mood of the book struck me as like that of Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block, which has the same faux-naif tone applied to very serious topics. Weetzie Bat is a YA book, though -- The Middle Stories might work for fans of Weetzie Bat who have passed the age of 18, let's say.

Why the title? The stories are not the work of Heti"s "middle period," since it is her first book. I wondered whether it has to do with most of the stories not only starting (in good story fashion) in media res but also ending before any marked kind of closure has been achieved. The stories are all "middle" in another words -- a circumstance that would induce much lip-gnawing among Weetzie Bat fans, it now occurs to me....

1 comment:

Richard Greenfield said...

Interesting posting. I just want to add a couple of ideas here. McSweeney's published an abbreviated version of Middle Stories in issue no. 4 back in 2000, which came as a box of individual books by contributors. The name of that collection was The Middle Tales. I sense Heti not referring to time with "middle" but to genre, the stories themselves borrowing heavily from the "fable" mode. "Tales" does seem closer to "fable" than "story." Her stories are not quite tales, not quite fables--something in the middle.