ABOUT THE short story... The short story is ... What? Dead? Temporarily out of commission? Has it retreated to other climes to await later days of sweetness and light and cash? What?
At any rate, the Great American Short Story is in big trouble as it continues its long and weird career. As an art form it wallows along in a colossal identity crisis with hardly any important practitioners, and as a money crop it remains hopelessly unmarketable. Though tortured young aesthetes sporting carefully squalid clothes, students, and housewives produced over 300.000 short stories last year. The missives dropped into oblivion with hardly a sound. There is simply nothing to do with them. The circle of magazines with significant readership trafficking in short fiction remains plodding and exclusive, and, young short story writers are left to show their work to their girlfriends and to languish with the melodrama of art. Worse, publishers droop when a collection of short stories claws its way onto their desks, especially if it's produced by an unestablished writer. What young writer--besides Jayne Anne Phillips. Ann Beattie and Barry Hannah?--has been awarded a whole volume of short stories: and if young writers dedicated to the discipline eat the bread and water of afflication, older writers simply give up and eat something decent: they don't write short stories to fill the time between novels anymore--instead, they get smart and do things they can get paid for, which may or may not involve slouching toward Hollywood with a screenplay. And many really important writers even do short stories, with the exception of John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. It seems the published short story will soon be an abbreviation to be seen only in yellowed numbers of the New Yorker saved from one's youth when things were different.
So into the sick bay of the short story wanders 34-year-old Mark Helprin with his second collection of short fictions. "Ellis Island" and Other Stories. And though we might hope him to be the prophet of the short story's Second Coming, a blazing savior curing the lepers and breathing voltage into numb forms, we find that he's not quite what we were looking for. Instead, we must relegate him to the narrow ranks of the "solid" young performers who, while they are not yet the transcendent pace-setters, at least don't drop the torch. Pathetically, even this compromise is good news for the American short story.
For a writer to begin renaissance in a tired form he needs to introduce a diction, tone and sensibility that somehow sums up his era and delineates an artistic program for it. One thinks of the short stories of Fitzgerald or the works of Hemingway. But Helprin's art seems produced in almost complete withdrawal from the contemporary scene. He strives for "loveliness" above all else, a tasteful--but hardly compelling--goal for a young writer today, the world and the collective psyche being what they are. Thus, one can hardly call Helprin a voice of our times. Instead, he chooses a language that is peculiarly old fashioned, a "fine style" that is more classical than conversational. The writing reads easily, remaining at all times calm, collected, and carefully conceived. Nothing is by chance. No risks are taken, and there are no hard edges or unseemly passions. Instead, there is just a lucid, self-possessed expression so carefully wrought that it seems to be the tasteful product of some fastidious, bespectacled old Swiss metal smith: smooth, accurate, and refined to 24-carat purity. The graceful delicacy, not often found in fiction today, gives the prose an elegiac air of some other century.
But unfortunately, it also makes one restless. It's just too perfect, and in the end it is, dare one say it, awfully boring. What's crystalline and well-crafted often leaves one cold. When Helprin's not affecting an especially tedious antique style for telling whispy tales of love lost and childhood winters in Vermont, he proceeds with an eloquent lack of inspiration. Neat shaping of sentences and admirable technical confidence do not make up for a lack of that obscure energy that transforms les mots justes into great writing. In some ways the style belongs to the 18th century when Sam Johnson arbited style, and was always harping on about prudent diction and the dangers of passion.
AND IF THE style seems strangely out of touch with the times, the sentiments behind it are even more peculiarly isolated from what is current. In this respect Helprin sometimes writes like Poe's alcoholic younger brother. Helprin's work lacks all the modern emotions and non-emotions that presumably are the bread and butter of modern writers. Alienation, ennui, and desperation all fail to make appearances in this book. The closest approach to the contemporary is a bittersweet sense of loss and of being lost that deepens the emotions of most of the characters, but it remains whispy and gently, one of the beauties of life. Helprin is no one to probe the horrors and malaise of the Wasteland. The characters all avoid direct confrontation with the vaguely acknowledged dislocations of modern life, and thereby don't get desperate or weird or done in. They just get wistful and dreamy. And this dreariness, this systematic response to life is embraced by all the characters in "Ellis Island" and Other Stories. Most of the characters live so much of their lives in the hermetic seclusion of their own minds that the line between reality and fiction repeatedly blurs and disappears. The characters are so lost in their dreams and remembrances that it's often hard to tell whether the narration is remembers or hallucinated. In the first story of the collection. "The Schreuderspitz," a Bavarian photographer who takes refuge from his grief by living in a village in the Alps and training himself for a soul restoring assault on the most dangerous face of a great mountain finds himself living half in and half out of his dreams:
He awoke, convinced that he had, in fact, climbed the countefort. It was a strong feeling, as strong as the reality of the emerald. Sometimes dreams could be so real that they competed with the world, riding at even balance and calling for a decision. Sometimes, he imagined, when they are so real and important, they easily tip the scale and the world buckles and dreams become real.
This daydreamy commitment to an inner world is always central, often to the complete exclusion of anything approaching reality. It is fiction in the high visionary mode, and throughout the book Helprin gives us a world in which characters are only saved by their compelling beautiful visions.
Indeed, Helprin's purpose seems to be a very refined escapism, and he works as a conjurer, producing wonderful effects through his meticulous modus operendi. At the conclusion of "Tamar," a careful story in which a man recalls his infatuation with a young girl at a London dinner party in the '30s. Helprin eloquently adopts the manifesto of the fantasizer:
Perhaps things are most beautiful when they are not quite real: when you look upon a scene as an outsider, and come to possess it in its entirety and forever; when you live the present with the lucidity and feeling of memory: when, for want of connection, the world deepens and becomes art.
But there is something objectionable in this softfocused narrative, for Helprin lacks all commitment to the actual world and its psychological dislocations, and in the end his brand of escapism boils down to a complete failure to confront reality. He is the self-absorbed Romantic of the Mc Generation. Like Poe, his stories are elaborate productions conceived in the silent vacuum of an isolated man's innermost thoughts and set in a private, always beautiful, landscape of his dreams. Unfortunately, they bear little relation to the world outside them, even in this time which raises terrible issue for its artists. They show the truancy and lack of real content of daydreams. Consequently the pieces reside in no unified time or place: The first takes place in a mythical Alpine village, the last in a farcical New York, while others hover lightly over the Persian Gulf, Long Island, the Charles River, a Vermont farm. Italy and London, in times ranging from the turn of the century to the present. The only continuous impulse unifying the characters is a desire to have a satisfying dream-life. In this book of fiction from the man who has been hailed as a great hope for the short story there are practically no relationships, no daily routines, and no reactions to the world at large--just day-dreams and the systematic constructions of castles in the air.
This delightful yet damnable lack of substance is why these stories fail to make a lasting impression. One admires the disciplined craftsmanship of the prose, but the stories remain precious objects under glass domes, sealed in pretty things of not much consequence. Like eleven mirages, the collection has a shimmering, evasive beauty that gives pleasure at first but soon makes one feel teased and irritated. The stories glimmer with promise and technical polish and they dazzle for a minute--but suddenly one suspects that it's all a false promise and the real thing has been forsaken for the fool's gold of the alchemist. Mark Helprin's intriguing short stories simply fail to transmute into any sort of remedy for a passed-out art form.