I’ve just finished reading two fine books, both slender volumes, both touted as novels — Ru, Quebec author Kim Thúy’s first work of fiction and The Way of the Dog by American novelist Sam Savage. More on them in a moment, but first let me clarify something: no matter what the book jackets say, these books aren’t novels; they’re novellas. That’s not because they’re short; there’s more to the novella form than length.
Nonetheless there’s a mantra in the business (with some truth behind it) that says novellas don’t sell unless they’re bundled up into a fat volume. The thinking goes that there’s not enough heft or value for the money in those skinny works. Worse, some reviewers view novellas as either failed novels or run-on short stories.
Yet marketing novellas as novels just blurs the distinction between the capacious form of the novel with its wonderful tangle of characters, plot and subplots, and the spare beauty of the novella which in its classic form entertains only one point of view and no subplots at all. Tolstoy, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus — and more recently, Marion Engel, Hans Keilson and Ian McEwan, to name only a few — have excelled at both forms, producing novellas that are bare-bones brilliant, with no descriptive padding or unnecessary digressions, and a laser-sharp focus on a character’s heart. As much as length, it’s these attributes that shape the novella. This is why I insist on describing both Ru and They Way of The Dog as novellas, not novels.
Ru (which in Vietnamese means lullaby and in French means both a small stream and the flowing of blood or tears) has garnered many international awards, including the Governor-General’s Literary Award for French-language fiction in Canada. Told in the first person, it recounts the journey of a young woman who grew up in a well-to-do Saigon family, became a war refugee in Malaysia and struggled to begin a new life in Quebec. The language (exquisitely translated by Sheila Fischman) is spare and poetic, and, true to its title, the narrator’s stream of consciousness moves with the to-and-fro of memory and the present, a quiet voice that holds in reserve a remarkable inner strength. The layout of this small work creates short paragraphs broken by space, evoking a meditative sense in which the silence surrounding words is as important as the words themselves. To try to describe this work in terms of chronology would not do justice to either its ephemeral quality or the way in which it enfolds one woman’s consciousness. It is that flow of life which is the subject of this beautiful novella. Too short? Read it again. And again.
Ru by Kim Thúy is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman and published by Vintage Canada (2012).
Sam Savage’s The Way of the Dog is narrated in the first person by Harold Nivenson, a wry and skeptical soul, a minor artist and collector disillusioned with the world of art, to which he’d sacrificed life and integrity. He inhabits a decaying mansion which embodies both his own declining health and the hermetic world which he and his circle had constructed for themselves. With the death of his artist friend and rival Peter Meininger, this world fell apart and Harold came to realize that he’d not been true to himself in his desire for acceptance and acclaim. As a character, Harold is by turns witty, sarcastic and depressed about the declining state of intellectual discourse, his gentrifying neighbourhood, his uptight, artsy neighbours (including a prolific novelist, producer of what he terms “literary waste products,”) and by the loss of his deceased dog with his canine gift for living life in the present moment. A cormudgeon he may be, but Harold’s voice is irresistible, shooting off sparks of wit, regret, tenderness, and just plain ornery life. As with Kim Thúy’s novella, this stream of consciousness feels far more true to the mind’s ruminations than any precise chronology. The tale is subtle and unsentimental in its inference that Harold ultimately makes peace with life.
All that artistry in the span of one hundred and fifty pages. In a novella, short is good, but attentive and loving focus is very good. This slim work has both.
The Way of the Dog by Sam Savage is published by Coffee House Press (2013)