BREVITY, TAUTNESS, RIGOR, SURPRISE: these are the commonly accepted qualities of a good short story, and all are on display in Christine Schutt’s new collection Pure Hollywood. Ranging from a few pages to the length of a novella, these 11 stories are animated by a concern with loss and grief, dysfunctional families, self-knowledge, and dignity. The collection is unified by an aesthetic that John Ashbery described as “pared down but rich, dense, fevered, exactly right and even eerily beautiful.”
Widely praised for her craftsmanship, Schutt delivers precise and novel observations, such as “the luggage-colored oak leaves” that mark autumn and “the shape of a man blued by symbols” to describe a lover. A devoted reader of poetry — Emily Dickinson and Robert Lowell are favorites — Schutt writes musically, with intense attention to sound and cadence. Take this line from “Family Man,” about a family that lives “country-quiet” and the disruptions they come to crave or refuse: “From the picture window Maas follows winter colors: whites, slates, steely skies, and yellows.” If the first clause were verse, it would almost scan into iambs, with a dactyl interrupting the line. The sentence’s smooth rhythm mimics the sweep of an eye and creates a feeling of movement that’s aided by the repetition of the terminal “s” and “t” sounds. After the colon, monosyllables deliver moments of observation (“whites,” “slates”) while the repetition of sounds intensifies, creating a moment of surprise when the eye and ear land on “yellows,” hues not usually associated with winter.
Schutt crafted this sentence to echo, visually and aurally, Maas’s final observations of himself. Reflecting on how the “scant comforts” of his youth have turned into a “lovely boxed life,” he thinks,
[He] has no desire to know how he might be described in the future: a glass of water, a flavorless man, at best, at best, on a white tablecloth a goblet of melted ice with the slightest curl of lemon in it.
Her attention to sound and wordcraft isn’t idle aestheticism; as in poetry, it establishes mood and strengthens the sensual to produce in the reader the feeling of ideas or emotions too complex, delicate, or strange to say outright.
With her rigorously poetic focus on sound and imagery, Schutt is doing something different from your average short story writer. And by doing so, she risks dismissal as an aesthete who composes without heart. At her best, though, Schutt demonstrates that the two are by no means antithetical. The strongest story in the collection, “The Duchess of Albany,” is wrenching, wild, and funny — and it achieves all this through graceful control of its formal elements. It slips, often without explanation, between a widow’s memories of life with her gardener husband and her lonely, boozy present in the house they shared. With this neurotic, long-grieving protagonist, Schutt deftly guides the reader through a difficult but richly textured inner life. The widow is bitchy to her daughters and drinks too much but emerges all the more human for it.
Distasteful characters can still engage a reader’s interest and sympathy, but at times Schutt’s linguistic dexterity proves stronger than her characterization. In “The Hedges,” Lolly is almost a caricature of a bad mother. She’s a “princess by her own admission,” barely holding it together on an island vacation with her husband Dick and their young, sick son. Lolly’s persona is both opaque and two-dimensional, a combination that leaves her wanting as a character.
Lolly comes across as underdeveloped partly because Schutt substitutes rhetorical questions for the narration of thoughts and feelings. “Did Lolly like her baby?” is the question posed after Lolly warns the child to stay away from her, screaming when he reaches out his arms regardless. The answer is obvious. The human drama behind these rhetorical questions remains unexplored: we don’t know why Lolly had a baby if she didn’t want one, or what she does want if not familial life. This may be Schutt’s attempt to create a compellingly elliptical tale, but it left me unable to answer a fundamental question: why should I care about this character?
Schutt stumbles hardest in her portrayals of low-income and lower-class characters. An uncomfortable proportion of her characters are moneyed, among them the well-vacationed Lolly and, in the eponymous story, the lady from Connecticut who owns luxe bags and a kitchen of “polished granite surfaces in speckled pheasant colors.” We see many lower-class characters only through the eyes of their employers. In “Where You Live? When You Need Me?” Schutt takes the perspective of a mother who is part of a group whose social position is made clear through its activities: spending weeks in Nantucket, renovating an apartment on Fifth Avenue. The families share a nanny named Ella, a phoneless immigrant who speaks broken English and may be homeless — “did she sleep in the playground?” the mother airily wonders. Ella is introduced as “a mound with no known address,” then later is described as “a squat teepee,” “boulder-like, but alive,” with “hands as big as soup bowls” — all in a three-page story. She’s treated as a holy fool, “a swaying mystery” emerging from thin air.
Thus objectified, Ella becomes a symbol. She’s mystically solid and sturdy, a comforting projection in the face of the mother’s anxieties during the dangerous summer of 1985. Ella stands in contrast to the physical manifestations of uncertainty and risk shaping the mother’s frame of mind: the barricades that won’t stop a friend’s child from toddling out a window, the ledge over a Berkshires waterfall from which her son nearly plummets.
Mimi Deminthe, the protagonist of the title story, is a 28-year-old aspiring actress “in the first decade of the hardly promising twenty-first century.” Her husband, an older, famous comedian, left her nothing after his recent death from a heart attack. Though she appears to have no income, like a West Coast Carrie Bradshaw she somehow affords her apartment in Los Angeles. Mimi remembers their gardener only as “shadowy and poor” and imagines a grim existence for him: “His stunted children rest their chins on the kitchen table. Sticky fly strips hang near the sink and back door.”
Perhaps Schutt means to critique the way these women view their employees by calling attention to the blinkers of the wealthy. But she hands them the lion’s share of the narrative, and when she varies the theme she hits false notes. In Pure Hollywood, even a family that dines on “gray burger pie” lives in a home of “scrolled eaves” and “ostrich ferns.”
Short stories — especially those inspired by the fantasy industry — have no obligation to mirror reality. But internal consistency; rich, well-realized characterization; and an awareness of how one’s stories fit into a large and diverse world are critical to striking a chord with readers.
It’s much more common for reviewers to call attention to a writer’s poor treatment of gender or race than a writer’s mishandling of class — maybe because reviewers, readers, and writers of literary fiction, especially short stories, tend to come from relatively comfortable backgrounds. Nearly all have a college education, and many have had the resources to pursue an MFA or PhD. (Of course, not everyone who makes it through college or a graduate program comes from money, but 18-to-24-year-olds from the top income quartile are about twice as likely to be in college than those from the bottom quartile.)
The class of people reading, writing, and reviewing literary fiction is changing, though: it’s not as financially secure as it once was, and it’s opening, albeit slowly, to people of different cultural, economic, educational, and ancestral backgrounds. To those readers who don’t come from wealth, the fullness of all of Schutt’s characters, the viewpoints and social biases she reproduces (or ignores), intentionally or not, are as inseparable from the literary quality of the book as any of Schutt’s aesthetic choices.