Saturday, February 12, 2011

Stories fade to haiku

There's a nice passage in Olen Steinhauer's The Vienna Assignment about immigrant stories, which really applies to all stories. Bruno, the central character is in a Vienna bar that is the second home to immigrants who have escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. The bar woman is explaining to him how their stories mutate over time, becoming more and more condensed, and stripped of raw emotion. What I find interesting, having listened to some people's stories and ancedotes several times, is that as long story or haiku the storyteller will no doubt have managed to convey the essence of the journey; that the short story is no less powerful than the full blown account. And that's a styling question crime authors need to make: where on the spectrum from full account to haiku they want to settle? For me, I prefer show over tell; sparse and tight over lengthy description. Steinhauer himself gets the balance just about right; neither overly long nor haiku.

'Ask anyone around here for their story. Ask what happened to them. If they just arrived, you'll find that their story goes on for a long time, with details on top of details, and you can watch them get upset - I mean, visibly - as they tell it to you. Ask someone who's been here a few years, and they'll have it condensed down to a sentence, maybe two, and that's it.'


'It's inevitable,' she said, then put out her cigarette. 'Over here, your past is just a story. It gets smaller with time, until it's just a haiku. Until it's got no more emotion in it.'

'Until it's cold.'

'Until your past can't touch you any more,' said Monika. 'Watch out you don't turn cold, too.'

Rather than wait for cold exiles to fill up the bar, Bruno returned home.


Anonymous said...

Rob - Interesting point. Brevity can be a real advantage in a story...

pattinase (abbott) said...

After struggling vainly through 2/3 of a big bloated book this week, I gave up. Every writer should only be allowed one of these and this was her second.