The Ambition of the Short Story

The rocking waves of Gulf of Mexico had made reading Steven Millhauser's novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer remarkably poignant. The protagonist's fantastical progress pursuing dreams from being a hotel bellboy to envisioning and executing larger and grander ideas as he meandered through life of an American dreamer, and eventual sheer disappointment of finding the truth of "emptiness" and vacuity beyond joyous drumroll and fanfares was the only acquaintance I had with this tremendous writer's style of writing and sweeping plot.

The writer's recently published essay on Short Story has indeed invoked that long receded memory of reading his novel all these years ago in a world and time that seems so much distant and different than today's hysterical paranoia filled wind and carefully sowed stench of distrust that eagerly keen to annihilate all the restraints and rules of humanity for the vanquished, conquered and smalls, like Steven Millhauser's observation of distinction between Novel and Short Story: "What the novel cares about is vastness, is power. Deep in its heart, it disdains the short story, which makes do with so little. It has no use for the short story’s austerity, its suppression of appetite, its refusals and renunciations. The novel wants things. It wants territory. It wants the whole world. Perfection is the consolation of those who have nothing else."

What does the Short Story want in this world of "robustness" and "Godzillas"? Here is a fine observation by Martin Dressler's innovator: "The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe. It seeks to know that grain of sand the way a lover seeks to know the face of the beloved. It looks for the moment when the grain of sand reveals its true nature. In that moment of mystic expansion, when the macrocosmic flower bursts from the microcosmic seed, the short story feels its power. It becomes bigger than itself. It becomes bigger than the novel. It becomes as big as the universe."

As big as the universe. In the grain of sand, humanity's accumulated hatred disappears.

Julian Barnes, another brilliant writer of our world, ponders in Nothing to be Frightened Of, "“Wisdom consists partly in not pretending anymore, in discarding artifice. . . . And there is something infinitely touching when an artist, in old age, takes on simplicity. . . . Showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply.

Let us have the confidence to speak simply. Without pretensions. Without holding the disastrous myths.