The Other Sontag

Why isn’t the critic remembered for her short stories?

Short stories worth reading

When scholars write the history of the American short story in the late 20th century, Susan Sontag will most likely be, at best, a footnote. Her only collection of stories, I, etcetera, published in 1978, was admired by critics but never widely read, and while her 1986 * story “The Way We Live Now” was one of the most acclaimed of the decade, it is now remembered more as a document of the AIDS crisis than as an influential work of fiction. Nor is Sontag herself likely to be remembered for her short stories. In the weeks since her death on Dec. 28, critics and cultural commentators have praised her essays, her work in bridging postwar European and American culture, her humanitarian efforts in Sarajevo and elsewhere, and, less prominently, her novels, The Volcano Lover and In America. Her stories have gone all but unmentioned.

This is a shame, because if we put questions of her career and cultural significance to the side and read her stories as stories, it is not difficult to imagine that if they had not been eclipsed by other aspects of her reputation, Sontag might be remembered as a widely influential writer of short fiction. Given her relative obscurity in the field, it’s all the more startling to discover how accurately her work anticipates the evolution of the short story over the last 30 years.

Consider, for example, a passage from “Debriefing,” originally published in the American Review in 1975:

All around us, as far as I can see, people are striving to be ordinary. This takes a great deal of effort. Ordinariness, generally considered to be safer, has gotten much rarer than it used to be.Julia called yesterday to report that, an hour before, she had gone downstairs to take in her laundry. I congratulated her.People try to be interested in the surface. Men without guns are wearing mascara, glittering, prancing. Everyone’s in some kind of moral drag.

And now a passage from “And Lead Us Not Into Penn Station,” by Amy Hempel, published in 1988:

Everything you can think of is going on here. Plus things that you can’t think of, too. Those things are going on in groups. Men who have sex with vacuum cleaners—these men are now outpatients, in therapy down the block. Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.A boy on a tricycle pedals past a mother and son. “Why can’t you ride a tricycle?” the mother says to her son. “That boy is younger than you! Why can’t you even go to Harvard!”

The terse, clipped phrases, the combination of boredom and barely suppressed panic, the deliberate non sequiturs,the narrator’s disembodied voice floating over the city, omniscient but powerless—in places these stories are so similar that one might have been written as an imitation of the other. In both the experience of city life (and particularly life in New York) is both a source of trauma and a reflection of the narrator’s feeling of dislocation and numbness, whether brought on by a specific incident (in “Debriefing” the death of a dear friend and companion) or coming from some unnamed source. By 1988 this was almost a default mode in the American short story, most visible in the early work of Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg, Susan Minot, and Mary Gaitskill, among many others. In all these writers the narrator’s struggle to narrate, to compose a coherent order of events, or even a sequence of thoughts, is a struggle for mental, if not physical, survival. “I don’t know what to say about all of this,” the narrator of Hempel’s story finally admits. “I am as cut off from meaning and completion as all of these crippled people.” Another kind of disembodiment takes place in Sontag’s “Project for a Trip to China,” the first story in I, etcetera. This story is a classic example of what the novelist and critic Charles Baxter calls an “inventory”: a story in the form of a list. In this case, the narrator assembles a jumble of memories, facts, quotations, to-do lists, epigrams, and free associations (“Warlords, landlords; mandarins, concubines. Old China Hands. Flying Tigers.”), all of which present an absorbing, and disturbing, impression of her longing for a country that exists only in those fragmentary scraps of language. This way of presenting a story by alternate means was very much in vogue in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s. The story could take the form of a sequence of photographs in a wedding album (Heidi Julavits, “Marry the One Who Gets There First”), a personal bibliography (Rick Moody, “Primary Sources”), or a group of reviews (Anthony Giardina, “The Films of Richard Egan”). Implicit in the inventory form is a certain structural irony: The surface text (whether a “catalog,” a “project,” or a “bibliography”) has its own logic, and the story emerges in spite of that logic—through gaps, omissions, parenthetical remarks, footnotes. It’s surely no accident that the inventory-story became popular at a time when we swam in a sea of trivial, distracting, often useless data—stock quotes, “factoids,” logos, advertising jingles, spam. Sontag herself might have pointed out that it bears a certain resemblance to the collage, which became popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, in an era of anxiety about the mass reproduction of visual images. There is one way in which Sontag’s stories stand decidedly apart from the writers who followed her: their sense of historical and cultural context. Even her most disengaged, solipsistic characters make references to Diderot, the Lincoln Brigade, the Internationale. Some, like the narrator of “Old Complaints Revisited,” are refugees from the struggles of the ‘60s, now embittered, weary of clichés but unable to escape them. In the stories of Hempel, Minot, and Eisenberg, this world-weariness is replaced by a sense of complete moral isolation. The confusion of the characters’ lives, the feeling of anomie or disillusionment, is presented without context, often even without explanation. One can’t help wondering whether “The Way We Live Now” attracted as much attention as it did in 1986 because it evoked a social and political crisis at a time when the horizons of the short story had become so claustrophobically small: a single apartment, a single failed relationship, a single line of cocaine. “The Way We Live Now” depicts a young’s man death from AIDS as a series of anxious conversations among his friends, who worry and analyze, preen and bicker, compete for attention and wonder if anything they do matters. Here, as in all of Sontag’s best stories, we are left with the impression of a world filled with characters hovering on the edge of myopia but never quite falling in. As the title of the story (an allusion to the Trollope novel) suggests, her great ambition was to recapture some of the panoramic vision of 19th-century realism, if only in a fragmented, ironized, miniaturized way. This effort by itself makes her stories worth reading and remembering. Correctio n, Feb. 2, 2005: An earlier version of this piece said Sontag’s story “The Way We Live Now” was published in 1987. It was published in 1986. (Return to corrected sentence.)