In a literary climate dominated by the novel, I often wonder about the purpose of short fiction. Barring a few transcendent writers of the form, most Americans’ interaction with short fiction is limited to stories that appear in The New Yorker or The Atlantic magazines. Short fiction is largely a form for a writer’s own appreciation, often in literary journals; a place to explore style or tone or perspective or character or plot, without having to commit to an entire book.
This limited public perception of what short fiction is makes it all the more astounding when a collection breaks free from the constraints imposed on it. Edward J. Delaney’s newest collection, The Big Impossible, does just that. Over the course of a handful of stories, one longer novella, and a sequence of vignettes set on the Great Plains, The Big Impossible examines what it means to be American at a time when the question is vital. At his best, Delaney’s stories are deeply nuanced, delicately crafted, and empathetic works of near magic. Occasionally, he relies too heavily on tropes to convey meaning, which ends up flattening the resonance, but these moments are rare.
The collection is broken down into three parts. The first part is a series of short stories that begins with “Clean,” a bold and evocative start. Told in second person, the audience assumes the role of unintentional murderer, waiting for punishment to come. When retribution seems inevitable at first, it soon becomes clear it is anything but. This is an excellent story, a stand out in the collection; the powerful choice to write second-person, and the inversion of the common plot of a murder sets a high-bar for the work to come.
While none of the other stories hit such a stride, none completely fail, either. “My Name Is Percy Atkins” follows a veteran in a retirement community, coming to terms with life as a widower. “Street View” is a digital journey through an academic’s enigmatic past. The final two stories of this first section are the flattest: “Writer Party” parodies the pretentious literary get-together using similarly-stale tropes on what literary writers are like. “David” sets a bold goal –– to examine the mind of a school shooter –– but the conclusions drawn are the same stories we’ve heard time and time again, and don’t illuminate or provoke in the way Delaney intended.
The second section of the book is the novella, called “House of Sully.” This story introduces us to the Irish Sullivan family, and the house they reside in. The house is situated on the outskirts of Boston in the 1960s. The family (mother, father, their narrator son, and his two sisters and baby brother) view a changing neighborhood. I was at first befuddled by the story’s surface-view look at the vast and systematic changes society faced in the sixties, but this quickly evolved into depth and grace in these subjects –– just as the family would have experienced them, rather than a reductive view one might prescribe looking back from our time.
The novella’s focus is clearly on the son and his parents, but even the characters with less page-space, like the sisters, seem rounded. Delaney does a masterful job with the tone here: the son is coolly disaffected, the older sister’s lines ooze with the angst of pre-teen-ness, while the father and mother go back and forth between how they address the kids and each other. This level of control is perhaps Delaney’s strongest sample of his skill as a writer.
In “House of Sully,” the father is the star of the show. He’s portrayed in a way I found both recognizable and empathetic; somewhat struggling with the changing times and what that means, while oddly progressive in ways, even rebelling against the church. The mother searches for a coping mechanism for her increasing anxiety. I wished Delaney found a way to resolve the story in the setting it focuses on, rather than use a flash-forward to conclude, but even this fits with the piece.
The collection at large ends with a series of vignettes told in the Great Plains of an itinerant worker. This section is built with slim and reverberant prose, evocative of the setting depicted. Even the stories themselves have new space between; you would be forgiven for forgetting their through-line. It’s this addition of air — to breath, to think — that has made this section stick with me the most after reading. The America here is a raw, opaque one. It’s not nearly as brutal as the rural areas Cormac McCarthy renders, but that also removes some of the more obvious moralities of the characters involved in favor of profound subtlety.
The Big Impossible sets high standards for itself, not only in attempting to narrow down identity and Americana, but also the role of shorter fiction at large; and it exceeds even that. The stories told by Delaney showcase not only his skill as a writer, but his unending empathy for those looking for a home. Across setting, tone, intention, and outcome, Delaney succeeds in understanding that perhaps nothing is more American than that search for a place to belong.
The Big Impossible: Novellas + Stories
By Edward J. Delaney
Turtle Point Press
Published September 24, 2019