Check the back of any book totaling over 350 pages, and you’ll likely find a chorus of praises highlighting its length, including any variety of the nouns epic, saga, or odyssey paired with adjectives such as expansive, broad, or astounding. The long novel is commonly heralded for its achievements in scope, its ability to stitch eras, years, and generations into a unified narrative that engulfs readers. But what are the virtues and possibilities of the short novel as a form? Totaling only 114 pages, Tariq Shah’s debut novel Whiteout Conditions uses brevity to elevate its depictions of grief to its most affecting heights.
The story Shah sets in motion is relatively straightforward — Ant returns to Chicago for the funeral of his childhood friend Ray, who passed away suddenly in a tragic event which makes national news. After Ray’s cousin Vince picks Ant up at the airport, the two embark on a fraught drive north through a snowstorm to attend the funeral. The majority of the novel occurs in the confined spaces of the car, a hotel room, and a house filled with mourners. This places the narrative burden on the interactions between its two main characters. Shah carefully pulls at these tensions, as Ant and Vince engage in a number of verbal dances, ever approaching the heart of their grief before retreating. For readers, this can become both a compelling and frustrating through-line, as they wait for the moment when these deeply guarded emotions finally break open.
While the “epic” version of this story would most likely linger in order to show the ways in which grief can calcify or soften with age, Shah keeps his characters in the immediate aftermath of loss. Every seemingly mundane detail — from “Chicago’s billboard-choked upper limits” and “cruel stars of road salt underfoot” to the stink of urinal cakes in the pitstop bathrooms — creates a grim veil from which to view this world. It’s this surreal lens that draws emotion from even the most ordinary sights. Ant and Vince have little time to process (though they clearly need to) during the days leading up to the funeral. Instead, readers move forward with these characters in a sort of daze, a familiar response in the aftermath of a sudden loss.
But through the gloom, laughter emerges. In the opening sentence of the book, Ant explains that “with the last of my loved ones now long dead, I find funerals kind of fun.” He remarks on the eccentricities of the mourners and how funeral parlors look like “equal parts resort hotel lobby and sitcom set for the bereaved.” Shah masterfully inverts tense situations by highlighting their absurdity, resulting in scenes where Ant and Vince get high with an Arby’s employee in exchange for a free meal. Readers may find themselves compelled to laugh even when the joke isn’t necessarily funny, as they are drawn in by the rawness of the characters’ pain only for it to be upended by Ant spritzing Vince with a few drops of gasoline. This levity, no matter how dark or irrational, punctures the novel’s most serious moments. As with grief, we hurt until we cry and cry until we laugh.
Though we come to understand some of the past traumas that inform Ant’s feelings toward death, the novel’s short structure inhabits the characters’ grief without promising complete resolution. The disadvantage of this brevity is that while Shah sets up several pressing issues — including the depictions of opioid abuse and toxic masculinity — he doesn’t leave himself the space to fully break open and interrogate them. But in its best moments, Whiteout Conditions is both disorienting and visceral, hilarious and heartbreaking.The power of the concise narrative, then, maybe in its ability to most closely mimic this complex heartache. While the epic seeks to provide clarity, the short novel inspires concentrated reactions by narrowing its scope. Like the best poems or most trying moments, we’re allowed to react even if we don’t yet understand, to feel our most uninhibited emotions if for only a brief time.
By Tariq Shah
Two Dollar Radio
Published March 17, 2020
Michael Welch is a daily editor for the Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online, Iron Horse Literary Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.