I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days)…How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length. I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.
–from “Some Notes on the Novella” by Ian McEwan (2012 New Yorker article)
Sigrid Nunez has written six novels and one memoir, but her entire literary output stacked back-to-back would be the size of a toaster. I first discovered her memoir about Susan Sontag (118 pages) a couple of years ago, and I felt that not one drop of ink had been wasted. In a way, it is sad Nunez has gotten so much attention for the Sontag book–mostly from those who want the inside scoop about the deliberately puzzling icon–at the expense of her six previous books.
Take her first novel–A Feather on the Breath of God. It is full of satisfying “writerly” description, such as “fiery red sausage with specks of fat like embedded teeth” and “the ash-pink dawn” and “women with feet like little deer hooves.” She also includes many insightful musings, like “I had discovered the miraculous possibility that art holds out to us: to be part of the world and to be removed from the world at the same time.”
Her second novel–Naked Sleeper–isn’t as well-combed as the first and there are several speed bumps that could have been worked out. But its 235 pages are still written with delicacy and a well-honed sense of humor. When her character Nona finally meets up with the man who has sent her so many heated love letters, the letdown is both devastating and absurdly comical.
Four more Nunez novels await to be polished off in a good binge-read, or maybe in a series of tiny snacks, like trail mix or exotic appetizers or a light borscht. (Not to mention a bottle of cherry Kombucha!)
The smaller, the better…