The more I read authors from start to finish, the more I find this method of reading suits me better than any other—there is something about following a writer’s evolution that I find so fascinating, so satisfying. How they move through and repeat certain themes, how their style intensifies or thins out. I’m thinking of this tonight because I’ve just finished Christine Schutt’s short story collection, Nightwork – this is the first book she published (with Knopf in 1996 and then it was re-issued in 2000 by Dalkey Archive), and I wish I had read it before reading Florida (her first novel, 2004).
I wish this only because Nightwork felt like it contained all the elements that worked together as a blended whole in Florida, only in Nightwork they were still separated, each held under a microscope or pushed to an extreme. They sort of worked against and around each other, instead of merging so seamlessly into a single narrative. Both books are excellent, by the way, so I’m not trying to suggest that Nightwork is some unfinished or raw version of Florida.
Nightwork collects together a series of intense little pieces—the best word to describe these stories may be unsettling, although they are all of them beautiful or sad or even funny as well. But what Schutt does more than anything else is create a vivid sense of disquiet. These are women-centered fictions—all about mothers, girlfriends, wives, daughters, sisters—and the worlds these women have found themselves in, or created, are not easy places to inhabit.
From “Religion,” for example:
Scabs in the spring air on the compound, cottonseed and petals, early bees and trembling webs, dews, worms, some stones in the sun already warm against our feet—remember spring there? How Jerry caught us in our nightgowns, how he stared? I was ashamed—we all were. We never went outdoors again quite so undressed.
Or here in “Teachers,”:
Once hours on the floor doing puzzles, and even earlier, she remembered, a baby in the middle of the bed, so needful and small, she had thought she might kill it—this, and the flushed breasts inflamed from suckling. His thirst, too, the oil he used to ease past the stitches when she was milky and wounded and just to put her foot against the floor to rise from bed as lightly as she did amazed her, as the baby amazed her.
Violence and trespass are what underwrite these stories: dark spaces, the movement toward taboo behaviors, closed rooms and oversized emotions, fear and anger. And in many of the stories, a dangerous closeness between mothers and daughters.
Interestingly, what defines the collection for me—more than these subjects or themes—is the impenetrability of the stories. Schutt is hinting more than she is showing or telling, and the actual scenes and description and dialogue all seem to work to shield the “truth” or “meaning” of the story instead of wanting to reveal it. I can imagine that some readers might find this frustrating, but I found it was extremely effective especially because the personal relationships within each story could be so disconcerting.
And, more than anything else, Schutt’s poetry – the way she juxtaposes images and slightly changes words (“needful” in that second excerpt for example) – is just wonderful.
Now that I’ve backed up and started reading her from the beginning, I’ll read her second book, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (another story collection) before I move on to reread Florida and then her two most recent novels, All Souls and Prosperous Friends.