Lately, I've become attuned to first impressions: the first sentence of a novel, track one on an album, the opening shot of a film, and the like. Partly I do this to feed my intuition — surely great stories start strong, right? With more books available than ever before and with more coming out all the time, the least an author could do is to hook me with a good opening. By that logic, I should've put down Buffy Cram's short story collection, Radio Belly, without finishing it. But I'm ultimately glad that I didn't do that … and besides, I'm a sucker for cool book covers.
Buffy Cram's stories remind me of Roald Dahl's: she shares his twisted imagination, as well as his misfortune of blurbs ruining his stories' punchlines. Publishers, let me remind you: we read the back of a book to get a vague, suggestive sense of its contents, not to have the shocking bits given away before we've cracked the spine. Show some tact, people!
Ranting aside, her stories contain a healthy dosage of creativity. The setting is allowed to wander into the extraordinary (“Mrs. English Teacher,” “Floatables: A History”), the descriptive language has free-range vocabulary and lingers on genuine moments (“The Moustache Conspiracy”), and the overall tone is one of Weirdness-Taken-Seriously (“Loveseat,” “Radio Belly”), which I especially adore. Taken individually, these stories create distinct impressions, leave lasting effects, and hint at substantial potential, which is what you'd hope to see in someone's first book.
Sadly, the key phrase is “taken individually.” I keep looking over the table of contents, and each reviewing fills me halfway with regret. Don't get me wrong, it isn't a bad collection: which is to say, it isn't disorganized. Thematically, the stories gel well. Their inequality is their craft.
Size is an immediate issue: these are long short stories, averaging over 20 pages apiece. With so much real estate, you'd think they'd feel sagged and bloated chronologically. But somehow, Cram's storytelling feels rushed: time passes inauthentically, “in medias res” is abused, some pieces are weirdly stitched beginning-endings, others are overgrown middles. Certain ones, like “Drift” and “Refugee Love,” employ so many scenes and so much detail, there's little time to appreciate them. What's worse, Cram's enthusiasm undermines empathy: she sweeps us towards the plot and away from the people.
For characters, it comes down to investment. It is imperative that I care. Otherwise I pay no attention to the protagonist's struggles and I end up repulsed by the supporting cast's opposition, which, for stories like “Large Garbage,” can be severe. Pardon my snobbery, but the lack of appeal partly stems from the characters' relative wealth and positions. These are the misadventures of the overpriviliged: Dahl wrote about them, too, but he didn't dwell on them exclusively.
I could take these aspects in stride if not for the lack of humor. One thing Cram shares with today's short story writers, that she doesn't share with Dahl, is her sadness. Must every story be full of tears and loss, damage and desperation? The menu's predominantly drama, and we're not talking appetizers — these are 20+ page full-course meals. The pervasive element here is anxiety, which creates momentum and is engaging, yes, but it isn't very flavorful to read. There must be a way to capture a fuller spectrum of emotion within stories. Anyone could do it, maybe even Buffy could do it, she just doesn't do it in Radio Belly. And when a story is all sorrow, I can praise it but I can't return to it. We all know sad stories, in movies and books. Do we ever reread or rewatch them?
Perhaps I got off on the wrong foot with this book — it isn't rigid with faults, it has elegant and daring writing. I did finish it! But again, what I said about first impressions … I wonder which editing wizard began the collection with “Mineral by Mineral,” the dullest, least engaging, least emotionally evocative story of the bunch. Whereas most of Cram's stories use strong first person or close third person (even some stylish second person!), “Mineral by Mineral” is a detached third, using the kind of dry, descriptive tone that documentary narrators use when the animal on film isn't doing anything too exciting.
Cases like Radio Belly exemplify a virtue of story collections: they can be read individually, taken apart, and recombined in different editions and anthologies. Harsh as I've been, I must reiterate that Buffy Cram is a sharp writer with a bright future. Should she pursue that future, she will find it full of literary possibilities, not the least of which is the chance to separate the wheat from the chaff.