In a recent episode of his Revisionist History* podcast, titled The King of Tears, Malcom Gladwell explores the reasons for country music songs being so goddamn good at making people cry. Among other factors, Gladwell comes to the conclusion that country music’s homogeneity is what allows it to be so particularly attuned to the emotions of its listeners. Country music artists are nearly universally white, Southern, Christian, and either rural or only one degree removed from rural living. The vast majority of country fans share the same demographics. Gladwell argues that these similarities allow the artists to bypass world-building themes in their songs and refer directly and specifically to objects and places that carry well-recognized social meanings in addition to their face value. For example, reference to a hunting dog includes the dog itself, but also themes of loyalty, tradition, affection, the many ways in which a man can be bound to nature. Thus, country music allows a remarkable amount of intimacy and depth of narrative to be developed in the space of just a few lines because its writers know that everyone is going to know exactly what they’re talking about. (Gladwell notes a similar sort of phenomenon exists with rap.)
I think Gladwell’s conclusions on country music writing – homogeneity allowing for more detailed storytelling in constricted space – have something to say about good short story writing. Barbara Kingsolver has said that short story writing is hard because it’s not just writing a shorter novel, it’s writing something else entirely. The constriction of space presents an enormous challenge a writer’s usual goals in fiction writing: world-building, character development, plot movement. This is probably why most short stories are bad, she muses, because their authors are trying to find shortcuts when what they really need is to find a whole new journey.
Enter Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book of short stories, The Refugees. These stories are good. They are King of Tears good. What strikes me is that Nguyen’s strength arises from precisely the opposite of what Gladwell discussed: his experience as an Outsider, and the yawning gulf of cultural differences between himself and his audiences. Nguyen was a refugee of the war, having come to the United States with his parents in 1975, and I suspect that the pressing need of figuring out how to survive in the US made him a keen observer of individuals and their various cultures. Nguyen is able to reference, with absolutely flawless precision, touch-points in American culture that are instantly recognizable and do the double-duty of setting a descriptive scene for the reader while also telegraphing a broader social context. It is world-building without the tedium of exposition. It is how you write an engaging short story, and Nguyen does it eight separate times in eight individual stories with eight wildly different protagonists, problems, and settings. The first story blew me away. Each subsequent story did, too, but always in a surprising way. These are the kinds of stories that stick with you so much, that you remember with such clarity, you find yourself mistaking them for your own memories after a while. This is some real good shit, folks.
Rating: Five stars, no joke.
*you should listen to this episode if you have time; it’s surprisingly interesting. I will also take this opportunity to give a blanket recommendation for the podcast as a whole, which winds up being fascinating every single time – even when I think the topic, based on the title, sounds profoundly boring. In particular, I will direct you to this savagely critical episode on golf, which basically asserts it is such a terrible institution it arises to the level of a genuine social evil. As an attorney (I know a lot of golfers), I gleefully agree with Gladwell.