A while ago I read and enjoyed a collection of essays on fiction by Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, so when the publisher offered me a copy of his latest collection of short stories, Gryphon, I was happy to say yes. I don’t remember a whole lot about the essay collection, except that Baxter argued against the kind of short story that ends in an epiphany where the main character learns a lesson or changes dramatically. He wanted stories that were more true to life and to the way things actually happen to real people. The stories in Gryphon are good examples of what Baxter was calling for; they are quiet stories about people you or I might know who are in familiar situations and go through recognizable experiences. The characters experience change, and perhaps they learn something, if only because something new has happened to them, but the changes are small. The stories capture a quiet kind of reality, which is matched by Baxter’s calmly straightforward, carefully detailed writing.
The stories cover a lot of emotional territory, describing, for example, a woman visiting her husband in a nursing home on their fifty-second anniversary, a man driving drunk through a snow storm to rescue his estranged fiancée when her car breaks down, a Swedish man visiting Detroit and learning the hard way what to expect from dangerous American cities. Other stories tell about a substitute teacher surprising her class with her very strange lesson plans (the title story), a man finding a drawing of a building with the caption “The next building I plan to bomb,” and a boy who follows his brother and his brother’s girlfriend out onto a frozen lake to see the car in the water under the clear ice.
The characters, situations, and experiences are varied, but in each case, Baxter captures the thoughts and feelings of the characters perfectly. His portraits of his characters are so accurate and convincing that he creates the sense of a world much larger than the one contained in the story. It’s like he describes one small slice of his fictional world so well that we can strongly sense the presence of the rest. The narrative voice is consistently understanding and compassionate throughout; there is no sense of anyone judging the characters who are frequently, although not always, troubled, uncertain, and confused. Baxter seems to want to help us understand these characters in order to understand humanity a little better.
These are “new and selected stories,” which means they date from the publication of Baxter’s first story collection in 1984 up to the present. Remarkably, the narrative voice remains much the same over that span of time, and that is the book’s major weakness: the collection contains 23 stories, and by the time I finished all of them, I was longing for something a little different. I would have welcomed a little more drama or a punchier narrative voice. The final story starts to head into different territory; here, a man travels to the wilds of northern Minnesota to interview a wealthy businessman and, feeling alienated and angry in the vast mansion, acts out in interesting ways. But this story comes a little too late to vary the mood of the book much.
Still, the stories need not be read all at once, and, taken in isolation, each one is a pleasure to read.
10 responses to “Gryphon, by Charles Baxter”
I always have trouble with short stories and I think you may have put your finger on why that is when you talk about the longing for something different by the time you reached the end of this collection. The other day someone suggested that I try collections by a variety of writers and that might provide the variety I needed. What’s more, I might even discover some writers of longer fiction that I had previously neglected. I’m thinking about it!
On the other hand, the beginning of your post reminded me that I do want to read more essays this year and so I may well look out ‘Burning Down the House’.
He sounds like a writer I’d like to read, though I agree with the comment that there would be more variety in a collection of authors.
Sounds intriguing – I’ve never heard of this author before!
I’m intrigued by Baxter’s argument against the standard “epiphany” plot-line; just the other day I was getting grumpy about films that follow that formula, and making pretty much the exact argument you outline here. I suppose I should stand by my own words and check out Baxter’s stories! (I’ll just remember to space them out a bit as I read them.)
Annie — I think the Baxter collection of essays would be an excellent choice. I really enjoyed it, and it’s so much fun to read essays on literature. I like the idea of reading story collections by various authors. I also think I would have done better with the Baxter book if there had been, say, 10 stories instead of 23.
Lilian — he has a few novels out, if you wanted to try one of those. I’m curious about them myself.
Litlove — I probably wouldn’t have known him either, except that a friend sent me a copy of his essay collection. That was a nice introduction to him.
Emily — interesting! You might enjoy reading the essay on epiphanies from Burning Down the House, which is called “Against Epiphanies.” Maybe you can skim in a bookstore or library or something, as backing for you own argument 🙂
I love reading short stories, but for some reason I have a hard time reading a collection by one author, or even a variety of authors. I do much better to just read one here or there. Still, I do like the sound of this author–I’d not heard of him before your post!
Danielle — I only heard of Baxter after a friend sent me his collection of essays; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have remembered the name. I think I’m okay with a collection, as long as the collection is short, and I don’t try to read it all at once, maybe only a story a day or something like that.
I’ll have to keep this in mind when next I feel in the mood for short stories, especially because of the MN story.
Stefanie — actually all or most of the stories are set in Minnesota — I should have mentioned that.
Great review! I liked and disliked this collection for very similar reasons!