Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Death and Collaboration

When I taught undergraduate creative writing classes, I occasionally assigned a collaborative story. It was a terrible assignment. Students would often complain that their partners' ideas were "stupid," or that their partners were not putting in adequate effort. When I did get teams to produce something the result was compromise work and nothing nearly as interesting as what they were doing on their own.

Editors Marc Aronson and Charles R. Smith, Jr. clearly know something that I didn't--or maybe it just helps to work with proven writers--because what they've produced with their collection One Death, Nine Stories is not only of high quality, it's greater than the sum of its parts.

The idea, similar to the editors' previous collaboration, Pick-up Game, is to give a group of writers a single event, in this case the death of a young man, and let them each write a related short story around it. The resulting pieces combine into something that reads much more like a novel than a group of short stories and ultimately yields a successful collaboration.

The death is Kevin Nicholas's. In life he was a nineteen year-old community college student from Queens, captain of his high school cross-country team, and, as becomes apparent by the second or third story, a deeply troubled young man. Each story is told from the voice of someone related to the death. Most of the stories belong to Kevin's family and friends, but a few are more distantly involved characters, such as funeral home workers and a high school student in Texas who learns of the tragedy through social media. As Aronson notes in an afterword, the stories work together to bring a larger picture slowly into being, like an old-school photograph emerging in a darkroom's chemical baths.

As with any collaboration, the book is a little uneven, though none of the writers has completely phoned it in. The least ambitious stories allow the death to merely trigger characters' memories of Kevin's past. By far the strongest comes first. Rita Williams-Garcia "Down Below" paints a painful picture of a disaffected young funeral home worker jarred out of his complacency when he is confronted with both Kevin's body and the surviving family.

Most admirably, the collection avoids clich├ęs about death. There are no silver-linings, no it's-all-in-God's plans. The characters in these stories are forced to confront death the way we all must, unprepared and uncomprehending.

FCC note: I read a public library's copy of this book.


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1 comment:

tanita✿davis said...

I love anthologies and linked short story cycles -- and Charles R. Smith, Jr. has some interesting ideas - I'll definitely keep an eye out for this one.