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POCKETFULS OF SHORT SHORTS: McSWEENEY'S

The Stop Smiling Review

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box
How the Water Feels to the Fishes by Dave Eggers
Minor Robberies by Deb Olin Unferth
Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape by Sarah Manguso
(McSweeney’s)

Reviewed by Nate Martin

Each of the stories in Small Box begs to be torn from its binding, folded into a pocket or purse and carried around for future reflection. Whether a single paragraph or 10 pages long (most are on the short side), the surprises each story holds are the ideal cure for doldrums at a bus stop. The succinct texts are more inviting to bloggers who transcribe literature to the Web, and the writers’ inventive sentences are more likely to draw a reader's eye when detached from the traditional book format.

In an article in the Guardian, Dave Eggers described his approach to writing short shorts as a response to small moments he notices — things that might only take a page to explain. In “Accident,” a lonesome driver who causes a wreck fears the anger of the teenagers in the other car, then is overwhelmed by the sense of closeness s/he feels toward them as a result of the traumatic event. In “Go-Getters,” a photographer waits for a vagabond to enter the Go-Getter’s Market so she can exploit the irony of the store’s name in a photograph she dreams will be her big break.

Though Eggers’ name will be the impetus for many to peer into the Small Box, Deb Olin Unferth’s is likely one that few have heard of, and fewer will forget after reading Minor Robberies, her first book. Unferth draws on her command of the spaces between sentences to subsume entire journeys, relationships and lives into a few pages. These spaces dictate her stories’ pace and shape, and allow her to plunge a reader from sublimity to sorrow in the span of one paragraph.

None of Sarah Manguso’s 81 numerically titled stories in Harder to Escape are longer than a page. The second is this: “I cannot wait until grace is said to eat a heaping spoonful of applesauce. A girl says, ‘We aren't supposed to eat yet.’ Does she think I could have stopped myself? Does she think that because I am three years old I am unaware of the price I have already decided I will pay?”

The box of short shorts is a playful, refreshing way to present fiction, something we’ve come to expect from McSweeney's, a publisher that refuses to accept the decline of America’s interest in literature by publishing novel after novel after novel.

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