BY A.M. Larks
Dallas Woodburn’s debut collection of stories, Woman, Running Late, in a Dress, is characterized as interwoven stories, interlinked stories, and, in her own words, “a short story cycle.”
A short story cycle is a curious beast. It is the narwhal of the literary world, a being so odd the Internet could have made it up. But narwhals and short story cycles do exist, and both are rare.
Short story cycles are a hybrid novel form, which is why they can also be referred to as a composite novel, story sequence, linked stories, or a novel in stories. The theory behind the form is that each story exists both individually and as part of a larger whole, a novel. In this way short story cycles are trying to be the best of both breeds (like trying to be a rhino and a whale!). Cycle stories must work both individually and collectively, as seen in Too Far to Go, a short story cycle by John Updike where he explores the life and death of a marriage. The life cycle of the marriage is the larger narrative while the individual stories serve as still shots of moments within that lifecycle.
Interwoven or interlinked stories vary from a short story cycle in their purpose and construction. The interrelated stories do not need to have the larger narrative purpose and can remain largely self-sufficient, similar to species in an environment existing together rather than members of a pack working toward a collective goal.
While Woodburn’s work features the same group of friends throughout and the stories track key moments in their lives, it fails as a cycle because the larger narrative purpose remains unclear to the reader. In Drown, Junot Diaz also tackles the transition from childhood to adulthood, however, it is clear that this is the story of two brothers, their immigration from the Dominican Republic to America, and their divergent paths. Woodburn’s protagonists all deal with loss that occurs in life, especially when transitioning from a child to an adult, but to what end? The collective point is muddled; however, the individual stories hold their ground. In “Near-Death Experience,” a wife is trying to cope with a change in personality when her post-stroke husband has a new lease on life. In “Snow World,” the teenage protagonist is adjusting to the recent separation and impending divorce of her parents. In “The Stars in Illinois,” a twenty-something-year-old is dealing with the loss of her Hollywood dreams. Each story contains characters struggling through devasting loss and change, but that in and of itself is a broad point from which to hang a cycle on. It is, however, enough of a thematic link upon which to shape a short story collection around, as Dan Chaon does in Among the Missing. In Among the Missing, the stories all center around characters that have something or someone that is missing and all of the possible permeations, e.g., those who have run away, those who are distant, those who have been kidnapped or possibly kidnapped. Woodburn’s thematic resonance on life and loss therefore feels more akin to the organization of a collection rather than a cycle.
Woodburn’s prose is quiet and commanding, “She lets her eyes wander to the glowing TV screen, the images of the wounded ocean bleeding oil.” There are a wide range of characters and situations that Woodburn renders convincingly on the page. She is able to embody the point of view of fire in “Slowly, Slowly Without Much Notice”: “I am born at 3642 Maplewood Drive at 8:53 p.m. on a Friday night. Not a soul in Red Fern Ranch knows about me. It is a dry, still night, static electricity palpable in the air. I am born in the attic.” And she is able to convey the realistic issues that occur when the protagonist ages but his sister’s ghost never does. “He is overwhelmed by all the things Steffy doesn’t know, all the things he can’t talk to her about because she wouldn’t understand.” Woodburn’s gift is the ability to capture heartbreaking traumas on page. “Laura was napping in her nursery across the hall. I didn’t fall asleep. My eyes were closed, but my ears were not. I would have heard her crying.” From the loss of a child to the kidnapping of a first love, her characters prevail.
The fact that a writer of Woodburn’s caliber missed the mark on the short story cycle is a testament to the difficulty of the form. The cycle, like the narwhal, eludes definition by a singular concept—Whale or unicorn? Short story collection or novel?—which make writers like Woodburn who fail to navigate that liminal space appear unaccomplished. But simply because a work is not a narwhal does not make it any less of a whale (Moby Dick was only a whale, after all.). Woodburn’s short story collection is not to be missed; it’s one hell of a whale.
A.M. Larks writes fiction and nonfiction. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She contributes reviews and interviews to and is a reader for The Coachella Review. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and is currently pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California–Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency program. She lives in Northern California.