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Short-story master Catherine Brady doesn't need to write no stinkin' novel 

Wednesday, May 20 2009

What a cruel, capricious world. While our short-attention-span culture feasts on a junk-food reading diet of info snacks, it also wants writers of fiction to feel incomplete until they've published novels. The publication of The Mechanics of Falling, Catherine Brady's third short story collection, already has occasioned queries about when and if she'll write a novel. Brady, however, doesn't take the bait. Her answer: eventually, possibly.

Meanwhile, shortness is a virtue for Brady, who specializes in paradoxically evocative precision. As its title suggests, her collection intends a patient and poetic examination of instability. These are stories about ways of not staying in place, of becoming uncontained. The settings include many in and around the Bay Area, and the characters include mostly women who've made compromises, or are making them before our eyes, sometimes mistakenly.

"Some people are too stupid to be afraid on a runaway horse," Brady writes in the titular story, about a young equestrian's amorous affair and miniature class war with her stable manager. "Some people seize up. Some people turn cold and clear inside, like Clay, and only start to shake afterward. Annie sails into trouble like she wants it to last forever, like she can skim off from fear only what's precious. She almost never comes off."

By contrast, consider Judith in "The Dazzling World," who, while traveling in Guatemala, finds her bus boarded by rifle-toting bandits: "She was roused from sleep to the strangest of strange worlds, unmoored, bewildered, submissive. She thought, this is what you hallucinate out of the most shameful reaches of your privilege, and she felt as if she had called down this threat on all the other passengers."

Whatever goes on in her characters' rich inner lives, Brady observes them carefully, with pitiless empathy. She has their numbers, of course, but also the discipline to spare them, and us, from the heavy burden of authorial overdetermination. Her style is exacting but never suffocating.

Form and function merge with the literally poetic gesture of "Slender Little Thing," in which each sentence of the declarative opening paragraph becomes the opening line of a subsequent paragraph. It's a clever comment on patterns of thinking and behavior: Does the story's main character, struggling to raise the now-teenage daughter she had at 19, become trapped by this conspicuous construction, or is she somehow liberated by its strong will to elaborate?

In any case, it prompts a resonant mode of meditation: "That was the point of smoking. For so long as you drew on a cigarette, you did not care. Whatever kind of chemistry produced that comfort, it worked. Your mind did not course ahead of you — so now what? — but relished the sinkhole of the present, translated even misery to grim satisfaction."

Conversely, in "Wait for Instructions," her briefer paragraphs seem like stories unto themselves: "Ethna halts at the front door, as always, and then forces herself to enter the house. It smells of his sweat."

Brady teaches in the University of San Francisco's writing M.F.A. program and sets a fine example of applied education herself. Whether from good research or life experience, her stories imply easy fluency with the more challenging aspects of, among other things, waitressing, archaeology, nursing-home care, photojournalism, Christianity, horses, parenting, unwieldy romantic relationships, and, in general, the murkiest depths of human nature. It's amazing how correctly and movingly she describes these things — and how economically. When brevity works so well, who needs a novel?

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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