Years ago, I read an article about the difference between short stories and novels. Writing a short story, the author said, is like building a rowboat, while writing a novel is like building a ship. I was reading in the backseat of my parents’ car, on the way home from a trip to Long Island to see my aunt and uncle (for whatever reason, I have a very clear picture of this moment) and I remember looking up at the back of my mom’s headrest and thinking, What the hell does that mean?
I’m not dismissing the idea that novels and stories are different animals. Some people argue that it’s an issue of subject matter. Novels need big, dramatic events to prop them up, events short stories can’t fully unpack. Or it’s an issue of scope. If you want to write about someone’s entire life, you need to write a novel. And I could almost believe those things, except then I read a book like Deborah Willis’s The Dark and Other Love Stories (W.W. Norton & Company) and my entire sense of what a short story can accomplish gets thrown out the window.
When I try to describe The Dark and Other Love Stories, the word I keep coming back to is spacious. There is so much room in these stories. “The Last One to Leave” which follows a Holocaust survivor and his wife, spans its main characters’ lives from childhood until death. “I Am Optimus Prime” explores how the consequences of one Halloween night reverberate for decades. In “Girlfriend on Mars,” a pot farmer’s girlfriend auditions for a reality show promising to send her on a one-way trip to space. In this story, time slows and expands, becomes elastic and generous the way time only can when you’re deeply stoned.
Every one of these stories could have been a novel. The events are big enough, the concepts compelling enough, and I would have spent hundreds of pages with Willis’s characters. Her work is intimate and deeply imagined, populated by characters that feel like actual people, both familiar and utterly new. As the title suggests, every story in this collection is a love story, though not necessarily in the romantic sense. Willis is deft in her rendering of all kinds of devotion—love between friends, between children and parents, even the communion between people and animals that part love, part projection—but her work really shines when she lingers in those ambiguous relationships that aren’t quite love but aren’t purely platonic, either, where the only certainty is a loyalty bordering on obsession. In “Welcome to Paradise,” two teenage girls spend a summer breaking into houses in their subdivision, driven by “an unarticulated promise to remain best friends…We needed something—an adventure, a tragedy—to wed us together.” Who hasn’t tricked herself into believing that a painful, dangerous gesture—a tattoo, a blood promise, a kiss—can bind you to another person for life?
Sometimes Willis’s work treads overly familiar ground. “Steve and Lauren: Three Love Stories” employs three symbolic devices, including a mysterious void in a suburban living room floor, that feel a little too neatly recognizable, and “Todd” features a lonely man who adopts an injured bird as a substitute for his estranged daughter. But Willis can take a well-worn premise or character—a lonely writer; teenage girls looking for trouble; an animal that is also a symbol—and make it feel newly personal and wrenching. I was able to guess how “Todd” would end, but the bird and her caretaker were so gentle and hilarious, so completely specific to this particular book, this particular story, that “Todd” and its companion piece, “Flight,” became two of my favorites in the collection.
It’s rare to read a book that’s right nearly all the way through, one in which you feel that click of recognition again and again. Reading Willis’ work, I kept thinking, Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it is. This review was hard for me to write, because I don’t feel I’m doing this collection justice. Suffice it to say that Willis’ writing is funny and heartbreaking, deeply generous and insightful. The Dark and Other Love Stories is less a short story collection than a gallery of novels in miniature.