In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune I reviewed Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie, a “novel in stories” that has been covered almost everywhere. It struck me as stripped-down Lorrie Moore–which is almost by definition too stripped down–and it lost me by the end. But I was taken with McKenzie’s fresh, promising device of jumping a few years between stories, sometimes leaving important events unnarrated so that the reader experiences them only through their repercussions. This tactic reminded me of Michael Apted’s wonderful “Up” documentary film project:
I wanted to like Elizabeth McKenzie’s “Stop That Girl” more than I finally did. What made me root for it? It’s unsentimental; its young narrator looks at the world through an oddball’s eyes; she dispenses with consoling illusions early. The writing has a cool economy, too–it’s the opposite of flowery. But most of all, I was intrigued by McKenzie’s fresh approach to putting together a short-story collection. She calls “Stop That Girl” a “novel in stories,” which may sound dubious: Why stories rather than chapters? Is this more than gratuitous cleverness?
It is. For one thing, all the stories here are capable of standing alone; each has its own arc and logic. What really grabbed me about this device, however, was just what makes Michael Apted’s “Up” film series (“Seven Up,” “7 Plus Seven,” “21 Up,” etc.) following a group of Britons from age 7 through (so far) age 42 so appealing: the irresistible fascination of checking in on someone’s life progress at intervals. The nine stories that make up “Stop That Girl” cover Ann Ransom’s life from age 7 until she’s a 20-something mother. But we stop and look in on her only every couple of years, and a lot more happens offstage than on.
McKenzie may really be onto something. I loved the innovative structure of Stop That Girl and the way it messes with conventional novelistic continuity–which is nowhere so drearily entrenched as in coming-of-age novels. But I didn’t love the meager story this novel told. In the end I felt that McKenzie took the laudable ideal of economy to an extreme. Her book left me feeling underfed, hungering for more: more description, more emotion, more incident, more of everything. I would love to read a book employing a similar structure while telling a richer story.