You need only a part to suggest a whole
Published: August 3, 2012
The previous column introduced the topic of short-shorts, fiction rendered in a small space. But what happens when you start cutting down on words? What becomes of plot, character development and thematic depth? Obviously, some of what you can attain in a longer story is going to have to go. Forget the long landscape description, or the three scenes showing the grandmother’s slow decay from Parkinson’s. On the other hand, some treatments are particularly suited for the short run. One well-known form is the vignette.
The vignette started out by meaning a decorative border of vines around a page, then turned into what the vines enclosed, usually a page with an illustration. We now think of it as an illustrative scene, a literary sketch.
Look at this picture of two toddlers trying to play croquet: those huge mallets, the lawn sloping like a mountain, the ball headed for the bushes. This vignette, which I just began, will be called “Play Ball.” (Note to self: retitle!) It shows the seemingly innocent fun had by two tykes on a Sunday afternoon, with more than a hint of sibling rivalry. After two pages, the first child doesn’t just hit the second child’s ball; he takes it over.
As you can see, “Play Ball” isn’t a proper story with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s just a picture suggesting something beyond. The term “sketch” is all the more apt when you think of visual art, in which a sketch is the essential lines of a drawing, but not filled in.
One of the best practitioners of the vignette is the French author Colette, who wrote searching portraits of love and relationships. Take a look at “The Other Wife,” in which Marc is having lunch with his new wife, Alice, at an elegant restaurant when he spots his previous wife at a nearby table. Yet the focus is mainly on the dynamic between Alice and Marc, who dictates what table they sit at, what they order, and how much weight Alice is putting on.
I could go on, but Colette won’t. She doesn’t need to. She makes her point through gestures, descriptions, and tone. Marc is older than Alice, “his thick hair, threaded here and there with white silk.” He dominates, yet nonchalantly, as if always used to getting his way. In which case, who is this woman at the other table, who somehow escaped his grasp? The few details are both alluring and enigmatic: “The woman in white, whose smooth, lustrous hair reflected the light from the sea in azure patches, was smoking a cigarette with her eyes half closed.”
If this woman, who seems so self-assured, rejected Marc, what does that imply about the prospects for the new marriage? For the first time, Alice entertains doubts about what she’s embarked upon. Here’s the last paragraph:
And as they were leaving, while Marc was paying the bill and asking for the chauffeur and about the route, she kept looking, with envy and curiosity, at the woman in white, this dissatisfied, this difficult, this superior . . .
[trans. Matthew Ward]
The end is suggestive rather than conclusive: here is a part to suggest the whole. With good vignettes, that’s all you need.
• • •
David Galef, the director of the creative-writing program at
Montclair State University, is a shameless eclectic, with more than a
dozen books out. His latest short-story collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman, is available now.