Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta’s first official story collection. He’s published a few novels (I’ve read one, The Leftovers), some of which have been adapted as films (Election and Little Children). His stories chronicle the innate longing for more than we have and the poor choices we make, which end up solidifying that we won’t ever get what we long for. He’s been called the “Steinbeck of suburbia” by some reviewers, and the title seems appropriate. Like Steinbeck, though, I think Perrotta is a novelist more than he is a short story writer.
This is the second book of Perrotta’s that I’ve read (the first was the novel The Leftovers), and I think I’m just not a fan of his work in general. I think he has a particular reader, a particular audience, and I’m just not one of them. This isn’t meant to detract from his writing, but I think it’s just the way it is.
I can see some value in his work. He paints vivid character portraits and he creates realistic situations in this collection of short stories. His characters find themselves experiencing circumstances that are as believable as they are unfortunate, and the characters’ choices are often implicated in those circumstances. The majority of his characters make the bad choices we all consider when reacting to situations, but most of us avoid these choices, erring on the side of ethics, politeness, and appropriate behavior. This element in his collection—characters pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior—is interesting; tracing the downward spiral of these characters as they come undone is intriguing and heartrending. But there’s something about it that doesn’t ring true for me.
To think of this collection in terms of a Hemingway view of stories (i.e., the “iceberg” principle), we see the entire surface, but we never really understand what’s “under the water.” Perrotta’s strong suit is creating a vivid premise with solid believable characters, but that’s where it ends. There was an element of predictability and superficiality that soured me right away with the first (and weakest) story, “A Back Rub.” The story never really satisfied. Things happen to the character. He reacts. And, at the end, we get a recap of where is life heads because of his poor choices. But we’re never given the chance to care about or root for him. The clichéd and banal nature of several stories had me feeling like I was “treading water” as I made my way through the pages (examples would be “One-Four-Five, “The Test Taker,” and “Grade My Teacher”); I never really cared about the characters or their circumstances.
Other stories that were more successful were also a bit less conventional, still keeping with the same realistic level of premise and situation. Stories like “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” and “Nine Inches,” relied on the same trite suburban themes, but rather than being formulaic, they felt more authentic. The characters made some sort of revelation or achieved at least some level of growth, which made the stories more successful than the others. I felt something for the characters because they unveiled a bit of what was beneath the surface, and as a reader, I need that “under the water” glimpse to propel me forward.
Take away for my writing:
Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between novel writers and short story writers. And, after analyzing this particular collection, I think I admire even more greatly those writers who successfully move back and forth from short stories to novels with (seemingly) effortless talent. In my opinion, Perrotta is, quite simply, a novelist and not a short story writer. Successful short stories need to be whole and unified; they need to communicate a story that has a solid beginning, middle, and end, with flash points of climax that aren’t too “big” or overwrought for their briefer length. The stories in this volume feel like they’re trying to be novels (or, really, novel summaries). Rather than having just one or two flash points of solid tension, they’re riddled with tepid points of semi-tension throughout, leaving them as summaries or synopses of a bigger tale, rather than full and complete works unto themselves. With some development and added detail, I could envision almost every short story in the collection as a novel or novella. I had the distinct impression that each of them was a novel idea that Perrotta just didn’t flesh out or finish, and that’s not the reading experience one wants with a short story collection.
Strengths: Vivid portraits, accessible and entertaining writing style
Weaknesses: Uneven plotting, failure to delve into characters’ psyches, predictability and clichés
Favorites: “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” “Nine Inches,” and “Kiddie Pool”
Least favorites: (all the rest of them)