Drexel, N.C.-based author Susan Woodring‘s new book, Springtime on Mars: Stories (Press 53, 2008) is at once quirky, charming, confusing and comfortable. It manages to be all over the map, but also intricately rooted in family, dysfunction and place.
Part of the scattershot feel of the book comes from its format: like the title suggests, it’s a collection of short stories. The longest of these is 20 pages and the rest weigh in at about half that length. Among the stories, the point of views range from a young girl to a middle-aged man. This is jarring at times, moving from one story to the next, but Woodring seems to revel in the disparate nature of her prose. She unravels, in each installment, a nugget of a story. A single, awkward moment arrived at through a maze of mundane events and non-events. Nothing is happening but ordinary life, only Woodring gazes deeply into all that’s ordinary to distill the kernel of weirdness, of awkwardness, of dark secrets, old wounds, dreams unrealized, cracks in the foundation. And then, when that moment is finally revealed, Woodring leaves us there on the brink of understanding. We’re given a glimpse, but nothing more.
This is tantalizing, and even for the nudge of frustration at the paltry reveal, I found myself compelled to read on. Just one more story. After all, they’re short! Only 10 pages! Think of the sense of accomplishment!
Which is kind of how I approach short story collections, anyway. I like the near-instant gratification of polishing off an entire narrative in a setting. And, considering all that’s been said and written about the shrinking attentions spans of post-X generations, it’s surprising that short stories haven’t all but replaced novels.
But they haven’t. In fact, short story collections have been the underdogs of the literary business for some time now (to the extent that some MFA in writing programs replaced their short story concentrations for more popular genres such as creative nonfiction). But one thing that Woodring has on her side is a very enthusiastic publisher in Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Press 53.
The other thing working in Woodring’s favor is her way with words. Short those these stories may be, this author can spin a tale. This is evident from the very first chapter, where sixth-grader Lizzie struggles for a sense of normalcy while her mother loses herself in care-taking bees and speculating on UFO sightings.
“It frightened her to see her husband that way,” the author compellingly writes of another character. “And also somewhat annoying — why had Russell done such a thing anyway?”
It’s rare for a writer to move seamlessly between characters and reference points, to switch up genders, generations and voices like flipping through a cache of personalities culled from the psyche of Sybil herself. And though Woodring doesn’t manage a flawless delivery 100-percent of the time, she does an admirably good job — and pulls off a highly entertaining collection of tales.
Susan Woodring offers the workshop Martians on Main Street: How to Bring the Historic, the Scientific, and the Just Plain Weird onto the Pages of Realistic Fiction on Monday, May 12, at Malaprop’s. For info on the 7 p.m. event, call 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter