Laura Hulthen Thomas Plays a Long Game

Laura Hulthen Thomas
photo: Ron Thomas

Hey, if you’re going to be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on August 21, 2017, you should swing by the University of Michigan campus in the afternoon, because Laura Hulthen Thomas will be reading from her new story collection, States of Motion, along with Linda Gregerson, Mike Ferro and Debotri Dhar.

And if you’re not going to be there, you should track this book down, because these are some fantastic stories. I’m particularly enamored of the way Thomas goes all in on her narratives, drawing out the main action so expertly that you want to dwell longer in these worlds, dive deeper into their backstories. One of the most effective ways she does that is to hit her characters with multiple stressors, like the woman in “State of Motion” who’s trying to coach her son through a school competition while sorting out her extramarital affair with the janitor, or the driving instructor in “Adult Crowding” scrambling to cope with his dying mother while taking two argumentative teens out on a driving lesson. In this essay, she explains how she came to love stories that aren’t so short, as both a reader and a writer.

Whenever I’m asked, “Why do you write short stories?” I’m honor-bound to point out that I’m not a short story writer! The stories in States of Motion clock in at around thirty pages, with a couple of longer pieces, too. Why am I so devoted to the longer story at a time when readers and writers are having so much fun reimagining storytelling through micro-fiction, prose-poems, posts and tweets? Literary evolution has taken us from the days when Dumas was paid by the word for The Count of Monte Cristo to Amy Hempl’s or Etgar Keret’s radical narrative slimming. Readers’ habits trend towards brief, intense portraits of situation and experience, easy on the dialogue, enough with the navel-gazing already.

I’m thinking of a line from Steven Millhauser’s story, “In the Reign of Harad IV”: “Not only were the objects of his strenuous art pleasing to look at but the pleasure and astonishment increased as the observer, bending closer, saw that a passionate care had been lavished on the smallest and least visible details.” Millhauser is writing here about the court master of miniatures, but he could easily be describing the miniaturizing of contemporary fiction. In Millhauser’s story, the miniaturist ends up creating an invisible kingdom; maybe this illusion is where fiction via tweetstorm is headed!

Maybe I’m just out of sync with the times, but as a reader and a writer I love taking my time with fiction. I like to fall in love with characters, for one, and cultivating affection means sharing the ordinary along with the extraordinary over time. In her story “Royal Beatings,” Alice Munro’s Rose says that “treachery is on the other side of dailiness.” Showing “dailiness” takes narrative endurance, and the treachery on the other side is all the more sinister for the time it takes. Would stepmother Flo’s command to Rose’s father to beat her be as cruel if the reader hadn’t first seen how, in Flo’s mopping, “an abnormal energy, a violent disgust, is expressed in the chewing of the brush at the linoleum, the swish of the rag?” Munro unfolds Flo’s unending labor, and the family’s habits, as naturally as life’s rhythms. She’s in no hurry to bring Rose to her terrible beating, and when it finally comes, it’s just awful, and wickedly complicated.

I also love the surprises a long story can spring unawares by steeping a reader deep into a character. Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, a novella of linked long stories, was one of my earliest “whoa…” reading moments. If you’re looking for the bad-ass Russian version of the Byronic hero, Pechorin is your guy. In the 1830s, critics trashed this Romantic bad boy as unrealistically depraved. Nowadays we would call him a case-study: “Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed.”

My “whoa” moment came during the climactic duel scene. Pechorin’s treacherous, feckless opponent chickens out on his malicious plot to win the day, and merely grazes Pechorin. When Pechorin raises his pistol, I was convinced he, too, would fire wide. Pechorin plays the long game with his torments, as I knew from following him through many societal skirmishes; and I also knew him to be sensitive, alive to nature. Wouldn’t he miss Grushnitsky out of the conscience he shares only with the reader; or at least spare the man to torment him another day? Instead, he shoots to kill. This deadly shot might not have shocked me, if I hadn’t spent enough time with Pechorin to know mercy was possible, and to hope for it.

This morning, I went for my usual long, poky run that winds through the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market to my son’s school, and on into the neighborhoods. I’ve often wished I could fly along like the runners who pass me as effortlessly as a Sunday drive. Near the end of my loop, I saw two little girls clustered near a peony garden. One said the white and purple blossoms reminded her of sprinkles on ice cream. The other said she would pick the prettiest one for her grandpa, who was in the hospital for his heart. The first girl cautioned, “You can’t. They aren’t yours.”

The girl who needed the bloom looked around stealthily, saw only me on the street. Once I passed, the expression on her face said, she could easily pick a flower with only her second as a witness. Because I run the slow game, I heard their every word. And because I keep on running, I can only imagine what she will decide to do.

21 August 2017 | selling shorts |