Chekhov may be divine, but he is responsible for much sinning on earth. The contemporary short story is essentially sub-Chekhovian. It is most obviously indebted to what Shklovsky called Chekhov's 'negative endings': the way his stories expire into ellipses, or seem to end in the middle of a thought - 'It was starting to rain.' This is so invisibly part of the grammar of contemporary short fiction that we no longer notice how peculiarly abrupt, how monotonously fragmentary much of what we read has become. Consistent with this abruptness is the contemporary idea that the short story should present itself as a victim of its own confusion, a poised bewilderment, in which nothing can really be sorted out; the necessary vehicle for this bewilderment is the first-person narrator, who must get along amid modern confusions without the help of an all-knowing, third-person authorial patron. Chekhov's simpleness and lucidity - it is easier to see his lucidity than to sense his complexity and lyricism - seem to cast their shadow over the quick, skinned, blank language of so much American short fiction: a prose whose thin roof often houses, unsurprisingly, characters who are themselves rather blank and affectless, as if stunned by the hammer blows of the age. And Chekhovian irony also finds its debased correspondence in contemporary writing; though where Chekhov's irony is often savage, modern irony is often merely all-nullifying.
LRB 16 December 2004 | PDF Download