Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Lionel Shriver

By posted at 11:02 am on December 2, 2010 2

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covercoverSelected Stories by William Trevor: I often talk up the short story form as in some ways more demanding than the novel, but at core I’m still a novel reader. To get me through a 550-page collection, the stories must be very good indeed. These are.

I read William Trevor’s initial Collected Stories in the early 1990s just as I read his second volume this autumn: cover to cover. Ordinarily, if I invest in a book that fat, I expect nothing less than Anna Karenina. But Trevor packs so much into a single tale that each one reads like a tiny novel. His stories are the literary equivalent of those intensely caloric, high-protein biscuits that aid agencies distribute during famines.

I’m a big admirer of Trevor’s seemingly unassuming style. He’s a master of the disappearing author. I always read with a pen in hand, and commonly when I don’t underscore any lines in fiction the prose is mediocre. By contrast, with Trevor I’m never drawn to marking particular passages because every line is perfect. In fact, Trevor’s writing is so perfect that you don’t even notice it’s perfect. He mainlines pure narrative directly into your veins. The words never get in the way; the words, like their author, disappear. His language is translucent: you see straight through the sentences to the characters they conjure. Naturally modest, quiet, in the background, Trevor is a genius, but he never seems bent on getting his reader to reflect, “Trevor is a genius.”

Trevor has enormous sympathy for small people—the obscure, the overlooked, the aging, the disappointed. He tenderly records their quiet tragedies, their unspoken longings, their failed romances. His work is shot full of a mournfulness, and if he had a theme song it should surely be “Eleanor Rigby”: all the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

The real marvel is how all those lonely people come from Trevor’s head. That is, my greatest amazement is at his existential stamina. He never seems to run dry of empathy; he never appears to weary of the human race, engaged instead with the infinite variety of its sorrows. I often worry that my own empathy is finite. My own impatience with other people sometimes slips to outright misanthropy. Trevor always calls me back to kindness. His second volume of collected stories was a tonic of compassion.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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2 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Lionel Shriver”

  1. Christine Japely
    at 8:57 am on December 4, 2010

    Absolutely correct in every way! Trevor is a gift from the gods to all of us. (Lionel – why is your SO MUCH FOR THAT not listed in the NYT 100 notable books of 2010? Sheer incompetence on their part ….)

  2. The Second Pass
    at 5:38 pm on December 8, 2010

    [...] to come, but there’s a lot up already: Lionel Shriver chooses to do God’s work and praises William Trevor, Dan Kois can’t resist choosing Freedom, Anthony Doerr admires a book that is both “a quest [...]

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