Annotation by Neal Bonser
Bring Your Legs With You is a collection of linked stories about a boxer who retired undefeated and still quite young, who is being tempted back to the ring, not for money or glory (he is actually well situated financially and is somewhat haunted by the damage he inflicted upon his opponents), but out of loyalty to his old manager and out of a desire for his father to see him fight in person for the first time. Many of the stories were originally published as stand alone short stories in various journals, but the collection as a whole won the Drue Heinz award. Reading this collection at the same time as reading Junot Diaz’s Drown has prompted me to consider the question of what exactly is a collection of linked stories and what makes it different from a novel.
Justin Cronin’s first “novel” was labeled by the publisher as a novel-in-stories and won the Pen-Hemingway for debut fiction. The collection concerns a small group of characters and the stories proceed in a chronological fashion. I happen to know Mr. Cronin a little bit and heard directly from him that he would have preferred that the stories be ordered differently (i.e., not chronologically, more thematically ordered), but that his publisher pushed for the chronology so that it could be sold and marketed as more closely approximating a novel. I believe the quote he got from his editor during the discussion of the ordering of the stories was something like, “Don’t give me that writing school bullshit.”
But what distinguishes a collection of linked stories from a more traditional novel? The chronology of events? Clearly many novels do not proceed in a chronological order of events. A tighter narrative arc? I’d say Bring Your Legs With You has a tighter overall narrative arc than, for example, Gaitskill’s Veronica. So what is it? I wonder if it might occasionally come down to the order in which things were conceptualized. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that both Bring Your Legs With You and Drown evolved out of short stories that were never intended to be part of a larger collection. A voice just spoke to them and they went with it for more than one piece and then success breeds success. If Drown was simply labeled “Chapter One, Chapter Two” instead of the story titles, would we have questioned that it was a novel? In the case of Bring Your Legs With You, I certainly think it could have been passed off as a novel simply by changing titles into chapters.
If pressed, I’d say the distinction lies more in the original conception of the work as a whole—how it evolves. Chapters can have resolution. Short stories can have very little resolution. Annotations can have absolutely no resolution.