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The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle:
The Ethnic Resonance of Genre
James Nagel. The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of Genre. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2001. xi + 297 pp.
Three interrelated arguments constitute the thematic focus of James Nagel's The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle. Nagel asserts that "the short-story cycle is the most neglected and the least well understood of the major genres in American literature." As is foreshadowed by his subtitle, The Ethnic Resonance of Genre, he further proposes that the origins of the short-story cycle in America are "patently multicultural, deriving, perhaps, both from ethnic cross-fertilization within the literary community and from a shared legacy reaching back to ancient oral traditions [End Page 492] in virtually every society throughout the world, uniting disparate peoples in a heritage of narrative tradition." Finally, Nagel argues that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the story cycle "became the genre of choice for emerging writers from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds." To illustrate his thesis that this "neglected" and misunderstood genre is distinctively multicultural, Nagel presents detailed analysis of eight well-known contemporary American texts: Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John, Susan Minot's Monkeys, Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. This choice of texts is an essentially fruitful one for Nagel's arguments concerning the multicultural nature of the short-story cycle. Moreover, it is appropriate in other ways as well: Love Medicine, Annie John, The House on Mango Street, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and The Joy Luck Club are standard offerings in multicultural literature courses. While The Things They Carried and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain initially seem less obvious choices, the two texts offer contrasting ways of approaching the legacy of the Vietnam war, a conflict that undermined the concept of America as a paternalistic "white" culture. This once prevailing view regrettably lies at the core of most high modernist American fiction. The reasons for including Monkeys seem surprising. It is difficult to conceive of a heritage based in orality for the kind of affluent white characters in Minot's text. Yet Nagel argues that this kind of tradition is central to the texts he has chosen to discuss.
Nagel's methodology in The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle is closely related to his attempts at defining a genre that has always been extremely difficult to pinpoint. He devotes separate chapters to extended discussion of each of the eight texts central to his study, and each of the chapters follows a similar format. Customarily, he begins by citing reviews that misidentified the texts as being either story collections or novels. After this, he offers extensive analysis of the individual stories as they appeared initially in journals and magazines and then summarizes the revisions that were necessary to convert them into parts of a larger text. This method is effective in combating reader skepticism; for instance, before reading Nagel's commentary, I would have argued for identifying Love Medicine, Annie John, The House on Mango Street, and certainly [End Page 493] The Joy Luck Club as novels. But, while I still believe that they can be read in that way, Nagel has convinced me that they were not initially conceived as novels. The limitation of this comparative method of analysis is that it overly restricts Nagel to plot summary; but, given his thesis, it is hard to see precisely how he could have avoided this problem.
In his introductory chapter, Nagel discovers forerunners of the short-story cycle in the Greek Cyclic Poets, Ovid, and, of course, A Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales. Moreover, he correctly identifies Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg...