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Literary Diptych

Jen Michalski’s new novellas use style to bring worlds to life

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Could You Be With Her Now

Jen Michalski

The novella is one of the least popular literary forms for purely practical reasons: Bigger than a story, smaller than a novel, the form has been hard to package and to market. All of that, of course, may change with e-books. The pairing of novellas, however, can create a fabulous tension enriching both works, as in a diptych painting. This is certainly the case with Could You Be With Her Now, Baltimore writer Jen Michalski’s new collection of two novellas, “I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner” and “May-September.”

“California” is narrated by Jimmy Dembrowski, a mentally disabled 15-year-old who is the literary heir of Faulkner’s Benjy and Steinbeck’s Lennie. Like Faulkner, Michalski uses her narrator’s limitations to strong literary effect, but she doesn’t sink us in her narrator’s confusion; instead, she uses it to create a narrative tension akin to Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Jimmy doesn’t understand what is happening to him, but we do. The events that befall him are so terrible, though—involving murder and sexual molestation—that we’re almost glad he doesn’t get it.

If “California” is full of Faulkner’s sound and fury, “May-September” is more in line with Henry James, the master of the novella form, or William Trevor, articulating small shifts in both perception and social form with a subtle psychological brilliance. One sees two women—a young lesbian and an elderly widow—grow closer through a subtle modulation of style, their thoughts blending together on the page: “I don’t like most stories I read because they’re about young people and I don’t understand them. No one ever writes about older people. I don’t think that’s true. If you come down to the bookstore where I work, you’ll find plenty of memoirs and the like.”

The effect is as subtle as the narrative it propels toward an unexpected—and unexpectedly complicated—romance.

The two very different styles in Could You Be With Her Now, not only make the case for the novella as a form, but also for Michalski as a wise writer and a master stylist.

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