Simple Stories: A Novel

by Ingo Schulze

translated by John E. Woods

Published by Knopf

320 pages, 2000


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Simply Challenging

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

 

Simple Stories is an experimental narrative. Instead of the conventional format for the modern novel, Schulze attempts to integrate several linked stories into one cohesive novel, revolving around a group of acquaintances. Schulze intertwines their lives in both plausible and manipulated manners: chance encounters with badgers, romantic entanglements, bicycle accidents and capricious job industries. While innovative and often intriguing, Simple Stories ultimately falls short of the full narrative we have come to associate with the novel form.

Schulze observes both small and formative moments in the lives of Renate and Ernst, Martin, Lydia and Patrick, Danny and Tino, Jenny and Maik, Edgar, Enrico and Marianne. These characters find themselves faced with their pasts and, more often, with their impending futures. They are fickle and floundering, attempting to sort out their place in the new Germany as well as within the world around them. Alternately, they meet new lovers and leave old ones; they go mad and find moments of calm clarity; they hide painful secrets and reveal themselves in slight movements.

"You ran over a badger," I say, "a badger! Maybe you only just grazed it, and it's a grandpa by now, fully recuperated."

"If you say so," Barbara says. "If you say so, then it's probably true."

I run my hand along the inside of her forearm, circle her elbow, and then return to the wrist, where I switch to the other arm and my hand makes a swift arc and lands in her left armpit, my forearm brushing her breast. My hand moves lower now, returning to my side by way of her knees.

Barbara says, "You're lying there staring at the ceiling, time stands still, or passes so slowly that it's not worth mentioning, even though it's the only difference you can think of, the only thing that separates life from death."

"You were dreaming, and now you're awake," I say, laying my head on her right breast and letting my finger trace a circle around her left.

"What if I can't really wake up, what if it turns out it isn't a dream?" I can feel her body resonate as she talks. She asks, "What will you do with me then?"

"I'll marry you all over again," I say. "Or what should I do, in your opinion?"

I lean across, belly to belly with Barbara, to the alarm clock. The blanket slips. Alarm clock in hand, I raise myself up again, pull the blanket straight, and stretch out on my back. My temple bumps her elbow. I want to ask her to move her arm. I want to shove it away. Barbara's lack of consideration angers me. But I don't say anything and slide farther over to my side.

By integrating these lives, Schulze has created a world steeped in both reality and a magical, surreal landscape. And while these characters are undeniably charming, it is inevitable that their stories will become somewhat forgotten or confused. Throughout the novel, Schulze employs the tactic of reintroduction; he introduces a specific character and situation and then allows them to wholly disappear until he reintroduces them many chapters later. By this time, I found myself flipping back in the novel to refresh my memory regarding these complex lives. The characters themselves can often become confused; only a handful are drawn specifically with physical tags and/or recognizable mannerisms, leaving the remainder loose and unformed. The brief, episodic glimpses into the characters' lives do not allow for substantial development or growth; as such, they do not become memorable characters. Often, integral information is left out in early chapters, only to be drawn out in the course of the novel; while this method can be intriguing, it makes for awkward, choppy prose that leaves the reader feeling manipulated.

Schulze has a gift for "simple" storytelling: clean prose with little unnecessary adornment. His writing is enjoyable and effortless to read, and lends itself extremely well to the format of the short story. As a novel, though, Simple Stories misses the mark. Both the prose style and the concept of linked stories are reminiscent of another German writer, Ursula Hegi. Schulze seems to have been influenced by her collection of short stories, Floating in My Mother's Palm. However, where Hegi connected several complex storylines through one central narrator, Schulze intends to use the group dynamic itself as the common factor within the novel. And this, unfortunately, is not enough to hold the narrative together in a significant manner.

This innovative concept in storytelling is mysterious and languid and does, indeed, propel the reader to continue on with the novel. However, as the title itself suggests, the novel remains somewhat simple, never quite becoming tangible for the reader. | September 2000

 

Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.