After the success of his debut novel Mr. Peanut, writer Adam Ross turned his attention to the short story—because apparently it is not enough for this man's literary ambitions to achieve thumping success in only one form.
Ross' new collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a Russian doll of a book. Many of the pieces cram stories within stories; characters recount past experiences, explain their lives to one another, and offer their best material to both other characters and the reader. In this way, Ross sidesteps the frustrating vagueness that often defines short stories in the absence of a traditional narrative structure—the portentous open-endedness that, in its avoidance of formula, has come to feel no less formulaic than verse, chorus, verse.
Instead, Ross offers us tiny, absorbing narratives, and shows us how those narratives work on individual characters. It would feel like cheating if it weren't so effective. In "The Rest of It," a recently divorced professor enjoys listening to tales spun by the college's maintenance man, indulgently assuming that stories of drug running and Mafia connections are exaggerated. When the possibility is introduced that the stories might be true, the professor's character is put to the test, along with his assumptions about his own life. In another story, a young couple recounts an anecdote about a girl they once knew; in the telling of the story, their own dysfunction is clearly revealed to their friends.
What stands out among all of these stories inside stories is Ross' willingness to allow his characters to be morally conflicted, to possess good characteristics and bad. Real goodness, he seems to imply, is nothing innate—it's the sum of the choices we make, not any bedrock inside of us. And if that sounds too heavy, Ross has a casual wit that impresses but doesn't distract—in one story, a teenaged narrator notes that his mother is fond of reminding him that he was a forceps baby, "as if to regularly remind me that tools were required to pull me from her vagina." If the book has a weakness, it's that some plot points are broadcast too clearly: As a reader, I was never as surprised as the characters seemed to be when reprehensible people behaved reprehensively. It's a small complaint, though, of an otherwise excellent collection. Ross is in Seattle this weekend, but didn't deign to visit Portland on his book tour. Forgive the snub.