“He wanted to be honest,” writes Susan Minot in her novella “Rapture,” “but no one wants complete honesty if it’s going to rip open your heart.” Searing honesty and broken hearts are emblematic of Minot’s finest work about human relationships, whether the family ties of her debut novel “Monkeys” or the sexual affairs of her second book, “Lust & Other Stories.”
Since that story collection appeared in 1989, Minot has published novels, screenplays and poems. Now, more than 30 years later, comes a second compilation of her short fiction. “Why I Don’t Write” is long overdue but also well worth the wait. This time, instead of focusing solely on romantic relations, Minot’s tales embrace a number of themes and even a range of styles. What links them and those from before is a winning blend of emotional intensity, capricious playfulness and keen-eyed observation.
Several stories feature women in a fix. In “Occupied,” an artist leaves her studio and cycles through Manhattan to relieve her babysitter. On the way she becomes distracted by a group of Occupy protesters and muses on her AWOL lover. It takes an accident to “clear the horizon” and recalibrate her priorities and sense of proportion. In “Polepole,” an American documentary-maker loses her equilibrium while on an assignment in Kenya — first through culture shock, and then, on discovering her one-night stand has a wife and children, through shame.
“Boston Common at Twilight” revolves around a 15-year-old boy out of his depth. Ned’s trip to the park to buy pot from a woman goes terrifyingly awry when she takes him back to her home at knifepoint. “Be a good boy and I’ll be nice,” she tells him, but her soft tone belies brutal intent. Rather than end the story with this dark encounter, Minot traces other dramatic events — Ned’s parents’ marital breakdown, his mother’s alcoholic decline — before opting to fade out with tragic repercussions. The result is a stark reminder that pain lingers and scars last.
Elsewhere, the frothier “Green Glass” involves two young lovers consumed by jealousy, whereas “The Torch,” like Minot’s third novel, “Evening,” is a tart tale about a woman on her deathbed. Minot has mixed success with her more experimental stories: One resembles a rough draft of dialogue from an abandoned Samuel Beckett play; another strives to be a ghoulish comedy, except that the joke quickly wears thin.
But it is the title story that is the most inventive and the most beguiling. A writer tries to write but is stymied by a blizzard of invasive thoughts, memories, questions, instructions, conversations, songs, facts, dreams, impressions and news headlines, each of them demanding attention and wrecking concentration. “Another story will come” runs the penultimate line. “See above” reads the last.
Perhaps this is Minot’s way of explaining why she doesn’t write as often as she would like to. With luck other stories will come, and soon.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories
By: Susan Minot.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 176 pages, $25.