Brady Harrison reads from The Dying Athabaskan at Fact & Fiction Fri., March 23, at 5:30 PM. Free.
The novella is a bit of a lost art: Not many people write them and even fewer places publish them. As fewer places publish them, even fewer people write them, and the spiral has continued downward in recent years — with the exception of self-published mid-length stories.
But still, there’s something about a novella. They create worlds that last longer than those in short stories, but that don’t require the time or investment of novels. They can be read in one long, only slightly indulgent sitting, such as a cozy evening, a day at the beach or, in my case with this novella, the exact time it takes to ride in a car from Missoula to Hot Springs. They can define a day, and their bending slimness feels good in your hands.
Brady Harrison’s The Dying Athabaskan checks all of the boxes that make novellas highly readable and charming and good. It’s a standalone book that clocks in at 81 pages. Its storyline moves along rapidly, and its combination of compelling characters and almost-a-mystery plot keeps you immersed, if only for the 90 minutes or so that it takes to read. The Dying Athabaskan is the first winner of Twelve Winters Press’ semi-annual Long Story Prize, which earns it publication online and in print.
The book centers on a freelance writer, Ritu Agarwal, and a famous artist, Niall O’Keevan. The latter is rich and enigmatic, not to mention notorious for lying in interviews. The former is charged by her editor with uncovering the true story of O’Keevan’s most famous piece, the sculpture of a deformed and dying man. As the story of The Dying Athabaskan statue unfolds with each page, so do themes of memory and truth, storytelling and myth and, ultimately, the ownership of art.
Harrison, an English professor at the University of Montana, studies, among other things, the art and history of the novel and of the novella. The text could perhaps be described as classically experimental, using some of the most common tricks and tools of Melville, Flaubert, Faulkner and Joyce. The dialogue and some pieces of the prose, for starters, look Joycean, while the rapidly changing styles of the chapters — and some of the humor — echoes Melville. At the same time, some chapters capture the gothic stream-of-consciousness feel of Faulkner. What begins as a very straightforward narration (first person) by a reliable source (a journalist) quickly fractures into increasingly odd and less believable tales, paired with increasingly modern writing styles.
While the “classically experimental” approach generally might come off as stale, derivative or pretentious, here it mostly works. For example, the rapidly changing formats (one section is written as a play, for example, the next is stream-of-consciousness and in italics) keep the pages turning. In addition, the rapidly changing perspectives (both from third- to first-person and from character to character) give Harrison a great opportunity to get his points across about narrative and truth.
For fans of the unreliable narrator, this is an especially fun jaunt. We are told from the first page of the book that the artist, O’Keevan, loves not just to mislead, but to outright lie. Other characters, too, take their turns at spinning tales and rewriting history, many at the behest of O’Keevan himself. There are enough hints along the way to at least partially recreate the truth of the sculpture’s origin story. But by the end, that’s not nearly as important as what we learn about fine art, including painting and sculpting, as well as the arts of storytelling, writing and journalism. Harrison, who writes across genres — from scholarly research to poetry — has clearly thought a lot about the importance of narrative to all types of stories and all types of writing. The Dying Athabaskan serves almost as a delightful Rubik’s cube of characters and their stories.
It’s not a perfect beast: A few small sections are a bit unclear and confusing — and not on purpose — while the freelance writer character feels flat at times, and specifically flatly female. These small issues are easy to pass over in favor of the book’s strong writing and creativity.
There’s a moment in The Dying Athabaskan where one character is fabricating the ending of another character’s fabricated story — and retelling the yarn to a third character. In turn, the third character adds his own edits and embellishments (represented with italics) mid-telling, affecting in real-time how the original character chooses to finish her tale. All three characters are working from their own personal perspectives and experiences. The story starts, we’re pretty sure, with a tiny kernel of truth and ends, we know, with a very strange sculpture. Does it matter what’s true and what’s not? Does it affect the meaning of the statue? You’ll just need the night in a nice comfy chair or an afternoon sitting by the river or a ride to Hot Springs to find out.