In her new short story collection, Debriefing, Susan Sontag showcases her incredible skill at drawing readers in through jarring narrative gestures, confusing character arcs, and an unremittingly flirtatious tendency to poke fun at the possibilities of the imagination. “As a young writer Sontag wasn’t interested in the more conventional kind of fiction that was based in scene-making. She was after something distinctly modernist in the early stories,” explains the book’s editor, Benjamin Taylor.
It’s true. Sontag’s fiction irreverently evades thematic categorization. It jumps from hints of autobiography to deeply narrative and fictionalized accounts of character developments to more generally academic ruminations on style and sociocultural topics. The latter is a form that readers are the most used to encountering in a Sontagian text, though in works like On Photography (1977) or Styles of Radical Will (1969), the author always places her readers in a projective mindscape, asking them to imagine what an idea might look like on paper.
Debriefing is Sontag’s first short story collection since I, Etcetera (1977), and the first grouping of the 11 stories contained within. Her short stories are scarce and not often published, as this was not her most natural form of choice. “She tended to write short stories under pressure and–often–out of some personal emergency: the suicide of a friend, the unfolding calamity of AIDS, her own struggles with lethal illness,” Taylor says. “She didn’t write many of them. She turned to the short story to satisfy expressive needs that couldn’t be met in the essay form.” The urgent need for expression is palpable in these stories.
For instance, in “The Letter Scene,” the speaker addresses an unanswering auditor, desperately, almost fetichistically, in the hopes of receiving an answer: “Take a deep breath,” the story begins. “Don’t attempt anything just yet, you’re not ready.” From there, the text jumps into ticker-tape speak, unfurling arbitrarily as it comes out of the speaker’s mind. But the urgency here, however errant it may be, comes from a longing for a dying form: the letter. “Why people don’t write letters anymore….People just don’t want to take the time, what proves to be a great deal of time, because they lack confidence.” Another instance of urgency, though entirely different in theme but similar in form, is in “Baby,” where the speaker endures therapy sessions to discuss the birth, life, and death of her child.
It’s unclear whether these stories are based in fact or if they are inherently autobiographical, but what is certain is that they ring a familiar bell in the reader’s mind. Each story feels exceptionally contemporary. “Every artifact has a date on it, but they don’t all become dated in the sense of being less interesting than they initially seemed,” Taylor says. “Her stories don’t seem dated. They have a freshness similar to what I see in some of the best young writers whose work is appearing today. Sontag's stories are going to strike a chord as being very contemporary and up to date, even though they are written by somebody born in the early 1930s.” The stories’ nakedly autobiographical aspects along with their inclination toward hyper-realistic details in an unreal setting allow them to step outside of the historical moment in which they were written. “I thought we were…pure potentiality. By real standards, I thought, we hardly existed,” Sontag writes in “Pilgrimage.” The narrative potential in these stories brings to life characters that systematically question the moment in which they are created, raising the stakes for both the story and for readers.
“When work has some essential power to move, it keeps its vitality,” says Taylor. “There’s something undimmed in these stories.”
Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. He received his B.A. in Poetics and Praxis at New York University.