Simple Stories: A Novel
by Ingo Schulze
translated by John E. Woods
Published by Knopf
320 pages, 2000
Buy it online
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."
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.