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Matthew Sharpe's storytelling experiment

May 22, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Novelist Matthew Sharpe is trying an experiment, publishing one very short story a week for 12 weeks on the Internet.
Novelist Matthew Sharpe is trying an experiment, publishing one very short… (Matt Gunther )

In my inbox this week: Matthew Sharpe announces “a little experiment in self-publishing on the Internet”: a series of 12 weekly micro-fictions, under the name “Very short stories r us,” that showcase his idiosyncratic blend of the acutely observed and the fantastic.

Sharpe is the author of a collection of stories and four novels, including the brilliant “Jamestown,” which reimagines the early 17th century Virginia settlement through the filter of contemporary dystopia, blurring the lines between history, fantasy, science fiction and satire. His most recent novel, “You Were Wrong,” starts with a high school math teacher being beaten by a pair of students — a dynamic that reemerges, after a fashion, in this new effort, as well.

This week’s entry, appropriately titled “Story #1,” is refreshingly low-tech for a digital project: no links, no multimedia, just a single 600-word paragraph tracing the relationship of a high school history teacher to a kid who sits in the back of her classroom “wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood up.”

The antecedents, in a culture of alienation and school violence, are chilling: The teacher is frightened of what he might do if she asks him to lower the hood.

“I love history,” she tells us, “and I’m good at getting high school kids to feel that they are a part of it, but sometimes all the other stuff, the stuff that teaching is really mostly about — the suffering of children, their crippled desires, their confusion and rage — is beyond me, and I come home and have a glass of white wine and a second one and a third, and I believe I have no business being a teacher.”

Here, Sharpe gets to the center of the narrative, which is about our disconnection, the way that history and individual experience do not always reflect each other, that even when we are trying to be useful, we can feel a sense of … if not quite hopelessness then confusion, as if nothing will ever be enough.

That the story moves in an unexpected direction should go without saying; this is a hallmark of Sharpe’s writing, after all. But its real power lies in its simplicity, its inevitability, and most of all, its strange and moving beauty, which leaves us with an unlikely feeling of engagement, despite the odds.

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