Remember those compare and contrast essay questions we used to struggle with all through high school? They were a favourite of teachers and I suspect still are.
I’ve been forced to think about this form of essay question because by coincidence I just read two short story collections back to back and feel compelled to a bit of compare and contrast.
The juxtaposition of the books was by coincidence, by which I mean one was a requirement of my work and the other was a long-standing recommendation that finally found its way to the top of my pile. I knew Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’ (2005) were short stories because I went along to the movie when it came out in 2013, a pretty stunning turn in itself, as top Australian directors each took on a story (one was even filmed as an interpretive dance!). I didn’t know Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (2009) was a collection of stories. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t quite sure if Kitteridge was the author or Strout. I had assumed I was starting a novel about the titular character, whether that was Olive or Elizabeth.
I read a lot of short stories and short story collections and they come in all shapes and sizes. However, compare, both of these authors have in their collections stories that are linked together. They are both sharing Aravind Adiga’s trick of using place to link stories. See ‘Between the Assassinations’ (2008).
Winton brings to life the small coastal town of Angelus, on the west coast of Australia, while Strout does the same for Crosby, Maine on the east coast of the United States. Both are fictional creations. Both small coastal towns are intimately realised and there is a strong claim to landscape writing.
Compare place at another level – both author’s clearly use their own histories to create these towns. Angelus in W.A. is acknowledged as Albany where Winton spent his later childhood years, and Strout’s town fits neatly with her childhood in Maine as she has described on a number of occasions.
Can we assume these are autobiographical stories between the covers? Sometimes it feels like it. Tim Winton has called his latest book, a collection of true stories, ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’ (2016) a clear echo of the boy in ‘The Turning’ story, Long, Clear View, standing at the window watching his town through the sight of a rifle. Still, you always have to be careful making assumptions along the fiction vs non-fiction divide. Winton cannot be all the lost boys in his stories, Vic or Lenny, Frank or Max or Boner, and I am pretty sure Strout is not the abrasive Olive Kitteridge, at least not by surface appearance. There are many photographs of the svelte author on the internet, while Olive is described as a big woman. [She ‘minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game, she was not about to abandon the comfort of food’ (p. 62)].
Time for a volley of contrasts, or the teacher won’t like the essay. Winton has the Lang family feature in quite a number of his stories but not all; Olive Kitteridge appears in every single one of Strout’s, though in some she is a very minor character in the background. Winton uses 1st, 2nd and 3rd person point of view in his narration, swapping between stories; Strout is totally consistent with 3rd person throughout.
Contrast also the themes running through. ‘The Turning’ has this title for a reason – in each story there is a moment that might, or might not, change the character’s life. Don’t get me wrong, I loved ‘Olive Kitteridge,’ but I felt there was a whole lot more endurance going on here. And yet, interestingly I got more than one laugh out of these and not a chuckle out of Winton.
The biggest contrast is perhaps in the central characters. ‘The Turning’ focuses on masculinity and more often than not, the lives of the young, while ‘Olive Kitteridge’ offers up the stories of women, mainly in the later years of their lives.
A lot alike while very different, then?
Like any compare and contrast exercise, I have got nowhere near the essence of either of these books, all the beauty and ugliness, the human horribleness and humane poignancy. So, there is one last point of comparison to make: they each reward the reader with many small recognisable moments and in many satisfyingly big ways.
The image is of a woman, perhaps from a small coastal town. She is described as: Woman with a baby in a pram on a beach, Australia, ca. 1900, and is part of the E.W. Searle collection of photographs at The National Library of Australia.