Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber

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Ideas of Heaven Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There is a certain pleasure involved when one reads a story in a collection and runs across a character one has met in a previous story. Such character reappearances can create amusing little shocks of recognition for the reader, a suggestion that these characters actually live outside the fictions in which they exist and have been hanging around, just waiting for another story in which to appear.

Called a short-story sequence, a short-story cycle, a composite novel, or a novel-in-stories, collections of stories that focus on the same characters or the same locale have been a staple of American fiction at least since Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Such collections experienced a resurgence of interest in the first decade of the twenty-first century. They are popular as a device by writers to hold the reader's interest throughout an entire book and as a sales incentive by publishers to capitalize on the reading public's preference for a long, continuous story over several short elliptical ones.

Joan Silber's tactic in the collection Ideas of Heaven, signaled by her subtitle, A Ring of Stories, is to make a minor character in one story a central character in a subsequent one, and thus to bring these six stories full circle by making the central character in the first story reappear as a secondary but important character in the final story. Although the linkages between the stories vary from the meaningfully significant to the peripherally trivial, it cannot be determined whether Silber wrote these stories specifically to link them in this fashion or whether she wrote them individually and then invented ways to link them afterward to create this book.

Perhaps more important than the artificial device of making secondary characters primary in a subsequent story is the way that an obsessive thematic significance unifies the stories. All of the stories focus on some aspect of the relationship between romantic and religious passion, for all the characters find themselves caught in a fervor of love that exceeds any attempt at control. For this reason, the central or emblematic story in the collection is the third one, titled “Gaspara Stampa.” In it, an actual sixteenth century Italian poet, at age twenty-six, meets and becomes passionately obsessed with Collaltino di Collato, about whom she writes a series of love sonnets in the manner of Petrarch's passionate religious and romantic love poems for Laura.

This thematic heart is more important, for example, than the somewhat peripheral introduction of Gaspara Stampa in the second story in the collection, “The High Road,” chosen for inclusion in the 2003 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories. In this story, Duncan, a homosexual dancer, falls in love with an opera singer named Carl, whose favorite poet happens to be Gaspara Stampa. Duncan suffers from lovesickness for Carl and is tortured when Carl finds a new lover.

Silber said in the author notes of the O. Henry collection that she wrote “The High Road” because she had previously written a story about a woman who had been humiliated by her dance coach. She wanted to give Duncan, the dance coach, his own story and make him pay for the humiliation, for she says she knew he would end up a fool for love and that his hopeless passion would do him good.

However, the role Duncan plays in the earlier story, titled “My Shape,” is relatively minor. Told in the first-person voice of a young woman, Alice, who wants to be a ballerina but whose body is too voluptuous, the story is a sequential account of Alice's foiled efforts. She becomes a dancer on a cruise liner, where she meets her future husband Jean-Pierre and goes to live with him in France. However, she is unhappy and fights with her husband and his family and leaves for New York, where she takes dance lessons with Duncan, the central figure of “The High Road.” When Duncan makes her crawl to him and lick his shoes, she realizes she will never be a dancer and...

(The entire section is 1,858 words.)