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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Packages is the title of Richard Stern’s new, very slim, elegantly produced book of short stories. It is also the title of the most powerful story in the collection, and it provides the governing metaphor of the book.

The literal package—around which the story “Packages” revolves—is a silvery can containing the ashes of the narrator’s mother; the story begins as he picks up the package at the “funeral factory” which has handled the cremation. In a story which is mostly reverie and recollection, the principal action is the narrator’s disposal of the package: he strips off its label, rewraps it, covers it with newspaper in the trash, and covers the newspaper with “a plasticine sack of rinds and fishbones.” Later, he watches while the garbage collectors throw the can into the maw of their truck.

Thus the title, “Packages,” becomes a necessarily brutal metaphor, intended to force acknowledgment that people are merely packages, finally: packages of chemicals. “But this way is better than a slot in that Westchester mausoleum. Foolish, garish anteroom to no house. Egyptian stupidity.”

There is, however, another reading of the metaphor. After disposing of the package, the narrator lies down, listens to a “cello suite of Poppa Bach.” Overwhelmed, he reflects that vastness is accessible to him because it has been reduced to a “portable” form: “A package.” From the bookshelf above his head he pulls The Mind of Matter, and reads about Planck’s constant, “that stubby transmitter of universal radiance ... Nature’s own package.” He makes a connection—deeply felt, no details worked out—between Planck’s “package” and Bach’s and “the one which held what was left of what had once held me.”

This connection does not cancel out the brutal reality, as Stern sees it, of the human condition, but it turns the mind elsewhere, to reflect on wonderful incongruities. Stern’s story—all stories—are only packages, incommensurate with what they contain yet indispensable to understanding. A story is not real; yet without it, people would never know the real.

In the title essay of his forthcoming book, The Invention of the Real, Stern considers story-making not as the prerogative of fiction-writers like himself, professional falsifiers, but as a habitual human activity—indeed, not merely habitual, but incessant. He goes further: “Is it even possible to say that this ’storification’ is itself the means of humanization?” Yes, forstories convert the data of event into a coherence which doesn’t just transform actuality, but creates it. That is, it makes sense out of sensation. Consciousness depends on storied notions... . We’re all story-makers, constant inventors of the realities we call our life.

From his first book (the novel Golk, 1960, which took off from “Candid Camera,” renamed “You’re On Camera” in the novel) to his latest work, Stern has been preoccupied with the “invention of the real.”

The stories in Packages do not show Stern at his best, although several (including the title piece) are first-rate. Stern’s best is very good indeed. Packages is dedicated to his friends Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, and Stern belongs in their league, although he has not had (except from fellow writers) a tenth of the recognition they have enjoyed. It is hard to say why. One reason, perhaps, is that Stern the novelist is not particularly interested in himself. He lacks entirely the intense self-absorption which Bellow and Roth project onto their various fictional personae.

Stern’s novels are a gallery of interesting, successful, energetic, creative people. He has written the best novel about Ezra Pound (Stitch, in which the poet is metamorphosized into a sculptor, Thaddeus Stitch, and the Cantos into a fantastic stone garden on an island off Venice). He has chosen for protagonists a composer (the novella “Veni, Vidi ... Wendt,” in 1968), a biologist (Other Men’s Daughters ), and a...

(The entire section is 1,451 words.)