Review: ‘Debriefing: Collected Stories’ by Susan Sontag, ed. by Benjamin Taylor

Susan Sontag is one of those writers I have been intending to read. It is her essays that were mostly on my mind, her writings on war, illness, culture and art. But for me, essays are something I have to actively be in the mood for. Unlike short stories or novels, it is not as easy to sink away into an essay. There are arguments to be followed, facts to take in, statements to agree or disagree with. So when I saw that there was a collection of short stories by Sontag coming out I figured it would be as good a, if not a better, introduction to this fascinating woman as her essays. And they certainly worked for me. Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 14/11/2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Debriefing collects all of Susan Sontag’s shorter fiction, a form she turned to intermittently throughout her writing life. The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode. Here she catches fragments of life on the fly, dramatizes her private griefs and fears, lets characters take her where they will. The result is a collection of remarkable brilliance, versatility, and charm. Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it. These challenging works of literary art—made more urgent by the passage of years—await a new generation of readers. This is an invaluable record of the creative output of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her power.
 For me, one of the clearest descriptions of, and keys to, this collection comes from the blurb:
"The book ranges from allegory to parable to autobiography and shows her wrestling with problems not assimilable to the essay, her more customary mode."
In the stories collected in Debriefing you can feel the wrestling that Sontag is doing. An essay requires a driving thrust, a clear argument towards a resolution or at the very least a suggestion. The issues addressed in these stories can’t be resolved that way, so Sontag battles with them in short stories. Each story is full of questions, partially rhetorical and meant to go unanswered, but partially also desperately waiting for someone to provide an answer. The stories in and of themselves will not necessarily give you any answers or solutions, rather, they will drop you into a situation and make you consider it, join Sontag in approaching it from different angles, and recognize your own questions in hers. There is no clear link, per se, that ties these different stories together, except for the fact that they all deal, in a way, with the human condition. Adolescent desire for adulthood, parenthood, wanderlust, love, companionship, illness, it all features in Debriefing in one way or another.

Perhaps my favourite stories in Debriefing are the ones in which Sontag gives us her take on a book or an author. The first story in the collection, ‘Pilgrimage’, deals with a young girl and her friend meeting a literary idol. The way in which Sontag captures the adolescent fervor with which her protagonist immerses herself in books, as well as her teenage awkwardness at meeting a hero, rings incredibly true and will make it a very recognizable story for any bibliophile. ‘The Letter Scene’ is another stunning story in which Sontag takes on love, Onegin and letter writing, all while digging deeper into how we communicate and why. ‘Doktor Jekyll’ is a fascinating take on the famous Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, while ‘The Dummy’ is both chilling and hilarious at the same time. ‘Baby’ strikes a similar tone, making the reader both deeply uncomfortable while making them laugh. The stories come from many different places, either clearly inspired by other books or drawn from personal experiences. On the one hand the stories probably reveal a lot about Sontag, about the things she struggled with, was interested in or hopelessly lost about. On the other hand, there is enough remove for someone who doesn’t know much about Sontag to be able to sink into each story as they go.

Sontag’s writing is potentially not for everyone. It is very “wordy”, to put it one way. Where other authors might use two words, Sontag uses two sentences to get to a point. Her language meanders, expands, evades and uncovers. For me, her writing style felt very much like the way thoughts work, without becoming an internal monologue. A story is clearly being told, but chronology or argument doesn’t really hold sway. The story will go where it goes, if it is inspired to move one way now and the other later, then that is what it will do. This can definitely be confusing but it also keeps the story fresh and engaging. Sontag uses different forms throughout the stories collected in Debriefing. Some stories are made up of bullet points, in others we only get one side of a dialogue. Then there are those which feel mystical and those who deal honestly with real life diseases. Sontag’s writing shines through all of these stories for me, always turning a phrase or sentence into something more. Her writing is very descriptive but never sinks into melodrama for me. And some of these stories will stay with me for a long time.

I give this collection…
4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Debriefing! Sontag’s stories have something absurd yet highly recognizable about them, as if someone has taking an everyday problem and makes you look at it through a prism. You know what you’re seeing and yet you’re not quite sure how it all comes together, or even if it can come together. Although Debriefing may not be for everyone, I would definitely recommend it to those interested in challenging short stories.


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