I was reading David Gilbert’s Sunday NY Times review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars when I stumbled on a word. In the course of praising Hemon’s “wonderful, autobiographical short stories,” Gilbert wrote:

In 2000 came a highly praised collection, “The Question of Bruno,” followed a couple of years later by the even better “Nowhere Man,” after which he made a detour into novel terrain with “The Lazarus Project” before returning to the tombolo of short stories with “Love and Obstacles.”

I wasn’t familiar with tombolo, so I looked it up and discovered it was (per M-W) “a sand or gravel bar connecting an island with the mainland or another island” (it’s Italian, from Latin tumulus ‘mound, tumulus’; you can see a nice picture of one at the Wikipedia article). It’s a nice word that I’m pleased to have learned, but I don’t see what sense it makes to talk about “the tombolo of short stories.” Am I missing something, or is Gilbert misusing the word?


  1. keith100 says

    He might have meant tombola –

  2. Huh. Maybe so, but I don’t see what sense that would make, either!

  3. Perhaps Gilbert meant “tombola”, which in British usage (according to the Oxford American Dictionary) refers to a game with a revolving drum where people pick out tickets that win them prizes — this is not a bad metaphor for a collection of hit-and-miss short stories. By the way, I know the word “tombola” from Slovene, where it refers to a raffle with numbered tickets.

  4. Seconded.

  5. AJP 'Tom' Bowler says

    It may not be a reference to the spit of land. Tombolo is also the Italian name for bobbin lace (which my mother sometimes makes, though she does the English & Low Countries patterns), which is also called pillow lace, the pillow being a sort of shallow hill or mound. I can’t take it any further than that, though.

  6. So, to sum up, it would seem that short stories are like a raffle held on a spit of land where the prize is bobbin lace.

  7. AJP Bowler says

    Sure. Makes sense to me.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    “Short stories are like a raffle held on a spit of land where the prize is bobbin lace.”

    So very true. Somehow I’ve just never been able to put it into words like that.

  9. Isn’t he just dragging the “terrain” metaphor out across the rest of the sentence?

  10. Not that the sand bar is any kind of obvious choice in that case, but it certainly makes more sense than a raffle or lace.

  11. OK, so he’s driving along when he decides to take a detour to the Isle of Novels, which you get to by crossing the Tombola of Stories, and when he’s finished he returns to the tombola. That makes sense, I guess. Well elucidated!

  12. Just a wild guess, but wikipedia says: “Several islands tied together by bars which rise above the water level are called a tombolo cluster.” So a short story collection is like a tombolo cluster, separate stories (islands) linked together by a spit of land (a common theme).

    Hemon visited my high school English class. We all got free copies of his “Nowhere Man” and read it before he visited. I only remember one thing about the discussion: our English teacher had a definition of literature that he had been preaching since the beginning of the year (it had something to do with the idea that literature must reveal something about universal human experience, I don’t remember his exact phrasing) and Hemon just completely rejected this definition and didn’t even think it was worth debating it.

  13. Ah, tombolo cluster makes sense — I’ll bet that’s what he meant. And good for Hemon; writers should by all means demolish theories of writing!

  14. ‘Tombolo cluster’ would be a very precise metaphor if the stories are more interconnected than most collections. Are there (e.g.) characters, or particular places, that turn up in more than one story in a collection? Does he write something too loosely bound to be a novel, but too tightly bound to be a mere collection of stories with nothing in common except that the author composed them in the same time-period? Such a work could well be compared to a geographic feature that is neither a continuous region or continent, nor an archipelago of islands separated by deep water.

  15. Such things are common in science fiction and fantasy, where they usually share a common background, perhaps with some overlap in characters. They are neither novels nor collections (though historically some have been presented as pseudo-novels with a bit of connective text), and Le Guin has introduced the term “story suite” for them, borrowing from music criticism. They are to the short story as the series is to the novel (I refer to true series here, not multi-volume novels often so called).

  16. David gilbert says

    Tombolo cluster was what I was going for, which was perhaps a poor stretch of the metaphor, but the stories are connected by the same character so I wanted a sense of familiar terrain.

  17. Aha, so we worked it out correctly! Thanks for dropping by and letting us know what you had in mind.

  18. And thanks for adding a good word to my vocabulary.

  19. Paul (other Paul) says

    Tombolo = isthmus ?

  20. cardinal gaius sextus von bladet says

    I think he meant “trombone”. And since Mallory Fooclod’s seminal “Dearth of the Arthur” we have known that I’m allowed to think that even if he doesn’t think he thought that.

  21. Oh, great, another Fooclodian. I thought the spam filter was supposed to catch them.

  22. David Marjanović says

    “Dearth of the Arthur”


  23. I have just come back from a vacation in a part of Italy where “Tombolo” is a common place name. It seems to mean a sand dune or a series of dunes, “una fascia di piccole dune.”

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