I took out a sub. to the NYer a couple years ago just to read the short stories and have found a few real gems:
9/2/02 - Shylock on the Neva by Gary Shteyngart 10/7/02 - Drummond & Son by Charles D'Ambrosio 12/23&30/02 - The Trials of Finch by Zadie Smith *1/6/03 - Class Picture by Tobias Wolff (novel excerpt)3/10/03 - Christie by Caitlin Macy*4/21-28/03 - What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie (but don't bother with the collection)5/5/03 - Dick by Antonya Nelson 5/19/03 - Tapka by David Bezmogis *7/28/03 - View from a Headlock by Jonathan Lethem (novel excerpt)8/18-25/03 - What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick? by Annie Proulx 9/15/03 - The Surrogate by Tessa Hadley
― Robomonkey (patronus), Thursday, 8 January 2004 01:38 (twenty years ago) link
― scott seward (scott seward), Thursday, 8 January 2004 01:50 (twenty years ago) link
― otto, Thursday, 8 January 2004 03:34 (twenty years ago) link
― R the V (Jake Proudlock), Thursday, 8 January 2004 15:24 (twenty years ago) link
As for Munro, well, yeah...goddess. Everyone says it, so you want to disagree, but it's true, so whaddyagonna do? I go in skeptically on her stories, totally unfair, looking for a fight and still she wows me. Talent like that oughter be illegal.
Anyone read the story The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr? (It was the only overlap story between the latest Best American Shorts and O Henry Prize collection.) I enjoyed it for its exotic locale but when I later reflected on characterization I found it rather weak.
And please keep those short story suggestions coming!
― Robomonkey (patronus), Thursday, 8 January 2004 16:23 (twenty years ago) link
9/2/02 - Shylock on the Neva by Gary Shteyngart 12/23&30/02 - The Trials of Finch by Zadie Smith *7/28/03 - View from a Headlock by Jonathan Lethem (novel excerpt)
I enjoyed Shteyngart's story so much that I went out and read his novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which had some of the same humor that enlivened the story, but was overall not as successful, IMO, although it was still quite readable. Trials of Finch I read because of all the hype I'd heard about Zadie Smith, though I wasn't that impressed with it. I really liked the Lethem excerpt, and I intend to read Fortress of Solitude (which it was taken from) sometime in the not too distant future.
― o. nate (onate), Thursday, 8 January 2004 16:52 (twenty years ago) link
Thanks for the warning about the Shteyngart.
― Robomonkey (patronus), Friday, 9 January 2004 04:02 (twenty years ago) link
― vahid (vahid), Friday, 9 January 2004 05:04 (twenty years ago) link
― spittle (spittle), Friday, 9 January 2004 08:15 (twenty years ago) link
― spittle (spittle), Friday, 9 January 2004 08:16 (twenty years ago) link
The next one sounds an awful lot like The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier - 9/8/03 issue of the NYer. I didn't get it. Not sure I even liked it. But I gave it big points for shaking up the pages of the NYer.
― Robomonkey (patronus), Friday, 9 January 2004 20:59 (twenty years ago) link
― jaymc (jaymc), Saturday, 10 January 2004 07:42 (twenty years ago) link
― jaymc (jaymc), Saturday, 10 January 2004 07:44 (twenty years ago) link
Lorrie Moore is getting on my nerves because all those jokey little one-line observations for which she is famous don't seem revelatory of character. I get the feeling she keeps a folder of her own quirky little observations and dumps the folder on her characters when she's ready to write a story.
― Janet Gurn-Soosy, Sunday, 11 January 2004 18:00 (twenty years ago) link
In THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY (2021), I read:
Alice Walker, 'The Flowers' (1975). This is c.1.5 pages. It's all in italics - as though setting itself off from something - but what, as there is no other layer of the text to contrast with? The story describes a black girl, Myop, who is exploring local countryside then finds the body of a man who has been lynched. The implication, I suppose, is that this is a moment of harsh awakening for her in an encounter with racial violence. The last sentence is: 'And the summer was over'.
Jamaica Kincaidm 'Girl' (1978). This is 1.5 pages, in the form of a series of injunctions from a parent (a mother, I think) to a girl, very occasionally punctuated with the girl's responses in italics. Some of the references make me think of another country, not the US; probably the Caribbean.
Louise Erdrich, 'The Red Convertible' (1981). This is a more normal-length story, narrated by one Marty, describing how he and his brother Stephan bought a red car and enjoyed driving it around. The boys seem to have a Native American background. They travel around the Northern border of the US and there is a brief sense of 'on the road / road trip' narrative. Stephan is drafted into the army and returns changed - from Vietnam or some other military experience. He never really recovers. Eventually he drowns himself in a river. Marty sends the car in after him. You could say that this is a realist story that depicts a crisis in someone's life.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 'The Reencounter' (1982). This brief tale is the most original of the four. One Dr Greitzner is invited to the funeral of a former partner, Liza Nestling. When he turns up and looks at the body in the coffin, he meets Liza, as if alive. It turns out that they are both dead, and are floating around the place like ghosts, watching the funeral. Dr Greitzner finally states that 'Of all my disappointments, immortality is the greatest'.
That story is a stimulating idea, but in truth, none of these stories gave me huge satisfaction. Most of them might be called ideas that could have been more fully developed.
In this collection, so far, I reflect that there has been no obviously good writing. I don't therefore mean that the writing is bad. The writing is always competent, clear, communicative. Writing can be functional or quietly good. But none of the writing in the 57pp so far has stood out to me: no beautiful phrase, telling visual description, piece of elegance or flash of wit.
― the pinefox, Sunday, 1 January 2023 14:01 (one year ago) link
Joy Williams' 'Taking Care' (1982) is about a pastor whose wife becomes very ill. We read of his distress about her illness, and the experience of the hospital. The story takes weight from these difficult experiences. Yet it also contains other elements, like the pastor's daughter who has gone AWOL in Mexico and, in turn, her daughter, a baby that the pastor enjoys bringing up. The story is quite emotionally rich. Unlike the other stories thus far in the collection, it also has something in its narration. A consciousness, a readiness to surprise, or just precision? It might be the most impressive story so far, perhaps along with Carver's.
Lydia Davis's 'Story' (1983) (are lots of her stories called 'Story'?) is just over 3 pages, narrated by a woman telling us of her suspicions of her partner's possible untruth and infidelity with his former partner. She engages in slightly extreme behaviour, telephoning him repeatedly and driving over to his house late at night. She ends the story with a list of things she is unsure about. The pedantry is slightly Beckettian. My sense is that the story is slightly self-parodic, ie: we are meant to find the woman's obsessiveness slightly (again) ridiculous, and also that she knows this; but that we are also meant to think that these feelings are not so unusual and that we could have such elaborate feelings and thoughts of jealousy and doubt ourselves.
― the pinefox, Monday, 2 January 2023 11:28 (one year ago) link
cat person (✿◠‿◠)
― Daniel_Rf, Monday, 2 January 2023 11:37 (one year ago) link
Charles Johnson's 'China' (1984) is the longest story in the book so far. It describes an African American couple living in the NW USA. They are ageing and ailing. Then the husband Rudolph discovers Eastern martial arts and reinvents his life. The story is told from the point of of view of his frustrated wife.
Stuart Dybek's 'Pet Milk' (1984) starts out talking about pet milk, a substance the narrator associates with his grandmother, but this drifts into the memory of a drink he used to drink with his girlfriend at a certain café in Chicago. The story becomes all about the memory of youth with her. They dressed smartly, they got on well, he admired her beauty, yet somehow he already felt that they would part. He describes one night when they become intoxicated together and take a train back to her place, caressing each other in the front cab of the el-train where they shouldn't be. The description of romance in this story quite touched me.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 3 January 2023 12:56 (one year ago) link
my fav recently (few years ago now) published short stories collection is greg jackson's 'prodigals'. i should re-read it
― johnny crunch, Tuesday, 3 January 2023 13:07 (one year ago) link
Susan Sontag's 'The Way We Live Now' (1986) is one of the longer stories so far, about the AIDS crisis era in New York. It perhaps centres on the gay community, but several of the characters are heterosexual and the unnamed central character who has HIV seems to have been bisexual. Still there is some sense of a certain 'NYC gay community' that makes me wonder slightly whether this still exists as it did, or has been, to some degree, 'dissolved into the mainstream'. I hear the same community in Magnetic Fields records.
The story is quite strong on the experience of illness, specifically of watching another person living with illness, which was also a feature of Joy Williams' story. I reflect that quite a lot of short stories perhaps do this - because of the form's attraction to moments of personal crisis? - Lorrie Moore being an example. The mixed messages and impressions of the illness getting worse, improving or levelling off are conveyed - specifically by Sontag's narrative innovation, of relaying the whole story through the reports and utterances of other characters, outside quotation marks. These many other characters, passing the baton of the sentence between them, slightly remind me of those in Virginia Woolf's THE WAVES.
Sandra Cisneros's 'Salvador Late or Early' (1986) is a one-page sketch of a boy I think is Mexican. It ends with the phrase 'disappearing like a memory of kites' which I find rather imprecise and sentimental.
Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried' (1986) is, I believe, quite a celebrated story; unlike many others I had not read it till now. It depicts a squadron of US soldiers marauding through Vietnam, presumably in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The story is strong because it displaces itself from being a narrative about the soldiers' actions and feelings into a particular form, signalled by the title: sections catalogue the many things that the soldiers carry, often giving their weight. The reader feels that carrying things, being laden down, is part of the soldier's experience. But these physical objects also alternate with more abstract things they carry, like guilt or fear. An event, the killing of one of the soldiers, is circled round and repeated, and we see that the First Lieutenant feels guilt that it happened because he was thinking, at the time, of the girl he loves back home. After this death he burns her pictures and letters and tries to harden himself into a soldier. I find this tough story quite effective, one of the best so far. The catalogue mode reminds me of something - perhaps D.F. Wallace.
Dorothy Allison's 'River of Names' (1988) is narrated by a woman who recalls her upbringing in a very large rural family where almost every child was assaulted, maimed or killed, by family members or others. Partly I feel that the story is saying 'Look, this is how violent and dangerous lower-class life is', and the narrator's more middle-class gf cannot imagine it. But I also feel that the level of violence is so extreme as to be deliberately absurd. In the last line the narrator tells her gf 'I lie'. The ostensible meaning is that she lies and doesn't admit how bad her background is, but I think the reader may be meant to think more like 'all this has been a lie, a huge exaggeration'.
I have heard of Denis Johnson, not read him before I think; his story 'Emergency' describes two hospital orderlies in 1973 who witness extreme injuries (the words of the duty nurse are laconic and odd; she tells a patient he's lucky he didn't end up 'sightless or at least dead', a double-take phrase), and also take drugs which I think they steal from the hospital. They thus have hallucinogenic or heightened experiences, for instance when they drive off out of town and witness a drive-in movie in a blizzard. The surrealism of the story, implicitly rooted in reality (the real experience of being on drugs), is striking.
George Saunders' 'Sticks' (1994) is a one-page sketch about a father who hangs things on a pole outside his house. I hope this isn't the best Saunders can do.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 3 January 2023 20:17 (one year ago) link
Junot Díaz, 'Fiesta, 1980' (1996): this is the author of the OSCAR WOA novel. The story describes a family of immigrants to the US from, I believe, the Dominican Republic. A central, unpleasant fact is that the young narrator becomes nauseous when driven in his father's van. The father is having an affair. The family goes to a family party in the Bronx. The story is first-person and colloquial. You could say that it thus gives us a lively and realistic voice. On the other hand it means, again, no fine writing. This author isn't interested in making beauty in language. One schtick that he does have is to include lots of (I believe) Spanish words amid the mainly English prose, rather as Rushdie used to do with Indian words. I'm afraid that I don't much like this writer. I find an air of macho arrogance or swagger in his work, which does not appeal.
― the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 January 2023 09:39 (one year ago) link
I somehow misspelled OSCAR WAO twice while writing that. The novel is called: *The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao* (2007).
― the pinefox, Wednesday, 4 January 2023 09:40 (one year ago) link
I'm delighted you enjoyed the Williams and Sontag stories.
I don't understand Diaz's appeal at all. Actually, I do.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 4 January 2023 10:26 (one year ago) link
The Brief Tubular Life of Oscar Woah
― ✖, Wednesday, 4 January 2023 12:01 (one year ago) link
That Denis Johnson story is from a collection called Jesus' Son, which offers many other stories in a similar vein (a bruised, scabbed-over vein, no doubt), if you liked that one.
― o. nate, Thursday, 5 January 2023 03:30 (one year ago) link
O.Nate, to be honest I wouldn't exactly say that I enjoyed it, but I was impressed and found that the author was effective in conveying a very strange and wild state of mind.
Lucia Berlin, 'Silence' (1998) - this date slightly throws me as I had thought that Berlin wrote at an earlier time, but here she is in the late 1990s. I only became aware of her a few years ago but now know that her repute is high. This story is narrated by a woman who describes her chaotic family life and hence school and social life, as a young girl. The chaos careers on, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, in a picaresque sort of way. Eventually, as in some other stories in this book, domestic sexual abuse is referred to, though it does not predominate. The narrator befriends a Syrian girl her age (very young, only about 7?), then loses the friend. The narration hurtles on swiftly through all these misadventures. My sense is that Berlin is in control of this chaos. The quick changes, swerves, bathos, can be funny as well as surprising. I feel reminded of something else, a tone that you find in some US writers. In fact I realise I am reminded of Patricia Lockwood, a writer I don't like. Is this contradictory? Well, a) I think this is a relatively *good* thing in Lockwood, a penchant for zany speed and incongruity; b) perhaps I'm affected by Berlin being 20 years (surprisingly not more) earlier. It feels as though Berlin forged this mode earlier and maybe others, like Lockwood, picked it up. And if I found another writer doing it in 1928 I'd be even more impressed.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 5 January 2023 14:18 (one year ago) link
Nathan Englander, 'The Twenty-Seventh Man' (1998) describes a Stalinist purge of writers, possibly all Jewish writers, in, I think, the late 1940s or early 1950s. The opening mentions Stalin signing an order to gather and execute these writers. Then we're told of how various agents capture them, essentially taking them away from their homes; the writers are given personality here - the big fat one, the dignified old one, the naive young one, also the Party loyalist. Then we read of these four writers' conversation in their prison cell, and at the end they are killed.
The mood is rather like THE DEATH OF STALIN, if less funny. The atmosphere is bleak and violent. The topic, Stalinist purges, is not a bad one - it's appropriate for people to be reminded of the awfulness of this. But something about the story leaves me ... a bit unsatisfied or sceptical. I suppose it's a feeling that this writer is writing something far from what he knows, for effect, and is achieving power or kudos through taking on this theme rather than really working for it. I feel almost as though he should have written a 1000-page novel about the banality of daily life under Stalinism, to earn the right to write this drama about the purge.
Tobias Wolff, 'Bullet in the Brain' (1998), describes a bank robbery, at which a sarcastic book reviewer, one Anders, is sarcastic towards a bank robber and thus is shot in the head. We read a couple of pages describing the memory that comes to him as the bullet passes through his brain. Time and narrative speed are suspended here. I can't help feeling that this is gimmicky. And yet I wonder if I am starting to react against the genre of short stories, from reading so many of them at once. I suspect that short stories often do these gimmicky things, or are rather sententious, and if you only read one then this doesn't strike you.
There is something about the tendencies of the genre as a whole - the ways that US writers in this particular period, at least, go into certain grooves of tone and feeling - that intrigues, as much as a particular story. I should clarify that 'the genre as a whole' can't be pinned down this way as it would include C19 Russian, French, 1920s SF, 1930s crime, etc. I'm just trying to identify something more recent.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 5 January 2023 14:30 (one year ago) link
"I feel reminded of something else, a tone that you find in some US writers. In fact I realise I am reminded of Patricia Lockwood, a writer I don't like."
― xyzzzz__, Thursday, 5 January 2023 14:48 (one year ago) link
^that was great, thanks!
― A Kestrel for a Neve (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 5 January 2023 16:24 (one year ago) link
Hi pinefox, you're right to think that Lucia Berlin's published output began way before the late 90s: wiki sez as early as 1960, and I think I've seen that elsewhere---she was born in 1936 (died in 2004), and her stories are taken from all her decades, up to the end of the century, at least.
This New Yorker piece, combining Lydia Davis's personal recollections and close re-readings, is adapted from her intro to Berlin's excellent A Manual For Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-story-is-the-thing-on-lucia-berlin
― dow, Thursday, 5 January 2023 19:06 (one year ago) link
One part of that I don't find entirely useful:
She said the story had to be real—whatever that meant for her. I think it meant not contrived, not incidental or gratuitous: it had to be deeply felt, emotionally important. She told a student of hers that the story he had written was too clever—don’t try to be clever, she said.
― dow, Thursday, 5 January 2023 19:32 (one year ago) link
Yeah. She’s kind of unique in that she writes in this almost artless everyday everyman voice that could potentially be really annoying - see Franklin Bruno’s notorious takedown of the novel Our Noise, by Jeff Gomez - but she is so smart and observant and does ultimate have an aesthetic so that it really, really works.
― Farewell to Evening in Paradise (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 5 January 2023 19:48 (one year ago) link
Article on her by her friend August Kleinzahler is quite good.
― Farewell to Evening in Paradise (James Redd and the Blecchs), Thursday, 5 January 2023 20:15 (one year ago) link
Rick Bass, 'The Hermit's Story' (1998): told by a character living in some snowy hills. He narrates at second hand a story that his friend Ann now tells him. So we have a HEART OF DARKNESS sort of tale-within-tale structure here, but I can't say it adds much. Maybe Bass could have found a better narrative frame. Ann tells how she went up to Canada to train dogs for a Native American. They become lost in the snow and eventually find themselves under a frozen lake (or marsh), not drowning in water but preserved in warm air. This idea is quite good. Bass goes to town on the view, the sensory experience, what it's like to look up at the ice and the stars shining through it, the effect made by lighting a fire, the reactions of the dogs. To his credit, Bass is trying to push the boat out slightly in language - essentially by writing a lyrical prose - more than most other writers in this volume, where the writing has often been so plain.
I'm not entirely won over, though, partly because the whole has a stately, self-regarding quality and, perhaps, sentimentality. Maybe it's that Bass is too convinced by his own efforts at lyricism. He's particularly suspect when he describes the feelings of animals. Now, some people would say that's a good thing to do, becoming less anthropomorphic. I see that, in theory. But here he rather does the opposite and absurdly projects human-like thoughts on to animals. Writing about snipe - snipe, the bird! - waking up after winter, he says:
And what would the snipe think or remember, upon reawakening and finding themselves still in that desolate position, desolate place and time, but still alive, and with hope?Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through, as they slept - that a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance?Believing, stubbornly, that that green land beneath them would blossom once more. Maybe not soon; but again.
Would it seem to them that a thing like grace had passed through, as they slept - that a slender winding river of it had passed through and rewarded them for their faith and endurance?
Believing, stubbornly, that that green land beneath them would blossom once more. Maybe not soon; but again.
Can I remind you that this is not about a man, woman or child, but about ... snipe. I pass over whether snipe can 'hope', to ponder the more ambitious question whether they can think about 'a thing like grace'.
― the pinefox, Friday, 6 January 2023 10:02 (one year ago) link
Jhumpa Lahiri, 'A Temporary Matter' (1998), describes a few days in the life of a couple of Indian heritage living in Baltimore. They have been married a little while, can still remember their first romance, but their lives have been changed since the woman, Shoba, gave birth to a stillborn child. Since then they can no longer relate to each other as they did; they avoid each other and hide away in their nooks. The fellow, Shukumar, is slowly writing a PhD about Indian history. The story describes a few nights in which a power outage takes place from 8-9pm, for maintenance. This provides the conceit that for an hour each night, the couple eat by candlelight, and talk in a more intimate way that is prompted by the darkness. They tell each, once per night, a secret. The first secrets are flattering, about their early attraction. The next are more shameful, about things they'd rather not admit. But the couple seem to be coming back together. It seems as though the story is recounting the rekindling (maybe apt word with the candles) of their marriage. Then on the last night, Shoba tells Shukumar that she's found a new place and is moving out. He is shocked. As a reader I hadn't seen this coming either. He retaliates with his last secret, that he knew the sex of the stillborn child, which he saw at the hospital. The story ends without renewed hope for the couple.
I quite appreciated this story: it kept bringing content, adding to the sense of the characters, and leaving the reader with little way to know what would happen next.
― the pinefox, Friday, 6 January 2023 10:09 (one year ago) link
That Lahiri collection was a A Big Deal when I worked at an indie bookstore at the turn of the millennium.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 6 January 2023 10:38 (one year ago) link
Was the first book assigned to us on my BA in Creative Writing and sadly I recall absolutely nothing about it.
― bain4z, Friday, 6 January 2023 15:12 (one year ago) link
I bought a cheap e-book copy years later but still haven't gotten around to reading word one of it/pvmic
― Farewell to Evening in Paradise (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 6 January 2023 15:15 (one year ago) link
Andrew Holleran, 'The Penthouse' (1999), is the longest story in the book thus far. I can't say that it strongly justifies that status. The story is set in NYC's gay community around 1980. A fashion designer, one Ashley Moore, is successful and rich and has a penthouse in Greenwich Village, where he holds court with a set of other people - all, I think, gay men. Moore is arrogant and unpleasant, as well as promiscuous. The characters talk of feeling edgy at his place, but keep coming back. A GATSBY element is hinted when the narrator compares the guests to 'a library with books that the owners will never read but which are an essential element of the decor'. At the end, time briefly accelerates and we hear, later in the 1980s, that Moore and others have died of AIDS.
A major feeling I had with this story, especially early on, was that it was striving for a particular genre or tone: 'gay New York fiction', say, with lots of camp and catty lines. I understand why that tone has been important to some people, and I see that it can feed into good writing: Capote, Vidal, even, in the UK, Adam Mars-Jones. Barbed camp wit can be a fine literary form. But it needs to be sharp. Here it's so blunt, so lame, that the effect of the genre is ruined. Ashley Moore is repeatedly quoted as saying things that are supposed to be camp bons mots but are banal. Examples: 'I *used* to be famous'. 'You know, your friends are nicer than my friends'. 'The seventies were about lounging ... The eighties were about conversation'. And so on.
This poor quality camp even extends to other voices, as the writer tries to convey a sense of 'the talk of the town'. In the first paragraph, Moore is 'so handsome he looked like a thirties movie star; he and the Chrysler Building, someone said at the time, were the two most beautiful things in New York'. A thirties movie star, eh? Like Ralph Bellamy, Spencer Tracy, perhaps Edward G. Robinson? Fred Astaire? Probably not. The writer is probably really thinking of Cary Grant, but for some reason doesn't want to write Cary Grant. But as for the next sentence - would 'someone', a New Yorker, actually say that? I like the Chrysler Building as much as anyone. But do New Yorkers, who see it every day, compare people to the Chrysler Building? The phrase is very strained and unnatural. It feels like something someone who didn't know New York very well would write. Indeed I sometimes felt, in the early stages here, as though this was a story by a heterosexual pretending to be a gay writer, or writing the work that they thought a gay writer would write. That's how lukewarm the attempt at the mode is. (I didn't doubt that the author was actually gay.)
I've just looked up Holleran and I see that he is now 80 - at least 20 years older than I'd have expected - and I feel a little sorry about being so hard on his story. It feels like a younger, callow writer's story, but he was actually already about 56 when it was published.
― the pinefox, Friday, 6 January 2023 23:06 (one year ago) link
Percival Everett, 'The Fix' (1999) describes a deli owner, one Douglas Langley, who takes in a victim of crime called Sherman Olney and lets him live above his shop. Sherman has a kind of enchanting effect on people, achieved through his remarkable power to 'fix things'. He starts by just fixing the fridge, then many other appliances, then gives relationship advice, then brings a woman back from the dead. You could say he's a miracle worker. People want his help, but then they chase him through the town in a kind of 'angry mob' crowd, demanding 'Fix us!'. Sherman tells Douglas that fixing things can be complex, you have to make the right decisions: 'If you irrigate a desert, you might empty a sea'. Then, poignantly, he says 'I am the empty sea'. He can't go on. He wants to jump from a bridge to escape his gift and responsibility and the demands of others, and is about to do so as the story ends.
This story has a very realistic basis but a very fantastical conceit -- you could almost say one that goes beyond most fantasy, to be like religion, a story about a sacred figure who can't stand the burden of being sacred any more. It's perhaps the most high-concept story in the book after Le Guin's. I admire Everett, and give him credit for producing this unusual, provocative conceit.
― the pinefox, Friday, 6 January 2023 23:15 (one year ago) link
Edwidge Danticat, 'Water Child' (2000), depicts the life of a nurse from Haiti, who now lives in Brooklyn. She has awkward relations with colleagues and patients, though bonds slightly with a woman who has, like many in her unit, lost the power of speech and has to write her farewell. You could suppose that that signals communication and its difficulty as a theme. The main event for the nurse, Nadine, seems to be the abortion she had about 7 months ago. She seems to regret it, and keeps a shrine at home for the baby she didn't have. She no longer talks to her old boyfriend though he tries to call her. This event seems to have led to much of Nadine's alienation. In this regard the story has common ground with the Lahiri story where a stillbirth was the crucial past event shaping people's present difficulties.
I'm 2/3 through this book. Much of it has been quite interesting, in a way memorable, in the way that such stories can be. I try to reflect generically on the particular rhythm or emphasis of a short story, the kind of event it covers that a novel doesn't, or the way in which it's not like a part of a novel either (so would the actual texture of a short story, page by page, be different from a novel, not just the overall structure?). I'm sure that answers exist here but I haven't formulated much.
I add that while the book is clearly written and readable, it is never dazzling. It is very unlike it would be to read a book that gathered, say, Woolf, Nabokov, Beckett, even dare I say Updike, for the first time. Most of the time, not much very interesting is going on in the texture. It's helpful that the writing is clear, but most of the writers have oddly little interest in what Barthes called _Le Bruissement de la langue_.
― the pinefox, Friday, 6 January 2023 23:27 (one year ago) link
Holleran wrote Dancer from the Dance, a seminal gay novel about the disco scene before AIDS wiped it out. It's elegant and suffused with melancholy if too monotonous for my taste. He wrote a novel about DC called Grief about 15 years ago that's Sebald-esque in its descriptions of bygone monuments and esoterica.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 6 January 2023 23:31 (one year ago) link
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 'The American Embassy' (2003), is the only story in the book I've read before. I'm mildly surprised that she's in the book, not because I don't know she writes a lot about the US (I do), just because I would expect her to appear in an anthology of best Nigerian or African stories. Perhaps she has dual nationality. The story is set in a queue for the American Embassy in Lagos. A woman is trying to obtain an asylum visa for the US after her journalist husband fled the country and her son was shot by government thugs. This background is gradually filled in, while she talks to a stranger - whose role otherwise is oddly unspecified; he doesn't become more significant. At the end she refuses to say more about the murder of her child, to get the visa, and walks away from the Embassy.
Rereading the story didn't make me like it more. I find that this author's stories can have a dull tone. The older I get, the less patience I have with certain gestures that might once have impressed me more, like: the woman continually comparing her son's blood to palm oil because it's the same colour. Surely she would mainly just think of her son's blood as what it is. Another such line: the attackers 'smelled of alcohol and pepper soup' and as a result 'she knew that she would never eat pepper soup again'. Why not add that she would never drink alcohol again, while you're about it? It feels like a gimmick, this method of using a detail with faux resonance.
Aleksandar Hemon, 'The Conductor' (2005), once again takes the book beyond the US. I notice that the stories set outside the US contain much more extreme violence than those within the US, as civil wars and so on take place in other countries but not recently in the US. Hemon's narrator is a Bosnian writer, whose subject here is mainly an older poet, seen as a Bosnian laureate, whom he met in Bosnia, who then wrote poems through the 1990s war, and whom he then meets again in the US. The tone of the story is mostly quite unpleasant.
One aspect that I particularly don't like, which you can quite often find in fiction, is a disdainful attitude to women who have been someone's sexual partner. This also goes along with a very casual attitude to sex itself. The kind of phrasing I mean would be eg: 'I spent a while getting laid, with girls I don't remember'. This story has a few instances of that kind of distanced, contemptuous reference. I find it, I suppose, misogynistic, as well as totally false. Why do writers write as though people have a casual relation to sex, as something you can obtain like turning on a tap, when in real life everyone knows it's nothing like that, and it's always a drama, a privilege, a thrill - or maybe a trauma - but in any case, never simply something to dismiss in this way?
One thing about this story does quite impress me. The famous poet writes lots of poems about the war, which are translated into English. Hemon could just tell us that this is the case. But instead he goes to the trouble actually to write out fragments of this poetry in English. He makes up pieces of acclaimed poetry, and he pulls it off quite wel. In fragments and phrases, this invented poetry does carry conviction and seem quite like the translated work of an acclaimed national poet.
― the pinefox, Monday, 9 January 2023 10:17 (one year ago) link
Karen Russell, 'St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves' (2007) is quite a high-concept story. It posits a world in which werewolves exist, living in forests and shunned both by wolves and by people. Conveniently, 'their condition skips a generation', so they have produced a generation of human children who are not werewolves but have been raised in the forest in a feral condition, acting like wolves. These children are given by their werewolf parents to homes to civilise them: one for each sex, and the narrative is from a girl at the girls' school. The stages of the adjustment or civilising process are announced in headings 'from the Jesuit handbook on lycanthropic culture shock'. The school is run by nuns, who exclaim in Spanish. This aspect is rather a red herring; there isn't much religious or Hispanic content to the story.
The oldest girl, renamed Jeanette, is the most civilised and humanised. The youngest, renamed Mirabelle, wants to remain living like a wolf. (Note that the wolf behaviour is in a sense imaginary, an imposition on human bodies - they have to push their ears back manually to make them act like a listening wolf's ears.) The narrator is in between. She thinks she is adapting to human ways quite well until a dance event where she wants to howl at the moon again. The story ends with her making a polite visit to her old wolf family.
The high-concept nature of this reminds me slightly of - an unrelated story I admit - Wells Tower's story 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned', which was cited in the last post before I revived this thread. It's a story that feels like a set piece or calling card. Or maybe, in fact, it's typical of the author and she has done more in this vein. The broad theme is the discomfort of adaptation, of taking another identity. You could read it as an allegory of, say, social class: the person in a different class milieu wanting to revert to their old behaviour the way the wolf girl does. But I'm not much into allegory and maybe it's simpler to take the theme straighter and say: it's about the animal character of human beings, the awkward drives of the body which are repressed or reshaped by civilisation.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 10 January 2023 16:32 (one year ago) link
Claire Vaye Watkins, 'The Last Thing We Need' (2010) is entirely narrated in the form of six letters from one Thomas Grey, living in Nevada, to one Duane Moser, in the same state. So it's an epistolary story. Each section is framed by addresses, then each letter is all in italics. Grey writes to Moser stating that he found his address on a load of prescription medication bottles that he found strewn on a desert road along with other junk at a scene that suggested that a car accident had taken place. Moser remains entirely absent. He never replies. He may be dead. All we get is Grey's letters to him, which become increasingly personal. Grey confides his life to the absent stranger. He confides one particularly salient fact: that when working at a garage, he was once held up at gunpoint by a young fellow driving a certain car. He shot the criminal dead. Pictures of the car were found among Moser's effects in the desert. Grey takes his daughter Layla out to the ghost town where he found Moser's debris. He fears that he has lost her, then finds her again, behind a building. They survive. But Grey's narrative talks of that car driving past. Perhaps this is imagination.
This story is enigmatic. It finds a concept and works hard to see where it can go. Unlike almost every other story in this book, it experiments with form, in some sense. I don't say that epistolary form is new. But using it in this particular way at least shows some imagination and readiness to try for a different effect. The use of a genre (letters) to convey a narrative that grows larger than the genre should allow, is a little like PALE FIRE, for instance.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 10 January 2023 16:41 (one year ago) link
Ken Liu, 'The Paper Menagerie' (2011), is narrated by one Jack, the son of a white US father and a Chinese bride he acquired in Hong Kong. The mother speaks little English. She has the gift of not only making origami animals, but also breathing into them so that they come to life. We are in Pinocchio-type territory, or maybe TOY STORY. The boy delights in the animals, till a classmate scorns them, and he turns against his mother and the Chinese aspect of himself. He demands that she speak English, which she can hardly do. The mother dies at age 40 or so, when Jack is a young adult. Back home he finds that one of the discarded paper animals, a tiger, comes back to life, and inside it is a message written by the mother in Chinese. He takes it to a Chinese woman to read. We read it in English. In it the mother tells of her hard life and how much it meant to her that Jack liked the origami animals, a connexion back to their heritage. The boy's rejection of Chinese ways and the mother thus appears all the more cruel.
There is a fantastic element to this story - magic origami - which takes it out of the ordinary. But as the end of that summary may suggest, it becomes rather shamelessly sentimental. Its meditations on ethnic identity are not very subtle.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 10 January 2023 16:46 (one year ago) link
Haven't read his own fiction, mostly because selections for the Liu-edited (and mostly translated) Chinese science fiction anthology Broken Stars are often promising, then frustrating (though the title story is an amazing exception). Your take reinforces my impression of his work.Haven't yet read any Karen Russell from that far back, but greatly enjoy her most recent collections, Vampires In The Lemon Grove and Orange World and Other Stories.
― dow, Tuesday, 10 January 2023 20:30 (one year ago) link
Stephen King, 'The Dune' (2011) is a supernatural story about an aged Florida judge who for many decades has discovered that letters appear on a sand dune on a nearby island, spelling the name of someone who dies shortly afterwards. The judge tells this to a lawyer who is formulating the judge's will. The final twist appears to be that the judge's haste about the will is not because he has seen his own name but, I must assume, because he has seen the younger lawyer's name. This is a high-concept story, plainly written. I respect King for his great invention and productivity but to be honest I am doubtful that this is one of the finest US short stories of the era. It's rather incongruous that King is in the volume when so many other people - whether Gothic, Horror, or just big names - are not.
Julie Otsuka, 'Diem Perdidi' (2011) describes the mother of a protagonist who is addressed in the second person, thus: 'She remembers the day on which you were born'. Almost every sentence runs 'She remembers' or 'She does not remember', or contains a similar statement. The story is about memory and its loss. The title apparently means 'I have lost the day'. It is a fancy way of referring to the mother's inability to remember what day it is, and other things in life.
The theme here - dementia, neurological decline, senility - is a large and poignant one which affects many people, increasingly, in our era of 'demographic ageing'. One reads quite a lot on this theme (eg: Franzen's CORRECTIONS, McEwan's SATURDAY), and will probably continue to do so. It is understandable that writers have engaged with this theme as it is very important and emotionally affecting for real people, and it also prompts literary reflections about the continuity of character, memory, language and so on. I respect Otsuka for taking on this painful theme, but her deeply repetitive approach to it risks being ... well, simply monotonous.
There is progression through the story as the first paragraph commences 'She remembers her name' (and various other things) and in the last paragraph she does not. The story charts the further mental decline of someone who was already in decline at the start. I think, though, that the story also holds a greater intricacy, as numerous facts about the family and the mother's life are scattered through it, and might need to be pieced together on rereading. The mother had a first love called Frank, who married someone else; then she married the narrator's father. Japan is in the background: I think that both the mother and father are of Japanese origin, and so the narrator would be a Japanese American. Reference is discreetly made to the internment of Japanese people in the USA during WWII. But I haven't really pieced together this family history yet; would need one or two more readings.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 12 January 2023 12:11 (one year ago) link
Ted Chiang, 'The Great Silence' (2015): this is a short story, just 5 pages, in fairly discreet sections, so that it keeps stopping and starting again. It is narrated by a parrot, which in this story is conceived as a very intelligent animal - like a human, or maybe like how people imagine dolphins to be. The story notes that parrots (like people) can enunciate words and learn sounds, and suggests that this is a particularly significant or creative kind of intelligence.
The great conceit of the story is to compare animal intelligence and communication to potential or imagined extra-terrestrial intelligence and communication, and to ask: why are humans anxious to find the latter, when they don't bother with the former, which is right in front of them?
I think this is a good message and concept, though if I stand back and reflect I think: a) most animals are probably not that intelligent - the parrot idea here is a fiction - so we are probably not missing out on highly intelligent beings in our midst; b) science does, in fact, try to understand animals and their communication; so the idea that we are ignoring them is, again, a half-truth. Yet the message still feels poignant. It is in large part about how humans have made animals extinct, and how this creates a 'great silence' (akin to Carson's 'silent spring') which is like the silence of the empty universe (bereft of other intelligent life). All this is really thought-provoking and sobering.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 12 January 2023 12:24 (one year ago) link
Lauren Groff, 'The Midnight Zone' (2016), impressed me. I don't think I've read this author before but like the others in the volume she seems to have had big recognition, prizes, grants, etc. The story describes a family holiday in a cabin in Florida. The narrator, mother of two children, falls from a stool and bashes her head open. She then has to survive with her two young sons till her husband returns. The sense is that she may die, or be neurologically damaged. I felt great suspense about what would happen to her, real uncertainty, and pathos in the children's sadness in the face of their mother's plight. Overnight she has a strange dream in which her spirit floats out beyond the cabin and around the woods. Has her spirit left her dying body? Has she been transformed into one of the big cats of the forest? That sounds far-fetched but it is suggested by the mysterious, troubling last line, when the husband returns, looking scared, and she says that his fear was 'like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt' (p.448). Clearly this implies animality, maybe feline nature, but I'm not sure how literally to take it. Has the woman been transformed into a big cat? Has she suffered brain damage that has made her feel that way? Or is all this just an unimportant figure of speech?
I'm unsure, but the story holds the attention and makes me worried for this woman and her family, though I've never met them before a few pages ago. It actually impressed me as much as almost any in the collection, apart perhaps from Carver's story which also has a quality of everyday mystery.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 12 January 2023 12:32 (one year ago) link
Manuel Muñoz, 'Anyone Can Do It' (2019), is the final story in the collection. It is narrated by a woman, Delfina, who has migrated from Texas to California, with her husband and son. She lives in a street (in a suburb?) which seems to be populated by Hispanic families who are worried about their legal status in the US. Husbands go out to work and when they don't come back the women worry that they have been arrested on this basis. Delfina, though, is oddly unconcerned about her husband. She is entirely unsentimental about him, even though there seems little evidence that he has behaved badly.
Delfina is approached by a neighbour, Lis, who wants to go fruit-picking with her, in the Ford Galaxie car that the husband has left behind. Cautious Delfina refuses; goes out with her son to a shop, and the son steals a toy car (a symbolic image you could say). Now Delfina changes her mind and agrees to go fruit-picking. She and Lis do a good morning's work, then Lis drives off and doesn't come back. There is a gut-wrenching sort of feeling when I realise this, that it has been an elaborate scam to steal the car; then when I wonder whether Lis has also stolen Delfina's child. She hasn't, the child is safe back home, so only the car has been lost - a big loss, but life could be worse. This drama of deception, fear, relief, is effective. The foreman of the fruit-pickers also shows some redeeming kindness, driving Delfina home and handing her money in sympathy.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 12 January 2023 12:39 (one year ago) link
That concludes this book, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY (2021), 466 pages of fiction. I learned from the book about a lot of writers I didn't know. The book is useful in being so determinedly diverse, and including writers of many backgrounds. Its historical balance is rather skewed in that it only includes 40pp from the 1970s, for instance - so it is not really seeking to represent periods equally.
The choice of writers is also puzzling in a way. Diversity is one criterion, and perhaps a good one. Diversity of form or style, though, is not so evident. A few stories are actually formally different, like Claire Vaye Watkins' epistolary story. Most are written in a plain way. The level of frisson in language that you would get from a Lorrie Moore, for instance, is not here, like it or not. I wonder whether this editor, John Freeman, is in a certain way just quite conservative, in terms of style, though probably not politics.
Again on the choice of writers: Le Guin and King are here, names known round the world. Carver is here, with a story that I found more effective than almost any other. But most other big names are not. Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, John Updike! ... Jonathan Lethem (who has published 3 volumes of stories), D F Wallace (notable in this form, and distinct, like him or not), Kelly Link ... There are really very few SF or genre tales (no crime), and yet Le Guin is here, and King is horror, and Karen Russell on wolves is writing a kind of magic realism ... The criteria are ultimately a little hard to discern.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 12 January 2023 12:47 (one year ago) link
Thanks for reviving this thread and posting that rather heroic series of summaries. It seems overall you were perhaps slightly underwhelmed by the book. I guess I generally shy away from contemporary short stories myself, at least the kind that would tend to end up anthologized in a book like this. There is a faint eat-your-peas sense of importance that clings to books of this type. Or in other words, thanks for reading this book so I don't have to!
― o. nate, Friday, 13 January 2023 03:42 (one year ago) link
And yet I wonder if I am starting to react against the genre of short stories, from reading so many of them at once. I suspect that short stories often do these gimmicky things, or are rather sententious, and if you only read one then this doesn't strike you.
i've had the same though every time i read short story collections
― flopson, Friday, 13 January 2023 04:11 (one year ago) link
I don't want to give the impression that I don't like short stories. Some of my most loved books are short story collections. But I'm having a hard time remembering the last time I read a new collection of stories that really blew me away. I guess the last time was probably Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, and that was over 20 years ago. I think maybe has to do with death of the commercial short story. I think the golden age of short stories roughly coincides with the period when writing stories could be a very lucrative career.
― o. nate, Friday, 13 January 2023 17:31 (one year ago) link
I may be wrong but I get the feeling nowadays that stories are mostly written by members of the literary crowd to impress other members of the literary crowd.
― o. nate, Friday, 13 January 2023 17:38 (one year ago) link
pinefox, I'm loving these summaries & reactions. I often don't love the format either, but I'll recommend Kate Folk's debut collection 'Out There' from last year. I think of her as similar to Ted Chiang in that each story has a clear concept based on some sort of surreal or sci-fi element, but as a means to explore human relationships (where it seems Chiang is more literally interested in AI/technology/aliens in a philosophical sense).
― change display name (Jordan), Friday, 13 January 2023 17:44 (one year ago) link
Now that I think of it, the last new story collection that I loved was probably Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You.
― o. nate, Friday, 13 January 2023 18:54 (one year ago) link
o.nate, I have read that collection a few times and know it well. I'm a bit surprised that July doesn't feature in this Penguin book.
I'm most glad that you and poster Jordan appreciated my posts about the collection. re Jordan's post, I do note that there seems to be a strand of short story which is high-concept (like Chiang and seemingly Folk), against a strand that is the opposite, more humanist slice of life if you like (Carver presumably fits here - unless we think Carver has high concepts of his own).
― the pinefox, Friday, 13 January 2023 20:09 (one year ago) link
Hilary Mantel read her story "The School of English" on the LRB podcast in 2015. It's a beautifully written story about a horrible situation.
― immodesty blaise (jimbeaux), Saturday, 14 January 2023 18:57 (one year ago) link
xp I enjoyed your posts too, thanks. As for Carver, I'd like to re-read some of his Lish-edited stories vs. their unedited originals (some of which appear in posthumous collections, or so I'm told).
― dow, Saturday, 14 January 2023 19:25 (one year ago) link
That would be a good idea, Dow. Carver now seems to me well worth going back to.
I am pretty sure I read that Mantel story - it was about migrant workers living in a house in London? Afraid I don't recall more.
― the pinefox, Sunday, 15 January 2023 12:10 (one year ago) link
I did too, pinefox. Now I wanna buy this anthology.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 15 January 2023 12:36 (one year ago) link
Saunders is a great writer, Lincoln in the Bardo an outstanding work and recent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain an interesting short story masterclass
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline also a very good read
― corrs unplugged, Sunday, 15 January 2023 16:29 (one year ago) link