Thursday, May 6, 2010

Short Story Month 2010: Atlantic Monthly Stories

When I was in high school in a little town in the mountains of Kentucky in the late 1950’s, I worked afternoons and holidays at East Kentucky News, a wholesaler who distributed magazines, comic books, and paperbacks to newsstands, drugstores, and small grocery stores in the Eastern Kentucky area—Pikeville, Paintsville, Louisa, Prestonsburg, etc. My life as a serious reader had already begun when I started work there, so it was a pleasure to browse the shelves for Mentor books and Signet Classics.

Our biggest selling magazine was TV Guide, which we bound in bundles by the hundreds. However, for the whole of the Eastern Kentucky area, we distributed only five copies of each issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I realize that those serious readers in the mountain communities who read The Atlantic Monthly probably received their copies by U.S. Post, but still the gap between those five Atlantic copies and those hundreds of TV Guides was not lost on me. I knew that The Atlantic was directed to an audience smart enough to appreciate the articles and stories it published. When I went to college at Morehead State University, “Where the Mountains Meet the Bluegrass,” and took a short story class with that most excellent of all Eastern Kentucky writers, James Still, I was not surprised that many of his stories had appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

This past week, as I read the seven stories in the Atlantic Fiction 2010 Supplement, I was more than a little disappointed to discover that the magazine that had been publishing quality fiction for so many years had now given in to the demands of marketing and was publishing the kind of stories that used to be relegated to the big circulation slicks. They are all easy reads, even pleasurable reads--just not challenging literary experiences. It is hard for me to believe that if The Atlantic receives approximately 5,000 stories a year, they could only come up with these seven quite ordinary ones.

One of the problems of publishing all the year’s fiction in one supplement issue instead of monthly is the demand to make the stories in that one issue diverse and appealing to a large audience. Facing this demand, what are editors to do?

Well, they have to provide a mix of established writers (to give some class), new writers (to encourage new talent), and at least one third-world writer (for political correctness).

Jerome Charyn has published enough books to hold up a wall, and T. C. Boyle, although younger, is stacking his books up fast and furiously. Stuart Nadler is a recent graduate of (you guessed it), the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, while Amanda Briggs is at work on a collection of short stories, Ryan Mecklenburg is at work on a novel, and Katie Williams’ first novel will be out in June. E. C. Osondu is a Nigerian who got his MFA from Syracuse and is currently teaching in Rhode Island.

Here are a few comments on the seven stories. Caution! These are spoiler comments. If you want the experience of reading the stories the first time in a pristine linear fashion, stop now and come back later. For me, the significant reading of a short story is always the second reading, when I know everything that has happened and can focus on what is more important—what it means and how it works.

Jerome Charyn, “Lorelei”—An experienced writer who knows the conventions of fiction well, Charyn builds this predictable little story around the myth of the Lorelei, those beautiful Rhine maidens who, like the sirens of Greek legend, lured sailors to their death. The protagonist, somewhat of a shape shifter with several different names, is a middle-aged Don Juan grifter who preys, albeit somewhat honorably, on aging widows. When he tires of this life and returns to an apartment building of his youth near Yankee Stadium, he discovers that Naomi, a woman he was smitten by when they were both very young, still lives there, although in a wheelchair, with her too solicitous father. Charyn liberally makes use of allusions to fairy tales and comic books, describing the father as Smiling Jack, the protagonist’s favorite character in the funny papers, and Naomi as a little duchess sitting on an aluminum throne. As expected from the title, Naomi is the Lorelei who threatens to lure him back to her and her father’s lair, where “They would swallow him alive.” So, of course, he runs for his life. It’s an ordinary, conventional, well-made story that only seems exotic and interesting on the surface.

E. C. Osondu, “A Simple Case”—The protagonist Paiko is arrested on a raid on a brothel while he is waiting for his girlfriend Sweet to finish having sex with her last client. When the police Sergeant gets a call about a robbery, he throws Paiko in with a bunch of misc. miscreants and “arrests” them as the robbers. The story focuses on Paiko’s encounter with the other prisoners in the cell, primarily the President of the cell, known as the Jungle Republic. To determine whether he should be admitted into this community of thieves, he tells a story about a dispute with a woman over a handbag he tried to sell her at his market stall. The President who says Paiko is a good storyteller, uses his influence to get him released. When he returns to the brothel, he finds his girlfriend has gone to Italy. So he gets a new girl. That’s it! That’s the story. A competently, but flatly-told tale of local color in a Lagos jail, complete with third world corrupt officials, powerful criminals, and cheating prostitutes.

Ryan Mecklenburg’s “Hopefulness” centers on a man whose wife has left him for a neighbor. The first-person protagonist is a block captain of the Neighborhood Watch, a job he can devote all his time to since, conveniently, a couple of years ago he won five million dollars in a lottery pool at work. The heart of the story is the central metaphor of the house where the “other man” lived, which is now in foreclosure. Piece by piece, the neighbors steal the furniture and vandals wreck the house, all of which the protagonist fails to report because of his anger at the man who ran off with his wife. It’s a readable story with an obvious thematic linkage around a central metaphor—a technique often found in short stories since Bartleby’s wall and Roderick Usher’s House.

Stuart Nadler's “Visiting” is about a divorced man who takes his son to meet his dying father in another state. Most of the story is typical tense dialogue between the father and son during the car ride, but the thematic payoff comes when the father refuses to go to the door to see his father and sends his son instead. The father has never forgiven the old man for dragging a fork across his arm when he was eighteen, leaving a scar. In the final scene as the father and son sit in a restaurant, the son says he saw numbers on his grandfather’s arm in the same place as the father’s fork scars. The whole story depends on this final recognition, such as it is, reinforcing the protagonist’s knowledge that “he was still not as tall as his father. He never had been.” As father and son stories go, this one lacks thematic significance, for it is not clear how we are to understand meaningful differences between the three generations; moreover, the final recognition, such as it is, does not seem earned by the narrative.

Katie Williams, “Bone Hinge”—O.K., you gotta have at least one kind of outré story for spice. This one is about two Siamese twins joined at the back, which makes for exploring lots of metaphors of duality and schisms. However, let’s not fool ourselves, the central ploy here is the sexual suggestiveness of the fact that one of the girls is in love with a young man that she wishes to run away with and marry—which of course means that she must drag her sister along to unwilling participate in her every encounter. The story is told by the unattached sister, that is, the one without a boyfriend, and it is her “meanness” and cynicism that energizes this bit of exploitation.

And finally, there’s T. C. Boyle, (There is always T.C. Boyle, it seems, who is surely trying, hopelessly, to rack up more publishing credits than Joyce Carol Oates, who also has a piece in this Atlantic Supplement). “The Silence” is a stretch, as is often the case with Boyle. It’s about this guy on a silence retreat in the Arizona desert with his emaciated young wife and several other pooh-bahs and pundits, living in a yurt, avoiding scorpions, living on hummus and pita bread. The story opens and ends with a dragonfly, a water bug that is not supposed to be out here in the desert, in between which the wife is bitten by a rattlesnake and must die because, well, hell, you know, they are on a retreat and they can’t talk and the car is on blocks and there’s nobody else around and well, hell, you know, that’s karma, or something. Boyle is a sleight-of-hand artist, with lots of stuff up his sleeve, whose hand at the end of it is quicker than the eye. You either shake your head in disgust and walk out of the theatre or else you just say, ah, shit, and give in to him.

Tell me, Atlantic, and tell me true. Out of some 5,000 stories you received this year, are these the best you could come up with?


Ann Graham said...

For me, the Charyn story, "Lorelei," felt like a hodgepodge after the first few paragraphs, which I loved. And, a few details really bothered me. 1. Naomi suddenly wanting to marry a Bronx Van Gogh. 2. And, some phrases like, "...Howell was getting the hang of talking to this hellion..." Comparing it to a Lynn Freed story, "Sunshine," I read the other day where the language was so beautifully put together that I forgot I was reading. I was just experiencing the story. In "Lorelei," after the first few paragraphs, I was working.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, Ann. After I posted this blog on the Atlantic Stories, I had some second thoughts.

On the one hand, I want more readers to read short stories, maybe this Atlantic supplement will encourage more readers to experience the form. I believe all seven of the stories are easily accessible, i.e. readable, and pleasurable, i.e. interesting. I just don't think they are powerful stories. They seem more like the stories I used to read in Cosmopolitan and Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, etc., not the kind of serious, very fine stories I always looked forward to in The Atlantic. I don't know, maybe the Atlantic is right to publish these "slick" stories. I know the editors are interested in selling more magazines; I am certainly interested in getting more folks to read short stories. Maybe I am wrong to expect The Atlantic to publish "great" short stories rather than merely "good" ones.

Gourcuff said...

what about amanda briggs' story? i thought hers was the best...

Unknown said...

It's a real crime. Writing these days isn't about telling a good tale, it's all navel-gazing and countless coming-of-age/slice-of-life/political agenda/thinly veiled autobiographical drivel. My MFA program was chock-full of this kind of crap, and it gets you frustrated to the point of madness. Where's the good stuff?