Wednesday, July 7, 2010

New Yorker's 20 Under 40: Philipp Meyer and Salvatore Scibona

It probably seems a hypocritical contradiction that, on the one hand, I proclaim that I am an enthusiastic supporter of the short story, whereas on the other hand, I often seem quite critical of many stories being published nowadays—particularly the stories in The Atlantic and The New Yorker’s special summer fiction issues.

My only explanation is that despite the fact that I wish more people would read short stories, I wish they had good stories to read. When I read a fiction that is short, I want it to be a short story, with all the virtues of that form in subtle view. I do not want it to be a careless, rambling chapter in a novel, or a meaningless anecdote, or a simplistic take on something “ripped from the headlines,” or a cliche cribbed from television.

Like television producers looking for subjects with dramatic or comedic potential—cops, lawyers, doctors--writers look for subjects sure to generate a story. The relationship between husband and wife and parents and children are sure things. But no one is interested in happy families, except in sitcoms. Tolstoy was probably not the first to say it, but he is surely the most famous: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

These two stories by Philipp Meyer and Salvatore Scibona deal with family schisms, particularly with fathers who fail their children. Both seem straightforwardly realistic. But while Meyer exploits the conventional male midlife crisis situation, entering the anguished mind of the central character, Scibona stands back from his characters and manipulates them puppet like in a heartless little drama with no significance.

“What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone,” by Philipp Meyer

Philipp Meyer’s novel American Rust won the 2009 LA Times prize for First Fiction and was placed on “Top Ten,” ”Top 100,” “Best Of” lists by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Economist, and Newsweek.

The story begins by referring to some mysterious event the central character Max calls “the Accident,” something about which he feels depressed and guilty. There does not seem to be any real reason to conceal the nature of the accident. It is not until half way through that we learn that Max’s Harly, age eighteen, has been arrested for possession of cocaine, that Max decided to play “tough love” and let him stay in jail for a second night, that a beating by another inmate or a policeman has left him in a coma, and that will take some time, possibly years, for him to recover.

The story focuses on the effect this event has on Max, the best Porsche mechanic in the entire Southwest, and owner of his own shop. The accident has put Max in a “heightened state,” a “fragile state,” “aware of his own heart wearing him down to extinction.” Max, mistreated by his wife, also senses that he has reached a point in his life when he needs to “begin his journey,” needs to “walk out, turn his back on all of it, leave Texas and never return…remake himself as his ancestors had done.”

And that’s pretty much the story—an oft-told tale of the midlife crisis of an American male. When Max tells his wife Lili that he does not want to stay here anymore, and she asks, “Do you want me to come,” he replies, “Yes, I want you to come with me.” The story ends with that familiar meditative moment when Max sits outside in the darkness, listening to the crickets, looking up at the stars, thinking about going to get his son. “He could see them both clearly, two figures on a remote highway at the saddle of some unnamed pass. They were carrying their burdens easily. They were already fading from sight.”

This seems like a chapter from a typical American novel, like the kind of thing Richard Ford used to write, about a man facing a crisis in his life and a rocky relationship with his wife, rethinking his situation, ready to strike off in a new direction, strip himself of all his baggage, strike out for a new territory, etc. etc. etc. etc. The success or failure of such a story depends on the relative transparency of the language that allows the reader to forget the language, visualize the action, identify with the character, and become interested in what befalls him. I liked this story, but I liked it for the reasons that I occasionally like novels, as a temporary escape from my own life into someone else’s. I read it twice, because I always read a piece of fiction parading as a short story twice. But will I ever feel the necessity to read it again? No need to. This is a competently told story, an easy read that requires no analysis or interpretation. With the exception of a tsk tsk for Max’s “tough love” decision, it stimulates little emotional response and no intellectual reaction. Someone could make a movie of it and lose nothing in the translation.

“The Kid” by Salvatore Scibona

Salvatore Scibona’s fiction has been published in the Threepenny Review, Best New American Voices 2004, and The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from a Quarter-Century of the Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his novel The End was short listed for the National Book Award in 2008.

Scibona uses the technique of two alternating parallel actions in this story. The first action focuses on a five-year-old boy standing alone crying in the Hamburg-Fuhlsbuttel Airport. The boy talks to various attendants, but no one can figure out what language he is using—Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian. Scibona’s own language is somewhat formal, e.g. “no one could get him to divulge anything that sounded like a name…. some of the adults began to think their solicitousness only aggravated his distress.” Attendants ask his name but get no response. A Kazakh nurse senses that the boy knew they were asking his name “and in the nightmare of the present, his withholding the name was the only thing that tied him to the lip of the chasm into which he had slipped.”

The story then shifts to the second action—a narrative about Elroy Heflin, a solider assigned to an Office of Defense Cooperation attached to the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Latvia. He meets a young waitress named Evija and before his deployment ended, in a curious little shift in language tone, “he’d got her knocked up.” When he is transferred to Afghanistan, he sends her a third of his pay for the upkeep of the boy, who the girl names Janis, and visits one or twice. Evija then writes to tell him that she is moving to Spain and to come get the boy. Elroy flies with Janis to the Hamburg airport, where he stuffs the boy’s pocket full of money and leaves him in a bathroom stall, telling him he will return for him soon. This is all told in a flat, straightforward style with no exploration of motivation.

The rest of the story shifts back and forth between Janis at the airport and Elroy flying back to the U.S. When Janis is questioned by kindly Germans at the airport, Scibona allows us into the mind of the child who thinks his Papa will come back for him soon—the only sentiment expressed in the story. When the story shifts back to Elroy, he lands in London, throws the boy’s small bag into a dumpste, and catches another plane, but not before Scibona indulges in a little anecdote from the past when Elroy escaped being blown up by a mine and a little irrelevant history about how the London airport became named Heathrow. While the Germans at the airport find two hundred and sixty-three U.S. dollars in Janis’s pocket and take him to a big city so beautiful he wonders whether he is in heaven,

Elroy flies over the Arctic, lands at Boston ‘s Logan Airport, takes another flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico, picks up a rental car (For some reason, we are told that he had booked a subcompact online, but that Avis had overbooked his model and he was given a Mustang convertible), and drives North to an army base where he meets his stepfather, who asks, “And where is young Janis?”

Elroy’s only explanation for the central event of the story is: “It didn’t work out, you know?” The stepfather, Sergeant Slocum, asks what the reader might well ask: “What do I know exactly?” The two men then have a little argument over the fact that Sergeant Slocum has eaten Elroy’s baloney. The story ends with an epilogue two years later when Elroy, now a Sergeant Major, is on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan. He receives an email from Evija, who has come back to Riga and says she misses Janis very much. “I have no right to ask you to come here and bring Janis. But this is where we belonged before. All three. I cannot stop from wishing that we could have another chance.” Well, hell's bells! Now what?

If this is a chapter in a novel, it is not clear to me where it will go after this. I am not sure how much more interest can be generated in these two completely superficial people and the child who is the victim of their superficiality. Since Scibona provides us with no motivation for the action of anyone in the story, we have no way to judge the action except to pronounce it meaningless. And if it is meaningless, then what’s the point of the story? Or if it is a chapter in a novel, where is it going next? And do we really care? The only possible theme in the story is perhaps suggested in the little background anecdote when Elroy escapes being blown up by a mine: “Like God was saying, ‘I want you to live, little shit.’” Why? Maybe the whole damned thing is a parable of America's military screwing over the rest of the world and then turning its back on what it has wrought, surviving, even prospering, by its very indifference. I don’t know, and after thinking about it for quite a while, don’t really care.

Transparent language and meaningless detail may be sufficient for a chapter in a novel but not a short story. As Faulkner once said, in the novel, you can put in a lot more trash and get away with it. But in a short story, there has to be more control, more attention to language’s plurasignificant potential, more focus on a complex human reality, more mystery, more poetry, and less of everything else.


Ann Graham said...

Great essay. I've been frustrated with the New Yorker summer issue because hardly any of the stories are short stories. Then I thought it was just my expectations because I don't think the magazine calls them short stories. I think they just call it fiction. But I get almost angry when I read something that is billed as a short story and then it feels like or actually is a novel excerpt.

Charles E. May said...

Yes, I know what you mean, Ann. I reckon the New Yorker can get away with this by arguing that their 20 Under 40 promotion is to showcase the writer, not the work as a story, and many of the writers they are featuring are primarily novelists rather than short story writers.

Marisa Birns said...

Ah, the New Yorker. There was a time when every fiction piece I read there was just wonderful. My goal was to send short stories to them.

Yeah. I know. ;)

But the summer issue did not enthrall me. After reading your post, I understand why.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Marisa. Thanks for reading my blog. Yeah, but I guess the excuse is that the selections the New Yorker made for this summer issue is limited by factors of age, availability, promotional value, etc. etc. Just too many cheesy chapters from novels.

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