Several readers were kind enough to suggest collections that I left off my list of 100 short story collections for the 21st century. For that I thank you. The following are brief comments about the collections suggested that I read and did not care for. I felt that I owe it to my readers to tell them why I did not care for these books.
Valentines, Olaf Olafsson.
Each story has roughly the same structure. Shallow characters are introduced by tedious background exposition, and then reveal in endless hollow dialogue that they are caught in a trivial, personal crisis, which is finally unresolved in a conventional “open-ended” image. I think his stories are cluttered with clichés, at least one on each page. Characters are “seasoned travelers.” They keep their feelings on a “tight rein.” But sometimes they “seethe with rage.” They are often “lost for words.” Or their words are “threadbare.” They feel that some words do not “bode well.” They give “sharp glances.” They “strike up a conversation.” They often are “on the verge of tears.” Or they are “moved to tears.” They are always “burying” their face in their hands. They often cannot “put their finger on what is wrong.” But they manage to “keep their cool.” Their marriages are usually “hanging by a thread.” Ultimately, they see that their “life was falling apart” because everything “was built on sand.”
The Whore's Child and Other Stories, Richard Russo.
Russo has said that he revels in the discursive, the digressive, and the episodic. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course--that is, unless you try to write short stories. So what does an old-fashioned Dickensian novelist do when he sits down to write short stories? He writes stories like those in The Whore’s Child. The title story is the kind of set piece about an interesting writing student that every writing teacher must do at some point. In this case it’s an elderly nun who starts her story, “In the convent I was known as the whore’s child.” Of course, there is a mystery of memory here, but it is a simple one that conveniently turns on an easy ambiguity about truth and falsehood.
I think this is a textbook example of what often results when an interesting and entertaining novelist writes short stories: pleasurable, but perfectly ordinary, plot-based stories with a concluding twist, featuring likeable but relatively simple characters whose problems the plots resolve rather neatly. Those who like novels will find these stories completely satisfying. Those who like short stories will like them, but they won’t be haunted by them, and they won’t feel the need to read them again
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, John Murray.
Murray’s stories may have a certain contemporary interest, for some of them inform the reader about conditions in African third world countries, and others focus on immigrants coping with cultural displacement. And certainly, if the reader wants to know about the phylogeny of certain insects or the physiology of a brain tumor, it is good to have mini-lectures from an expert. But what is often painfully apparent in these stories--in narrative structure, character creation, thematic development, and prose style—is that they are amateurish and imitative. Nothing reveals the amateurishness of Murray’s fiction more than a comparison of the title story—a long multi-layered construct about a “distinguished older surgeon” who constantly ruminates about his grandfather’s obsession with butterflies while becoming physically impotent and psychically paralyzed by his young wife’s desire for a child—with just about any story of science, history, and human complexity by Andrea Barrett. I thought A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies--in spite of its exotic locales, its displaced immigrants, its tormented scientists and committed physicians, its precise medical detail, and its personal earnestness—was just competent classroom work.
Don’t Cry, Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill’s stories in this, her third collection, are not clearly delineated narratives; they are more like essayistic descriptions of ensemble groups positioned around one central character’s sense of disengagement and despair. The opening story, “College Town, 1980” focuses on four young people living together in Ann Arbor, Michigan just after the election of Ronald Reagan. To me, it seemed less a story than a set piece about young people who feel victimized, helpless, and trapped in a stagnant situation at a certain transitional point in American society. Much of “The Agonized Face” reads like a personal essay on whether feminists have made girls into sluts who think they have to have sex all the time or whether they have overprotected them into thinking they have been raped when they were just having sex. Various images of Gaitskill’s own persona crop up in the story. For example, when the narrator tells about interviewing a topless dancer, a desiccated blonde with desperate intelligence burning in her eyes, who is big on Hegel and Nietzsche, one is tempted to turn to the jacket cover of the Don’t Cry for the picture of Gaitskill staring out at the reader both defensively and belligerently. Gaitskill’s stories are not your typical chick-lit laments of relationships gone awry. She wants to be taken more seriously than that. However, her focus on unhappy women who cannot seem to find either fulfillment or hope for the future, combined with her didacticism and discursive style, sometimes made her an unpleasant and unrewarding read for me.
The Boat, Nam Le
This is one of those books that received so much praise that after I read it unimpressed and then read the reviews, I went back and read it again, trying to figure how how my reaction could be so radically different than most of the critics. I am currently reading it again and will post some comments when I feel I can make a fair judgment.