Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some Collections for the 21st Century I Did Not Care For

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 clich├ęs, 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.


Ann Graham said...

Interesting and thorough comments. I've only read Don't Cry and actually didn't finish it. With so many good stories available and so few hours in a day, I know a few I may decline reading.

Kseniya Melnik said...

I've also read Nam Le's The Boat after hearing much praise. To slightly paraphrase a reviewer of another collection by a young hip writer, I found the stories to be a triumph of style and craft over content and heart. They seemed like A++++++++ MFA exercises in voice, POV, setting, structure, but still bored me. I loved individual sentences and words, but I did not love what they added up to. Is it a personal failing? Has he succumbed to some sort of pressure of what a modern short story should be? For all of Nabokov's verbal pyrotechnics, what I've read of his so far never lacks heart and genuine emotion.

Charles E. May said...

Kseniya, I have laid The Boat aside after reading half of it; need to read some other folks and come back again later. I realize that a "new voice," as they say, especially representing a culture not previously heard from, is apt to generate a lot of publicity buzz, and I am all for what gets short stories in the public eye. But so far these stories seem cold and calculated responses to a deadline. I 'll get back to The Boat later. Thanks for your comment.

Lee said...

Have you read any Benjamin Percy? I've recently come across his short story 'refresh,Refresh' and intend to seek out at least one of his collections.

'Refresh, Refresh' is available in full at The Paris Review:


Kseniya Melnik said...

I was wondering whether you managed to look up the collection "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell, whose story in the New Yorker you liked and what you made of it.

Charles E. May said...

Kseniya asked if I have read St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I just received a copy and am reading it now. I will post on it later.

Lee asked if I have read Benjamin Percy. He is on my list of "want to read soon." I will seek him out.

I appreciate your comments and suggestions.