Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Best American Short Stories 2011

In her Introduction to The Best American Short Stories: 2011, Geraldine Brooks admits that when she read the 120 stories preselected and sent to her by series editor Heidi Pitlor, she was more than a little overwhelmed by her task of picking the top twenty, asking, “And who was I, anyway, to be making this call? I who had never written a short story.”

And readers who have followed this series faithfully for many years might well ask why the series has been picking writers who know little or nothing about short stories to be guest editor, for example, Richard Russo in 2010 and Alice Sebold in 2009.

It does not appear that such big-name novelists on the cover have done much to attract reviews for the series. I searched all the standard newspaper and periodical databases and could only find three or four, e.g. short notes in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews, and a notice in the Chicago Tribune, primarily because the book features a story by Rebecca Makkai, a Chicago native (her fourth straight appearance in the series!). I reckon the book is selling fairly decently though; it was recently listed at about #1,000 on Amazon. That’s not bad, considering that Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is running at around #3,000 on the Amazon list.

I do not intend to offer extended comments on the twenty stories this year, but will simply indicate why I liked some of the stories and did not like others. One of the things I like best about this series (and the PEN/O. Henry Award series also) is that they often introduce me to writers I might have otherwise missed, since I simply cannot subscribe to all the journals that originally published their stories. Seven of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS originally appeared in The New Yorker and one appeared in Harper’s, both to which I do subscribe. However, without the BASS, I might have missed Megan Mayhew Bergman’s story “Housewifely Arts,” which appeared in One Story and Ehud Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan,” which appeared in Triquarterly.

I was hooked by Bergman’s story when the narrator said she was driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach “so that I can hear my mother’s voice ring through the beak of a thirty-six-year old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me.” Bergman is a witty writer who makes me laugh, but who sneaks up on me with a serious story about the complexity of a woman’s relationship to her mother, joking her way to a final admission of a discovered truth about “what maniacs we are—sick with love, all of us.”

Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan” is a perfect example of my conviction that short stories have to be read slowly and attentively or not at all. I started this story three times, determined to read it because it was based on my of my favorite stories of all times, Chekhov’s “Lady with a Pet Dog,” but it kept fading away from me. I am glad I did not give up, for it is a very delicate story about a man who has reached that age when he must painfully realize that he is not what he once thought he was. The central male character, Sokolov, is the one with the dog in this story, an old dog having a helluva time with his bowels. The Chekhov allusion is to the crucial moment in “Pet Dog” when, after seducing Anna, Gurov pauses to eat a slice of melon. It is a moment that Havazelet rightly points out that Chekov does so well---“a moment where nothing seems to happen but yet everything has changed.” Yes, indeed.

The 100 stories that Brooks did not pick from the 120 that Pitlor selected from approximately 4,000 she somehow managed to read are listed at the back of the book. So the twenty presumably “Best American Short Stories” we have in this year’s book have been “chosen” three times—once by the editor who originally published them, then by Pitlor, and finally by Brooks. Of course, the finally twenty reflect each editor’s notion of what “best” means.

Brooks admits up front that she looks “sideways at short stories, like a nervy horse at an unknown rider. I wasn’t quite sure how they worked.” Then she relates a little anecdote of being at a literary event at which a group of writers took turns telling jokes; the best jokester, she said, turned out to be Richard Bausch, a master of the short story—no coincidence Brooks suggests, since “The best short stories and the most successful jokes have a lot in common…in the joke and the short story, the beginning and end are precisely anchored tent poles, and what lies between must pull so taut it twangs.”

As a result if Brooks’ notion of the relationship between the joke and the short story—not a bad comparison actually, that is, for a certain kind of short story—results in this year’s volume focusing more than usual on, well, a certain kind of short story that Brooks likes: stories with clever, witty, funny writing, e.g. the stories by Bergman, Egan, Goodman, Horrocks, Lipsyte, Nuila, Saunders; and stories with snappy endings, like a punch line, e.g. Englander, Johnston, Row.

The result is that this is an entertaining, very accessible, readable collection, with only a few stories that are complexly and humanly challenging. You really don’t have to read these stories twice; they are funny, clever, witty, transparent, conceptual, satiric, etc. That’s all well and good and may be just the thing to get folks back to reading short stories. I hope so.

Writers in this collection whose work I know well include the following, some of which I enjoyed, some of which I found passing fair, some of which I thought ordinary, but passed the time of day.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Ceiling” failed to interest me much. Too much dependent on social change in Nigerian society, with a relatively weak “lost love” story stringing the social issues together.

Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body” is a chapter from her best-selling A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I have read and enjoyed, but this is not my favorite story from that collection of stories parading as a novel. I liked it better in the book because it provided a context for these characters that the stand-alone story does not provide.

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a fable/folkloric story about what is capable of in order to survive in brutal situations. Like the stories in Englander’s well-received collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges several years ago, this story is an effective combination of the rough-edged and the smoothed-out. I feel about this one the same way I did about Englander’s earlier tales: I liked them, but felt sheepishly as if I had allowed myself to be manipulated by a slick storyteller.

Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova” is another slick, smooth, “a-little-to-clever-for-my tastes” tale that seems to exist primarily as an opportunity for Goodman to just “fool around” a bit while not writing a novel.

I wrote about Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” when it appeared in The New Yorker. I like this story very much, not only because it makes me long to be back in Ireland, but because it captures so delicately and authentically the mystery of family secrets and childhood vulnerability.

I am a great fan of Steven Millhauser. I just recently read and reviewed his We Others: New and Selected Stories, and he has a new story in the Nov. 14 issue of The New Yorker. I will discuss the story in BASS, “Phantoms,” his new story, and some of the stories in WE Others in a separated blog entry next week.

As anyone who knows me at all knows, I am not a great fan of Joyce Carol Oates. I have written about why I am not a fan on this blog before. This story, “”ID,” inspired by her having to id her husband’s body, is too routinely “Joyce Carol Oates transforming every thing in her life into a story” for me. I read it when it came out in the New Yorker and have remarked on it in an earlier blog.

I like the stories of George Saunders and have read all of them, although the satiric short story is not my favorite type. In this story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” as usual, Saunders has an interesting intellectual/social concept in mind, and he certainly knows how to transform a concept into a story. He is always fun to read; I never miss an opportunity to read a new Saunders story.

I have only recently discovered the stories of Mark Souka and have commented him on this blog recently. In “The Hare’s Mask,” he creates a tight little story about a father’s childhood when he discovered violence and learned compassion. This is a classic, well-made story with a stinger in its tale—not a trick ending, but a discovery ending that creates a nice little surprise for the reader.

Similarly, Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Soldier of Fortune,” whose stories in his collection Corpus Christi I have read and liked, is a story with an ending that, while not totally unexpected, is satisfying because of the way Johnston paces the story so carefully to lead up to it.

The other stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories did not, for various reasons, capture my attention, compel me into thought, or otherwise make me want to read more of the same. I will probably soon forget Tom Bissell’s self-absorbed “A Bridge Under Water,” Caitlin Horrocks’s clever satire “The Sleep,” Sam Lipsyte’s boys-playing-games “The Dungeon Master,” Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property,” Ricardo Nuila’s “Dog Bites,” Richard Powers “To the Measures Fall,” and Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood.” As for Rebecca Makkai’s “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” I think I will go back to the last three BASS collections and read her other stories before commenting on her work. To have four stories in a row in the series is, if not a record, at least worthy of note.

All in all, this year’s Best American Short Stories is a collection that I read with mostly “pop” pleasure. It introduced me to at least three writers that I intend to seek out and read again and it gave me an opportunity to return to several writers that I have enjoyed in the past. For the $10 to $15 price tag (depending on where you buy it), it is a real fiction-reading bargain. I always recommend it highly, even when I don’t agree with the choices of the guest editor.


Karen Carlson said...

Hi, Professor – I just started reading BASS 2011 about a month ago, so I'm glad to see your post. I'm only up to Nathan Englander but I'll check back as I proceed. I always enjoy comparing my reactions with yours – you're a much more sophisticated reader than I am, so it helps me see where I might look deeper, or where I'm being seduced by trivialities.

I have to admit I was very confused about the guest editor as well, but for a different reason: I'd confused her with Gwendolyn Brooks, and was wondering what a poet was doing in the role (and exclaiming over her ability to tackle the task at what must be extremely advanced age). When I finally got that straightened out, I found the Foreword and Introduction to be disturbing (I usually do for one reason or another) since they seemed to be dissing the very stories contained in the book, and certainly those 100 that didn't make the cut. In spite of that, I'm enjoying the stories; I haven't found one to jump up and down over yet, but it's still early. (And I find the idea of a volume guest edited by Gwendolyn Brooks, may she rest in peace, intriguing!)

Let me put in a plug for One Story. It's become my favorite litmag over the past couple of years. It's just so much fun - every three weeks, a little paper booklet arrives, and I can either make a pot of tea to enjoy the story with, or put it in my pocket or my rucksack and read it on the bus or in a waiting room or while waiting for my cheeseburger or whatever. Once in a while there's a clunker, but rarely. And the advantage is, since each writer is published only once, there's tremendous variety in content and form. "Housewifely Arts" is not perhaps the best exemplar. They have far more to offer.

Karen Carlson

Lee said...

I've just recently received my copy of BASS 2011, so I'm way behind in my reading but I'd like to praise the Keegan story as well. It's the first piece of hers that I ever read - I believe - and I found it so tenderly, so carefully written that I ordered both her collections at once.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you said here, but please remember that Russo, while better known for his novels, is also a master of the short story and has published many. If you aren't familiar, please do read his collection THE WHORE'S CHILD. All of it is wonderful, but the title story is one of my all-time favorites. He'll go down in history as a novelist for sure, but he did indeed have grounds to judge the short form. (And that collection was my favorite of recent years.)

Haven't finished the collection yet, but Bergman's was good, like you said. Makkai is pretty incredible, and I think she's still really young. I just bought her first novel that came out this year. No duds in the collection so far, but I'm only halfway through.