Whether a given short story “works” effectively for a given reader depends on many factors, but perhaps the most important determinants are the choices the writer makes about technique, point of view, style, structure and the reader’s sensitivity to those choices. Sometimes these formal matters seem so integral to the content and theme of the story that you cannot imagine the story having been “managed” any other way.
Sometimes, however, the formal matters seem so obvious and manipulated that you feel the story is self-consciously “rigged.” This is the difference Coleridge talked about in his Biographia Literaria between Imagination and Fancy. Imagination, says Coleridge, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate.” Fancy, on the other hand, puts things together mechanically.
I am going to talk briefly about the last five stories in Best American Short Stories 2012 in terms some of their most crucial formal strategies—those strategies that, without which there would be no story.
Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”
This story, Selasi’s first published fiction, resulted from a challenge given to her by Toni Morrison to finish a work of fiction in one year and send it to her to read. Suffering from writer’s block, Selasi struggled for months until, she says one day, she heard the following line, as if it were a bit of song she had just remembered: “The sex lives of African girls begin, inevitably, with Uncle.” Then, she says, she heard the second sentence, like a song without music: “There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark.” She says she rushed to her computer and started writing.
The story takes place in Accra, the capital, and largest city in Ghana. It focuses on a young Nigerian girl, age eleven, who is living with her mother’s brother—the uncle of the first sentence--and his wife, after her mother deserted her. If you Google the words “Africa, sexual abuse, uncle,” you will know why it is inevitable that the sex lives of African girls begin with uncle. Given the social problem of the inequality of girls in Africa and thus their sexual abused by an uncle, or some other male relative, this story could very well have been a mere fictional exploration of a story “ripped from the headlines.” However, Selasi’s decision to make the point of view of the story that of the eleven-year-old girl in the second person places the child in the center of household activity—much of it sexual—much of which she does not understand, some of which she does.
Another complication of the girl’s being surround by sexuality for which she is not emotionally prepared is the fact that she is fascinated by the sex, longs for it in a way she does not fully understand. The first indication of this in the story is when she trips on an overlarge dress, snagging the hem in her heel and exposing her “bare breastless chest;” lying on the floor “newly aware of your nipples.”
The first mysterious sexual encounter occurs when she comes into a room and sees the servant girl Ruby kneeling between her uncle’s knees, “her heart-shaped face in his lap. The sound she made remind you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet.” The girl does not say she knows what is happening, but the look on Ruby’s face, full of hatred, reminds her of her mother’s face when she came into a room a few years earlier and saw her mother on the floor, with a man kneeling behind her, “their moaning an inelegant music, the sweat.”
She thinks that if Ruby could make Uncle whimper like a dog, something was possible in this house that was different from what she lived every day, and she is not sure if it is not better, preferable. “You envied Ruby something, though you didn’t know what. You stood at your door trembling jealously.”
The final section of the story begins with a kind of stage direction that has appeared throughout: “Enter Uncle.” When he tells her that she reminds him or her mother and that he misses her, we understand that the Uncle has sexually abused the child’s mother also. We are given even further context for this pattern of family abuse when we discover that the young girl’s aunt has also been abused by her uncle. When the aunt comes in the room and curses her husband, saying, “She’s your blood,” the uncle’s response is to slap her and insist that it is his house, not hers.
I have no way of knowing, except for newspaper articles, how widespread sexual abuse of young girls is in Africa. I don’t know how Taiye Selasi knows about such sexual abuse either; she was born in London of well-to-do African parents and has degrees from Yale and Oxford. I don’t know what this story is really about except the social issue of the sexual abuse of young girls by male relatives in Africa. Are we to believe that the young girl’s fascination with the sexuality she observes is due to this social context, to her in particular, to African girls, or to girls in particular? The tone and technique certainly makes me sympathize with the young girl at the center of the story and makes me appalled by the “inevitable” abuse these African girls suffer, but I am not sure whether the story wants me to feel a certain way about this particular girl, or to do something about the social issue.
Sharon Solwitz, “Alive”
This is a difficult story to judge, for it is about a boy who has cancer, and Solwitz tells us in her Contributor’s Notes that her own thirteen-year-old son died of cancer. She also tells us that the events—taking her two sons skiing during which the sick son is very careful, but the younger son takes chances and gets injured—are largely factual, but that the characters in the story are purposely different from her and her own sons. The older son is vulnerable and somewhat frail, while the younger son has, as his mother says, a wild dog inside him. Both boys end up in the hospital—the older one being transfused, the younger one being bandaged for a fractured leg and some broken ribs. The story has no real thematic significance until the last few paragraphs when the mother puts her arms around her younger son and tells him he is amazing, saying, “You’re alive. Alive.” In a moment that is both simplistic and complex, the mother feels grief that one son will die and exultation that one son will live.
The last paragraph suddenly shifts to the young boy who sits breathing in his mother’s sweat and deodorant, “with a combination of joy and terror that overrode his medication. His heart thudded savagely. At her trust in him that he had to live up to—from now on, it seemed, and for the boundless rest of his life.” The shift in perspective (what critics now like to call “focalization”) from the mother’s grief and joy to the younger son’s guilt and responsibility is abrupt. Although nothing in the younger boy’s previous behavior justifies the complexity of this sense of responsibility to the mother, it does implicate both mother and son in the aftermath of the death of the older son.
Kate Walbert, “M&M World”
I read this story when it first appeared in The New Yorker, but I did not write about it because it did not engage me. Now that it has been called one of the “Best” stories of 2011, I felt I, at least, should read it again to try to determine why it did not work for me the first time. I have read Kate Walbert’s stories in The New Yorker before and as they have appeared in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Award Stories. I have enjoyed them but have never written about them.
The premise of “M&M World” is that a mother takes her two young daughters to see the M&M video in Times Square, especially the portion of the video that shows a giant M&M climbing, ala King Kong, to the top of the Empire State Building. What makes this event a story, suggests Wilbert in the Contributor’s Notes, is her recollection of being on a small boat in Patagonia and staring into the eye of a whale. She says she had been working on the M&M story for a long time, but it was only when she recalled the eye of the whale that the story gained momentum, for “the stillness at the center of the whale’s eye” seemed just the right “counterweight” to the craziness of Times Square.
In one paragraph of the story, the narrator thinks there are things about her that need fixing—yellow teeth, spots on her skin, gray roots, a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy, a new coat, etc, but she never seems to have the time. Another important element of her present life is suggested by the fact that when she talks about the Patagonia/whale incident, she refers to the man with her as “the girls’ father.” Although this may simply mean that the trip took place before she was married, the phrase has the sound of absence and distance to it. And indeed, later in the story, we have a scene from the past in which her husband tells her of an affair with an intern.
In the last section of the story, the climactic event occurs—the disappearance of the younger daughter and the mother’s resulting panic. In the midst of this fearful discovery, we have one more shift back to the whale episode, in which the girls’ father accuses the woman of being a whale hoarder, because she did not call for him when she saw the whale so close up. Walbert wants to suggest some mysterious significance of the woman staring into the whale’s eye, for at the time she thought if she could just look hard enough and long enough she would understand that there was something she was meant to know. “What,” she had said to the whale. “What?”
When the mother and older daughter find the child, the little girl is crying, for she thought they’d gone “too,” by which the mother, and the reader, knows that “Too” refers to the fact that the father is gone also. As the woman zips up the girls’ coats and kisses them, her eyes still filled with tears, she recalls that when the whale swam away, “How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.”
The story depends on the juxtaposition of staring into the whale’s eye and fear of losing the daughter--something to do with loss, loneliness, and mysterious depths. Maybe Kate Walbert knows what the connection between the two is, but I am not sure the story suggests that significance sufficiently. Furthermore, I am not sure what purpose the M&M video serves. I have watched in on YouTube; it features lots of colorful M&Ms jumbling about and several animated images of the familiar little M&M creatures seen on television commercials, including one large M&M climbing up the Empire State Building. Since Walbert has named the story “M&M World,” I guess the M&Ms are more than just a way to maneuver the child somewhere to get lost. I can certainly see that looking into the eye of the whale alone and looking for her daughter in a crowd are quite different; I just cannot see how they are interrelated, or how M&Ms are integral to the story.
Jess Walter, “Anything Helps”
I am sorry. I sympathize with the plight of the homeless just as I sympathize with abused African girls, but this story just seems too patently “arranged” to me. The central character Bit Hates, a “funny fucker” who cracks jokes, makes me smile. The fact that he has lost his wife and saves his money to buy the latest Harry Potter book for his son in foster care makes me sympathize. The fact that the boy returns the book because the foster parents have convinced him that the Potter books, which he has always loved, are Satanic, makes me angry. It’s just that the story seems rigged to make me laugh, make me sad, make me mad. It’s just too damned easy. It won’t stop me giving money to homeless people, but it won’t make me give more either.
Adam Wilson, “What’s Important is Feeling”
I will take a pass on this one. Maybe it is just because I get bored with movie people having sex and taking drugs, being narcissistic, being depressed, having their artistic vision spoiled, making commercial movies and calling them art, etc. etc. I know that Adam Wilson once won the Terry Southern Prize for “wit, panache, and sprezzaratura in work published by Paris Review” (This story is from Paris Review also). Maybe it’s just that I don’t care for panache or sprezzaratura--even with marinara and Parmesan.