Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fourth Anniversary of Reading the Short Story: Reading Best American Short Stories: 2012

November 2012, marks the fourth anniversary of my blog, Reading the Short Story.  In those four years, I have posted over two hundred brief essays on various aspects of the form. The blog is now averaging approximately 12,000 pageviews a month—certainly not viral--not even a lowgrade temperature--but enough to make me happy that there are so many admirers of the literary form I have spent my life studying, teaching, and writing about.  Thank you to all those who read my essays. Special thanks, of course, to those who take the time to respond with comments.

I plan to spend my fourth anniversary month of November reading and writing about the stories in The Best American Short Stories: 2012.  I plan to post an essay each week on five or six of the stories—taking them pretty much as they appear in the volume.  So if you want to read along with me, get a copy of the book and join me.  By the way, I get no kickback from Mariner-Houghton Mifflin, or any publisher for that matter.

The Best American Short Story series editor, Heidi Pitlor, reads thousands of stories each year and chooses 120 that she considers the “Best.”  She then sends them to the guest editor—this year Tom Perotta (who made his debut in 1995 with a collection of short stories entitled Bad Haircut and then, like most writers, turned to the more profitable novel).  The guest editor chooses twenty he or she thinks are the “Best” of the “Best,” and Pitlor lists the remaining one hundred as “distinguished stories” in the back.

Although a large number of stories are always from the New Yorker, and thus relatively widely read, Best American Short Stories, as well as the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize collection, provide a number of readers with stories they might not otherwise have seen--published originally in little-known places, such as New Ohio Review, Hobart, Orion, and Fifth Wednesday Journal—not to mention the more well-known journals, Granta, Ploughsares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review.

As I have noted before, I have no way of knowing how much weight Pitlor and the guest editor give to the merits of the individual story vs. the merits of creating a balanced book.  Perhaps readers would not like twenty stories in the Millhauser mode or the Munro mode—no matter how good they are. This year’s collection features many of the writers that readers of the volume have grown to expect, and respect: Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Nathan Englander, and, of course, the treasured Alice Munro.  (Thank goodness, they are also now recognizing the brilliant stories of Edith Pearlman.).  The other writers are not so well known, at least in the world of the short story, but they are not beginners either—having being honored by prestigious prizes and publications.

I begin with the first five stories in the collection:

Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language”
Taylor Antrim, “Pilgrim Life”
Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”
Mary Gaitskill, “The Other Place”
Roxanne Gay, “North Country”

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

 I reiterate what I said last year when I argued against Englander’s story being short listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize (He won!):  I just don’t think this is a very good story.  However, if you are a lover of Raymond Carver (and who isn’t?) and hate of the Holocaust (and who doesn’t?), it is, I admit a hard story to resist.  It is just, to my mind, a stylistically ordinary, culturally loaded story with a typical Carver protagonist narrator monitoring a cultural conversation between two couples smoking joints rolled in paper tampon wrappers.  What makes the story interesting is that the couples are Jewish—one Hasidic, complete with male long beard and female shaved head—and the other more liberal.  What makes it compelling is that they evoke the horrors of the Holocaust at the end by playing the Anne Frank game of thinking of friends and neighbors they could count on to hide them if there was another Holocaust.  It is as if Englander is daring you not to revere this story.  Forgive me, but I think I can respect the story’s complex cultural context without admiring the story’s simplistic treatment.

Pilgrim Life”

I don’t particularly care for Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life” either.  But then I have never been a fan of stories about male “losers,” glibly told by the loser himself, unless, like Carver’s losers, they are redeemed by the tight-lipped style of the story and the structured complexity of their situation.  This is a story about a guy who, while in a car driven by a woman with whom he wants a relationship, later tries to defend her for hitting a homeless guy wandering on the highway. This central situation is plot-complicated by the fact that the guy is snobbishly proud that he comes from Pilgrim stock, that his mother has breast cancer, and that he is trying to get a half million-dollar loan from his rich roommate.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he says, “I make bad decisions.”  However, he is not redeemed from these bad decisions just because he is smart enough to know that he is stupid.  The simplicity of the story’s character and plot meandering is not redeemed by Antrim’s attempt to “postmodern” it up a bit by breaking up the sequence of events and rearranging them, which creates a bit of a surprise ending, without any real reason.  All’s well in the end and we leave the narrator no worse for wear—in fact even better off than he was.  Not sure what that means.  Not sure I care.

“The Other Place”

 I must admit, I started the Mary Gaitskill story ready to dislike it, for I did not admire her last collection of stories, Don’t Cry.  Gaitskill is perhaps best known for her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior (1988), which included an often anthologized little shocker about masochism entitled “Romantic Weekend,” and a story on which the 2002 film “Secretary,” was based—staring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a mentally ill woman who cuts her self and James Spader as a dominating boss with obsessive tendencies. The two stories alone gave Gaitskill the reputation as a literary bad girl—all of which was furthered promoted by her revelations that she was a stripper for a couple of years.
“The Other Place,” like many of Gaitskill’s stories, explores the nature of perversion.  I realize that this word often evokes repulsion at what is often thought to be cruel, antisocial behavior.  But that may be an oversimplified bias; the “perverse” simply refers to any deviation (another loaded word) from what the majority might think is “normal” or “natural.”  The narrator, a man with a thirteen-year-old son who loves to play with toy guns, says his childhood was “normal,” adding “But you have to go pretty far afield to find something people would call abnormal now these days.” 

Both the father and the son are fascinated by a TV movie image of a terrified blonde girl clinging to the bars of a cage with a tear running down her face.  The one “not-normal” thing from his childhood, he says, is that before he was born his mother worked occasionally as a prostitute.  When he was a teenager, the narrator says he got excited by the thought of girls getting hurt or killed.  When he sees such images on TV, he goes to an invisible world he calls “the other place,” where he sometimes watches a killer and sometimes becomes one.

As a teenager, the narrator hitchhikes a ride with a middle-aged woman and threatens to shoot her.  The woman urges him to do it, telling him to “Go for it.”  When he backs down, she kicks him out of the car.  The man knows that somewhere in his son there is “the other place” also.  He thinks that he is in there with him.

I realize that a story like this one, if dramatized on a television mystery show—e.g. “Dexter,” would seem frightening and repulsive.  However, the very fact that a show like “Dexter” can humanize a mass murderer by justifying him a killer of mass murders, might very well mean, of course, that there is “The Other Place” inside of all of us.  Gaitskill manages the story in such an understated, matter-of-fact way that the “unnatural” seems somehow “natural” to the reader.  I find the story a convincing little exploration of the “heart of darkness” in everyone, without pushing the envelope so far as to “simply” horrify the reader.

“The Last Speaker of the Language”

 I also like Carol Anshaw’s story, a third-person story about a woman (Darlyn) trying to cope with her mother’s  (Jackie) alcoholism.  The third important woman in the story is Darlyn’s daughter, who has changed her name from Mary to Lake, and who is, at age ten, the queen of the microwave.  The fourth important woman is Christy, a married woman with whom Darlyn is having a love affair.  The plot of the story involves Darlyn going with her daughter and her obese brother Russ to get drunk Jackie at a casino hotel where she has won a little over $40,000. 

The title of the story is evoked when Christy tells Darlyn that she has heard a story on NPR about the death of a woman who was the last speaker of a language named “Bo.”  The saddest part, she says, is that the second-to-last speaker of “Bo” died four years before; thus, the woman had no one in the world she could talk to for four years.  Darlyn says that she thinks the saddest thing in the world is that she is in love with Christy and thus the only one she can speak to.  The story ends with Darlyn’s brother telling her that this romance will not change her life.  Darlyn says she knows this, but adds, “It’s just about—even for a day—being this purely happy.  Like, happy to be a carbon-based life form.” 

I like the story because Anshaw handles the character configuration so deftly.  In the midst of the triangle created by Darlyn, her alcoholic mother, and her Lexus-driving lover, there is the child Lake who quietly goes about preparing meals for everyone.  I also like the point of view, which although third person, reflects the mind of Darlyn.  For example, she thinks that although it is bad to complain about the world’s most wonderful child, it would have been great if Lake were interested in tango or European architecture.  “She was prepared for a few genetic wild cards, though, having used an anonymous sperm donor (how she thinks of the person with whom she had a two-night stand during the death throes of her heterosexuality.”  

It is this voice and the poignancy of the title concept of someone being the last speaker of a language that makes me like all the characters in this story and wish them well; basically all they really want is to be happy, or at least not to be lonely—even the alcoholic mother and the reluctant lover.  I can’t even feel bad toward Christy’s angry husband when he discovers her infidelity, although I am glad when the obese Russ pinches a nerve at the base of his neck and says, “No more poking or shouting.” 

“North Country” 

In her Contributor’s Notes, Roxanne Gay calls this story a “love letter to the North Country,” for it is about her realization of the complexity and beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It’s a first person story told in the present tense—a technique that conveys some immediacy, but little contemplation.  That’s o.k. with me.  I like this story because I like the persona of the young Black woman who tries to come up with more and more creative responses to the question, “Are you from Detroit?”  Indeed, the whole story owes its charm to the way this woman responds to her situation of being the only woman in the University department where she is doing postdoc work, and obviously one of the few Black people in the area.  When she goes to rent an apartment, the landlady gasps, “You didn’t sound like a colored girl on the phone”; her response: “I get that a lot.” 

 Several times during the story, she repeats the mantra, “In my lab things make sense.”  But she says about the culture and the country, “Nothing makes sense here.”  Her affair with a man named Magnus who lives in a rusty old trailer is, like the area, strange to her, as if visiting “another country.”  When he teaches her how to milk a cow, she repeats, “Nothing makes sense here.”  But as she becomes more comfortable both with the man and the country, the story does indeed develop into a tender and touching love story, ending when Magnus builds her an igloo and lights a small fire inside for them.  As she tells him about her idea of the daughter she once gave up for adoption, he brings her cold fingers to his warm lips, and she says, “He fills all the hollow spaces.”  Call me a romantic and be damned, but I think the story is a finely constructed love story of a stranger finding a home--  both in a place and in a person.

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