Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 O.Henry Award Stories--Part II

Laura Furman, the series editor for the O. Henry Prize Stories (formerly, and temporarily, the Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories {What was that all about?}) is, as far as I know, solely responsible for choosing the twenty stories that appear in the annual volume. I have no way of knowing if her choices are influenced by editorial pressures from the publisher to assure an overall attractive (i.e. profitable) volume. However, three writers are asked each year to read the twenty stories and to "write an appreciation of the story they most admire." According to Furman, the three writers receive the twenty stories in mss form with no identification of author or publication.

This year, the three are Lauren Groff, author of the collection Delicate Edible Birds, Edith Pearlman, author of the excellent collection Binocular Vision, and Jim Shepard, author of, most recently, the collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway.  Groff chose Deborah Eisenberg's "Your Duck is My Duck." Edith Pearlman chose Kelly Link's "The Summer People." And Shepard chose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."

Groff has some good things to say about the short story as a form, noting that when it is done right, it is a "ferocious creature," adding "A reader, finding herself alone in a room with a great short story, should feel thrilled, unbalanced, alive." But Groff recognizes that such intensity is not for everyone, that many prefer the "long, slow waltz of the novel to the story's grapple and throw."  True that! Several people have said they do not like the 2013 Best American Short Stories volume; I suspect that those folks just don't really like short stories—merely my opinion, of course.

Groff echoes my own insistence that the short story is "not a lesser form" than the novel and suggests that maybe readers just have not been exposed to the "short story geniuses rampant on the earth these days, people like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and –cripes almighty!—William Trevor," or for that matter, Deborah Eisenberg."

Groff admits that although she was given the stories to read blind, "if you love short stories passionately, you read them passionately and in great quantities, you begin to be able to see the individual writer's imprint on her story from the very first words." She says she knew "The Summer People" was by Kelly Link after only a few words, that the "The Particles" just had to be by Andrea Barrett, and that "Leaving Maverley" was obviously by Alice Munro.

Groff's choice of Eisenberg's  "Your Duck is My Duck" is a writer's choice of a writer's writer, for it is the unerring rhythm of Eisenberg's sentences that catches her, concluding that it is the kind of story you want to press into the hands of short-story doubters, because it is its own best defense of the form." Although I do not think this is one of Eisenberg's best stories, and it is not my favorite in the book, I do understand why it is Groff's choice.

Edith Pearlman, one of my very favorite short-story writers, says she has a "taste for the inexplicable and the semisurreal in literature and in life."  She found she could not resist Kelly Link's story "The Summer People," a fairy tale which she says "supplies Whys, not Because; endings, not wrappings-up; and it dispenses with that sine qua non of realism, motivation." This is a wonderfully compact definition of what the short story does so well, especially the form's dispensing with motivation, what Flannery O'Connor once called "what some folks would do, in spite of everything."  Pearlman quotes the poet Amy Clampitt who wrote, "who knows what makes any of us do what we do," an insight Pearlman says writing workshops should keep in mind. Amen to that.  Again, I would not have chosen "The Summer People," but again, I understand why Edith Pearlman did choose it.

It is certainly no surprise that Jim Shepard would choose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."  Both are meticulous writers who scrupulously research their stories in books on history and science.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”
Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience.  Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.

In my opinion, Andrea Barrett, Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.,  does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story than Shepard does. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling.  She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful. Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.

What Shepard likes about "The Particles" is how the story "renders unforgettably that experience of falling in love with experimental science, as if 'tumbling down a well.'"  He also is quite taken by the fact that the story "pulls off the nearly impossible feat of seducing us into imagining fruit flies as fascinating." And within this context of science, there is the human story of the character Sam's inextricable relationship with his old friend and teacher, Axel. Again, although I have always admired Andrea Barrett's stories, this is not, in my opinion, one of her best—failing to hold together in that admirable way that many of her other stories do.  But, I am certainly not surprised that Jim Shepard chose it as his favorite in this collection; I can't imagine him choosing any other.

            I apologize for taking so long to get back to my discussion of this year's O. Henry stories, and for not getting to all of them that I read but, it is December, after all, and I have been blessed with visits from my three children and three grandchildren, and there were, you know, cookies to bake and candy to make, and a turkey to stuff, and, well, you know.  And truth to tell, I just was not as impressed with the O. Henry collection as I was with the Best American collection this year, so was not compelled to get right back to writing about it. You understand.  Tomorrow begins a new day and a new year, and, as my father always said, "If the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise," I will be back at my blog post in January 2014 to talk about the stories I am reading.  I just finished reading a fine little collection of stories by A. E. Coppard that I received from an editor recently.  A pleasure that I am pleased to discuss next week.  Have a safe and happy New Year's celebration and a new year that is everything you wish it to be.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

2013 O. Henry Prize Stories: Part I

During the past week, I have been reading the twenty stories in the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Although there are stories by writers I have always admired—Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Beattie, Andrea Barrett, and Alice Munro--I have not enjoyed this collection as much as I did the 2013 Best American Short Stories, which I read in November. So forgive my lack of enthusiasm in what follows.

I won't comment on Jamie Quatro's "Sinkhole" or Alice Munro's "Leaving Waverly," since I posted blogs on both those stories on April 22 and Jan. 12, 2012.  I will comment briefly on the others in no particular order, discussing ten this week and the remaining eight next week..

Polly Rosenwaike, "White Carnations"
Rosenwaikie's Notes at the end of the book indicate that this story is part of a collection in progress about pregnancy and new motherhood.  I am always a bit suspicious of stories cold-bloodedly written to fulfill a scheme, preferring rather stories that seem to spring from something obsessive that the writer discovers in the process of writing. This story begins a bit too cutely-smart for my tastes, with some women meeting regularly on Mother's Day at a pub frequented by gay men and regular drunks although the narrator pointedly notes that they no longer have mothers and are not mothers themselves. The  narrator is pregnant after a one-nighter, and has decided not to have an abortion. Much of the story focuses on the narrator's summary of her mother's own pregnancy and her thoughts about her pregnancy; it ends with an image of two pregnant women—one eager and one reluctant—sharing their news.  It's not the subject matter that fails to interest me here, but rather the flat, self-centered and self-conscious, way that the story is told.

Derek Palacio "Sugarcane"
This is about the experience of a doctor in post-revolutionary Cuba who has an affair with a seamstress and who mentors the son of a plantation manager, in return for extra sugar, which—both sweet and bitter because of regulation--becomes the central  of the story. Although ostensibly the story is about the doctor being torn between a desire to leave and a desire to stay, it really centers on the political/cultural context of Cuba at this particular time in its history.  The long dialogue section between the doctor and the seamstress and the prolonged child delivery scene witnessed by the boy seem more filler than thematically essential.

Tash Aw, "Sail"
The story centers on a Chinese man who has been involved in a minor way in the Tiananmen Square protests and wants to be a political writer; however, he  has instead become a wealthy businessman. He is married to a successful woman who seems more businesslike than passionate and has an affair with an English woman he has hired to help him improve his English.  The story seems inconsequential until a surprising final scene when the man is on the verge of killing his mistress; up to that point, it has no real significance except some vague connection between the man's minor political experiences and his current sense of purposelessness.

Donald Antrim, "He Knew"
This  is one of those sophisticated New York yuppie  stories that usually fail to involve me. Stephen and Alice, a married couple, are taking a walk up Madison Avenue, passing lots of expensive shops, taking prescription drugs for depression and anxiety.  He is an actor who specializes in comic roles, but not getting much work. She has suffered a breakdown.  They walk and talk and take their meds in what is basically a great stylized exercise about the life of two people who are bound together in a fragile yet inescapable way.  I suppose I should care about them, but I just don't.

Asako Serizawa, "The Visitor"
The story takes place on an afternoon in postwar Japan, when a middle-aged woman is visited by a soldier who claims to have known her son during the war. The encounter is fraught with some tacit tension, partially because the woman is afraid of the man and partially because she dreads what he has to tell her about her son, who went missing during the war and has never been found.  I found the story too easy and predictable—both in the writing and in the plotting and characterization. Take the following bit of what seems to me to be careless prose: The woman pours the man some tea and offers him food, saying she "nudged the noodles toward him." Then a few lines later she wonders how she might "nudge" him out the door. I know that might seem minor, but two "nudges" in a row seems careless to me. The story ends with a revelation about her son that makes a "sharp chill snake up her spine."

Joan Silber, "Two Opinions"
At over thirty pages, this is the second longest story in the collection and is perhaps the most "novelistic," for it is something of a summary of one woman's life.  Although ostensibly the story centers on the theme suggested by the title—Louise's ability to hold two opposing opinions at once—it actually focuses on her life in the shadow of her war-protester father and the ghost of her husband, who departs for a teaching job in Okinawa and basically never really returns. Her two opinions—that she is against war like her father, yet at the same time approves of the end of the Nazi persecution—is not really thematically relevant to her life with and without her husband. She is a woman of relatively simple animal and domestic pleasures, not an ideologue like her mother and father, although her mother scolds her, "You think you can do without ideas but you can't." Too novelistic for me.

Melinda Moustakis, "They Find the Drowned"
This is a modular story, written in several short sections.  But for this kind of story to work, there has to be some cohesion. The pieces alternate back and forth between scientific observations about a river and its inhabitants and the experiences of a woman living in the wilds of Alaska. The title sentence is from one of the scientific sections: "They find the drowned don't have liquid in their lungs—they gasp in the cold water until their tracheas collapse."  Although the individual sections are tightly written, lyrical prose poems, this is less a story than a poetic rhapsody about the natural world and those that live in the wilds.

George McCormick, "The Mexican"
This short, simple story about a boy who works during the summer on refrigerator train cars would not be a story at all without the final paragraph, when the boy has become a man and tells his own boys a different story than what actually happened. When a huge block of ice falls through a rail car on to a load of oranges below it, the boy is told to go down and open the boxcar from the inside to get the ice out. When he does so, he sees a Mexican man hiding in a small space beside the door, who walks past him and disappears into the oranges "like a snake into a river." In the final paragraph he tells his boys a story without ice and no Mexican, but rather about Mexican steers breaking loose from a boxcar and running out into the plains. The story ends: "I tell them this story because in the West what we love most are lies.  What we love are images of a stampede, of animals running; of what we think are the right stories of stealing away." This is a nice example of the importance of endings for the short story.

Nalini Jones, "Tiger"
Jones says in the Writing Notes at the end of the book that she wrote this story to try to discover something about  the mother Essie, who is a character in a novel she is writing. Eventually she said she discovered  it was not part of a novel at all,  but was becoming something entirely different.   I like this story precisely because it is a story, not a chapter in a novel, because it seems self-sustaining and complete in itself, not requiring anything else at all to make it whole. Essie's discovery of the lump in her breast and her use of this to try to bind her daughter closer to her and keep her home all seems entirely believable because Jones's telling of the story is appropriately restrained. The mother is the tiger in this story, using whatever means possible to take care of her young and keep them close. Her lies to both daughter and granddaughter seem entirely justified and understandable.

Lily Tuck, "Perou"

This is a delicate story told in the risky point of view of a small child, beginning with her infancy in a pram, up to age five, when she and her mother were living in Lima, Peru, having escaped the Nazi invasion of France during World War II.  The story primarily focuses on the child's perception of her nanny, a 19-24-year-old French girl, compelled to leave her family to care for the child.  The story is really about the child's sympathetic identification with her nanny Jeanne, with whom, of course, she is much too young to identify. The adult teller of the story sympathizes with the loneliness and exploitation of Jeanne, who seems destined to remain an exile from her homeland in Perou or Peru.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

More Good Stories from Best American Short Stories 2013

Antonya Nelson, “Chapter Two”
This is a story about the uses of story.  The central character, a woman named Hil, tired of telling her own story at  AA meetings, tells a story about her neighbor Bergeron Love, who comes to her house drunk and naked. Bergeron is the gadfly nuisance character of the neighborhood. She once reported a neighbor to the police for abusing his daughters, a false accusation that made it necessary to move her own son to another school to avoid retaliation. Hil sees her as a bully, a hypocrite, as pitiful, and as a legend.  Hil tells other stories about Bergeron, but leaves out the final story of her death because, as she says, that would have ruined the fun. Her friend tells her that she could tell the dead story at the next meeting, as though it had just happened, a follow-up to the naked visit story, in other words, a “Chapter Two.”

However, the real “chapter two” may be the untold story of Hil’s displacement of her weaknesses onto Bergeron. The closest the story comes to a statement of theme is when Hil says, “It’s good to have somebody else’s bad habits around to put your own in perspective.” The final section of the story makes clear that when Hil talks about herself at the AA meetings, she is lying, that her one-year mark is fictitious, that she is not living a life of sobriety. When she talks about Bergeron, at least she is telling the truth, but, she asks, “was it a story?” as she considers other scenarios she could tell about Bergeron. The story ends with Hil finding a new meeting to go to, conveniently near a pub, where she will begin a story of Bergeron by talking about her son trying to keep his drunken mother out of trouble.  This is a doppelganger story, in which Hil uses story about another to avoid talking about herself, but, inevitably, she ends up talking about herself.

Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Nemecia”
I posted on Kirstin Valdez Quade’s New Yorker story “Five Wounds” in July 2009.  I felt then that she was a very promising master of the short story form. This new story confirms my initial response to her work. ”Nemecia,” which won the 2013 Narrative Prize for a story by a new or emerging writer, is another doppelganger story, another sort of “evil twin ”tale. It is a first person pov story told by a young woman whose cousin Nemecia has been taken in by her family as a child.  The story begins with Nemecia at thirteen and the narrator at six. The narrator says she was afraid of Nemecia because she says she killed her own mother (who came back to life after a month) and her grandfather. This convincing fictional tale has such power over the narrator that, “The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.”

Nemecia is jealous of the narrator and damages her things just enough to ruin them but avoid blame. When she develops acne, she begins scratching the narrator’s cheek, opening the scab each night until it leaves a permanent scar from her nose to her lip, making her look dissatisfied. The narrator feels she owes her sense of identity to Nemecia, until one day she tries to individualize herself by winning the honor of being the angel in the Corpus Christi parade. When the mother sympathetically allows Nemecia to take the narrator’s place, she responds so angrily that she is sent to live with her great aunt Paulita, who tells her the truth about Nemecia’s past—that Nemecia’s mother had been attacked by her husband; when the grandfather tried to intervene the man kills him. The narrator’s response is to hate Nemecia all the more for the demands she makes on her sympathy and for having such a tragedy she could call her own.  It’s an honest, complex tangle of emotions that Quade explores masterfully.

The story ends with Nemecia’s mother sending for her from Los Angeles—a move that makes her even more glamorous in the narrator’s eyes and makes the doppelganger theme more explicit:  “Night after night I told myself the story: a pettier me, swept away to California, and the boy who would find me and save me from my unhappiness.” A doll that Nemecia shattered when a child is the metaphor that concludes the story. Even though its repaired face stared at the girls in their bedroom for years, Nemecia does not remember it. Instead she collects dolls of the world and Waterford crystal. The last line of the story is a perfect metaphor for Nemecia’s effort to clear the shattered past of her life, but which simultaneously recalls the past that links her to the narrator: “Nemecia held a wineglass to the window and turned it. ‘See how clear?’ Shards of light moved across her face.”  It’s a subtle story of sympathy and identification, damage and vulnerability.

Suzanne Rivecca, “Philanthropy”
I previously posted a blog on Rivecca’s collection Death is Not an Option, which was short listed for the 2011 Frank O’Connor prize. In that essay, I praised her prose, even as I found the personae and plots weak. “Philanthropy” is the most “socially conscious” stories in this year’s BASS—a focus that, in my opinion, makes it too diffuse and general to work well as a short story. Once again, it is the symbolic use of doppelganger characters that energizes the social theme.

Cora, the central character, manages a Women’s Service program, which is visited by a successful popular novelist, Yvonne Borneo, who is also a philanthropist. Cora needs money from the woman, but Yvonne wants to know why Cora survived life on the streets and her daughter Angelica did not. The story focuses on the impossibility of knowing the other.  Yvonne tells Cora that her daughter is like an ocean underneath an ocean, “a complete mystery.” Although Cora knows what it is like to be Angelica in a way that her mother never can, she insists that knowing her will not help Yvonne know Angelica, for “we are all different people.” 

But if we cannot know one person by knowing someone who seems like that stranger, then how can we ever know anyone?  I discuss this theme as a predominant one in the short story genre in my new book. The look Yvonne gives Cora, while neither remorse nor reproach, registers “something old and muddied and orphaned between them, a helpless moat of transference, brimming with the run-off of two people whose primary identities were….of someone else’s mother and someone else’s child.” This is not my favorite story in this year’s BASS, for, in my opinion, its focus on the general social issue of displaced young women blurs the specific human issue of the difficulty of knowing the other.

George Saunders, “The Simplica-Girl Diaries”
Because I have written about the stories of George Saunders several times on this blog, particularly his collection Tenth of December, which contains “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” I will not spend any time here on it here.  Although it is not one of my favorite Saunders stories, it is a very funny satire that pushes the old “keeping up with the Joneses” theme to futuristic extremes. Saunders creates a stylized but believable voice of the 40-year old guy who wants to make his daughter proud and thinks he has the chance when he wins a scratcher for $10,000 and hopes it will change his lackluster life—that is, until the ultimate prestige lawn adornments--exploited third world women—are set free by his other daughter.  I like it; it made me laugh in a painfully relevant way in the way that good humor should. But still and all, it is basically a satire and therefore an illustration of a general social theme, not an exploration of a mysterious human complexity.

Jim Shepard, “The World to Come”
I have read many Jim Shepard stories. One characteristic they share is Shepard’s obsession with historical, factual detail, which he researches thoroughly and out of which he creates a meticulously detailed fiction.  This one began, he says, with an old book he found in the dollar pile at a local Goodwill store, Sidney Parley’s Historic Storms of New England, which led him, as it often does, to other related books, e.g. books on nineteenth-century farming.  In one such book, he found a farm wife’s journal about the one friend she had in the world being forced to move away. Then, he says, “Suddenly a whole vista of desolation and loneliness and foreclosed options seemed to peep forth.” And once again, we have an exploration of Frank O’Connor’s central short story theme of “the lonely voice.”

Written in a diary format, like “The Simplica-Girls’ Diaries,” the language is radically different from that of George Saunders’ comic satire. Not meant to be an exactly rendering of a farm wife’s voice, the language is poetically stylized but exactly right.  For example: “I grew like a pot-bound root all curled in upon itself.” “I always imagine I’ve been plunged up to my eyes in a vat of the prosaic.” “He said to me this morning that contentment was like a friend he never gets to see.”

 When the narrator and her close friend Tallie begin kissing, she says she does not know what is happening to her. “I told her that I believed that we were now encountering that species of education that proceeds from being forced to confront what we never before acknowledged.” After Tallie is forced to move away and later after her death, the narrator grieves and I struggles to banish the sentiments that she says Tallie “chastened and refined.” The story ends with this line: “I imagined continuing to write in this ledger, here; as though that were life; as though life were not elsewhere.”  This was, for me, one of the most emotionally affecting stories in the book, for Shepard makes the voice of the woman so convincingly poetic that she is absolutely irresistible. Not many stories bring tears to my eyes, but this one, I confess, did—not out of easy sentimentality, but out of complex sympathetic identification.

Callan Wink, “Breatharians”
Twelve year-old farm boy, August literally lives between two worlds—that of his mother who lives in the “old house” and is trying to find a spiritual way to live, and his father, who lives in the new house with a 19-year-old girl with whom he is having sex and who offers August a dollar a tail for killing stray cats that have infested the barn.

Reader warning:  If you are a cat-lover, you will hate this story.

The title comes from the fact that the boy’s mother tells him she has become a faster, a breatherian, a Hindu practice based on the belief that some holy people can live solely on the atmosphere in which they exist and need no food and water at all. She says she is trying to get to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied.

The story’s theme--a young boy trying to figure out how to live his life, torn between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh--is structured in a fairly straightforward way. Although the mother tells August that his barn days are coming to an end that believes that his father’s way have not won him over yet, the ending of the story makes her hope problematical. It’s one of the simpler stories in the collection, but, like all the stories in this year’s BASS, it is a powerful example of the short story form.

Elizabeth Tallent, “The Wilderness”
This is one of the best stories about teaching literature and writing that I have read in many years. In an era when the liberal arts are being undervalued in favor of math and the sciences, it should be required reading for those discouraged students of the arts who struggle to follow what they love. If you are an English major worrying about getting a job, a literature graduate student concerned about finding a place in academia, a student of creative writing fearful that fiction and poetry are being ignored in favor of nonfiction, this is a story from which you might take hope.

In the Contributors’ Notes, Tallent says this story began with bewilderment about her delight in teaching, after which she watched for bits and pieces belonging to the story, a collage-like progression that was like browsing.  She says when she teaches, she wants her student to have a Keatsian willingness to tolerate uncertainties while they are working. And indeed, the short story is a form that cannot begin with a formulated idea or a carefully built plan, but rather with some grain of sand that irritates until it is worked into a pearl of radiance.

My favorite sentence in a story filled with many radiant sentences is:  “She could swear that an enthralled reader nineteen years old is the most beautiful animal on earth.”

If you love lit, you will love this story.  If you yearn to teach, you need this story.

It is Thanksgiving in America tomorrow.  I have dry-brined the turkey and made the stuffing with my mother’s old-fashioned cornbread and sausage recipe; they wait in the refrigerator overnight.  I will also make turkey gravy and mashed potatoes tomorrow when the turkey is a golden brown. After that, the vegetable side dish,whatever it may be, seems superfluous.  Not good for my cholesterol, but very good for my sentimental soul.

I will begin posting about stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories next week.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Best American Short Stories 2013 is the best in Years--Part III

I have just finished reading all twenty stories in the 2013 Best American Short Stories.  In my opinion, this is the best (or the best of the Best, if you will, collection of BASS stories published in many years. I enjoyed and appreciated all twenty of them, and recommend the book to you without reservation. With Amazon selling the paperback at under $10.00, that comes out to less than 50 cents a story—by far the most engaging, most economical, most profitable reading experience you will have this year. I guarantee! 

That is, with this one conditional: If you love short stories, you will relish this collection; however, if you prefer novels, or if you just never got the hang of reading short stories, you may want to pass it by. That would be unfortunate, in my opinion, but then, I am, you might recall, the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the short story.

I congratulate Elizabeth Strout for choosing stories that read--for better or worse, depending on your perspective--like short stories unified by a complex theme, not like loose, randomly-arranged chapters of novels. Although you may find the plots of these stories diverting and the characters strangely familiar, it is the rhythm of the language and the language of the structure of the stories that make them what they are—short fictions that explore the mystery of human motivation and the complexity of what makes us human. They are not all perfect; they are not all great.  But they are all short stories.

I have already discussed seven of the stories; I will comment on the remaining thirteen in this and one more blog post before the end of November.  I will then spend the month of December reading and commenting on the 2013 O. Henry Award Stories. I can only hope it comes close to the quality of Elizabeth Strout’s selection in this year’s BASS.

Daniel Alarcon, “The Provincials”
Alarcon tells us in in Contributor’s Notes that this story was meant to be a sketch for his new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles.  I am not sure if it made the cut, but I do recall one story that did—“The Idiot President,” which was in the 2010 BASS and featured the same lead character, a struggling actor. Acting is the central metaphor of “The Provincials, beginning with the narrator and his father observing what he calls “the last act of a public feud” between two men, noting that it could not have been more staged if they had been fighting in an amphitheater.

Alarcon is interested here in “how differently we behave when we know we are being watched.” Nelson, the narrator, says that “true authenticity” requires an “absolute, nearly spiritual denial of the audience.”  When he tells his father his theory that the confrontation between the two men was an "act," the father wisely responds, “What isn’t?”  And indeed Nelson sees everything as staged for the narrator; for example, a town’s desolate streets look like an “abandon stage set,” and he wonders “who’s absolutely certain about anything.” This conceit is pushed to an ultimate extreme in the drinking session in a cantina with other men. 

When he says the situation is like a role he has been preparing for his entire life, the story moves abruptly out of narrative into drama convention as Nelson takes on the role of his brother Francisco. With the shift back to narrative, Nelson says, “It should be made clear about something: it is never the words, but how they are spoken that matters.  The intent, the tone.”  The story holds together not by plot, but by the theme of the ambiguous relationship between authenticity and role playing,  that is, style vs. stuff, and the doppelganger motif of Nelson’s relationship to his absent brother.

Karl Taro Greenfield, “The Horned Men”
This is a relatively simple story built on a juxtaposition between a father’s anxiety about his early adolescent daughter who is entering what her pediatrician calls, a little too obviously, “the first change o’ life,” and his discovery of a mysterious small clay bust of a satyr figure in the walls of the house where he is trying to lay coaxial cables that link us all together nowadays. Although it is an obvious metaphorically-based theme, it is still a pleasure watching all the thematic metaphoric pieces fall into place. The father is reluctant to seal up an opening in a crawl space where he can watch his daughter sleep, but he knows there is no way to seal her in from the world outside where tentacles of cable entangle her with the ominous satyrs of the world.

Gish Jen, “The Third Dumpster”
This is also a story unified by a metaphor that may seem a bit too easy. The theme focuses on a cultural divide between the parents of the narrator, whose “Chinese was inalienable” and the American people who they feel, “dump people like garbage.” The cultural complication of the story revolves around American children’s tendency to shift the responsibility of caring for aging parents away from themselves vs. the traditional Chinese concern with maintaining family connections. It’s a painful conflict; Jen manages it nicely by making cultural comedy the means by which both the son and the parents navigate and negotiate the problem.

Sheila Kohler, “Magic Man
The story structures a conflict within a woman who is so caught up with her own needs that she ignores the needs of others—in this case, her 8-year-old daughter and her abused sister. As Kohler says in the Contributors’ Notes, the organizing device here is fairy tale, particularly a German myth of a child being carried off by a supernatural “magic man. The story moves back and forth between the perspective of Sandra and her daughter, nicknamed S.P, or “Simply Perfect,” who tells her sisters a scary story about the Magic Man, and who thinks of the strange country and the hotel as fairytale like. While S.P. thinks about moving into an age where her breasts are supposed to appear, her mother thinks that the young girl she once was is more who she really  is than the plump, late thirties woman she now is. 

When the child encounters a strange man, she thinks he might be the Magic Man. When he lures her into the restroom inviting her to come play with his little boy, she realizes too late that there is no little boy, the same way she has realized that there are not always happy endings in real life as there are in fairy tales. And she knows that he cannot do magic, but that she has to do magic for him by taking off her clothes so he can masturbate while looking at her. The parallel between the mother’s disappointing marital relationship and S.P.’s discovery of there being no Magic Man, no prince charming, no fairy tale ending—only cries for help from vulnerable characters.

Steven Millhauser, “A Voice in the Night”
I have already posted a blog on this story when it appeared in The New Yorker last December. 

Alice Munro, “Train”
Although I read this story when it appeared in Harper’s in 2012 and again in Munro’s last collection Dear Life, I have not posted on it before. This story is typical of Munro’s unique appeal, in which a story seems at first to be “novelistic”--a characteristic that many reviewers like about her work because they think novels are more important than short stories. But, as Munro has said many times, she does not write “novelistically,” but rather in a short story way; that is, her thematic structure works the way short stories do. What reviewers think is novelistic is the fact that the story is relatively long and spreads out over historical time involving the life of a group of different characters. 

“The Train” opens and closes with seemingly unmotivated transit. At the beginning, a young man named Jackson coming home from World War II jumps off a train when it slows down for a curve. The man is one of those passive Munro characters who seems to take the path of least resistance.  Thus when he meets a middle-aged woman named Belle who offers him food, he simply stays with her.  At this meeting, Munro introduces one of her innocuous metaphors that seem to be local color with no thematic purpose—a wagon load of what Jackson perceives as “little men,” singing as they pass, like dwarfs s in the Snow White story, but which the woman identifies as little Mennonite boys on the way to church. This is the kind of image that the reader tucks away in his narrative memory until Munro springs it again with thematic intent. As usual, Munro creates a backstory for Belle: a mother who is made somewhat deranged in the 1918 flu epidemic, and a father who is always working on a book he calls an historical novel, until he is killed by a train while walking on the track. 

After her surgery for cancer, Belle tells Jackson more about her life than he wants to know: When he was a young girl, her father opens the door on her while she is taking a bath and stands and looks at, as she says, “all of me.” He speaks to her as if he is disgusted with; afterwards he walks along the tracks and presumably, steps in front of the train. Belle says she has just now got a real understanding of what happened and that it was no one’s fault:  “It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation. My growing up there and Mother the way she was and Daddy, naturally, the way he would be.  Not my fault nor his fault.”

At this point in the story it is not clear why Jackson walks away from Belle and allows himself to be involved with an entirely new situation at the Bonnie Dundee Apartments. He only finds out later after he becomes manager of the hotel that Belle dies of her cancer. The incident that pulls the various strands of the story together occurs when a woman comes to the hotel looking for her daughter Candace—a woman he recognizes as Ileane, who he knew as a girl in high school.  We then get the backstory of his sexual encounter with her in which he cannot perform.  His later attempt with a prostitute is also a disaster. The cause is explained in the story’s final paragraphs, when he recalls his stepmother’s “fooling” as she called it when she gave him a bath. The story ends with him on a train again, dreaming of the little Mennonite boys singing in their small sweet voices, and he gets off at another town to, we assume, begin again.

Jackson’s passive tentative involvement in the surface life of different locales indicates his unarticulated decision to live life disengaged—a decision that may be the result of his possible homosexuality. However, this is only suggested by his impotence with two women and the metaphor of the little singing boys, who serve as a kind of metaphoric chorus to the tragedy of his reluctance to live life. Not one of Munro’s best stories.  But her less-than-best is better than most.