Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Yorker 2013 Summer Fiction Issue: Proulx, Lahiri, Alexie, etc.

I have maintained a subscription to The New Yorker for many years now because I can always count on the magazine to publish some of the best short story writers in the world, and they publish more stories each year than any other periodical.  I also have long maintained a subscription to Harper’s because they continue to publish a usually fine short story a month. I stopped my subscription to The Atlantic several years ago when they broke a grand tradition and stopped publishing short stories, except for occasional, lack-luster special fiction issues that read like slick paper stories from the forties.

While Harper’s continues to designate its monthly short story as “story” in the table of contents, The New Yorker identifies its fiction as “fiction.”  Nowhere is the reason for The New Yorker’s generic term clearer than in the 2013 “Summer Fiction” double issue (June 10 & 17).  The two most important fictions in the issue—“Rough Deeds” by Annie Proulx and “Brotherly Love” by Jhumpa Lahiri—are actually excerpts from novels forthcoming or in progress. 

I call these two pieces most important not because they are the two longest pieces and certainly not because they are chapters from novels, but because the other three “fictions” in the issue are relatively inconsequential:  A predictable bit of pulp unearthed from the archives of Dashiell Hammett entitled “An Inch and a Half of Glory”; a list-story of clever word plays on ATM passwords entitled “Slide to Unlock” by Ed Park; and a brief simplistic throw-away sketch called “Happy Trails” by Sherman Alexie.

And that’s it.  That’s the 2013 New Yorker “Summer Fiction” issue. As a fan of the short story form, I am more than a little disappointed.  I have read everything that Annie Proulx and Jhumpa Lahiri have written—both novels and short stories—and admire their work very much.  And there’s no question that the two novel excerpts in this issue promise engaging experiences for readers who like novels more than short stories. But they just do not read like short stories do. Perhaps I am one of the few readers who care about this, but care I do.

Proulx’s piece about a man name Duquet who ravages forests in Canada and Maine in the late seventeenth century is part of what looks to be one of her thickly textured explorations of the natural world and historical context. If it were a short story, it would be a rather simple revenge story of greed and violence.  When the novel, which Proulx says will be about two young men from France who come to New France (Quebec) and become enmeshed in the deforestation of American native woodlands, is completed and published, I will read it, for I know it will be a better, grittier and more realistic treatment of environmental issues than the pulpy novel Barbara Kingsolver published last year entitled Flight Behavior.  Still and all, being the kind of reader that I am, I prefer Annie Proulx’s short stories to her novels.

I will also probably purchase Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland, from which “Brotherly Love” is excerpted, when it comes out in September, for I have always admired her work.  You can already preorder it on Amazon.  Here is the book jacket description: 

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan--charismatic and impulsive--finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother's political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America. But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind--including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife.”

The excerpt in The New Yorker deals with the early life of Subhash and Udayan, Udayan’s involvement with a revolutionary group, Subhash’s university education in America, and his return to Calcutta after his brother’s death.  Lahiri says she has been working on the book off and on for several years. The excerpt—written in her deceptively clear, pristine prose suggests the kind of social context and family epic that so many novel reader’s love. The excerpt in The New Yorker makes for good reading, but, as Jhumpa Lahiri would be the first to admit, it is not a short story.  As her two collections of stories Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, make abundantly clear, she is a master of the short story form.

I don’t need to say anything about the Dashiell Hammett resurrection, for it is perfectly obvious what a bit of simple pulp it is.  I also don’t need to say anything about Ed Park’s little jeu d’esprit about passwords, for it is just a finger-exercise of not-too-clever inventive bits.  But I do have to say something about Sherman Alexie’s “Happy Trails.

I have, sometimes reluctantly, enjoyed Alexie’s short stories over the years.  I say reluctantly, because he seemed to me from the beginning with The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a bit of a trickster extrovert who, even as he ranted against the exploitation of his “people,” seemed to constantly be exploiting them for his own profit.  Part standup comedian and part soapbox commentator, he has been rivaled only by T. C. Boyle for his self-promotion and his hard-sold popularity.

I began my review of his collection Ten Little Indians (2003)  several years ago, his best book in my opinion, this way:

To tell you the truth, I opened Sherman Alexie’s new collection of short stories with a sigh of liberal-guilt resignation, ready to repent all the cap guns I fired at red men circling the wagon trains of my youth. The sigh was accompanied by a wry wince in expectation of showman Sherman’s predictable barrage of satiric barbs, comic one-liners, and performance posturing. So it was a pleasant surprise to find myself actually liking the man at the center of most of these nine new stories.  Instead of making me feel guilty or making me laugh, he moved me, in spite of myself.

But lately, Alexie seems to have collapsed back on his laurels.  Although his collection of poems, vignettes, and stories, War Dances, won the 2010 PEN/FAULKNER Award for Fiction, to me it seemed to be something of a mix tape made up of a few full-length short stories and a lot of detritus that just happened to be lying around in Alexie’s file cabinet.

And his most recent collection, Blasphemy, although it contains a generous helping of his earlier, stronger, stories, includes over a dozen minor “new” pieces that seem more extraneous stuff he has dug out of his writer’s war chest. “Happy Trails,” (wryly echoing the theme song of the old Roy Rogers television serial) seems like a sketch that just did not make it into Blasphemy.

I know, I know, the very phrase “summer fiction” evokes lightweight books you can take to the beach and continue reading even when distracted by wind and winsomeness.  I guess one should not really expect that much from a “summer fiction” issue.  

And, after all, really good short stories demand more attention than thin sketches or loosely structured novels.  You have to sit up straight to read good short stories; you can’t belly down in the sand and doze in the sun and still maintain the stylistic tension that they often demand.  But if you like novels and haven’t read the Proulx and Lahiri chapters yet, I recommend them; they will prepare your palate for the big books to come later on.


Paul McVeigh said...

Just wanted to say how much I love your posts. Thanks.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Hello Professor May,

Once again, a finely argued post.

I hope this piece of self-promotion doesn't given offence, but I'm including a link to my just published collection of short stories. I've been following your posts for a couple of years now, and I'm very curious to know what you think.

One of the stories, the most recently published in a literary journal, can be read on Meanjin's website.

Thank you in advance for your forbearance.


Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Dorothy. I will certainly take a look as soon as I get finished with the Frank O'Connor short list.

Vernita said...

This is cool!