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.