Saturday, November 9, 2013

David Means, Lorrie Moore, Bret Anthony Johnston: Best American Short Stories 2013

I am currently reading the 2013 Best American Short Stories, selected by general editor Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Elizabeth Strout. I am happy to say, at least so far in my reading, that they seem to have been selected on the basis of their excellence as short stories. 

And what other basis of selection might there be for a collection entitled “The Best American Short Stories?” In my opinion, too often in the past, the BASS collection has been built more on the principal of making a book that would be most appealing to those who want a book, rather than those who want the “best" stories. That is, often the stories had to be representative of gender, race, cultural concerns, contemporary subject matter, etc.; they had to be varied and diverse, conscious of relevant content and well mixed in terms of style—not too much of the same, you know, or else risk boring the fickle reader, who is often happier wandering through the diverse world of the novel than being captured by the focused world of the short story.

But this time, if you are familiar with contemporary short story writers, just a look at the table of contents should convince you that the criteria for this collection is the excellence of the work as a short story, not the relevance or variety of its content. Here are stories by great short story writers--writers who know the technical secrets of the form and how to maximize brevity. Here are stories by Alice Munro, Steven Millhauser, David Means, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders (Hell, those names alone would be worth the price of admission), as well as stories by Antonya Nelson, Jim Shephard, Elizabeth Tallent, Gish Gin, and Charles Baxter, not to mention more recent writers who have already made the short story their own, such as Daniel Alarcon, Michael Byers, Bret Anthony Johnson, Sheila Kohler, Suzanne Rivecca, and Kristen Valdez Quade.  A collection featuring these writers should convince you right away that this is indeed a collection that emphasizes the short story as a form, not just fiction as a content carrier.

I realize that Heidi Pitlor chose the first 120 stories, but I am guessing that Elizabeth Strout, who chose the top 20 is largely responsible for the focus on short story form in this collection. Her Introduction seems to confirm this. She says right up front, “If you wonder why I chose the stories I chose, I would say it had a great deal to do with voice.” She approvingly quotes from the opening story by Daniel Alcaron: “I should be clear about something: it is never the words, but how they are spoken that matters.” Strout makes no apologies for the fact that, as she says, “I did not choose a story primarily based on its subject,” adding that if the voice does not work the subject matter is not important.

As a result of Strout’s focus on form rather than subject matter, it should be no surprise that some stories deal with similar subjects, with no fear that the reader will snort that the stories are redundant or too much alike.  The first three stories I want to talk about are David Means’ “The Chair,” Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” and Lorrie Moore’s “Referential”-- all three of which deal with parents’ relationship to children

However, as important is that relationship is, these stories use this “content” to explore more universal human mysteries.  All three stories are quite short—between four and seven pages—and all three depend, as Elizabeth Strout reminds us , more on language, rhythm, and voice than on mere content.  Indeed, in these stories, as in most short stories, content is transformed and mere surface reality is penetrated to reveal secrets, mystery, even magic.

Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Encounters with Unsuspected Animals” is closest to recognizable reality. This is a third-person pov story about a man whose fifteen-year old son is in a relationship with a seventeen-year old girl who, in a description that lets us know what the father thinks about her, has “a reputation, a body, and a bar code tattooed on the back of her neck.” 

The dinner conversation about wildlife the girl and the boy’s family have seen in strange situations—a macaw riding on the headrest of a car’s passenger seat, goats in the tops of peach trees—sets up the central metaphor of the story suggested by its title. The father cannot understand what the girl sees in his son, since he has only recently been playing with model airplanes.  Indeed, the unspoken mystery of the story, concealed beneath his ostensibly fatherly protection of his childlike son from this experienced woman, is his own sense that what the girl needs is a man, not a boy, a man, of course, like himself, although this is something he could never admit to himself.

When he stops the car on a deserted road and tells her to cut the boy loose, that she “has been to the rodeo a few times” and that she can do better, that she is too much for his son, he even feels pleased with his superior tone and how much he thinks he sounds like a father.  The girl knows him better than he knows himself, for when he says there is no mystery in his stopping with her alone in the middle of the night, she says “There’s mystery all around us. Goats in trees. Macaws in cars.”

The incongruity of the father in the car with his son’s girlfriend is made all the more extreme by the girl’s superiority to the father’s naiveté. When he keeps insisting that she turn the boy loose, leave him be—that this is the only “takeaway tonight,” she makes it all more complex by asking him to consider what might happen if a girl came home dirty and crying. She asks him to consider if the girl might keep it to herself and it be a secret between the two of them when she marries his son and she bears his grandbabies. “These are bona fide mysteries,” she says.

He watches her jump quickly out of the car and dash across a creek, and he wants to see her as an animal he has managed to avoid, “a rare and dangerous creature.” He feels disoriented and short of breath. “He knew he was at the beginning of something, though just then he couldn’t say exactly what.”

This is a classic short story ending, with the sudden appearance of an animal when animals were not expected, coalescing the central metaphor, and the central character, who thought he knew his motivation but discovers that he did not know it at all, when he has engaged in an action based on mysterious desires that changes his life in ways that he has no way of predicting. The mystery of motivation is, as I have discussed many times, a central dynamic of the short story as a form. Bret Anthony Johnston explores it masterfully in this story.

David Means’ “The Chair” turns the narrative screw that moves his story farther away from action in the world and closer to reality as a construct of consciousness. This is a first-person pov of a man who says at home in the suburbs with his five-year-old boy while his wife goes off to work in New York City each day.  He is a man who thinks a great deal about the significance of what he does, indeed so much so that the story is more about what he thinks or what he thinks he thinks, than what he does. The initial motivation of the story is his thinking about what is involved with being a parent, which involves having an ideal image in his mind of the best way to live and trying to impose that ideal on his son, but at the same time being glad that his son resists becoming what his father tries to impose on him.

It is the rhythm of this meditative voice that makes the story move as the man considers “the sublime nature of taking care of his boy” and feels the “pristine clarity of the innumerable potential teaching moments.”  And, as usual in the short story, it is this focus on meaningful moments and what they mean that makes the story work. The narrator not only thinks about what he thinks, he also thinks about what he might think in the future about what he thinks now. As Henry James knew well, it is the rhythm of thought and the action of the mind doing the thinking that best reveals the complexity of humans in conflict.

Part of the conflict in the man’s mind is his thoughts about his wife, who has what he calls a Helen of Troy face, a beauty that gives her “a density that was prone to the pull of the city, I thought I think.” The man uses this self-reflexive reference to his thinking several times in the story, saying “I used to think, I think,” reminding us of the mysterious nature of consciousness.

He imagines his wife entering her building in the city, going up in the elevator, while he stands looking out the window of his home, feeling they are riding on an apex, with her career on one side and his own deep solitude on the other.  It is not that he feels jealous of his wife’s going out in the world or that he resents staying home with his son; it is not that he distrusts his wife or chaffs against his responsibilities as a care-giver. It is all this, but more than this.

The one physical action in the story occurs near the end when the boy ignores the father’s warning and goes too near an embankment. The man says, “In a moment he’d be looking back at me, I was thinking, the wind in my hair, feeling, as I moved, a good, manly sense of dominion over everything. This is mine, I was thinking, I think. This is my chance of glory of a sort perhaps I was thinking. I don’t remember.”

When the boy falls over the side of the embankment into the black sand, and the father must come down and lift him back to safety, he says, as he has said throughout, “It’s the chair for you, little man”--warning a punishment that he prefers to the usual “It’s time out for you.” The boy then leans over and offers his hands to the man, and for a few seconds there is a moment of what he sees as “astonishingly pure love.”  But then he takes the boy home and makes his sit in the chair, and when the boy squirms, he says “Your time’s not up.  Your time’s not even close to being up.”

It is a story that cannot be summarized, but must be read, aloud if possible, or at least with your lips moving to internalize the subtle rhythm of a father being supremely aware of the complexity of caring for his son when he is thinking about it, more when he is thinking about what he is thinking. 

I read Lorrie Moore’s story “Referential” before I read her discussion of its origins in the “Contributors’ Notes,” and I kept thinking that I had read the story before, although, for some reason, I missed it when it first appeared in The New Yorker.  The visit to a deranged son, the bottle of different jams, the mysterious phone calls at the end—all seemed so familiar, but I could not quite grasp where I had read the story until the last line when the woman in the story answers the third and final phone call and. hearing nothing on the line, wonders what would burst forth—a monkey’s paw. A lady. A tiger.  And then, I literally smacked the heel of my hand against my forehead and said to myself, in the words of a character in Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Mockingbird”--“Idiot!” I often talk to myself in lines from short stories.

Of course, this is a story about a story. The reference to a monkey’s paw is to W. W. Jacob’s famous story of the same name.  And the lady/tiger reference is to the most famous trick ending story of all time, Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger.’ Then I remembered Vladimir Nabokov’s famous story “Signs and Symbols,” which suddenly seemed to be the same story entitled “Referential” I had just been reading.  Hell, I had even included Nabokov’s story in a textbook I edited some twenty years ago, Fiction’s Many Worlds, in the section named “The World of Story.” In the Introduction to that section I quote Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who once said, “Stories only happen to those who know how to tell them,” suggesting that it is not the content that makes a story, but rather the technique, the language, the style, the rhythm—all that is other than, but the same as, the story.

And sure enough, when I turned to the Contributors' Notes, Lorrie Moore says a rereading of Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” last year led her to a “narrative dance” with the story, with her as the hat rack and Nabokov as Fred Astaire.  Like most writers, Moore became obsessed with the story and felt compelled to write a tribute to it.  It reminds us that stories often come from stories, some very specifically so. In my textbook, I include Guy de Maupassant’s story “Confessing,” followed by Isaac Babel’s tribute to that story entitled “Guy de Maupassant.” I also include Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose,” followed by Doris Lessing’s tribute to that story, “Homage for Isaac Babel.”
Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is about a deranged boy who has a mania that everything around him is a veiled reference to himself, that all is a pattern, and that he must always be on guard to decode things.  The primary changes Moore makes to Nabokov’s story is to make the mother in the story go to visit the boy with a reluctant lover rather than with her husband.  The result of this is to thrown the drama of the story more on to the mind of the woman than the Nabokov story does.

At the end of Moore’s story, the woman answers the second phone call and pretends that the caller id on the phone indicates that the call is coming from the man’s apartment.   Although it is an invention, his response makes it true, when he says he has to go home and diffidently leaves her.  And at the end, she is completely alone; the third phone call, with no one on the line, emphasizes her isolation. Usually, in tribute stories, the tribute moves the story farther away from reality into symbolic significance. However, here, Moore’s tribute pushes Nabokov’s story away from his aesthetic exploration of referentiality back to the original referent itself, that is, the woman’s loneliness and despair about what to do about her son.

More discussions of BASS 2013 in a few days.  If you are reading these stories (and if you love the short story, you will be glad you did), please let me know what you think about them.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Prof. May, I'm so glad you're reading this volume - I've been chipping away at it for a few weeks, hope to complete it by the end of the year (my schedule just freed up some extra time so I should make it).
So far, I absolutely loved the Alarcon story "The Provincials" with all its layers; I've read four stories by Alarcon, all stemming from the novel he just released; this was a section he had to cut. That makes me want to read the novel.
Baxter always intimidates me; I couldn't quite figure how the parts of "Bravery" hung together. I'm looking forward to your comments.
"Malaria" did wonderful things with the story that isn't expressly told.
Karl Taro Greenfeld blew me away, partly because I liked the general subject, and partly because, well, that's what he does, he blows me away every time. I've got to read more by him. All I need is another 24 hour day crammed into each day, just for reading.
"The Third Dumpster" by Gish Jen took me places. I'm not sure she took me where she was going, but it was an interesting ride for me anyway.
I'm just putting together notes on Bret Anthony Johnson's "Encounters with Unexpected Animals" now. I thought it was extraordinary. The last story of his I read, I admired for how perfect it was, but it didn't reach me in an important way. This one does. I like what you said about realizing his own motivation - he didn't know he was being an animal, himself, until the girl pointed it out to him.
That's as far as I've read in the anthology so far, but I've encountered a few of the stories before. I was surprised to see Diaz' "Miss Lora" since I figured it'd be the other TNY story, an extraordinary one, from last year. I'm tickled pink that "Semplica Girls" is the Saunders entry; I adore that story. Lorrie Davis took me on quite a ride when I read "Referential" before - through Nabokov and The Monkey's Paw - so I'm pleased to see that as well. I was far more taken with the Millhauser than were some of my TNY-blogger buddies - I'm a pushover for biblical references - and I caused a cat-person rift in my house when I said I enjoyed "The Breatharians."

I'm so looking forward to you posts. You always show me new ways to look at things.

Karen Carlson (I still haven't figured out how to get Blogger to show my real name instead of my screen name; sorry!)

Anonymous said...

You meant Lorrie Moore, not Davis, right?

Anonymous said...

Ack, yes, I did, thanks for catching that - where'd Lydia Davis come from? Oh well..

Jay said...

It's very interesting to read this entry that includes a discussion about the way "stories come from stories", as it relates to Lorrie Moore's "Referential".

I've been lately following an ongoing discussion over at the Mookse and the Gripes blog about a story that was recently published in The New Yorker, Chinelo Okparanta's "Benji", that was clearly modelled on Alice Munro's "Corrie". There's been much dismay over this, (and the magazine's subsequent handling of it). Many, including myself, feel that story goes beyond homage and comes alarmingly close to plagiarism.

I remember your highly informative piece on "Corrie" and its many endings, Professor, so I know it's a story you are very familiar with. I would be interested to hear your take on this, if you are so inclined. Here is the link to the blog: