Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The New Yorker's 2014 Summer Fiction Issue of Love Stories

I love a good love story.  I don't mean those "date movie" bits of fluff and/or coarse carnality that parade as love stories nowadays.  If you have ever checked the background info on my blog, you probably know this, since my favorite book is The Great Gatsby and my favorite movie is The French Lieutenant's Woman—both love stories about the mad complexity of being seized by love.  I just finished rereading the ultimate love story Wuthering Heights because in doing the research for my recent presentation in Ottawa on Alice Munro, I was reminded that it was her favorite book as a young woman—that she read it numerous times—not a healthy thing to do, she once admitted to an interviewer.

So, when I got my recent issue of The New Yorker and saw that they were devoting their Summer Fiction issue to "Love Stories," I was excited.  Well, maybe not excited, but itchingly intrigued.  The double issue includes five short "memoir" pieces on the subject of "My Old Flame" by the likes of Rachel Kushner, Joshua Ferris, Colm Toibin, Miranda July, and Tobias Wolff.  These pieces seem to have been written at the request of The New Yorker editors, and like many such "why don't you write us a few hundred words about…." they don't seem particularly inspired—just ordinary jobs of work by competent writers.

The four short stories in this issue on the subject of "Love" are by David Gilbert, Ramona Ausubel, Haruki Murakami, and Karen Russell.  I read them all four straight through today in a morning of what in California we call "June Gloom"—early morning low clouds that conceal the sun until about 3:00 in the afternoon.  You wouldn't think that June would be such a depressing month in California, but there you are, or rather, here I am, feeling gloomy, not only by the weather, but by these silly, cynical, bland, and boring stories ostensibly about love.

Good stories, as you perhaps know, I read more than once.  However, after reading these four fictions in the Summer 2014 New Yorker, I just can't bring myself to read them again.  Here are my first-reading impressions:

Ramona Ausubel's "You Can Find Love Now" is an oh so clever bit of silliness about the Cyclops (you know, the one-eyed giant from Odysseus) looking for love in all the modern places by seeking advice for online dating from an online service.  Two page fillers of advice, such as "Know who your target is," followed by sophomoric responses such as "I like fat girls, old girls, tall girls, tired girls.  Girls who lack adequate clothing, girls whose best idea for getting my attention is to send a photo of themselves holding suggestive Popsicles, their fists covered in red melt."  (snicker, snicker).

Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft" is about a young couple who take a honeymoon type road trip to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, where she gets "pricked" (get it) by a thorn on a Joshua Tree and is invaded by the spirit of the tree.  It's a bit more ambitious than Ausubel's trope, but not by much.  In her "This Week in Fiction" interview, Russell tries to give the story mythic significance by talking about transformation, metamorphosis, etc., etc., but the fact of the matter seems to be that she just got a case of tourist fascination with the twisted trees while on a trip to Joshua Tree and wanted to demonstrate her Internet-based erudition, as she has done in her stories in the past.  I appreciate she is having a good time here—she says part of the "weird fun" of the story was trying to imagine what a plant might articulate to itself if it were suddenly folded into human consciousness—but the fact is that the story tells us more about plants than about human love.  It plants are your passion, you might have fun with it too.

David Gilbert's "Here's the Story" starts off with two people on an airplane holding hands.  Anyone who has ever read an airplane love story in their lives will know by the end of the first paragraph that the damned story is going to end with the plane crashing.  And sure enough—spoiler, spoiler, with no alert)—it does.
In his "This Week in Fiction" Interview, Gilbert said that this is his first attempt at doing "historical fiction," noting he was always too lazy to do the research.  However, now because the Internet makes it so easy for someone who knows nothing about a certain historical milieu to appear as if he knows everything, we must wade through a lot of historical detail about an Easter Love-in at Elysian Park and the final game of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1967 before we can get to the fatal plane crash.  It does not make the story any more interesting to have our suspicions confirmed by Gilbert, who admits that the  "idea" for the story came from a response to the question of "What really happened to the original lost parents of the Brady Bunch children—you know the first wife of a "man named Brady and "the lovely lady's" first husband.  Well, if you read through this tedious context-ridden story, you will know.

The least gimmicky story in the bunch is Haruki Murakami's "Yesterday," although it too depends more on the trick title allusion (Beatles) than any real understanding of love. (I sought the song out on my i-pod and played it this morning; it did not make the June gloom go away.) The story is a triangle piece about two guys and a girl—one who wants the girl but not really, and another who realizes he wants the girl too late. No reaching for cleverness here, as in the other three stories—but it is just bland and flat—lots of dialogue that does nothing but fill up pages (The New Yorker pays by the word, you know), nothing much about the mysterious complexity of love, just a quickly forgettable story about the one that got away, or what might have been, or something like that.

O.K. call me a romantic and be damned.  But a love story should be about love—like those crazy adolescents of Shakespeare, those explosive forces of nature of Emily Bronte, like that clumsy coming together of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in front of the fireplace, like Fitzgerald's crazy Gatsby who does it all for that silly irresistible Daisy.  Good Lord, New Yorker, don't give me uninspired blandness and sophomoric cleverness.  Give me love!


Dorothy Johnston said...

Hello Charles, we have the gloom of winter here in Australia, but you know what they say about sad tales.
Your criticism of these latest 'love' stories took me back to your earlier post on 'Seven Gothic Tales', in particular 'The Supper at Elsinore', which I hunted out after reading your post. What a love story that is! A man who falls in love with a boat, and abandons any hope of a safe and ordinary life because of that. I just can't get the story out of my head. Lines of it keep repeating themselves to me - the measure of a really good story?

Charles E. May said...

Always good to hear from you, Dorothy. Yes, indeed, I agree about the Dinesen story. I go back to Dinesen every once in a while just to reaffirm my love of the exquisite tale told passionately.