Well, I have, with some effort, read all the stories in the 2016 Best American Short Stories twice, and I am definitely underwhelmed. Maybe I have read too damned many short stories over the last fifty years since I began teaching the form. I tell you, my friends, I did not, with the exception of a few, find these stories very powerful or distinctive or irresistible. Indeed, I thought most of them were predictable, pedestrian, routine, ordinary jobs of work—just not powered by the obsessiveness of a writer's sense of the mystery of human experience and not controlled by a writer's careful mastery of the language necessary to evoke that mystery. In this blog post and one final one next week, I share with you my readings of the remainder of these stories.
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears" (What if I Used the Goldilocks Plot?)
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum first came to public attention in 2004 when she was one of the five nominees for the National Book Award who became famous because they were so obscure. Her second book Ms. Hempel Chronicles, has been dubbed a “novel-in-stories,” if for no other reason than the same central character appears in all of the stories in the book. The publishers knew better than to use the label “short stories” on the cover or in the promotional material, hoping readers would assume the book was a novel. And sure enough in her brief bio in this year's BASS, Ms. Hempel Chronicles is termed a novel.
Bynum says that for "The Bears" she had an experience she wanted to write about—her stay at a writer's retreat when she was pregnant—but she did not have a plot, so she borrowed one, something she has done before. A few years ago, she wrote a story entitled "The Erlking, "which was published in the New Yorker series “20 Under 40" it was originally written for a collection of fairy tales. Based on Goethe’s poem of the same name, "The Erlking” does seem to follow many of the basic fairy tale conventions, although it does not take place “once upon a time,” but rather in the present world of anxieties experienced by a mother and her child (In Goethe’s poem, it is a father and son).
For "The Bears," she borrows the Goldilocks story and has her central character, a young woman who has recently miscarried, at a writer's retreat, wandering around in the woods and going into a house owned by a bear-like man. She also makes use of the psychologist William James, about who she is supposed to be writing, by referring to James's paper "What is an Emotion," in which he uses the example of a person meeting a bear. When she sees the hulking bear of a man coming toward the house, Goldilocks-like, she jumps out the window and runs away. It's a facile little story, well-written and entertaining, and there may even be some relevance of the William James theory about emotions being the product of physiological responses we associate with them, but I doubt it. Primarily it seems a writer's experimental attempt to graft a fairy tale plot on to some material she had lying around.
Ben Marcus, "Cold Little Bird" (What if a Child Suddenly Hated his Parents?)
This is a relatively simple "What if" story: What if a young child suddenly and coldly refused his parents' love for him? How would they handle it? What would they do? How would it affect their marriage? The story does not provide an answer as to why the ten-year-old boy suddenly tells his parents he does not love them. For to provide an answer, e.g. parental neglect, abuse, bullying, e.g., would remove the mystery of the story. And it is the mystery that provides the piece with a sense of complexity; an explanation, by the psychologist, for example, would reduce the story to domestic melodrama. Throwing in an insert aside about the boy reading a book that proposes that Jews were behind 9/11 is just a red herring.
Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian" (What if an Instructor Did not Belong?
This is a story about a post-doc philosophy instructor getting challenged by an obnoxious student who tells her she does not know what she is talking about when she talks about Roland Barthes on the nature of everyday reality, or the quotidian. Millner says in her Contributor's Notes that the heroine of the story is facing a contemporary problem: "She's talented, she's a striver, and she's a person of color who's failing to make her way in a historically homogeneous institution." However, there is no mention of the fact that the central character is a "person of color." The only hints we have are the following: When she is in boarding school, the narrator says (1) "She looked different from the other kids, came from a different kind of family, didn't have the money to go on their kinds of vacations." (2) When she talks with a colleague she has not seen in a while about her encounter with the student, he asks her, "You're doing something with ethnic studies, right?" (3) When a photographer comes to take her id picture, he apologizes for the color filters which he says are designed for lighter skin, adding if he had known he would have brought different ones. When she asks "known what?" he laughs and says, "I mean, they said the philosophy department."
So if we are sharp enough to catch these hints, or if we take the time to look Millner up on Google and see from her pictures that she is African American, we are to assume that the central character's difficulties are due to bias against her race in a philosophy department. This gives the secretary's remark "You don't belong here," what Millner calls added "resonance" (that terribly overused word).
Daniel J. O'Malley, "Bridge" (What if An Old Couple Jumped Off a Bridge?)
At a little over three pages, this is a simple image. A young boy staring out his window sees an old couple take off all their clothes and jump off a railroad bridge. Ostensibly, the story is about the boy's trying to understand the significance of the event. At the end, he invents or imagines that the two old people become birds when they jump off the bridge and fly away.
Yuko Sakata, "On This Side" (What if an Old Friend had a Sex Change Operation?)
This story depends solely on this line: "More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy." A transsexual comes to find refuge with an old friend from school from a boyfriend who has abused her when he finds out her history. It takes twenty pages of insignificant talk and the quotidian to get to the conclusion you are expecting—that the old friend will become attracted to her, but that she will go back to the boyfriend.
Sharon Solwitz, "Gifted" (What If My Son Had Cancer?)
According to Solwitz's "Contributor's Note," this story is based on her son dying of cancer. That being so, it feels uncharitable to speak ill of the story. But when a writer puts a story out there, there is no choice but to treat it as a story. Solwitz says she is now working on a "novel in stories" or a "collection of interrelated stories" about a fictional family who has a son with cancer. The focus of "Gifted" is on a forty-three-year-old woman whose son is diagnosed with a large abdominal tumor just before his bar mitzvah. The boy handles it with grace. On the other hand, she has an affair with a man she meets on business in London and squabbles with her sister with whom she has always competed. But if you want to know what happens to her son, the man, her marriage, etc., you will have to pick up the "novel in stories" or "collection of interrelated stories" whenever it becomes available.
Lauren Goff, "For the God of Love, for the Love of God" (Who Cares About These Beautiful People?)
This is a story about Amanda and Grant, who are visiting—actually kind of mooching off—Genevieve and Manfred, who have a home in Paris. There is a lot of dialogue, without quotation marks, which gets a bit tiresome (dialogue is hard to sustain interest in unless it is loaded with significance). These are "beautiful people," (gotta have quotes around that phrase), and, of course, somebody is having se with somebody's wife , in this case, Grant is having sex with Genevieve. Gen and Manfred have a son, a four-year-old named Leo, who seems pretty precocious for his age—enough so that when Amanda's beautiful twenty-one-year-old niece Mina shows up, that Leo seems quite smitten by her so that he is looking forward to her giving him a bath and getting him ready for bed. "The gleam on Mina's legs up the stairs. He would eat her if he could."
There's a bit of forced mythic subtext when Leo, inspired by seeing a picture of the Phoenix aflame, sets a falcon on fire that has fallen dead out of the sky in the driveway. The story ends tediously enough with Mina thinking she will stay in Paris, for she is young and beautiful and can do anything she wants. "Anything was possible. The whole world had been split open like a peach." My, my, my!
Smith Henderson, "Treasure Slate" (Who Cares About These Worthless People?)
Henderson, who was born and raised in Montana, says this story came to him practically whole cloth, after reading an article about some clever rural burglars who check the newspapers for recent deaths and then go to the home funeral and rob the person. Sometimes I wonder why stories about Montana so often focus on no-account crooks and ner-do-wells—part of a wild west tradition, I reckon. This story about two brothers who aren't worth powder and lead to blow out their own brains just seems too fricking facile and superficial to me.