Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Best American Short Stories: 2017--Five on the Light Side--Short Story Month



I am reading stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories randomly.  They are fun, but rather lightweight.  It’s not often that BASS is a book you can take to the beach and read without worrying about being distracted.  But these stories don’t take much concentration. Here are some comments on the first five. Maybe the next five will be more challenging.

T. C. Boyle, “Are We Not Men?”
T. C. Boyle is the consummate professional writer, always on the lookout for subjects that might “make a story,” and that’s what he is good at—“making stories.”  The subject of “Are We Not Men?” as he makes clear in his “contributors’ notes” to the 2017 Best American Short Stories, is gene-editing technology.  The title is from H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is about a doctor who experiments with combining animal species, often with humans, resulting in such creatures as hyena-swine, dog-man, leopard-man, etc. In this story, Boyle gives us “crowparrots” and “micropigs” and explores lightly the human use of CRISPR technology which allows the main character and his wife to choose from a menu how their chromosomes can be matched up to create a daughter.  The story reminds us that Boyle is primarily a satirist, not a short story writer--an entertainer, not a powerful artist.

Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
 The title is an acronym for the colors that make up a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Evans says the first thread of the story came from hearing a sermon on Noah’s Ark, which perhaps lead to the first sentence of the story; “Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way.” The rainbow, of course, is a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the earth again with water—which the narrator says seems like a “hell of a caveat.” The story centers on the wedding of Dori, a pastor’s daughter, who has her bridesmaids wear the seven colors of the rainbow. Evans says the real loneliness of the story lies underneath the opening sentences—understanding that “every triumphant story of the things we survive is also the story of the losses haunting it.” However, the reader has to wade through lots and lots of plot stuff to get to this payoff—involving Rena and JT detained in a small hotel in Africa because of the threat of a biological warfare agent, Rena’s sister Elizabeth being shot by her husband because her suspected infidelity, JT disappearing when he was supposed to be marrying Dori, Dori and Rena searching for JT and ending up at a water park, etc. etc.  It is a cluttered story that tries my patience.
Sonya Larson, “Gabe Dove”

Sonya Larson’s “Contributors’ Notes” about this story seem to me more intriguing than the story itself.  She recalls a period a few years earlier when she found herself suddenly single; trying to date again, she discovered that many men were most interested in her race, which is half Asian.  It occurred to her that the dating world may be one of the last remaining realms in which people openly expressed racial preference. Larson says that although we tend to think that attraction is a mysterious, deeply personal force, we often find that forces of history, stereotyping, even public policy may shape what we think is simply personal.  She wondered if what we think is our gut feelings may have a racial bias.  So she set out to write a story that “houses” these ideas—resonating like a bell tower around a bell.  She concludes that although “Gabe Dove” may seem like a simple dating story, what is actually at stake is “nothing less than who we make available to ourselves to love.”  Sounds like complex stuff, but I am  not sure the story can carry this much weight.

Fionel Mazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”
And here’s another story whose originating idea seems more complex than the story itself.  Mazel says the story arose from her thinking about the influence of social media on children because rather than worrying about its detrimental effects, she thought social media was very helpful, finding herself in a community whose shared interest was parenting, but then finding herself uncomfortable with feeling this way. She asked the following questions: Is camaraderie necessarily fake simply because you don’t know the people you are exchanging ideas with?  Does publicizing personal details mean the end of real friendship?  She said the story arose from her desire to find a framework for thinking through how all this stuff might play out in the life of a man “hobbled by grief.” The result—a story about a man who enters a video in America’s Funniest Home Videos of his son being thrown over the handlebars while learning to ride a bike--seems less about a complex human issue than it is an opportunity for Maazel to create some funny scenes and dialogue.

Jess Walter, “Famous Actor”
I posted an essay on Jess Walter’s short story collection We Live in Water´ when it first came out. My conclusion then was as follows:
Jess Walter is a professional writer, a guy who makes much of his living writing—first as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, who has cranked out a political mystery novel, a 9/11 suspense novel, a social satire, and a movie romance epic, and this collection of popular, entertaining, but certainly not literary, short stories.  If Jess Walter signifies the “modern American moment,” then the moment is about fiction that pleasantly passes the time but does not significantly stimulate the grey matter.  Just the kind of disposable stories your Kindle was made for. 
My opinion of his story “Famous Actor” in the 2017 Best American Short Stories  is pretty much the same.  Walter is clever, with lines like: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.”  He invented a “famous actor” because he wanted to write a story about a romantic encounter with a famous actor, adding that he can tell if a story is going to work if he is having fun writing it. Indeed Walter does seem to have fun inventing story lines for the movies and tv shows the famous actor has made.  The result is entertaining, but that’s all. Is that enough?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Novelistic Stories in 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month


Michelle Huneven’s “Too Good to Be True,”
Several stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories raise for me the issue of the difference between the pleasure we get from reading novels vs. the pleasure we get from reading short stories—an issue which may be related to the question of plot vs. form or reality vs. artifice.
The author of four novels, Michelle Huneven calls herself a “novelist by nature” a designation she does not define, although she says she had to “prune” some “virulent digressions” from “Too Good to Be True” resulting from her “novelistic nature.” Laura Furman, the editor of the O. Henry collections, who chooses all the stories included each year, says Huneven’s story exhibits the writer’s skill to permit the “reader to ride on the narrative current without noticing form or technique”-- a novelistic characteristic that is often more focused on reflecting the so-called “real world,” rather than creating a formal world of thematic significance.
David Bradley, the author of two novels, chose “Too Good to Be True” as his favorite story in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories,  admitting that he has always loved the “long, not the short” of a story and that as a teacher of creative writing, he struggled to conceal this prejudice from this students. He says that while he teaches Poe’s insistence that no word should be written that does not contribute to the story’s one pre-established design, he has always found undue length less exceptionable than undue brevity.  Bradley says he has never thought a tale “more elegant just because I could read it between or during bathroom breaks.” He says that what he wants while sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of bourbon and a book was an “old-fashioned story, a la Chaucer, Rabelais, or Balzac, with a beginning, middle, and ending.” Huneven’s story was his favorite because  it kept him sitting longer than he wanted and haunted  him even after his glass was empty and the fire was out. That all sounds very “novelistic by nature” to me.
So I asked myself, one again as I have for lo these many years: What is “novelistic” and what is “short storyistic” by nature—willing to accept all the while that a novel can have short story characteristics and a short story can have novelistic characteristics. If I ask myself what “Too Good to Be True” is about, I would say it is about a young woman who is a drug addict and her family’s pain at their inability to help her escape that habit. The story is novelistic rather than short storyistic because it does not “mean” anything; it is rather "about" "as if" real characters in the real world. 
Here are some other stories that I would characteristic as “novelistic” rather than “short storyistic” in the 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories:

Genevieve Plunkett, “Something for a Young Woman”
There is something of a mystery in this story of a young woman who works for a shop owner who gives her a necklace. She marries someone else, wants to play the viola in a symphony, has a baby, separates from her husband, is drawn back to the shop owner, but makes no contact with him, wears the necklace to his funeral, and cannot make up her mind about returning to her husband.  This could go on and on, much as a novel can go on and on—never coming to a thematically meaningful ending.
Mary LaChapelle, “Floating Garden”
A young boy and his mother escape from an unnamed country in conflict.  He becomes separated from his mother, but continuing on his own, boards a ship and ends up in Oakland. He is taken in by a woman who raises him and goes to a Southern California college on a scholarship. This is a straightforward journey story, told in first person, and could have been a novel had the details of his escape and  his new life in America been more elaborated detailed.  But it has no thematic meaning other than the “as if” real events in the boy’s escape.
Keith Eisner, “Blue Dot”
Although this story begins in fairy tale fashion with “Once upon a time,” it is actually a realistic story about young people hanging out and taking drugs. They talk a lot, but not about anything of thematic significance.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, “Glory”
This story is from Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, a debut collection that received good reviews and stirred up some publicity. It is a story about a young Nigerian woman whose parents named her “Glorybetogod.” But she seems to have come into the world resenting it. When she meets a young man, who seems to have been born lucky, her parents think Glory’s fortunes have changed--that her life will “coalesce into an intricate puzzle.” However, when the young man offers her a ring, she knows she must make a decision. She could go on and on having encounters like this, chapter after chapter.
Manuel Munoz, “The Reason is Because”
Munoz says in the comments at the end of the O. Henry Awards that the character in his story named Nela, who gets pregnant and drops out of school, reminds him of girls he grew up with. He says he does not see characters like Nela in American fiction often and that the story was a way for him to deal with what has been a long standing problem in his fiction—“how to name the violence that shapes the people I write about—the people I love—without veering into stereotype.”




Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Kevin Barry, "A Cruelty" and Heather Monley, "Paddle to Canada"--O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month



Kevin Barry, “A Cruelty”
A few years ago, I did a series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor. Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island, was my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admitted that it was my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.
I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:
*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.
*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.
*I love Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.
I also liked Barry’s story “A Cruelty.” I found the story simple and  irresistible. You know from the very first sentence that the story is about the power of obsession: “He climbs the twenty-three steps of the metal traverse bridge at 9:25 a.m., and not an instant before.”  After a page and a half of obsessive observation, we get the background of the main character Donie, who was first allowed to make the short train journey from Boyle to Sligo on his sixteenth birthday.  He has now made the run every working day for twenty years, and it is his belief that if he is not on the 9:33 train, the 9:33 will not run.  The ritual is his way of controlling his limited life; he experiences a 100 percent day when everything falls into place just as it should.
But of course, as is the nature of a short story, this is an account of a day when things do not go on in the smooth ritualistic way that Donie thinks they should, for as he eats his usual sandwiches on his usual bench, a man appears who manifests an inexplicable cruelty—calling him a “poor dumb cunt” and saying that it looks as though  the best part of Donie “dribbled down the father’s leg.”  The man reminds Donie of a picture of a hyena he once saw in a coloring book, and the image haunts him even after he escapes.  The day is spoiled, of course, and it is not clear if Donie will ever feel at home in the world again.  It is his first encounter with motiveless malignancy—there is no accounting for it. All he can do is go home and retreat into the arms of his mother.
I remember once when I was in a department store with my daughter, a sweet trusting child of  two or three. A woman stood close by looking at clothes with her son, also about the age of two or three.  When my daughter reached out to greet him, he suddenly pushed her away with a frown. I have never forgotten  her face as she looked up at me for an explanation. I had none.

Heather Monley, “Paddle to Canada”
This is another simple story about a family who, while on holiday, get caught in a thunderstorm while paddle boating on a lake.  Heather Monley says the story originated from a memory of when she was four or five and her family were similarly caught in a storm. However, the event is not the story, but rather it serves as the center of a story about telling stories, for the fictional family members never forget the event and often laugh about it. When the father goes back to the boat rental to get his driver’s license, the owner challenges his failure to make a deposit. The father laughs at the idea that the rental required a deposit: “What do they think we’re going to do?  Paddle to Canada?”
But later the story becomes a point of contention after the parents get a divorce.  The mother uses it as an example of the father’s carelessness and selfish stinginess.  The father uses it as an example of the mother’s ineptitude, hysterically shrieking and being no help on the paddleboat.  The children’s memories of the event become “muddled with what they had been told , and what they wanted to believe.”
In her comments on the story, Heather Monley says it is about the nature of stories, a subject she finds herself returning to often.  “I like stories that question themselves,” she says, stories that “point out the tenuous connection between narrative and truth.”  For the children the event becomes an occasion for trying to understand-- “as if thinking hard enough or in the right combination would lead somewhere, would form a pathway to a world that had been lost in the confusion of their lives.” This is a thematically tight story. The peril in the boat, the fear, and then the joy of surviving, and telling the story over and over creates a kind of bond between the family--that is, until the divorce, and the two children get different sides of the parents blaming each other. A broken family is a complex experience for children. Heather Monley has found a story way of dealing with that complexity.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Shruti Swamy's, “Night Garden”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017--Short Story Month


Shruti Swamy, “Night Garden”

Shruti Swamy  says that her story “Night Garden-- about a woman who watches her dog stare down a cobra and drive it away--told itself to her very simply and she wrote it down, noting that every once in a while “a miracle happens, and a story is started and finished in the space of an evening.” She says this has only truly happened to herr once, adding “ it is the sweetest feeling I know.” 
The discovery of a story to tell is partially that which grabs the artist and makes him or her need to tell it; it is something that  involves him with the nature of its latent significance that is compelling. Sherwood Anderson once said, “having, from a conversation overheard or in some other way, got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated.  Something was growing inside me.  At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body."  This involvement of the teller with the tale, this need to give it life and form, says Anderson, grows out of the materials of the tale and the teller's relation to them.  "It was the tale trying to take form that kicked about inside the tale-teller at night when he wanted to sleep." 
Katherine Anne Porter once said her stories spring from a tiny seed and that she always writes a story in one sitting, "one single burst of energy."  Sometimes the story is so unified around this central impulse or tone it seems that the writer must have written in one go.  Critic T.W. Higginson said of De Maupassant's stories that they seem to have been done in one sitting, "so complete is the grasp, the single grasp, upon the mind."  And William Carlos Williams has said that the short story consists of one "single flight of the imagination, complete:  up and down."
Hemingway once said that he wrote "The Killers" and "Ten Indians" in one day, and Franz Kafka supposedly wrote the "Judgment" in one night. This is not to say that the story that the author ultimately published and that we read is what was written in one sitting—but rather that the story was completed in its wholeness in one burst of dominating impulse, one single flight of the imagination or involvement. This suggests something about the short story that does not hold true for the novel—that the form springs from a writer involvement in the story that corresponds in some ways to the lyrical impulse of the poet. 
Elizabeth Bowen has said that the "first necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness.  The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write... The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure--of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind.” Bowen also argued that the story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture.
Shruti Swamy’s “Night Garden” is indeed a picture, but it is also a story about a woman’s creation of that picture—her fascination by  a form manifested in the world outside her window that stands for something mysterious; the story charts her efforts to understand the significance of that spatial form, which draws her in and makes her part of the form she observes.
Although she first is drawn to the shape the dog makes, his tail taunt and his head level with his spine, “so his body arrowed into a straight line, nearly gleaming with a quality of attention,” the snake also catches her attention, for there seems something “too perfect about her movements, which were curving and graceful. Half in love with both, I thought, and it chilled me.”  As night falls, the two animals look like “unearthly, gods who had taken the form of animals for cosmic battle.”
The story ends with the dog winning the frozen battle with the cobra and the woman carrying her exhausted pet into the house.
O. Henry Prize Story editor Laura Furman suggests that there is more at stake for the narrator than her dog’s life, for in watching the silent confrontation she’s “bearing witness as well to the failure of her marriage and the question of how she will face the rest of her life.”  However, I see nothing in the story to suggest this personal backstory, except perhaps the narrator’s general statement that “everyone’s marriage is unknowable from the outside.”
There is nothing personal about this story; it is the creation of a form in space, a picture that means something, which only the picture itself can embody.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fiona McFarlane’s “Buttony”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017-Short Story Month



I wrote about this story when it first appeared in the New Yorker.  Here are some of my remarks:

In McFarlane's story, the central characters are a school teacher named Miss Lewis, a student favorite named Joseph, and the twenty-one other students in her class. On the day of the story, the kids want to play "buttony."  They form a circle, hold out their hands, and close their eyes, while Joseph, who has been sent in to get a button from Miss Lewis's desk drawer, walks around the circle and touches each pair of hands, saying at the same time "buttony."  After he goes to all twenty-one students, they are told to close their hands and open their eyes; each student is given the chance to guess who's got the button. The one who has been holding the button—not the one who guesses correctly-- gets to "hide" it the next time.
On this particular day that the children play the game, something different happens—as it must, or else there would be no story: When Joseph gets the button on a subsequent round of the game, he walks around the circle but does not hide the button in anyone's hand, but rather puts it in his mouth.  Only Miss Lewis has her eyes open to see this action. When the children guess everyone and still cannot find the button, they begin to kick and shout and rebel against Miss Lewis—opening her hands, looking up her skirt, and pulling the pins from her hair to look for the button.
In her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says as the wrote the story she was interested in the "strange ritualistic way in which the game plays out so many childhood fears—of rejection, of being overlooked or lied to or tricked."
And indeed, if you put yourself in the game, you can imagine its potential for significance. The twenty-one kids have their eyes closed and thus live in darkness during the game's duration.  They hold out their hands in supplication, waiting for an undeserved gift, something to be presented to them by a powerful giver, waiting to be chosen—feeling the disappointment of the giver touching their hands but putting nothing in it, and then the joy of feeling the button in the palm.
And when it is time to guess who has the button, all you really know is that you do not have it.  As in a combination of poker-face and counting cards, the players watch the faces of the rest of the players to see if they give themselves away and try to keep track of all those who have played their hand by saying they do not have the button.
Farlane's point is that the game, as it is played in her story, is not merely a child's game, but something more powerfully latent with meaning. 
The key line, one that McFarlane cannot resist using, is: "They were like children in a fairy tale, under a spell." And yes, the story has all the elements of a fairy tale—a hero with special powers, an adult who is somehow mysteriously guilt and must be punished, a ritual or ceremony, a magic object, children spellbound, a secret, a trick, a childhood rebellion against the adult, and a last-minute rescue.
"Buttony" creates the kind of seemingly trivial, yet ultimately magical encounter with alternate reality that the short story has always done so well. And as usual, it has something to do with the tension between the sacred and the profane—between the spiritual and the trivial—between innocence and experience.
McFarlane handles these traditional short story elements quite well in choice of detail and in storytelling syntax. For example, "All the children handled the button with reverence, but none more than Joseph. He was gifted in solemnity. He had a processional walk and moved his head slowly when his name was called—and it was regularly called."
We know that something must be at stake for one character, and we know it is Miss Lewis, for the story is told from her perspective, and it is she who is "responsible." McFarlane tells us:  "Miss Lewis wanted her children to live in a heightened way, and she encouraged this sort of ceremony."
So it is really no surprise that Miss Lewis is the one who is attacked at the end of the story, for even though the button is secretly hidden in Joseph's mouth, it is she, the children suspect, who has the button. Children always know there is a secret, and who else must have it except the adult, the teacher? 
When one child looks up under her dress, as if there is where the secret must lie, and another tears through her hair, as though it must somehow be in her head, Miss Lewis cries out and sees one of the other teachers running toward her with Joseph behind him, "not quite running, not altogether, but like a shadow, long and blank and beautiful." For Joseph is not so much real as he is a supernatural or spiritual embodiment of forces that we suspect lie around us, but that we can never really verify.  We don't know what they are, but we know they mean something.
At the end of her interview with Deborah Treisman, McFarlane says: "Most of all, I'm drawn to those moments when people do things that are mysterious even to themselves." 
McFarlane could not come up with a better characterization of the short story form than that.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Wil Weitzel's "Lion"--O. Henry Prize Stories---Short Story Month



I feel guilty for neglecting my blog for the past several months.  I can only plead a variety of the usual reasons: other work commitments, family responsibilities and pleasures, a few health issues common to my age, etc. etc.  But now that it is May 1, the beginning of Short Story Month--a celebration that has never really caught on with writers or readers, but one to which I feel bound to contribute—I will try to compensate for my neglect by taking another look at the stories in the two collections that I have always read and commented on in the past—the 2017 issues of The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories. I will comment on as many stories from the two collections as I have time for this month—focusing on those that I thought were the best of the best and also commenting on those that did not engage me--trying to explain the reasons for my responses. The first is:
Wil Weitzel, “Lion”—originally appeared in Prairie Schooner—O. Henry Prize Stories
I like this story about a young graduate student who lives with an old retired professor. Instead of the old man telling the young student a story, as we might expect, the student tells the teacher a story--about a boy whose family has a lion for a pet until it grows too powerful and has to be released back into the wild.
As we often expect from a story within a story, there seems to be a parallel--between the student’s relationship with the old man and the boy’s relationship with the lion. I have been thinking about the story this week as my wife and I take our 3-year-old grandson to his preschool in the morning.  He often wants to hear a recording of Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and he wants to hear it repeated over and over again; it is a great pleasure to watch him in the rear view mirror, nodding in time and singing along. As I sit here and read and reread “Lion,” I am reminded how important it is to hear a rhythmic pattern repeated over and over—a chant, a prayer, a mantra, a poem, a short story—until the pattern seems to get synchronized with your mind—pulling loose things inside of you together and becoming  magically meaningful.
In his comments on the story at the end the O. Henry collection, Wil Weitzel says he  wrote the first version of the story fast because he did not want to think too hard about it or get tripped up by the words—as if it was the rhythm of the story rather than the individual words that mattered.  When he worked on the revision, he said the tried to add logic and clarity, but it did not seem right, so he gave up trying to rationalize the story.
The result is a story that works the way short stories—especially very short short stories—often work—by transforming the characters and events into emblems of something that transcends the everyday.  When the story begins, the old man has died and the young man bathes him and prepares him for burial--completing the process that had already begun when he began to live with him. The old professor seems “as old as old trees, their bark haggard and worn.”  I know that image.  Once, I paid a visit to an old writer/teacher, who had a powerful influence on me when I was young.  He lay in a hospital bed, and I placed my hand on his—a hand that was supple and translucent, as if he had already begun the process of being transformed from mere flesh into spirit or monument, or relic, or manuscript.  He died two days later.  I did what all students try to do:  I wrote about it, and the tribute appeared in a Kentucky journal called Appalachian Heritage.  And this is what Wil Weitzel does in “Lion”—trying to work his way through to the significance of a young man’s search for the lion, trying to tell the story.