Friday, November 16, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2012—Part IV

Whether a given short story “works” effectively for a given reader depends on many factors, but perhaps the most important determinants are the choices the writer makes about technique, point of view, style, structure and the reader’s sensitivity to those choices.  Sometimes these formal matters seem so integral to the content and theme of the story that you cannot imagine the story having been “managed” any other way.  

Sometimes, however, the formal matters seem so obvious and manipulated that you feel the story is self-consciously “rigged.” This is the difference Coleridge talked about in his Biographia Literaria between Imagination and Fancy.  Imagination, says Coleridge, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate.” Fancy, on the other hand, puts things together mechanically.  

I am going to talk briefly about the last five stories in Best American Short Stories 2012 in terms some of their most crucial formal strategies—those strategies that, without which there would be no story.

Taiye Selasi, “The Sex Lives of African Girls”

This story, Selasi’s first published fiction, resulted from a challenge given to her by Toni Morrison to finish a work of fiction in one year and send it to her to read.  Suffering from writer’s block, Selasi struggled for months until, she says one day, she heard the following line, as if it were a bit of song she had just remembered: “The sex lives of African girls begin, inevitably, with Uncle.”  Then, she says, she heard the second sentence, like a song without music: “There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark.”  She says she rushed to her computer and started writing.

The story takes place in Accra, the capital, and largest city in Ghana.  It focuses on a young Nigerian girl, age eleven, who is living with her mother’s brother—the uncle of the first sentence--and his wife, after her mother deserted her.  If you Google the words “Africa, sexual abuse, uncle,” you will know why it is inevitable that the sex lives of African girls begin with uncle. Given the social problem of the inequality of girls in Africa and thus their sexual abused by an uncle, or some other male relative, this story could very well have been a mere fictional exploration of a story “ripped from the headlines.”  However, Selasi’s decision to make the point of view of the story that of the eleven-year-old girl in the second person places the child in the center of household activity—much of it sexual—much of which she does not understand, some of which she does.

Another complication of the girl’s being surround by sexuality for which she is not emotionally prepared is the fact that she is fascinated by the sex, longs for it in a way she does not fully understand.  The first indication of this in the story is when she trips on an overlarge dress, snagging the hem in her heel and exposing her “bare breastless chest;” lying on the floor “newly aware of your nipples.”

The first mysterious sexual encounter occurs when she comes into a room and sees the servant girl Ruby kneeling between her uncle’s knees, “her heart-shaped face in his lap.  The sound she made remind you of cloth sloshing in buckets, as rhythmic and functional, almost mindless, and wet.” The girl does not say she knows what is happening, but the look on Ruby’s face, full of hatred, reminds her of her mother’s face when she came into a room a few years earlier and saw her mother on the floor, with a man kneeling behind her, “their moaning an inelegant music, the sweat.”

She thinks that if Ruby could make Uncle whimper like a dog, something was possible in this house that was different from what she lived every day, and she is not sure if it is not better, preferable. “You envied Ruby something, though you didn’t know what.  You stood at your door trembling jealously.” 

The final section of the story begins with a kind of stage direction that has appeared throughout: “Enter Uncle.”  When he tells her that she reminds him or her mother and that he misses her, we understand that the Uncle has sexually abused the child’s mother also.  We are given even further context for this pattern of family abuse when we discover that the young girl’s aunt has also been abused by her uncle.  When the aunt comes in the room and curses her husband, saying, “She’s your blood,” the uncle’s response is to slap her and insist that it is his house, not hers.

I have no way of knowing, except for newspaper articles, how widespread sexual abuse of young girls is in Africa.  I don’t know how Taiye Selasi knows about such sexual abuse either; she was born in London of well-to-do African parents and has degrees from Yale and Oxford.  I don’t know what this story is really about except the social issue of the sexual abuse of young girls by male relatives in Africa.  Are we to believe that the young girl’s fascination with the sexuality she observes is due to this social context, to her in particular, to African girls, or to girls in particular?  The tone and technique certainly makes me sympathize with the young girl at the center of the story and makes me appalled by the “inevitable” abuse these African girls suffer, but I am not sure whether the story wants me to feel a certain way about this particular girl, or to do something about the social issue.

Sharon Solwitz, “Alive”

This is a difficult story to judge, for it is about a boy who has cancer, and Solwitz tells us in her Contributor’s Notes that her own thirteen-year-old son died of cancer.  She also tells us that the events—taking her two sons skiing during which the sick son is very careful, but the younger son takes chances and gets injured—are largely factual, but that the characters in the story are purposely different from her and her own sons.  The older son is vulnerable and somewhat frail, while the younger son has, as his mother says, a wild dog inside him. Both boys end up in the hospital—the older one being transfused, the younger one being bandaged for a fractured leg and some broken ribs. The story has no real thematic significance until the last few paragraphs when the mother puts her arms around her younger son and tells him he is amazing, saying, “You’re alive.  Alive.”  In a moment that is both simplistic and complex, the mother feels grief that one son will die and exultation that one son will live. 

The last paragraph suddenly shifts to the young boy who sits breathing in his mother’s sweat and deodorant, “with a combination of joy and terror that overrode his medication.  His heart thudded savagely.  At her trust in him that he had to live up to—from now on, it seemed, and for the boundless rest of his life.”  The shift in perspective (what critics now like to call “focalization”) from the mother’s grief and joy to the younger son’s guilt and responsibility is abrupt.  Although nothing in the younger boy’s previous behavior justifies the complexity of this sense of responsibility to the mother, it does implicate both mother and son in the aftermath of the death of the older son.

Kate Walbert, “M&M World”

I read this story when it first appeared in The New Yorker, but I did not write about it because it did not engage me.  Now that it has been called one of the “Best” stories of 2011, I felt I, at least, should read it again to try to determine why it did not work for me the first time.  I have read Kate Walbert’s stories in The New Yorker before and as they have appeared in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Award Stories.  I have enjoyed them but have never written about them. 

The premise of “M&M World” is that a mother takes her two young daughters to see the M&M video in Times Square, especially the portion of the video that shows a giant M&M climbing, ala King Kong, to the top of the Empire State Building.  What makes this event a story, suggests Wilbert in the Contributor’s Notes, is her recollection of being on a small boat in Patagonia and staring into the eye of a whale.  She says she had been working on the M&M story for a long time, but it was only when she recalled the eye of the whale that the story gained momentum, for “the stillness at the center of the whale’s eye” seemed just the right “counterweight” to the craziness of Times Square.

In one paragraph of the story, the narrator thinks there are things about her that need fixing—yellow teeth, spots on her skin, gray roots, a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy, a new coat, etc, but she never seems to have the time. Another important element of her present life is suggested by the fact that when she talks about the Patagonia/whale incident, she refers to the man with her as “the girls’ father.”  Although this may simply mean that the trip took place before she was married, the phrase has the sound of absence and distance to it.  And indeed, later in the story, we have a scene from the past in which her husband tells her of an affair with an intern.

In the last section of the story, the climactic event occurs—the disappearance of the younger daughter and the mother’s resulting panic.  In the midst of this fearful discovery, we have one more shift back to the whale episode, in which the girls’ father accuses the woman of being a whale hoarder, because she did not call for him when she saw the whale so close up.  Walbert wants to suggest some mysterious significance of the woman staring into the whale’s eye, for at the time she thought if she could just look hard enough and long enough she would understand that there was something she was meant to know. “What,” she had said to the whale. “What?”

When the mother and older daughter find the child, the little girl is crying, for she thought they’d gone “too,” by which the mother, and the reader, knows that “Too” refers to the fact that the father is gone also.  As the woman zips up the girls’ coats and kisses them, her eyes still filled with tears, she recalls that when the whale swam away, “How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.”

The story depends on the juxtaposition of staring into the whale’s eye and fear of losing the daughter--something to do with loss, loneliness, and mysterious depths.  Maybe Kate Walbert knows what the connection between the two is, but I am not sure the story suggests that significance sufficiently. Furthermore, I am not sure what purpose the M&M video serves.  I have watched in on YouTube; it features lots of colorful M&Ms jumbling about and several animated images of the familiar little M&M creatures seen on television commercials, including one large M&M climbing up the Empire State Building.  Since Walbert has named the story “M&M World,” I guess the M&Ms are more than just a way to maneuver the child somewhere to get lost.  I can certainly see that looking into the eye of the whale alone and looking for her daughter in a crowd are quite different; I just cannot see how they are interrelated, or how M&Ms are integral to the story.

Jess Walter, “Anything Helps”

I am sorry.  I sympathize with the plight of the homeless just as I sympathize with abused African girls, but this story just seems too patently “arranged” to me.  The central character Bit Hates, a “funny fucker” who cracks jokes, makes me smile.  The fact that he has lost his wife and saves his money to buy the latest Harry Potter book for his son in foster care makes me sympathize.  The fact that the boy returns the book because the foster parents have convinced him that the Potter books, which he has always loved, are Satanic, makes me angry.  It’s just that the story seems rigged to make me laugh, make me sad, make me mad.  It’s just too damned easy. It won’t stop me giving money to homeless people, but it won’t make me give more either.

Adam Wilson, “What’s Important is Feeling”
I will take a pass on this one.  Maybe it is just because I get bored with movie people having sex and taking drugs, being narcissistic, being depressed, having their artistic vision spoiled, making commercial movies and calling them art, etc. etc. I know that Adam Wilson once won the Terry Southern Prize for “wit, panache, and sprezzaratura in work published by Paris Review” (This story is from Paris Review also).   Maybe it’s just that I don’t care for panache or sprezzaratura--even with marinara and Parmesan.

The nice thing about Best American Short Stories is that with twenty stories, you don’t have to like all of them to feel you have got your money’s worth.  I buy Best American Short Stories and PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories every year and am always glad I did.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2012: Part III

One of the most common questions that audiences ask authors at the end of short story “readings” is a variant of the following:  “Where did you get the idea for the story?”  “Where did the story come from?”  What is the story based on?” “What was the originating germ of the story?”  I guess it’s one of the few questions you can ask an author who has just read one of his or her stories.  Authors know that audiences will not be satisfied with the answer, “I just made it up,” although that may often indeed be the case.  The question suggests that audiences are fascinated with the “real life” or “idea” that somehow must underlie a story, as if it were the real life or the idea that is most important.  However, it is likely that what engaged the author was the process by which the story transforms “real life” or “idea” into a meaningful fictional artifice. 

Although I do not know whether Heidi Pitlor or the publishers of Best American Short Stories specifically request authors to talk about the origins of their stories, this is usually what they do in the’ “Contributors’ notes.”

Julie Otsuska, “Diem Perdidi

Julie Otsuka says that she had been taking notes for “Diem Perdidi” on the backs of envelopes, napkins, and ATM receipts for many years—ever since her mother was first diagnosed with dementia—before she came up with the “She remembers,” She does not remember” structure and the second-person voice addressed to “me” that made this story possible.  When readers ask where a story comes from, they often perhaps do not realize that the most important and mysterious question is what made it possible to transform some experience of idea into a fiction. The answer always has something to do with form or technique, voice or structure, some literary convention or device that miraculously makes a story.

“Diem Perdidi” means, “I have lost a day,” supposedly uttered by the Emperor Titus at the end of a day when nothing meaningful was achieved—perhaps the opposite of “carpe diem,” for all days that are not seized are inevitably lost.  The story uses the convention of a repetitive rhythmic refrain or list emphasizing the most important verb for those stricken by, or witness to, dementia— the verb “remember.”

But the list is not composed just of random things that the woman remembers or does not remember; they are specific to her as an individual and as a member of her culture— for example, the loss of a daughter or her incarceration in an interment camp during WWII.  And even though most of the sentences begin with “She remembers” or “She does not remember,” they are routinely repetitive; the length of sentences varies, and the subject matter continually and meaningfully changes. Frequently, the repetitive sentences are interspersed with brief statements by the woman herself in italics, e.g., “I shouldn’t have talked so much,” “I didn’t know what else to do.”  Furthermore, the general remembered items are interspersed with remembered items specifically about the writer/teller, addressed to “you.”  And the story ends, inevitably, with all those things the woman remembered in the first paragraph—the name of the president, the name of the president’s dog, the day, the season, the year—forgotten in the last paragraph, except, of course, she does remember the death of her first child and the taste of dust in the interment camp, for some things are too painful to forget. 

This is a story that could have been sentimental and self indulgent, but Julie Otsuka finds just the right form and tone to make it deeply engaging and meaningful.  It’s not the origin of the story that is important, not even the “real life” behind it that must have been so painful to experience—but rather the restrained formal control that transforms it into a meaningful fiction about how one’s life in memory fades and resurges, fades and resurges until finally it simply fades away.

Edith Pearlman, “Honeydew”

Edith Pearlman is a classic example of how short story writers, even very fine short story writers, can get ignored by reviewers and the reading public. How can this happen?  Well, it can happen when, like Pearlman, the writer writes only short stories and never novels.  Only a few writers who make this decision manage to get widely read: Raymond Carver, because, with the help of a savvy editor, he created a stylized, attenuated world of blue-collar misfits that caught the attention of reviewers. Alice Munro, because she is such an intelligent observer of the inner lives of women and creates a complex, densely populated world that reviewers can justify as “novelistic.  A good short story write can be ignored by the relatively wide circulation magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, and is published instead only by low circulation journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Idaho Review, and Ontario Review.  A good short story writer can be ignored when those stories are collected in books that only university and small presses care to publish, and, which, for lack of funds to promote them, never get widely reviewed.

Edith Pearlman is a master of short stories that are unmistakably short stories; they are not “novelistic,” either in style or in substance, and for that reason, they have, until recently, seldom been read.  All lovers of the short story should therefore be thankful that, after she published short stories for years in little known places, Edith Pearlman’s collection, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories was “discovered” last year--winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and becoming a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in fiction.  The fact that it has taken reviewers over thirty years to “discover” and appreciate a writer now in her mid-seventies simply shows how little respect the short story as a form receives in a literary world where the novel reigns supreme. 

Pearlman says “Honeydew” began with a specific request for a story from the journal Orion, which announced in its first issue several years ago its “fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.”

So what does a writer do when requested to write a story tailored to the journal’s stated thematic purpose.  What Pearlman did was to dig around in a story she was already working on—a triangle story involving a mistress, wife, and the man between them—and find a way to get the story “vigorously involved in the natural world.”  She had already done an essay for Orion on beetles, so she did some more entomological research on beetles, including the honey-dew-making Coccidae as well as moth grubs that, ground up and mixed with water, produced an ecstatic sleep, and with suicidal ants.  The narrative problem was how to make a story out of this mixed bag of bugs? 

In the first paragraph Pearlman creates a private school for girls with a ravine on one side where a suicide occurred a century before.  She creates an very bright adolescent girl in eleventh grade who is anorexic; she creates a headmistress whose palms ache to spank the girl, and just to complicate matters further, she makes this forty-three year old headmistress six weeks pregnant by the father of the anorexic girl.

She creates a tone that takes all this very seriously, but describes it slyly and slightly sarcastically, for anorexia is a disease that is very serious, but that could be solved if the damned girl would just eat.  She used the results of her research to describe beetles that gorge on decaying corpses and defecate at the same time, turning flesh into compost, noting, “The uses of shit are many.”  And she made use of paradoxical fact that the life-saving manna that saved the Israelites in the desert was actually the result of beetles feeding on plant sap, which rushes through the guts and out the anus floating to the ground to be eaten—creating sweet shit called “honeydew”

This is such a delightful story, so full of seemingly unrelated, but actually tightly woven details, I don’t want to spoil it for you by summarizing it.  As is often the case with great short stories, it is not the plot, or even the characters that draw you in and keep you moving toward the meaningful metaphoric end, but rather how all the parts are so integrated that even as the story is a surprise, it seems inevitable.  The ending, when the young girl metaphorically becomes the insect she strives to be, and the suicidal ravine, like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, is thematically integrated, is an absolute treat.  This is a wonderful story by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest short story writers.

Angela Pneuman, “Occupational Hazard”

Angela Pneuman says this story originated when she was working at a wastewater treatment plant and happened to see a television interview with a man whose nose, arms, and legs had been eaten away by a type of bacteria that he had picked up through a paper cut at his office.  She thought there could be a connection between this victim of bacteria and how her work involved trying to harness the operations of bacteria.  The narrative problem was how to ground this connection in the real life of a character and thus make it more than a concept.

To do this, Pneuman invents a sewage treatment worker named Calvin whose foot slips off a catwalk and submerging his left leg up to the knee in the sewage—something he calls an “occupational hazard” when others smell it.  When another man he works with dies from a strep infection from a paper cut, Pneuman must invent some way for this death to affect Calvin.  So she invents a first wife and a sullen daughter for the dead man who Calvin encounters at the funeral.  It is the daughter who challenges Calvin, but the momentary sexual encounter Calvin has with the 15-year old girl seems, in the pejorative sense of the word, simply “invented.”   The conflict between Calvin and his wife because she wants to have a baby and he does not also seems “invented.”

I know, of course, that stories often have to be “made up,” but they probably should not appear to be just “invented” for the sake of some pre-established concept.  I find this story overlong, filled with inconsequential dialogue encounters.  I suppose when Calvin begins to realize that the dead man’s relationship with his first wife and daughter has left some damages, he feels his own vulnerability and culpability.  But I cannot see that his motive for sexually comforting the daughter is meaningfully complex, nor that his need for forgiveness from his wife is penitently integral to his Calvinistic “sin.”  The story just seems too self-consciously “rigged” to me.

Eric Puchner, “Beautiful Monsters”

A few years ago, I reviewed Erich Puchner’s debut collection of stories, Music Through the Roof and thought it to be an example of short fiction consciously created within an MFA program (this one at the University of Arizona).  Instead of erupting with originality out of powerful compulsions, as great stories must,  Puchner’s stories seemed largely learned—skillful, but imitative both in style and substance of so many other stories developed in MFA programs proliferating across the country. First, there was a story about a loner aimlessly searching for significance. Then there was a story about a young woman looking for love. Next there was a story about bullying children preying on weak outcasts. And of course there were one or two multicultural stories about the plight of the immigrant. Of all these well-made stories, the most academically rigged with symbolic significance and thematic unity was “Legends,” a textbook piece self-consciously held together by the relentlessly repeated theme of death.  A man with a “lazy heart” takes his wife to Mexico to try to revive their marriage, where a stereotypical con artist accompanies them to a museum to see mummies and to a semi-comatose woman who performs miracles.  Naturally the young man ends up losing everything.

Puchner says “Beautiful Monsters” was a real departure for him, for he is not a fan of science fiction, although, like many of us, he was an avid reader of Ray Bradbury’s Martial Chronicles when he was a child.  He says this story started with an image in his mind of a huge man, like Bigfoot, showing up in a young boy’s yard one morning.  But, the question was how to make this obsessive image into a story.  His method for doing so was to play a little reversal on the Peter Pan story, in which the children are in control, and the adults are the outcasts.  It’s a concept story about the human need to escape growing old and dying. It’s entertaining enough, with some grotesque and gruesome details meant to make one squirm with the archetypal fear of death and decay; it ends with a Frankenstein monster, fairy-tale mob holding heads on poles, but heads, which, freed from their bodies, and thus ironically free from the fear of death “dance down the street” “nimble as children.”  The way Puchner got from that image of the “Big Foot” monster in a boy’s yard was to simply flip a fairy tale.  I could not get involved in this concept story.

George Saunders, “Tenth of December”

George Saunders has always been very good at concept stories.  The reviewers of Saunders' three collections have called him variously "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist."  Typical of the satirist's need for an object of attack, Saunders says he always starts off earnestly toward a target; however, he self-deprecatingly notes, "like the hunting dog who trots out to get the pheasant," he usually comes back with "the lower half of a Barbie doll."  Comparing Saunders to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. Coraghessan Boyle, critics have praised his demented black comic view of modern culture that showcases Americans' fears, shames, and their need to be accepted. 

In his “Contributors’ Notes” to “Tenth of December,” Saunders says, “Sometimes a story comes from a little lonely moment of unwilled, spontaneous fantasy. To illustrate this, he gives the example of a story in his collection Pastoralia, entitled “The End of Firpo,” which came from seeing a miserable little boy standing on the curb of a busy street and asking himself what would he do or say if the kid got hit and he happened to be the first responder. The result was, in many ways, the most heart-rending story in the collection, in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.  FIRPO is the word Cody's mother and her boyfriend use to refer to anything he does that they think is bad or dorky.  During a bike ride, Cody imagines that his ultimate revenge will occur when he is famous for his splendid ideas, such as plugging up the water hose. The story ends with irony and pathos when he is hit by a car and the only person who has ever told him that he is "beautiful and loved" is the man who has hit him. The story succeeds by initially making the reader scorn Cody for his mean-spirited vengeance and his childish compensation fantasies, only to make us feel sorry for the boy when, with resignation, he accepts that he is the FIRPO his mother and her boyfriend say he is, even as the man who hit him futilely insists that God loves him and that he is beautiful in His sight.

Saunders says “Tenth of December” came to him similarly one day when it hit him that he would die someday and that it would happen by means of a series of actual events for which he would have to be present.  After thinking about this a bit, he says he was left with a “conceptual seed” about a man with a fatal illness, who decides to kill himself by freezing.

The result of playing in his mind with this “conceptual seed” is a concept story or fable that, for me, just goes on too long and too self-indulgently, with Saunders seemingly having a great deal of fun, but just not engaging me either in the character or the concept that surely must lie somewhere beneath all the Mary Poppins cockney stuff and the adolescent jokes, e.g., “Mr. President, what a delightful surprise it was to find an asteroid circling Uranus.”  I tried to read the story three times, but just got bored each time.  If any of my readers can help me appreciate this story, I would appreciate hearing from them.  I have read all of Saunders’ previous stories and enjoyed them, but just not this one.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2012: Part II

Jennifer Haigh, “Paramour”

Jennifer Haigh is a 2002 graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Since graduation, she has published four novels, the first of which won the PEN/Hemingway award. She has also published a few short stories in Granta, The Atlantic, and Ploughshares  (“Paramour”), and has a short story collection coming out, I guess, when she has enough stories to fill one.

The prose of “Paramour” reminds me of the kinds of words, sentences, and observations that often put me off reading novels.  I am currently reading two novels for review and find both of them rambling ragbags of careless prose and clichéd comments.  I think many short story writers will agree that you can get away with clichés and carelessness in a novel, for the reader is usually so propelled by the sheer mass of character and plot that he or she will ignore or forgive the easy word choice and the sloppy sentence. Not so in a short story.  Also in a novel, the writer can create a narrative that does not seem to be moving toward a meaningful end, but rather just jogging along because, well, that’s often what people in “real life” do.

Too many easy words, comparisons, and sentences mar Jennifer Haigh’s “Paramour” for me.  A few examples that put me off:
 “Christine crossed the street gingerly, on four-inch heels thin as pencils.”
“The wife’s name was lodged in her memory like a bullet that could not be removed.”
“She’d been a mercurial student.”
“She carried the shame like a disfiguring scar.”

The story itself is a cliché of the lecherous teacher exploiting a student, the twist here being that the professor’s wife allowed the relationship with the proviso:  “Look, but don’t touch.”  So what Christine did for the professor while a student (She now has a PhD in French lit, a Fulbright, and a tenure-track job in California.) is take her clothes off and loll about on the bed while he watched—never touching her or himself.  The wife has invited Christine to a Tribute for her bounder husband, inviting Christine as a “present” for him.  But clever PhD that she is, she goes home with a man she meets at the Tribute, instead treating us to this hokey epiphany in a taxi: “She kissed Martin passionately.  Let the ghosts hover: his body was a tangible thing, arms and hands and shoulders.  His mouth felt warm and alive.  Yes to everything, she thought.  Do everything to me.”

Oh My!  Oh Dear! Golly Gee!  Hot stuff!

Good Lord!

Mike Meginnis, “Navigators”

This is a video game story.  Since I have not played video games since my kids were small—and then it was pac-man and the like on an old Atari—that might make much of this story alien to me.  But, in spite of what some of you might think, I try to give every story I read the benefit of the doubt from the beginning—although in some stories I begin to fall away right away as I read. 

After one reading, I must admit I liked this story.  Although I was unfamiliar with the descriptions of specific details of action taking place on the video screen, I do know enough about the basic premise and structure of such games that I could follow the action fairly easily. I liked the story for two reasons: First, once Mike Meginnis sets up the premise and the character configuration of a father and son obsessed with a video game called Legend of Silence, he mainly stays out of the way.  Second, I liked the metaphysically significant switch on the usual game premise.  In this game, the goal is not to become increasingly more powerful, as in Metroid (the actual game on which this fictional game is based), but rather to lose everything so that one can enter Nirvana.

I remember what so fascinated me about pac-man was that what was merely a small circle on the screen took on, when it began to move, the semblance of a living thing—a voracious creature with a mouth that could eat everything in its path.  The computer-generated figure in Legend of Silence is, like Seamus Aran in Metroid, a female—an avatar that takes on human characteristics with which the player can identify and wish to assist and protect.

It’s a predictable device in this story that as the father and son become more and more obsessed with the game (with the father trying to create a map of the world the game represents), they move further and further away from everyday reality—failing to pay the gas bill (but of course not the electric bill), eating peanut butter and jelly, becoming crusted over with cheese-puff dust and stained with cranberry juice cocktail.

Since the purpose of the game is to transcend reality to the ultimate loss of self, the real challenge is how to end the story.  And here, I was disappointed that the end depends on words on the game screen that query the players with yes or no questions, e.g. “Is your enemy in Nirvana?”  When they choose “No,” the game responds: “Your enemy is not in Nirvana, and neither are you.  There is no you.”  When the players say they do not wish to pursue the enemy, the game responds: “The weight falls from your body.  Your body falls from your soul.  Your soul falls from your absence.  The absence is not yours.”  And so on and so on. 

The game tells them they will forget fear and they will forget love. When the game is over, the boy feels a need for that which is about to happen—like when he squeezed his father’s hand waiting for his mother to pluck glass from his foot with a pair of tweezers. The premise of trying to lose everything is, of course, drawn from most religions, such as Christianity, whose central proviso is that one must lose the self to find the self.  I am just not sure that Meginnis’s ending is equal to the power of this paradoxical demand.

Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish”

I read Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” when it first appeared in The New Yorker this year and posted a blog on it.  To keep you from having to look it up, I will reprint some of my comments here.  I am a huge fan of Millhauser.  To me he is the great Romantic of twenty-first century fiction. And thus, one of the greatest short story writers of his era.

“Miracle Polish” is a “concept” story that draws on nineteenth-century German romantic notions, which Millhauser has used before.  It begins in traditional folklore fashion:  A stranger comes to the door with something for sale called “Miracle Polish.”  When the protagonist buys a bottle of the polish and shines his mirror with it, he seems to see himself differently: “There was a freshness to my body, a kind of mild glow that I had never seen before… What I saw was a man who had something to look forward to, man who expected things of life.”  This transformation becomes an obsession with him, and he polishes all the mirrors in his house and buys many more mirrors to polish and hang so that everywhere he turns he sees his transformed self.  However, when he tries to involve the woman with whom he has a relationship in his mirror obsession, she accuses him of preferring the woman in the mirror to her actual physical self.

As in many other Millhauser stories, “Miracle Polish” is a metaphorical exploration of the Platonic notion that underlies all romanticism—the reality of artifice.  The narrator’s sense of growing obsession is typical of the romantic short story that gave birth to the form in the early nineteenth century.  Edgar Allan Poe has always been accused of being indifferent to living, flesh and blood subjects.  W. H. Auden has said there is no place in any of his stories for "the human individual as he actually exists in space and time," that is, as a natural creature and an historical person.  Richard Wilbur in his famous Library of Congress Lecture in 1959 concluded that Poe's aesthetic that "art should repudiate everything human and earthly," was insane.  However, the repudiation of "reality" as being only everyday human experience is precisely what myth and folklore--the primal forerunners of the short story--are based on.  Poe's aesthetic, and thus the dominant aesthetic of the short story, has always been based on this same assumption that the artistic objectification of desire is true reality.

And it is this Romantic premise that Steven Millhauser continues to explore in his short fiction.  “Miracle Polish” is not, in my opinion, as good a story as many of the complex and magical stories that appeared in We Others:  New and Selected Stories, which came out this past year. But, until the next Millhauser story comes along, it will do very nicely.  If you truly love the short story, you really should give yourself the pleasure of reading We Others.

Alice Munro, “Axis”

I read this Munro story when it came out earlier this year in The New Yorker, and I discuss it in my new book, Critical Insights:  Alice Munro, which came out this month.  I am not allowed to use the same material on my blog that I used in that essay, but will make a few general comments here that I did not make there.  By the way, some of my Canadian readers who already have a copy of Munro’s new collection of stories Dear Life have informed me that “Axis” is not included.  I am not sure why.  I do not know if it appears in the American edition, which I should receive early next week.

Frank O’Connor once suggested that the short story does not deal as the novel does with problems of the moment, but with what John Millington Synge calls “the profound and common interests of life."  The short story, claimed O’Connor, is a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.” I have argued in other places that one of the reasons for the short story’s focus on the “profound and common interests in life” is the form’s origins in myth and folklore, which Mircea Eliade has argued, narrates, “primordial events” in consequence of which human beings became what they are today. Myth, says Eliade, teaches human beings the primordial stories that have “constituted them existentially.”

I is my opinion that Munro’s story, in spite of its realistic appearance is about a primordial, universal event that constitutes human beings existentially.  One of the things the story is about is the primordial experience of “time,” of which Munro has said:

“Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.”  “Memory,” she says, “is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.”

“Axis,” is a good example of what Alice Munro calls a “short story way” of perceiving reality; it is also a good example of Munro’s typical short story concern with “the profound and common interests of life,” a primordial event, as Eliade says about story that constitute human beings existentially—a “lyric cry in the face of human destiny.” In “Axis,” the lyric cry is about the nature of time—temporally moving and spatially captured.

Munro is too smart not to be aware of the contrast between time as being marked by a series of solid layers stacked on each other in space and time being something that constantly moves.  The paradox of this stillness that continually moves reminds us of the paradox of the word “still” in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:  “Thou still unravished bride of quietness.”  The literary critic Murray Krieger in a famous essay entitled “Ekpharasis and the Still Movement of Poetry” has pointed out that the word “still” means both “not moving” and “still going on.”  In the artwork, a “here-and-now” unique concrete action, by means of aesthetic pattern, echo, and repetition, becomes a "forever-now motion." Thus, in the artwork, we perceive both motion and stasis at once.

Although you may shake your head at all this, saying, “Come on, May, this is a story about a couple of young women and what happens to them, not a story about motion and stasis, space and time, and all that abstract stuff.”  I, of course, disagree.  The short story as a form has never been simply concerned with the realistic lives of its characters in the everyday world, but rather, at its best, interested in exploring, as Munro says, “some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH.”

Lawrence Osborne, “Volcano”

 Sometimes a story works when just the right combination of elements come together almost inevitably.  Here it is a 46-year old woman who files for divorce after catching her husband cheating on her and goes to Hawaii to attend a lucid dreaming seminar.  The idea of being able to control your dreams, rather than being helplessly caught by them seems an irresistible metaphor for a woman who is getting older and feeling lonely and abused and wishes to manage her own reality.  It also creates a neither world between dream and reality that the short story has always been quick to exploit, a world in which one is not sure if what he or she is experiencing is actually happening or happening in a dream.  Poe and Hawthorne were masters at creating this kind of uncertain reality. “Young Goodman Brown,” for example, ends with Brown waking up from what he was convinced was actually happening.  Many Poe stories, such as “The Premature Burial,” place a character in a realm of reality that seems both real and dreamlike at once.

All of “Volcano” exists in this kind of neither world as a result of the central character’s distress and loneliness at the breakup of her marriage.  When the woman skips the dream seminar and goes to a small town called “Volcano,” she meets an elderly gentleman in a hotel, which seems deserted because of a volcano warning two nights earlier.  She drinks too much and allows herself to be seduced by the old man, even though she finds him ugly and repulsive.  The story ends with her in bed with the man, who says he is going to penetrate her all night, even as she tries all the techniques she has learned at the seminar to change the dream.

The lucid dreaming trope, which Osborne manages without pushing it to extremes, seems to fit well with the volcano metaphor, as the woman struggles to come to terms with the break up of her life and her husband’s betrayal of her trust.   But her feeling that she can change the dream she now seems to be in with the old man is an illusion, or else something from which she does not wish to awaken.  It is, in my opinion, a well-controlled, delicately balanced, story leading me to sympathize with the woman and identify with her sense of loneliness.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fourth Anniversary of Reading the Short Story: Reading Best American Short Stories: 2012

November 2012, marks the fourth anniversary of my blog, Reading the Short Story.  In those four years, I have posted over two hundred brief essays on various aspects of the form. The blog is now averaging approximately 12,000 pageviews a month—certainly not viral--not even a lowgrade temperature--but enough to make me happy that there are so many admirers of the literary form I have spent my life studying, teaching, and writing about.  Thank you to all those who read my essays. Special thanks, of course, to those who take the time to respond with comments.

I plan to spend my fourth anniversary month of November reading and writing about the stories in The Best American Short Stories: 2012.  I plan to post an essay each week on five or six of the stories—taking them pretty much as they appear in the volume.  So if you want to read along with me, get a copy of the book and join me.  By the way, I get no kickback from Mariner-Houghton Mifflin, or any publisher for that matter.

The Best American Short Story series editor, Heidi Pitlor, reads thousands of stories each year and chooses 120 that she considers the “Best.”  She then sends them to the guest editor—this year Tom Perotta (who made his debut in 1995 with a collection of short stories entitled Bad Haircut and then, like most writers, turned to the more profitable novel).  The guest editor chooses twenty he or she thinks are the “Best” of the “Best,” and Pitlor lists the remaining one hundred as “distinguished stories” in the back.

Although a large number of stories are always from the New Yorker, and thus relatively widely read, Best American Short Stories, as well as the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize collection, provide a number of readers with stories they might not otherwise have seen--published originally in little-known places, such as New Ohio Review, Hobart, Orion, and Fifth Wednesday Journal—not to mention the more well-known journals, Granta, Ploughsares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review.

As I have noted before, I have no way of knowing how much weight Pitlor and the guest editor give to the merits of the individual story vs. the merits of creating a balanced book.  Perhaps readers would not like twenty stories in the Millhauser mode or the Munro mode—no matter how good they are. This year’s collection features many of the writers that readers of the volume have grown to expect, and respect: Steven Millhauser, George Saunders, Mary Gaitskill, Nathan Englander, and, of course, the treasured Alice Munro.  (Thank goodness, they are also now recognizing the brilliant stories of Edith Pearlman.).  The other writers are not so well known, at least in the world of the short story, but they are not beginners either—having being honored by prestigious prizes and publications.

I begin with the first five stories in the collection:

Carol Anshaw, “The Last Speaker of the Language”
Taylor Antrim, “Pilgrim Life”
Nathan Englander, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”
Mary Gaitskill, “The Other Place”
Roxanne Gay, “North Country”

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”

 I reiterate what I said last year when I argued against Englander’s story being short listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize (He won!):  I just don’t think this is a very good story.  However, if you are a lover of Raymond Carver (and who isn’t?) and hate of the Holocaust (and who doesn’t?), it is, I admit a hard story to resist.  It is just, to my mind, a stylistically ordinary, culturally loaded story with a typical Carver protagonist narrator monitoring a cultural conversation between two couples smoking joints rolled in paper tampon wrappers.  What makes the story interesting is that the couples are Jewish—one Hasidic, complete with male long beard and female shaved head—and the other more liberal.  What makes it compelling is that they evoke the horrors of the Holocaust at the end by playing the Anne Frank game of thinking of friends and neighbors they could count on to hide them if there was another Holocaust.  It is as if Englander is daring you not to revere this story.  Forgive me, but I think I can respect the story’s complex cultural context without admiring the story’s simplistic treatment.

Pilgrim Life”

I don’t particularly care for Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life” either.  But then I have never been a fan of stories about male “losers,” glibly told by the loser himself, unless, like Carver’s losers, they are redeemed by the tight-lipped style of the story and the structured complexity of their situation.  This is a story about a guy who, while in a car driven by a woman with whom he wants a relationship, later tries to defend her for hitting a homeless guy wandering on the highway. This central situation is plot-complicated by the fact that the guy is snobbishly proud that he comes from Pilgrim stock, that his mother has breast cancer, and that he is trying to get a half million-dollar loan from his rich roommate.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he says, “I make bad decisions.”  However, he is not redeemed from these bad decisions just because he is smart enough to know that he is stupid.  The simplicity of the story’s character and plot meandering is not redeemed by Antrim’s attempt to “postmodern” it up a bit by breaking up the sequence of events and rearranging them, which creates a bit of a surprise ending, without any real reason.  All’s well in the end and we leave the narrator no worse for wear—in fact even better off than he was.  Not sure what that means.  Not sure I care.

“The Other Place”

 I must admit, I started the Mary Gaitskill story ready to dislike it, for I did not admire her last collection of stories, Don’t Cry.  Gaitskill is perhaps best known for her first collection of stories, Bad Behavior (1988), which included an often anthologized little shocker about masochism entitled “Romantic Weekend,” and a story on which the 2002 film “Secretary,” was based—staring Maggie Gyllenhaal as a mentally ill woman who cuts her self and James Spader as a dominating boss with obsessive tendencies. The two stories alone gave Gaitskill the reputation as a literary bad girl—all of which was furthered promoted by her revelations that she was a stripper for a couple of years.
“The Other Place,” like many of Gaitskill’s stories, explores the nature of perversion.  I realize that this word often evokes repulsion at what is often thought to be cruel, antisocial behavior.  But that may be an oversimplified bias; the “perverse” simply refers to any deviation (another loaded word) from what the majority might think is “normal” or “natural.”  The narrator, a man with a thirteen-year-old son who loves to play with toy guns, says his childhood was “normal,” adding “But you have to go pretty far afield to find something people would call abnormal now these days.” 

Both the father and the son are fascinated by a TV movie image of a terrified blonde girl clinging to the bars of a cage with a tear running down her face.  The one “not-normal” thing from his childhood, he says, is that before he was born his mother worked occasionally as a prostitute.  When he was a teenager, the narrator says he got excited by the thought of girls getting hurt or killed.  When he sees such images on TV, he goes to an invisible world he calls “the other place,” where he sometimes watches a killer and sometimes becomes one.

As a teenager, the narrator hitchhikes a ride with a middle-aged woman and threatens to shoot her.  The woman urges him to do it, telling him to “Go for it.”  When he backs down, she kicks him out of the car.  The man knows that somewhere in his son there is “the other place” also.  He thinks that he is in there with him.

I realize that a story like this one, if dramatized on a television mystery show—e.g. “Dexter,” would seem frightening and repulsive.  However, the very fact that a show like “Dexter” can humanize a mass murderer by justifying him a killer of mass murders, might very well mean, of course, that there is “The Other Place” inside of all of us.  Gaitskill manages the story in such an understated, matter-of-fact way that the “unnatural” seems somehow “natural” to the reader.  I find the story a convincing little exploration of the “heart of darkness” in everyone, without pushing the envelope so far as to “simply” horrify the reader.

“The Last Speaker of the Language”

 I also like Carol Anshaw’s story, a third-person story about a woman (Darlyn) trying to cope with her mother’s  (Jackie) alcoholism.  The third important woman in the story is Darlyn’s daughter, who has changed her name from Mary to Lake, and who is, at age ten, the queen of the microwave.  The fourth important woman is Christy, a married woman with whom Darlyn is having a love affair.  The plot of the story involves Darlyn going with her daughter and her obese brother Russ to get drunk Jackie at a casino hotel where she has won a little over $40,000. 

The title of the story is evoked when Christy tells Darlyn that she has heard a story on NPR about the death of a woman who was the last speaker of a language named “Bo.”  The saddest part, she says, is that the second-to-last speaker of “Bo” died four years before; thus, the woman had no one in the world she could talk to for four years.  Darlyn says that she thinks the saddest thing in the world is that she is in love with Christy and thus the only one she can speak to.  The story ends with Darlyn’s brother telling her that this romance will not change her life.  Darlyn says she knows this, but adds, “It’s just about—even for a day—being this purely happy.  Like, happy to be a carbon-based life form.” 

I like the story because Anshaw handles the character configuration so deftly.  In the midst of the triangle created by Darlyn, her alcoholic mother, and her Lexus-driving lover, there is the child Lake who quietly goes about preparing meals for everyone.  I also like the point of view, which although third person, reflects the mind of Darlyn.  For example, she thinks that although it is bad to complain about the world’s most wonderful child, it would have been great if Lake were interested in tango or European architecture.  “She was prepared for a few genetic wild cards, though, having used an anonymous sperm donor (how she thinks of the person with whom she had a two-night stand during the death throes of her heterosexuality.”  

It is this voice and the poignancy of the title concept of someone being the last speaker of a language that makes me like all the characters in this story and wish them well; basically all they really want is to be happy, or at least not to be lonely—even the alcoholic mother and the reluctant lover.  I can’t even feel bad toward Christy’s angry husband when he discovers her infidelity, although I am glad when the obese Russ pinches a nerve at the base of his neck and says, “No more poking or shouting.” 

“North Country” 

In her Contributor’s Notes, Roxanne Gay calls this story a “love letter to the North Country,” for it is about her realization of the complexity and beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It’s a first person story told in the present tense—a technique that conveys some immediacy, but little contemplation.  That’s o.k. with me.  I like this story because I like the persona of the young Black woman who tries to come up with more and more creative responses to the question, “Are you from Detroit?”  Indeed, the whole story owes its charm to the way this woman responds to her situation of being the only woman in the University department where she is doing postdoc work, and obviously one of the few Black people in the area.  When she goes to rent an apartment, the landlady gasps, “You didn’t sound like a colored girl on the phone”; her response: “I get that a lot.” 

 Several times during the story, she repeats the mantra, “In my lab things make sense.”  But she says about the culture and the country, “Nothing makes sense here.”  Her affair with a man named Magnus who lives in a rusty old trailer is, like the area, strange to her, as if visiting “another country.”  When he teaches her how to milk a cow, she repeats, “Nothing makes sense here.”  But as she becomes more comfortable both with the man and the country, the story does indeed develop into a tender and touching love story, ending when Magnus builds her an igloo and lights a small fire inside for them.  As she tells him about her idea of the daughter she once gave up for adoption, he brings her cold fingers to his warm lips, and she says, “He fills all the hollow spaces.”  Call me a romantic and be damned, but I think the story is a finely constructed love story of a stranger finding a home--  both in a place and in a person.