Sunday, January 31, 2016

Denis Johnson, Colum McCann, and Elizabeth McCracken: My Favorite Stories in 2015 BASS

I am reading the 2015 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, which has been edited by Laura Furman since 2003.  I don't always agree with Ms. Furman, who is solely responsible for choosing the twenty prize winning stories each year. And during the next two or three weeks, I will try to articulate my agreement/disagreement with her choices this year. However, I do agree with something she says in her Introduction: "The best short stories don't necessarily have the cleverest plots or the most ingenious twists, but they do have the best prose and a full creation of a fictional world."
I think most great short story writers are dedicated to this proposition.  I have always preached the importance of the prose in my short-story classroom and in my writing about the form.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from a paper I presented at a conference on the short story a few years ago and that later appeared in print:
The short story’s poem-like emphasis on language and form rather than on content and social issues is one of the primary characteristics of what we loosely call “modernism,” which, as that great short story writer Donald Barthelme reminds us, begins with Flaubert, who changed the emphasis from the what to the how—a shift that is not merely formalism and not at all superficial, insists Barthelme, but rather an “attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one at that.” As Flaubert himself so emphatically proclaimed, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot.  When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.”  And no less emphatically, Truman Capote once said he wished always to maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over his short story material. “Call it precious and go to hell,” barked Capote, “but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.”
That the short story is a modern genre embodying Flaubert’s ideal is a prevalent authorial conviction.  Harold Brodkey recites the familiar modernist mantra about the short story this way: “The music of language carries more of the real meaning [in the short story] than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music.” American author Charles D’Ambrosio agrees, chiming in that, “It’s the musical nature of sentences, where you actually hear the sound in a meaningful way, and those sounds have meaning and nuances as important as any of the content.” “ I love that aspect of the short story, says D’Ambrosio; it’s almost like reading a poem.” Short story writer Amy Hempel says that when she starts a story, she often knows the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, without knowing what the words are. “I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again,” she says, “and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence.”
It is the power of the prose that most affects me in my three favorite stories in the 2015 Best American Short Stories:  Denis Johnson's "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck," and Colum McCann's "Sh'khol."

Of these three favorites, McCracken's "Thunderstruck" is probably the least lyrical, the most transparent in its use of language.  But there is something about the rhythm of the story that seems to work the way Flaubert meant when he said, “I don’t give a damn about the story, the plot.  When I am writing, my idea is to render a colour, a tonality.”                                                                      I read this story to my wife a few weeks ago, while we were lying in bed, just before sleep.  I often do this, saying, "Listen to this."  There are some stories you just have to read with your lips moving and that you just have to share.
The story opens with this line: "Wes and Laura had not even known Helen was missing when the police brought her home at midnight." Helen is twelve and has been at a nitrous oxide party, inhaling the stuff from garbage bags. Wes and Helen decide to take Helen and her sister Kit, who is seven, to Paris for five weeks to give a jolt to Helen's system before school starts in the fall  "Helen seemed like an intelligence test they were failing, had been failing for years."
"In Paris, Helen became a child again.  She was skinny, pubescent, not the lean dangerous blade of a near-teen she'd seemed at home." The two sisters become friends , "as though their fighting had been an allergic reaction to American air." Helen and her father want to stay in Paris. The mother sees a look on Helen's face, not just of happiness, but the "wish to convey that happiness to someone else, a generosity."  However, later that night, they get a phone call that Helen is in a hospital. With the help of her sister, Helen has been sneaking out at night to hang out with a group of French boys and, having struck her head in a fall, is being kept unconscious to relieve the pressure on her brain.
Later, Laura must take Kit back to America to start school, but Wes stays with Helen, and as she slowly rises back into consciousness she has "the daft look of a saint," her hair cropped like Jeanne d'Arc's. When Wes feeds her some marshmallow fluff, she looks out at him as if she was "sunk in the bottom of a well. Everything above her was hidden in shadows." She cannot speak, but Wes gets her watercolors and a sketch pad, and she begins to paint, and, from her father's point of view, to get better.  However, when the mother returns, she is not so sure—even reluctantly thinking it might have been better had Helen not survived the fall.
And thus the story ends, not with a resolution, since resolutions are often phony, but with a suspension and these luminous sentences:
"Helen painted.  That was real.  He knew his own brain, what it could make up and what it couldn't. He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness.  It was a circus act, a perilous one.  Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip."

"Sh'khol" by Colum McCann is another "lost child" story, this time a temporary loss that foretells a permanent one when a parent must give up his or her child to whatever lies ahead in adolescence/adulthood.  McCann says the story, like many great stories, is a "collision of obsessions." But, he adds:
 Still, the trouble with fiction "is that it often makes too much sense and we allow our obsessions to narrow themselves.  Characters with their conscious actions, plotlines unrolling themselves in in inexorable ways, everything neat, ordered, controlled. You always want to keep the critical heckler alive in yourself. I found myself wanting to write a story that would be grounded in action, but still elusive, tenebrous, and certainly unfilmable.  Nothing is ever, eventually found out."
The plot of the story is the least of it, although without the plot, the story is nothing.  It is about a Jewish single mother, living with an adopted Russian deaf boy with fetal alcohol syndrome in Galway on the West coast of Ireland. It is just after Christmas, for which she has bought him a wet suit, and he disappears.  That's the plot—his going missing, with that damned ill-fitting wetsuit, and then miraculously turning up, only to be lost again to the future. But it is not the plot, but the language of the story that makes it a  mysterious story. Here are some sentences that should suggest what it is about:
"There was a raw wedge of thrill in her love for him.  The presence of the unknown. The journey out of childhood. The step into a future self."
"They stepped out into a shaft of light so clear and bright that it seemed made of bone."
"The onset of an early adolescence. What might happen in the years to come, when the will of his body surpassed the strength of her own? How would she hold him down? What discipline would she need, what restraint?"
"The top half of the front door was still latched. The bottom half swung panicky in the wind. She ducked under, wearing only her nightgown. The grass outside was brittle with frost. The cold seeped between her toes. His name was thrown back to her from among the treetops."
"At the back of the cottage the trees curtsied. The branches speckled the wall with shadows."
"She felt as if she had chewed a piece of aluminum. The pain in her head suddenly cold."
"She moved away from him, closed the door and stood outside in the corridor, listening to his stark breathing and the persistent splash of water, its rhythm sounding out against the faint percussion of the nearby sea."

"The Largesse of the Sea Maiden"
In his interview with Deborah Treisman in The New Yorker, Denis Johnson reminds us that T. S. Eliot spoke of making “quasi-musical decisions” in his writing. "That’s how I’d put it, too," says Johnson.  "Do you know the Billy Strayhorn composition “Lush Life”? The way this story unstrings itself reminds me of “Lush Life.” 
If you do not know "Lush Life," there are a number of versions available on "You Tube."  My favorite is the one by Ella Fitzgerald, but Lady Gaga has a nice recent version with Tony Bennett . I don't think I can explain how Johnson's story "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" somehow evokes or echoes (I hate the clich├ęd word "resonates") Strayhorn's composition.  But I like the idea that Johnson feels that in writing the prose he was writing music.
Johnson's story "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" is a collection of very short pieces, each independent, but held together by all being told by the same narrator, an advertising man who has left New York to live in San Diego.
The first is an account of people at a dinner party talking about silences, when one man silences everyone by saying the most silent thing he ever heard was a land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan. The second "silence" is about another dinner party when the host, for no apparent reason, puts a valuable painting into the fireplace to be consumed. In the third story, the narrator tells of getting a phone call from his first wife who says she is dying, but after she hangs up, he is not sure if it is his first wife, named "Ginny" who has called or his second wife "Jenny."  The story ends with his wondering, "if you are like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you."
In the last segment, the narrator, who says he is just shy of sixty-three, is lying in bed with his wife watching TV. He thinks that he has "lived longer in the past now than I can expect to live in the future.  I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn't mind forgetting a lot more of it."
He says he sometimes lies awake and reads something "wild and ancient" from one of the collections of folktales he owns:
"Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse."
There is indeed something magical and absolutely story-like about these short pieces by Denis Johnson. They evoke mysteries like those in fairy tales and The Arabian Nights, which exist in an alternate realm of story and only seem to be about reality in a funhouse mirror sort of way. Sometimes, they provoke an open-mouthed awe when, as Johnson's narrator says, "the Mystery winks at you."

The problem I always faced in the classroom was how to compel students to feel what I felt when reading a story.  It was like trying to "share" one's feelings about a piece of music.  I remember sometimes responding so emotionally to a song that I wanted to grab hold of a friend or lover and say, "Listen to this! You just have to listen to this!" and then being disappointed when they listened politely and responded with a quizzical cocked eyebrow.
I once had an old Victorian poetry professor in undergraduate school who would come into the classroom, open book in hand, and say, "Listen to this!"  And then he would read a poem, something like Thomas Hardy's  "The Convergence of the Twain." When he finished, he would close the book and look up at us, with a smile on his round old face as if he had just shared with us a beautiful secret that he hoped we knew.  He never really talked much about the poems, just read them and smiled, as if that was enough, or maybe all that one could do when faced with a piece of music that seemed to defy explanation, but which meant something profound and wonderful.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Themes and Images, and Stories that Make Some Folks Cry: Best American Short Stories, 2015--Part II

"Bride," Julia Elliott
This seems to me to be primarily a theme-story based on the medieval concept of the basic evil of the female body.  It begins with a nun whipping herself in order to "chastise" her "animal body.  She has subdued her body to the extent that her menstrual flow  is no longer a flow, but a dribble. She thinks of her body as a "bundle of polluted flesh."  Just the night before the Abbot has said women are by "nature carnal"—that they have an "opening that the Devil may slip through unless she fiercely barricade against such entry."
In an interview in Fiction Writers Review, Julia Elliott said:  "In grad school I read a lot of Renaissance gynecology and obstetrics works and discovered that they are insane; they are like magic realism or something: monstrous births, weird reproductive theories, melancholy, all that stuff. When barber surgeons started to do anatomy theatres, it all got a little more 'scientific,' as we think of it today, but was still brutal and culturally loaded. If they had a woman out on the anatomy table, for example, you could pay admission and go and watch, and the anatomist would say things like 'Behold, here is the uterus, the origin of sin and death,' and then he would dissect it. Here, cultural ideas about femininity are obviously mixed in with the supposed science."
The notion that the uterus is the origin of sin and death is the basic thematic concept that energizes the story, but the story does not create it or explore it; it simply embodies or illustrates this preexisting cultural/religious idea.

"Big Cat," Louise Erdrich
Whereas Julia Elliott's story seems obviously the embodiment of a thematic idea, Louise Erdrich insists that her story is somewhat of a mystery to her and to those who read it. She said in her "Contributor's Notes" that when people mention this story to her their mouths open and their hands flap, and they laugh an odd laugh.  As a consequence, she says this story became a favorite of hers because it seemed to make people uncomfortable.
In her interview with New Yorker editor Deborah Treisman, Erdrich said that when she was writing the story, the character Elida "seemed to thwart my narrator at every turn, yet she exuded a scholarly ascetic quality that was irresistible to him. I decided to give in to her perhaps unconscious malevolence, and after many revisions I wrote the ending. I was genuinely disturbed by this ending and have no idea how to account for it." When Treisman said she thought "The Big Cat” reads a little like a fairy tale or a fable, asking Erdrich there was a moral to this story, Erdrich said she liked the idea that "this story reads like a fairy tale, but there is no moral at all... Nothing I write ever has a moral. If it seems to a reader that there is one, that is unintentional."
The plot of this story focuses on a man married to a woman named Elida who snores. Not only Elida, but also her mother and her sisters are terrible snorers that no remedy seems to alleviate. After he divorces and marries someone else, he and his first wife become sexually involved again. This is less important than the significance Erdrich seems to develop out of the snoring and a short film Elida, edits together about the man's life, made up of snippets of bit parts he has played in movies.
The story ends with the man's recognition that the 30 minute film Elida has made which she entitled "Man of a Thousand Glimpses," makes a sort of narrative that has its own thematic significance.  From heroic acts to images of  being a good father, to infidelity, to criminal behavior, to multiple images of his death--the narrative is a "dark" one that makes the man feel he has wasted his life and acted ignobly. He realizes that the film reflects the way Elida really felt about him.
The story ends with them spending the night in Elida's parents' house. The snoring of the whole female side of the family hits him with "abrupt ferocity.  It is like a pack of wolves snarling over a kill and then lions driving off the wolves, gnawing off a leg and fending off a male. Elida sounds like a big cat ( thus the title of the story) digesting her prey, and he dreams he is the hunted animal being eaten alive.
Despite Erdrich's claim that she herself was not sure what to make of the ending of the story, it seems rather clear it evokes what Treisman recognizes as the fairy tale motif of the female revenging herself on the male for his treachery, for failing to be the good husband and good father that he promised to be, and finally devouring him like a wild animal—a big cat.

"The Fugue," Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Like Erdrich, Hemenway also disavows that he really knows how this story came about, as if the story somehow took control of the writing process.  He says, "I am embarrassed to admit that I don't remember actually writing this story," Suffering from sleep deprivation from having to wake up all though the night to feed a new baby who is having trouble eating, and feeling the pressure of having to turn a story in to a graduate workshop or risk failing began to get mixed up in his mind in an hallucinatory way.
The story seems to derive from Hemenway's research into the Iraq War, specifically about soldiers allegedly involved in atrocities.  He says in his "Contributor's Notes" that in his research, he learned  about the  U.S. military's strategy of re-creating whole Iraqi villages in the Mojave desert and hiring real Iraqi expatriates to "play out complex psychological behavioral profiles faked by various intelligence training units." The thematic concept that drives the story is the blurring of reality and fantasy as the central character, a soldier referred to as Wild Turkey, gets his memory of actual events and pretend events confused. It is all a bit too obvious for me.  Thom Jones did this war and fugue state theme several years ago with more style and energy than Hemenway does here.

"M&L," Sarah Kokernot
Kokernot says this story began with the image of a man picking up a woman's dress shoes as he followed her into the woods.  This is the image that the story moves toward and concludes with.  It has two separate points of view—one by Miriam, the ""M of the title, who was sexually attacked when she was thirteen and then sees the man years later at the time of this story at a wedding, and the second pov by Liam, the "L" of the title, who loves her.  It's a slim narrative striving for a kind of romantic, painful lyricism, but the language is not strong enough to support the delicacy the circumstance demands, for example: "He saws from her face that she'd gone to a place deep inside herself, and he knew she would never allow him to go there."  That's just too easy, isn't it?

"Jack, July," Victor Lodato
Lodata says the story started with body language—the way he pictured the central character's way of moving down the street. This is a story of a meth addict on the streets of Tucson, Arizona, on a journey across town in search of more drugs. Lodato, who once lived in Tucson, says he never really knows where he is going when he begins a story and that the character in this story perfectly mirrored his own state of mind.  He adds that the central character's heightened state of mind made him feel free to "go a little crazy, to edit myself less as I wrote—and in doing so, I ended up in in some unlikely places."
Maybe it is just my impatience with stories about guys on drugs, wandering about that makes me unimpressed with this story.  Maybe it is just the loose and lost sense of movement and style of this story that makes me lose any interest in what happens to Jack or in what that means, if anything. Maybe a little more editing might have been a good idea.

"Madame Lazarus," Maile Meloy
T. C. Boyle says in his Introduction that he felt this story was the most moving one in the collection.  He says he read it out doors and found himself in the "mortifying position" of sitting there exposed and sobbing in public, concluding that what Meloy has accomplished here is evoking "true emotion" over the ties that bind us to the world and how they are cruelly broken forever.
This is the story of an elderly gay man living in Paris with a younger man, who brings home a small terrier to keep the older man company after he retired. The story focuses on the man's fears that the young man will grow tired of him; it also centers around his memory of the first boy he loved and a tragedy that marked that love.
The story moves to a conclusion when the dog seems to have died and then revives, leading the vet to refer to the animal as "Madame Lazarus." A few months later, the dog becomes much more ill and must be taken to the animal hospital to be euthanized. And this is what makes T. C. Boyle cry.  Of course it does.  I cried when our dog of fifteen years died.  Everybody cries when a dog dies.  But this story is a fairly simple account that unfairly evokes an emotion that no one, at least no one who has ever had a dog, can resist.

"Mr. Voice," Jess Walter
In his "Contributor's Notes," Jess Walter says this story began with the first line that just popped into his head like a song lyric, "Mother was a stunner."  Calling it a story that kept surprising him as he discovered more about it every day, when he got to the end of the first draft and wrote the line the mother says to her daughter,("Nobody gets to tell you what you look like, or who you are"), he realized that's what he wanted to say to his own daughters concluding, "sentimental goof that I am, I started crying."
I can understand Walter's response, but I am not sure the story is what T. S. Eliot would call an "objective correlative" of the emotion.  It deals with a young girl whose mother is a beauty who goes out with lots of men, and then marries one who does commercials and announcements on the radio—earning the nickname "Mr. Voice."  When the narrator is age twelve, her mother leaves Mr. Voice and her for another man, and Mr. Voice becomes her guardian—and a good guardian and protector he is—not merely a stepfather, but, by the end of the story her "father."  It's a nice story, but a bit too easy in the emotion it evokes. "Thunderstruck," by Elizabeth McCracken, is, it seems to me, a more complex father/daughter story. (More about this story next time)

My favorite three stories in this year's Bass collection (which for me means they are the "best" of the "Best") are Denis Johnson's "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck," and Colum McCann's "Sh'khol." They all made me feel a strong emotion--not because they evoked anything personal or purposely played on my feelings, but because they were so damned well-written. More about that next week. For me, the "best" stories are always the best-written stories.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Plot and Action--Best American Short Stories 2015--Part I

The quality of the 20 stories in BASS in any given year is largely dependent on the judgment of the guest editor.  And this year's guest editor, who had 120 stories from which to choose 20, is T.C. Boyle.  If you have ever read T.C. Boyle stories (and I have, God help me! read all of them), you will know that Boyle likes "ripped from the headlines" action stories with lots of punch and snap. The following ten stories are largely plot-based stories. I will talk about the other ten stories, which have a bit more depth, and style next week.

"The Siege at Whale Cay," Megan Mayhew Bergman

Marion "Joe" Carstairs, famous as a lesbian who dressed as a man and had affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, bought the island Whale Cay in the Bahamas where she lived for more than 40 years, racing speedboats and entertaining lovers. This story focuses on a small town beauty named Georgie, one of Carstairs' "kept women" staying on the island when Marlene Dietrich comes for a visit. Would this piece (hardly a story) be interesting if it were not based on a famous "real-life" controlling iconoclast and a famous movie star?  I don't think so. The story is from a collection of similar "real life" stories entitled Almost Famous Women about such women as Oscar Wilde's niece, Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, and Butterfly McQueen who played the maid Prissy in Gone With the Wind. It's an interesting idea, but this is not a great story.

"Fingerprints," Justin Bigos

Bigos says this story began as a memoir piece he wrote for a class under Elizabeth Strout when he was in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. When he picked it up again years later for a fiction workshop he was taking for his doctoral program, he revised it extensively, noting that although it was still a series of memories of his father, as well as his stepfather and mother, he wanted the story to be about "storytelling—how we tell the stories of ourselves and, especially of the people who torture us with their tainted love."  Well, it seems to me to be primarily a series of memories—some perhaps actual, some perhaps invented.  But nothing more than memories of an alcoholic father and a ex-con stepfather—all recalled or invented in short fragments—all traces of someone who has been there—fingerprints.  Contrast this attempt to tell a story of fragments about storytelling and Denis Johnson's story, "The Largesse of the Sea Maidens," which T.C. Boyle rightly identifies as a "story about stories, about how we are composed of them and how they comprise our personal mythologies." I will talk about Johnson's story next week.

"Moving On," Diane Cook

This is a futuristic story about a society in which women live in shelters until they are "placed" with men, who are also placed in shelters until they are matched with a woman by a Case Manager. The story is told from the point of view of one such woman whose husband has died and is waiting to be placed with another man.  After eight months, she is placed.  In her "Contributor's Notes," Cook says the story arose from her thinking about people being left behind, people trying to find a way to "move on" with their lives when left. Although a story with such a theme as this could have been written realistically, Cook chooses to tell it as a kind of futuristic parable in which society has dealt with the problem of loss much the way animal shelters deal with it nowadays—finding someone to place a deserted animal with.  To make the story work, the woman must be treated like an animal, but Cook must also find a way to make her needs human. I think this works sometimes and sometimes not.

"You'll Apologize if You Have To," Ben Fowlkes

This is a story about a boxer who has just lost a fight to a knockout and may be reaching the end of his career.  As his coach says, "When the smell of the gym makes you sick, it's time to quit." He has an encounter with a man on the beach while smoking a joint and pushes the man down. The title comes from his realization that "You'll apologize if you have to" and he goes to the man's house and apologizes to his wife.  The story really depends on the tough language of fighting, e.g. "He looked like he had an accident while ironing." "This seemed like the kind of dude you assaulted." "He was four days out from a knockout loss and I-don't-give-a-fuck had settled in." "Coach Vee would still have the ability to make him feel; like he was Dennis the Menace, running around with a slingshot in his back pocket." Without the tough-talking language, the story would have little interest.

"Happy Endings," Kevin Canty

The story of a fifty-nine-year-old man named McHenry who has lost his wife to cancer. He digs wells for a living in Montana, but gets outbid by a Japanese computer-controlled drilling outfit and sells his business. Lonely, he goes to a massage parlor where the "happy ending" of a massage for twenty dollars extra is masturbation. The pure sensual pleasure he experiences makes him feel guilty, but also unsure if what he has done or feels is wrong. And this is what the story is about—a man, who his whole life has felt there was something furtive about sex, finally coming to a "happy ending" in which he thinks sex might be a blessing rather than a curse. Simple enough, but at the same time not so simple. The style is appropriately restrained, and the key is to make the reader empathize with the character. I think it works.

"Motherlode," Thomas McGuane

Although "Motherlode," another Montana man story, is twice as long as "Happy Endings," what makes it longer adds nothing significant to the story, but rather just lots of "local color" about the characters, as the story just goes on and on—as if McGuane is getting paid by the word. The plot follows a Montana man, David, who makes his living helping ranchers with cattle breeding by doing inseminations. The plot begins when a man named Ray sticks a gun in his ribs an orders him to drive him to a ranch where the man is to hook up a woman named Morsel (yeah, you read that right, "Morsel) he has meet in an on-line dating service. The two men get involved in a drug deal, which, of course, "ends badly," as they say.  Morsel gets shot, Ray gets shot, and when David lifts the lid of the trunk where the drugs are, while the drug baddie holds a gun in his ribs….  The end.  I just read the McGuane collection Crow Fair, where "Motherlode" appeared, and I have to say I was not impressed by any of the stories.  McGuane is not in the same league as others, such as Rick Bass and Annie Proulx, who have written about so-called "big sky" country.

"Unsafe at Any Speed," Laura Lee Smith

Smith says she has always liked cars and wanted to write a story about a car. She recalls when she was twenty-one she wanted to buy a used Corvair, but her father talked her out of it citing its unsafe rear-engine design. So she gave the car to her fictional character, forty-eight-year-old Theo Bitner travelling south in Florida intending to buy a Corvair and says the story "started to tell itself." She just stumbled on Ralph Nader's famous warning that the car was "Unsafe at Any Speed" and thought that would make a great title.
And that's about it, folks. It's a meaningless bit of escapist fun that any guy who likes cars or is tempted by mid-life crisis, or fantasizes about picking up a sexually-willing young woman with a purse full of money, or is sick of his job, etc. etc. will be happy to waste some time with.

"About My Aunt," Joan Silber

Silber said this story started when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012 and she heard a radio report about older residents who got along well without water or electricity. When she started thinking about the idea of self-reliance, she came up with the aunt character she named Kiki. She then had to create a character to set up as a contrasting point of view, and came up with the young woman narrator named Reyna. Then she wanted Reyna to have something at stake, so she came up with her boyfriend who was serving time at Rikers Island for selling a small amount of drugs. Silber says, "I wanted the two women to understand each other just fine, but view each other across a great divide, where neither envies the other."  The real key to the character of this rambling, random non-story is that after writing it, Silber saw it was less a short story than the first chapter of a novel.   So what is in this piece?---, some stuff about Aunt Kiki's life in Turkey, some stuff about the blackout in New York after Sandy hit, some stuff about the narrator's relationship with her boyfriend, and some promise for a novel to come about these two women. Editor Pitlor says that chapters of novels are not considered for inclusion in BASS, but I guess since this first appeared in Tin House as a story and only later became a chapter in a novel, that's all right.  But it still reads like a chapter in a novel, not like a short story.

"Kavitha and Mustafa," Shobha Rao

Because this story has the serious background of the India/Pakistan partition and because it deals with violence and death, one perhaps might feel that it must be taken more seriously than a story like, say, "Unsafe at Any Speed," which is basically just a plot-based story with some adventure and suspense.  But this story is also basically adventure and suspense, focusing on a couple on a train attacked by bandits, which is the action that engages the reader throughout the story—an action-based event that might very well be an episode in an action film or television show.  The author tells us that the action, however, is merely the excuse to explore the theme raised by the line "I was widowed long ago," which makes her think of marriages she has known in which widowhood came long before a death.  After 90% of the story deals with the viciousness of the bandits and the terror of their victims, the last 10% resolves both the attack on the train and the woman's loveless relationship with her husband by her "choosing" a young boy (she is childless) who saves both of them with a couple of pebbles and a length of string.

"North," Aria Beth Sloss

Sloss says the story was inspired by Alec Wilkson's The Ice Balloon, about the failed attempt of S.A. Andree, a nineteenth-century Swedish inventor, to reach the North Pole in a hot air balloon. Andree's body was found thirty-three years later with his diaries and papers, which Wilkson used to write the book. You would think this would be the most obvious adventure story in this group, but not so.  Sloss uses the adventure as a background context for a son's story about a mother's story of  living with a man planning such an exploit.  Actually, it is a story about a writer trying to use language to create a mythic story.  Sloss is not as proficient at this as Alastair McLeod or Andrea Barrett.  But I like this story better than the other adventure stories in this year's BASS because I am a sucker for mythic story and the kind of control of language necessary to create such a story.
Separating full paragraphs about the father's obsession and the mother's fascination/fear or losing her husband (all of which takes place before the son's/narrator's birth and thus evoked by his imagination) are short sentences like this: "He blinks, and he sky opens above him like an invitation." "The air is full of flying things."  "The sky snuffs itself out like a candle." "His mind vibrates like a plucked string." The story does not end with the father's departure or death, but rather four months after his departure, when the son is born and the mother cuts the umbilical cord with a kitchen knife, saying "This is what women do…By which she means she understands that one day I will leave her too. Lift off the ground, think myself beyond gravity."

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best American Short Stories in 100 Years

As you probably know, to arrive at a judgment as to what are the "Best" American short stories for the year, the series editor Heidi Pitlor reads stories from approximately 300 nationally distributed American or Canadian periodicals to come up  with what she thinks are the 120 "Best."  She then sends them to a guest editor who chooses what he or she thinks are the 20 "Best" stories out of those 120.  Pitlor writes a brief "Foreword," the guest editor writes a brief "Introduction." Each author of the 20 chosen stories writes a "Contributor" note, which includes a one-paragraph bio and a few paragraphs about the story, usually its origin and development. A list of the 100 stories chosen by Pitlor but not by the guest editor is appended.

In her Foreword this year, Pitlor reminds us that the 2015 volume is the hundredth volume of The Best American Short Stories. To commemorate the centennial celebration of the series, American short story writer Lorrie Moore chose 40 stories from the more than two thousand that have been published in the series over the years, and Heidi Pitlor provides some commentary on the trends marked by the stories decade by decade.

Here is the table of contents of the centennial volume 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories

1917 EDNA FERBER-The Gay Old Dog
1925 RING LARDNER-Haircut
1931 F. SCOTT FITZGERALD-Babylon Revisited
1933 KATHERINE ANN PORTER-The Cracked Looking-Glass
1936 WILLIAM FAULKNER-That Will Be Fine
1942 NANCY HALE-These Are As Brothers
1948 EUDORA WELTY-The Whole World Knows
1948 JOHN CHEEVER-The Enormous Radio
1957 TILLIE OLSEN-I Stand Here Ironing
1958 JAMES BALDWIN-Sonny's Blues
1959 PHILIP ROTH-The Conversion of the Jews
1962 FLANNERY O'CONNOR-Everything That Rises Must Converge
1962 JOHN UPDIKE-Pigeon Feathers
1967 RAYMOND CARVER-Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
1969 JOYCE CAROL OATES-By the River
1978 STANLEY ELKIN-The Conventional Wisdom
1980 GRACE PALEY-Friends
1982 CHARLES BAXTER-Harmony of the World
1986 RICHARD FORD-Communist
1988 ROBERT STONE-Helping
1989 DAVID WONG LOUIE-Displacement
1991 ALICE MUNRO-Friend of My Youth  
1993 MARY GAITSKILL-The Girl on the Plane
1996 AKHIL SHARMA-If You Sing Like That For Me
1997 JUNOT DIAZ-Fiesta, 1980
2000 JHUMPA LAHIRI-The Third and Final Continent
2000 ZZ PACKER-Brownies
2004 EDWARD P. JONES-Old Boys, Old Girls
2005 SHERMAN ALEXIE-What You Pawn I Will Redeem
2006 BENJAMIN PERCY-Refresh, Refresh
2006 TOBIAS WOLFF-Awaiting Orders
2012 NATHAN ENGLANDER-What  We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
2012 JULIE OTSUKA- Diem Perdidi
2013 GEORGE SAUNDERS-The Semplica-Girl Diaries
2014 LAUREN GROFF-At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners

In 2000, John Updike chose 55 stories for a volume entitled Best American Short Stories of the Century. Here is the table of contents of that volume of stories from 1915 to 1998.

·         Zelig /
·         Benjamin Rosenblatt
·         Little selves /
·         Mary Lerner
·         Jury of her peers /
·         Susan Glaspell
·         Other woman /
·         Sherwood Anderson
·         Golden honeymoon /
·         Ring Lardner
·         Blood-burning moon /
·         Jean Toomer
·         Killers /
·         Ernest Hemingway
·         Resurrection of a life /
·         William Saroyan
·         Christmas gift /
·         Robert Penn Warren
·         Bright and morning star /
·         Richard Wright
·         Hitch-hikers /
·         Eudora Welty
·         Peach stone /
·         Paul Horgan
·         "That in Aleppo once ..." /
·         Vladimir Nabokov
·         Interior castle /
·         Jean Stafford
·         Miami-New York /
·         Martha Gellhorn
·         Second tree from the corner /
·         E.B. White
·         Farmer's children /
·         Elizabeth Bishop
·         Death of a favorite /
·         J.F. Powers
·         Resemblance between a violin case and a coffin /
·         Tennessee Williams
·         Country husband /
·         John Cheever
·         Greenleaf /
·         Flannery O'Connor
·         Ledge /
·         Lawrence Sargent Hall
·         Defender of the faith /
·         Philip Roth
·         Criers and kibitzers, kibitzers and criers /
·         Stanley Elkin
·         German refugee /
·         Bernard Malamud
·         Where are you going, where have you been? /
·         Joyce Carol Oates
·         Rotifer /
·         Mary Ladd Gavell
·         Gold Coast /
·         James Alan McPherson
·         Key /
·         Isaac Bashevis Singer
·         Cty of churches /
·         Donald Barthelme
·         How to win /
·         Rosellen speaks /
·         Harold Brodkey
·         Silver dish /
·         Saul Bellow
·         Gesturing /
·         John Updike
·         Shawl /
·         Cynthia Ozick
·         Where I'm calling from /
·         Raymond Carver
·         Janus /
·         Ann Beattie
·         Way we live now /
·         Susan Sontag
·         Things they carried /
·         Tim O'Brien
·         Meneseteung /
·         Alice Munro
·         You're ugly, too /
·         Lorrie Moore
·         I want to live! /
·         Thom Jones
·         In the gloaming /
·         Alice Elliott Dark
·         Proper library /
·         Carolyn Ferrell
·         Birthmates /
·         Gish Jen
·         Soon /
·         Pam Durban
·         Half-skinned steer /
·         Annie Proulx
·         The best girlfriend you never had /
·         Pam Houston.

You might want to quibble and quarrel with these choices, but remember, the editors Lorrie Moore and John Updike had to choose from the stories that had already been chosen by past editors of Best American Short Stories. And they also had to "make a book," with all the demands for variety of subject matter, theme, locale, style, etc. that that "making a book" imposes.

I am now reading the twenty new stories chosen by T. C. Boyle for the 2015 volume of BASS, as it is sometimes not-so-elegantly called.  I will post a blog commentary on the first ten stories in that volume in a few days.