Thursday, September 21, 2017

Annie Proulx Will be Awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

The National Book Foundation has just announced that it will award Annie Proulx the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters--a $10,000 prize--at the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on Wednesday, November 15, 2017. I have always admired Proulx’s short stories. Here are some comments about her three “Wyoming Stories” collections:

Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Proulx focuses on the rural west, where her characters are ragged and rugged, but where, either because of her increased confidence as a writer or because she was inspired by the landscape and the fiercely independent populace, are compellingly caught in a world that is both grittily real and magically mythical at once.  Claiming that her stories gainsay the romantic myth of the West, Proulx admires the independence and self-reliance she has found there, noting that the people "fix things and get along without them if they can't be fixed. They don't whine."
Place is as important as the people who populate it in Close Range, for the Wyoming landscape is harsh yet beautiful, real yet magical, deadly yet sustaining.  In such a world, social props are worthless and folks are thrown back on their most basic instincts, whether they be sexual, survival, or sacred.  In such a world, as one character says in "Brokeback Mountain," "it's easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse." Annie Proulx's Wyoming is a heart of darkness inherent in place and personality at once.
The most remarkable thing about "Brokeback Mountain" is that although it is about a sexual relationship between two men, it cannot be categorized as a homosexual story; it is rather a tragic love story that simply happens to involve two males. The fact that the men are Wyoming cowboys rather than San Francisco urbanites makes Proulx's success in creating such a convincing and emotionally affecting story all the more wonderful.
Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are "high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects" who, while working alone on a sheep-herding operation on Brokeback Mountain, abruptly and silently, engage in a sexual encounter, after which both immediately insist, "I'm not no queer."  Although the two get married and do not see each other for four years, when they meet again, they grab each other and hug in a gruff masculine way, and then, "as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together."
Neither have sex with other men, and both know the danger of their relationship.  Twenty years pass, and their infrequent encounters are combination of sexual passion and personal concern.  The story comes to a climax when Jack, who unsuccessfully tries to convince Ennis they can make a life together, is mysterious killed on the roadside.  Although officially it was an accident, Ennis sorrowfully suspects that Jack has been murdered after approaching another man.  Although "Brokeback Mountain" ends with Jack a victim of social homophobia, this is not a story about the social plight of the homosexual.  The issues Proulx explores here are more basic and primal than that.  Told in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style, the story elicits a genuine sympathy for a love that is utterly convincing.
Chosen by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, "The Half-Skinned Steer" creates an hallucinatory world of shimmering significance out of common materials.  The simple event on which the story is based is a cross-country drive made by Mero, a man in his eighties, to Wyoming for the funeral of his brother.  The story alternates between the old man's encounters on the road, including an accident, and his memories of his father and brother.  The central metaphor of the piece is introduced in a story Mero recalls about a man who, while skinning a steer, stops for dinner, leaving the beast half skinned.  When he returns, he sees the steer stumbling stiffly away, its head and shoulders raw meat, its staring eyes filled with hate. The man knows that he and his family are done for.
The story ends with Mero getting stuck in a snow storm a few miles away from his destination and trying to walk back to the main highway.  As he struggles through the wind and the drifts, he notices that one of the herd of cattle in the field next to the road has been keeping pace with him, and he realizes that the "half-skinned steer's red eye had been watching for him all this time." In its combination of stark realism and folktale myth, "The Half-Skinned Steer" is reminiscent of stories by Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, for Mero's journey is an archetypal one toward the inevitable destiny of death. 
Annie Proulx has said that "The Mud Below" is her favorite story in Close Range, for "on-the-edge situations" and the rodeo interest her.  The title refers to the mud of the rodeo arena, and the main character is twenty-three-year-old Diamond Felts, who, at five feet three has always been called Shorty, Kid, Tiny, and Little Guy.  His father left when he was a child, telling him, "You ain't no kid of mine."  His mother taunts him about his size more than anyone else, always calling him Shorty and telling him he is stupid for wanting to be a bull rider in the rodeo.
The force of the story comes from Diamond's identification with the bulls.  The first time he rides one he gets such a feeling of power that he feels as though he were the bull and not the rider; even the fright seems to fulfill a "greedy physical hunger" in him.  When one man tells him that the bull is not supposed to be his role model, Diamond says the bull is his partner.
The story comes to a climax when Diamond is thrown and suffers a dislocated shoulder.  Tormented by the pain, he calls his mother and demands to know who his father is. Getting no answer, Diamond drives away thinking that all of life is a "hard, fast ride that ended in the mud," but he also feels the euphoric heat of the bull ride, or at least the memory of it, and realizes that if that is all there is, it must be enough.
Like most of the stories in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" is about surviving. As Old Red, the ninety-six-year-old grandfather says at the end, "The main thing in life was staying power.  That was it: stand around long enough, you'd get to sit down."  Picked by Amy Tan to be included in the 1999 The Best American Short Stories, it is one of the most comic fictions in the collection.  A story about a young woman named Ottaline, with a "physique approaching the size of a propane tank," being wooed by a broken-down John Deere 4030 tractor could hardly be anything else.
Ottaline's only chance for a husband seems to be the semiliterate hired man, Hal Bloom, with whom she has silent sex, that is, until she is first approached by the talking tractor, who calls her "sweetheart, lady-girl."  Tired of the loneliness of listening to cell phone conversations on a scanner, Ottaline spends more and more time with the tractor, gaining confidence until, when made to take on a cattle trading responsibility by her ill father, she meets Flyby Amendinger, who she soon marries. The story ends with Ottaline's father getting killed in a small plane he is flying.  The ninety-six-year old grandfather, who sees how things had to go, has the powerfully uncomplicated final word--that the main thing in life is staying power.

Bad Dirt:  Wyoming Stories 2.
In Close Range: Wyoming Stories, one of Annie Proulx’s narrators says ominously, “Friend, it’s easier than you think to yield up to the dark impulse.” Well, if that book painted the desperate side of rural big sky life, then Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 is largely a light-hearted companion volume. Made up of six very brief tall-tales and five longer stories, Bad Dirt (which refers to rough country roads) is, by and large, a snort-out-loud hoot.
Most of the action takes place in and around Elk Tooth, Wyoming, pop. 80, only worth visiting for three bars, the most popular of which is Pee Wee’s, where such stories are best told and most enjoyed.  Take for example “The Trickle Down Effect,” in which Fiesta Punch, one of the area’s many desperate women ranchers, hires Deb Sipple to drive to Wisconsin to pick up some hay.  But Deb stops for too many drinks and tosses too many cigarettes out the window on the way back.  When he rolls into Elk Tooth late at night, it is the closest thing to a meteor the folks have ever seen.
And what about “Summer of the Hot Tubs”?  When Amanda Gribb, who tends bar at Pee Wee’s, hears about Willy Huson’s using an enormous cast-iron cooking pot for a hot tub, she grabs some frozen corn and a can of chili powder, declaring, “If he’s goin cook hisself let’s get some flavor in there.”  Then there’s “The Hellhole,” in which Game Warden Creel Zmundzinski’s contempt for poachers is made clear by a fiery fissure that opens up under the obnoxious culprits he catches.
Although the longer stories are somewhat more culturally complex, they still have a wry, tongue-in-cheek tone. In “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” Gilbert Wolfscale, born and raised on the family ranch, is “caught in the downward ranching spiral of too much work, not enough money, drought.” His wife leaves him and his two boys want nothing to do with him.  But he has a “scalding passion” for the ranch. He knows exactly what kind of furniture Jesus would pick if he owned a place in Wyoming.
In “The Indian Wars Refought,” Charlie Parrott, a reservation Sioux, marries the widow Georgina Brawls, and his 20-something daughter Linney, a real hellcat, comes to live with them.  In the process of cleaning up an old commercial building, she finds letters from Buffalo Bill Cody about making a movie of the battle at Wounded Knee and becomes suddenly fired up on learning of the massacre of her people. In “Man Crawling Out of Trees,” when Mitchell Fair and his wife Eugenie retire from the East to Wyoming, he buys an old pickup truck and drives around the prairie on his own.  She gets more and more lonely, until a man crawls toward her out of the woods and she breaks the cardinal rule of the country.
In “The Wamsutter Wolf,” Buddy Millar moves right next door to Cheri, an overweight hellcat from high school, and the bully who once broke his nose. Well, things just go from bad to worse, culminating with Cheri sneaking over to Buddy’s trailer and climbing into bed, late night runs to the emergency room, fear of jealous reprisals, guns at the ready, and so on and so. But it is not just the imaginative plots and the cantankerous characters that make these stories so irresistible; it’s the rhythm of the prose and the tone of the teller. Proulx is a tough, smart lady who doesn’t miss very much.  And she’s flat-out funny.

Fine Just the Way It Is:  Wyoming Stories 3.
Annie Proulx bookends the third volume of her “Wyoming Stories” series by citing the book’s title in the first and last tale, thus locating them in time and space.
In “Family Man,” Ray Forkenbrock, wasting away in a home for the elderly, tells his granddaughter about his past, which she records for posterity.  Even though his life was marred by hardship and a secret betrayal by his father, he is adamant that “everything was fine the way it was.” In the heart-scalding final story, “Tits Up in a Ditch,” which focuses on Dakota Lister, who loses more than her arm while serving in Iraq, her grandmother’s husband Verl dismisses outsider criticism of the state by insisting that “Wyomin is fine just the way it is.”
The way it was, and often still is, is vicious. The five strongest pieces are better characterized by the title of the final story, which refers to a cow that tried to climb up a deep slope and slid back down in the ditch and died. Whether the story takes place in the late 19th century or the early 21st, one slip-up in the rugged outback of Wyoming can kill you. In “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” Archie and Rose try to make a go of it on a modest homestead. However, the winters are bitter and jobs are few and Archie’s decision to leave pregnant Rose in their rough-hewn little house to find work results in disaster.
In “Testimony of the Monkey,” a silly argument over whether to wash the lettuce splits up Marc and Catlin, two rugged outdoors enthusiasts.  When in anger and spite, she takes an ill-advised trip into harsh territory alone and catches her foot in the crevice of a rock, the rest of the story, which alternates between her painful efforts to free herself and her hallucinations about rescue, is predictable, but none the less agonizing.
Proulx indulges herself here in a couple of playful fables about the devil in “I’ve Always Loved This Place” and “Swamp Mischief” and a couple of more serious legends about a Bermuda Triangle sagebrush and an early Indian buffalo hunt in “The Sagebrush Kid” and  “Deep-Blood-Greasy-Bowl.”
However, the most powerful stories are those that reverberate on the final page of the collection when Dakota Lester tells the parents of her husband, who has lost both legs and half his face in Iraq, “Sash is tits up in a ditch.” And so are they all in this scrupulously written Annie Proulx collection.
Congratulations to Annie Proulx on her newest honor, which she will add to her Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, National Book Award, and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Best British Stories: 2017--Part 4--Are These Pieces Stories?

Are These Pieces Stories?
One might very well respond to the question that heads this commentary, “Who cares?” “What difference does it make?”
I can only say that, having very carefully read thousands of stories throughout my career, I guess certain expectations come into play when I read what someone has labelled a “short story.”
The following four pieces have been labelled “short stories,” but for reasons I will try to explain, they do not seem like short stories to me. They may be well written pieces of prose that I enjoyed reading, just not short stories. Does that make any difference?  I think so. It makes a difference in how I read them.

Courttia Newland, “Reversible”
The first two paragraphs of this story depict a sadly familiar picture—a black man has been shot by police and a protesting crowd gathers around his body while the police stand by with guns ready. The first sentence of the third paragraph shifts this realistic picture into the literary: “The blood beneath the body slows to a trickle and stops. It makes a slow return inwards.”  And we suddenly realize that this is a clever piece of prose that reverses reality. The body begins to stir, then lifts, and the fallen baseball cap flips from the ground onto the man’s head.  Then we see the shooting in reverse: “Tiny black dots leap from his chest like fleas. Three plumes of fire are sucked into the rifle barrel.”
Then we watch the man backing into his car, the wheels turning counterclockwise, listening to a tune on the radio he does not recognize (for it plays in reverse?), and entering his house (walking backward, we assume), being greeted with a hug by his mother, throwing his jacket on a chair, and sitting down.
Knowing that we are witnessing an act in reverse that cannot be reversed, we may be interested in the cleverness of the technique and be horrified by an act we read about in the newspapers every so often, but I am not sure that we can do both at the same time. The story spends so much energy maintaining, not always successfully, the reversing technique that the reader, while trying to visualize the technique, may lose empathy with the human character.

James Kelman, “Words and Things to Sip”
James Kelman may be the most familiar writer in this collection; at least he is to me. I posted a blog essay on his short stories a while back, after having read Busted Scotch and The Good Times.  Most critics have argued that Kelman is a better short story writer than novelist, and Kelman himself once told an interviewer that if critics looked at his short stories they would not be asking him questions about his novels.
However, I am not sure Kelman is writing a short story in “Words and Things to Sip,” the title of which seems to reflect its technique—that it is less a story than a rambling monologue by a man waiting in a bar for his female friend, a man who passes this time by thinking about, and at some point transcribing, whatever comes to his mind.  This kind of  stream of consciousness can be effective in a novel, if the writing is good enough, but it does not necessarily make for an effective short story. Joyce did it very well in Ulysses but did not attempt it in Dubliners.
Kelman pretty much just writes about whatever comes to mind; for example, when he mentions a newspaper named “something Planet,” he is reminded of Superman at the Daily Planet with Clark Kent and the irascible editor, what was his name, who knows, who cares, Perry Mason or some damn thing.
Sometimes the voice we hear ruminates on ideas, e.g. “The only reliable method of knowledge is literature,” opining that we cannot trust “internetual information.”  At one point the voice thinks, “Life is strange. Context is all. Without context where would we be? Where would the world be? This question is the most real.”
When the narrator’s female friend finally arrives, he thinks “The whole of life was too good to be true and I was the luckiest man in the whole world and that is the God’s truth so help me my Lord God, the one bright star in the dismal night sky.”
A lot of this is interesting thinking and good talk, but I am not sure we would tolerate it if it were not talk by James Kelman, for after all, it is less a story than just a lot of blather.

David Rose, “Ariel”
I also know the work of David Rose. I wrote a blog essay about his story “Flora,” which appeared in the 2011 volume of Best British Short Stories  and immediately ordered a copy of his collection Posthumous Stories. I thought “Flora” was the epitome of what makes the short story so fascinating to me.
However, I am not so sure that “Ariel” is a short story, although the writing is very fine. I have no idea if the young male narrator in this story is a persona for Rose himself or if  the young man named Keith he so admires, who owns a white Ariel motor-bike, was an actual person that Rose knew when he was sixteen.  But this piece reads more like a brief memoir than a short story. Nothing really happens in it; it seems to have no significant meaning. It ends with the narrator getting married and buying a house--what he calls a “very ordinary story”--and mentioning a story far from ordinary, albeit clich├ęd, of his heroic model getting killed in a car accident.
The writing is good, but it just does not seem to be a story.

Deirdre Shanahan, “The Wind Calling”
This piece has more context than Rose’s piece, but still, it seems less a story than a memory—this time the persona is a young woman who is strongly attracted to a young man named Colum Brady, with whom she has her first sexual encounter. She has a brother two years younger than she named Jem, who simply disappears one day. Years later she runs into Colum and asks him if he knows what happened to her brother Jem. Colum tells her that Jem had seen them having sex and threatened to tell her father if he is not given money for whiskey, but Colum tells him to “head off.”  And that is the last he saw of him. 
I have read this piece several times, looking for the story in it, but I am just not sure there is one.  It is a memory of childhood, much of it spent on the road, and an account of the woman’s father and siblings disappearing, but the story of her first sexual encounter, which seems one important  event in the piece, does not seem to be meaningfully connected with the  other important even—the disappearance of her brother.  It is a piece about things that happen, but the things that happen do not cohere into a story.

I suppose a story can be anything a writer wants to make it, but if it does not meaningfully hold together, the reader does not respond to it as a story—just an interesting piece of prose.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Best British Stories 2017: Part 3: From Realism to Magical Realism

Vesna Main, “Safe”
Perhaps because they are usually based on the mimetic notion of a “mirror in the roadway” reflecting the “real” world, realistic stories often seem to have some “ripped from the headlines” social issue embedded in them. Vesna Main’s story “Safe” focuses on a young woman who finally rebels against being abused by an exploitative boyfriend and stabs him while he is deep in a drunken sleep. The boyfriend has compelled her into doing a strip for two of his acquaintances, who pull her clothes off and rape her.
This is a realistic story—no symbolic language or transition into a magical realism world. The only metaphoric language focuses on the notion of some “force” that takes over the woman and compels her to stab the boyfriend: “Her hand moved as if someone was directing it, pushing it with a long stick as if she were a puppet.” After she has killed the boyfriend, the “force” releases go of her and she is “safe.”
While she is in a holding cell, her lawyer keeps asking why she did not just leave, suggesting a common view that she was “asking for it.” The lawyer says her best defense is to present herself as a confused young woman who killed her violent boyfriend in self-defense.  The focus of the story is on the “force,” although it is not clear what that force is, other than a kind of  just rebellion against male domination of women.

Sophie Wellstood, “The First Hard Rain”
After a first reading of this story, you are apt to say, “There’s nothing going on here.”  After a second reading you are apt to say, “There’s something going on here, but I’m not sure what it is.”
Nothing much suggested by the first scene, in which the central character Rachael, accompanies her ex-husband Peter and Peter’s mother Val to dump the ashes of her father-in-law Terry over the M6 because it was his favourite motorway.
The second scene takes place at the King’s Head Hotel where the three go for drinks, where we learn from the waitress Lorrelle that the father-in-law, Terry Hastings, was a teacher and that her niece was one of his pupils.  Lorrelle says she recognizes Terry’s wife  from her picture in the papers and refers to as a “poor cow.” Why the wife’s picture was in the newspaper is not clear. However, something seems to be suggested by Lorrelle’s comment that the niece “passed first time. Surprise surprise.” We can only guess that Terry has had sex with  the niece and that he has been arrested.
After Peter and Val leave, Rachael stays to have a drink with Lorrelle and asks her, “Your niece, how is she now?” After a paragraph describing  seagulls over the landfill, “rising and dipping crazily in their unknowable world,” Lorrelle takes a deep drag of her cigarette and lets the smoke leave her mouth and nostrils “like a ghost leaving her body.” She replies, “She’ll be OK. You know. She’s going to go back to college. She’ll be OK.”: Rachael sees tears on Lorrelle’s eyelashes.
The only metaphoric context for the story is introduced in the first paragraph. And concludes the story. Rachael thinks a tempest of  Biblical proportions has occurred over the Irish sea, causing a flock of hundreds of seagulls to be driven miles inland, making her doubt if they can ever find their way back to “their desolate ocean home.” But then she thinks the real reason for the screeching was “unromantic and mundane”—it is the city’s landfill and the gulls are swooping over hillocks of human waste.
Short stories often are reluctant to provide explanatory information or background context for their mysteries, but usually there is a reason for such reticence.  I am just not sure that there is any reason in “The First Hard Rain” for leaving out  story information that actually makes this a story.

Giselle Leeb, “As You Follow”
In this second person story, the focus is on the narrator at an Octoberfest celebration in London, who cannot keep his eyes off a young blue-eyed, blond-haired boy who he thinks is too young to be there—a boy who, dressed like the men, is happy, happy, pure joy.
The narrator feels he is in a magic place and recalls when he was young and  the world was pure, full of “beauty and truth.” The narrator thinks he is young again, at his first wedding, and he cannot believe that this life he has waited for all those years when he was growing up has finally arrived.
At the end of the story, he looks into the river Thames and cannot take his eyes off his own reflection, a boy in shirt sleeves, “bursting with pride and with joy.”  The narrator follows the boy, that is, his reflection into the water, and as he reaches for the light above his head, a small hand drags him into the darkness of the water and as he is pulled down as the waves whisper and move on.
This story begins realistically, but the Octoberfest creates a magical context that moves the narrator from reality into an identification with the boy and a return to his own past, until he becomes the boy/man and is drawn Narcissus-like into his own reflection. The reader is not given any explanation for the events in this story, but the context of a magical, metaphoric world is so pervasive and the identification between the narrator and the boy is so emphatic that the reader is ready to accept the Narcissistic fall into the self at the end.

Francoise Harvey, “Never Thought He’d Go”
The question that preoccupies this story is announced in the first few lines. A boy named Norm has been found at the edge of a graveyard with a broken arm, three broken ribs, a black eye, a broken collarbone and lots of bruises. Three friends have three different theories about what happened to him: He fell off the church spire says Davi, a gravestone fell on him says Davitoo, he was trampled by cows says Saz. The question of what Norm was doing in the church at night is more easily answered: his friends have dared him to do it. The title comes from the narrator’s notion that none of them ever thought Norm would do it, since they warned him the church was haunted.
Made uneasy by guilt, the narrator cannot sleep and sees a light flashing from the church bell tower. “Flash and gone. Flash and gone.” And then “Flash and hold” as if the light had spotted him. All members of the “gang” have seen the light and agree to meet at midnight in the cemetery, although now they worry it will be Norm’s ghost who shows up for revenge. Then Davitoo is found  just as Norm was--with a broken wrist, jaw, two broken ribs, a broken nose, and lots of bruises. The story ends with the mystery of what happened to the two boys still unsolved and the light in the church going flash and gone, flash and gone, until it stays on. 
Is this a story about  kids involved in pranks or a supernatural story in which the church really is haunted?  In either case, the injuries of the two boys are never motivated in any meaningful way.  How did they happen? Why did they happen?  What is the point of this story?

Daisy Johnson, “Language”
“Language” is from Johnson’s book Fen which has received good reviews both in England and America.  The stories are fantasy/reality stories of the kind that American writer Karen Russell got a lot of buzz for a few years ago, although they do not have the self-consciously flippant language of Russell’s stories.
“Language” opens as a kind of female sexual initiation story focusing on Nora Marlow Carr, at age sixteen, a big girl, perhaps a bit overweight, with childbearing hips and milk-carrying breasts, a “natural woman,” or what some called big boned, in love with a big guy named Harrow Williams. Nora is a kind of a nerd, smart in the ways of math and string theory; Harrow not so much.
Nora seduces Harrow into sex and convinces him they are “entangled.” They get married and she says she wishes someone had told her what a messy affair  living with a man was. Then abruptly Harrow dies and Nora takes care of his mother, who, it seems knows a bit of magic and manages to bring Harrow back from the dead.
The final gimmick of the story is that when Harrow speaks, he creates a physical pain in Nora and Sarah. For example, a single syllable can cause Sarah to vomit, while a sentence an cause her to have nosebleeds.
Nora tries to fix this by having Harrow try out different words to see what effect they have. Some of her attempts to “cure” Harrow are religious in nature, others are linguistic, but nothing seems to work. It reaches a point when even Harrow’s thoughts cause Nora and Sarah physical pain. The story ends with this sentence: “And though there were someone else’s thoughts hooked and barbed inside her, she saw the dark passage of where she was going: not a rescue at all, only a stripping away, a cursing back into nothing.”
The problem of the story is that there is no causal or metaphoric connection between the female initiation theme at the beginning and the  return to life zombie story at the end. Even more important, there is no meaningful connection between  language and physical harm.
Johnson has said in an interview that the Fen, where her stories take place, is a liminal landscape with one foot in water an d one on earth, which seems to “resonate” with certain themes in the stories, such as the “fluid boundaries between myth and reality.” However, if we are to accept a merging of reality and myth, there should be some justification—not simply that it meaninglessly occurs.

Claire Dean, “Is-and”
Once again, we begin with a realistic story:  a woman goes with her recent husband to visit his mother who lives on an island. Nothing much happens; he seems a taciturn lout and she is lonely. The house is haunted by the memory of the man’s first wife.
The story seems to center around a mysterious package that the postman brings the husband, although it does not have his name on it. The wife opens the package, which contains a baby board book of nursery rhymes with panels a child can push to play different tunes, e.g. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Three Blind Mice,” etc.
Significantly, some letters have been blacked out in the book, e.g.
It seems clear that the missing letters are not important, but that the remaining letters spell out: “We want to come home.”
The wife goes to a bookstore and talks to the owner about stories with blacked out letters, and he tells her about the lhiannan shee, an undead vampire female who is drawn to bards.
The story ends with the husband leaving the house, the mother whipping up broken eggshells, and the wife hearing someone whistling the tune she heard from the book the first time she opened it.  She turns to yell at him, but “everything within her stopped. The stranger held her there with his gaze. She took his outstretched hand and let him lead her away.”
The realistic first part of the story does not lead to the unrealistic last part of the story for any meaningful purpose. Are we supposed to believe that the first wife was a lhiannan shee and that the taciturn husband is a bard who lures the second wife into his fairy tale world? Was there a child in the first marriage? What happened to it? Nothing really seems to justify all this. And nothing seems to suggest that such a transition from the real world into a magical world really signifies anything.
It is not enough, it seems to me, that stories are interesting in their various parts.  They must be unified in such a way that they coherently signify something about the human condition.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Best British Short Stories 2017--part 2--The Simple, Well-made Story

Back in the day when short stories were popular in America (yes, there was such a time, during the forties and fifties, when a lot of people read short stories and writers could even make a decent living writing them), there were two kinds of short stories:  relatively simple, plot-based commercial stories featuring everyday people caught in common dilemmas, and relatively complex language-based literary stories featuring everyday people caught in subtle,  hard-to understand dilemmas.
There are not so many of these popular, commercial, plot-based, simple stories—either pulp or slick--in America anymore—television and now the Internet having largely taken their place, providing entertaining, non-challenging, time-passing, simple stories. The short story in America today, in the relatively few places it appears in print, is largely “literary.” Occasionally, a simple, straightforward  storyteller will appear and get a bit of buzz, but not often.  People don’t read short stories for entertainment very much in America any more. 
However, it may very well be that people still read short stories for entertainment, or listen to them on the radio, in Great Britain.  And it may also very well be that some of these simple, straightforward, plot-based stories, might be considered very good stories, even among the “best” stories published in print or heard on BBC4 in a given year.
I suspect that Nicholas Royle, editor of Best British Short Stories, 2017, was mindful that he not only had to choose the “best” stories of the year, but also to create a book with some variety that would appeal to as many readers as possible. Consequently, of the twenty stories he chose, some had to be simple and straightforward, with clear, transparent prose and enough background explanatory context to be easily accessible to the reader, while others were inevitably elliptical and puzzling, drawing attention to the language itself, experimenting with form, and refusing to help the reader understand the significance of the story.
I suggest that the following four stories are of the first type: relatively conventional, primarily based on straightforward plot and character, pleasingly accessible to a wide range of readers.  It is not surprising that two of the four first appeared on BBC4, for if a story is going to be read on the radio and listened to by a broad audience, it usually must be understood on the first reading/hearing, since this first encounter may be the only one the listener/reader will have—no pausing to ponder over the language, no second reading to allow the ending to clarify the beginning.

Peter Bradshaw’s “Reunion “is an old fashioned story that exists primarily for the “surprise “ending—a form so popular that, at least in America, it once was the norm for the commercial short story. The first person point of view is that of a man named Eliot who is trying to “work something out” about the events of the past twenty-four hours while attending a conference at a hotel. He provides some context, largely irrelevant, that he has been in love three times in his life: once with his mistress, once with his ex-wife, and once, when he was eleven, with an eleven-year-old named Lucy Venables. He then “recalls” for the reader the night before when he went out for a smoke and sees a woman whose name tag reads “Dr. Venables. Recognizing her as his childhood love Lucy, he recalls when he met her and she invited him in for a Carona lemonade. After falling deeply in love with her, he asked her for a kiss.
Lucy sets up a test for Eliot to earn the kiss, positioning  her little sister Chloe up against a shed door, drawing an outline around her about twelve inches distant from her body and challenging Eliot to throw three darts inside the outline without hitting Chloe. He succeeds in the first two throws but his clumsy third throw makes Chloe flinch and the dart goes in her ear. The father comes out and smacks Eliot, sending him home crying.
We flash back to the adult encounter, with Dr. Venables inviting Eliot to her room to get the kiss he never got when they were eleven. As he pulls her clothes off, she gasps, “O Elliot,” call me by my name. Say my name.” He sweeps up her hair to kiss her neck, which reveals her injured ear, and “complies with her request” saying, “Chloe.” When we flash back to the opening of the story, the man at reception asks Eliot if he would like a drink from the bar. The last line of the story is: “I think I shall ask for a Corona lemonade.”
As you can see from this synopsis, you don’t need to hear it or read it again. The story is quite conventional, giving the reader a wry smile at  the little surprise at the end. There is even a bit of poetic justice—the kind of justice that surprise ending stories used to specialize in—for it seems only fair that Chloe should be the “target of Eliot’s love, the one who took the risk, got injured, and coincidently shows up years later to rightfully fulfill the promise of the kiss.

Niven Govinden’s “Waves” was commissioned by BBC4 for a series of stories about sleep and rest. BBC4  listeners knew this assignment context when they first heard the story on the radio; thus primed, they could listen to listen for how the story actually explores the importance of sleep and rest.  However, readers of the story in this book, not knowing that the story was written to fulfill a thematic specification, may not be sure what point the story has. All the reader knows is that a man is in a hospital dreaming that he is surfing in Hawaii. The primary emphasis, aside from the assigned dream/rest theme, is that the man is growing older and lamenting his lost youth, strength, and power. A central sentence is:  
“Far greater than his pride is his impatience to demonstrate strength or knowledge with those a generation or more behind him, and how this grows with age.  The swagger of young manhood a tipping point for his antagonism, which shrinks as his waistline swells.”
The doctors tell him he must rest, suggesting that rest and sleep cures all—that the real work of healing is something like magic, that sleep holds a promise of recuperation. However, he feels “useless and old” and longs for those days in the past when a combination of authority and pure heft could right things. Although Govinden’s story is well written, it seems a bit too much like an MFA workshop assignment.

Laura Pocock’s “The Dark Instruments” is a “Twilight Zone” type story, in which a guy builds a model of his town; when a neighbor sees the model one night, he discovers that one of the model houses that is burned is a replica of an actual house that burned a year ago.
There is something here about connection between artifice and reality, but  the problem is that it is not clear which comes first—the model or the actuality.  Which causes which? The first clue is the broken church window of one of the models, which mirrors a real church window that has been vandalized.  The key word in the story is “coincidence.” The issue is: how do the two things coincide?
The man wonders if he can show his neighbor the town without revealing its secret.  But the reader does not know what the secret is. And we don’t know what it has to do with the fact that the builder was injured when he was in the army—a gunshot wound to the knee.—an injury that has no physical basis. Is this a post-traumatic stress syndrome story in which the breaks the church window and burns down the house as a way to control reality? We just don’t know. We just know that some kind of sympathetic magic seems to be going on in the commercially successful world of the twilight zone.

Lara Williams’ “Treats” is a simple, genre-style “woman’s” story about Elaine, a 50-year-old woman who says she was made for menopause, a woman whose husband used to treat her, but now her treats are reserved for her birthday.
Elaine likes to perform secret good deeds and sometimes imagines secret good deeds being done for her. The title comes from the notion of treats or gifts, like the ones she used to get from her husband, but now they are reserved only for her birthday.
She has no children, only a solitary goldfish. She is often disappointed.  Her boss points to a brown parcel on her birthday and says “that’s for you,” but when Elaine thinks it is a gift and starts unwrapping it, the boss says, “What are you doing?  That needs couriering. Tonight.”
Then her husband cancels taking her to the movies, so she goes alone and treats herself to popcorn and a hotdog and “her heart did a little leap on its own; you could do that, to your heart, you could be so kind to yourself you could make your own heart leap.”
The last line of the story is: “After all, she thought, what goes around comes around.”
I have been able to find only two reviews of Best British Short Stories 2017 on Internet websites; both like “Treats.” Tamim Sadihali on Bookmunch calls “Treats” pretty much short story perfection.”  And Eleanor Franzen on Litro says it is her favorite story in the book and that she has “no trouble at all in believing that it’s among the best British short stories of the year.”
It’s a pleasant story, written in likeable language about a likeable character. Once you read an opening sentence like the following, you are well disposed to take pleasure in the rest:
“It was one of those sneaky summer days, one that lounges around a chilled August, making a wild and unpredictable cameo, hoodwinking you into knits, swindling you out of sandals.”
You have to like someone who writes in such a facile way as Williams, just as you have to like the central character, Elaine, who at age fifty, feels she was made to protect and watch over people. But to suggest that this is “short story perfection” and that you have no trouble believing it’s one of the best stories written in Great Britain in 2017 may be to underestimate the short story as a form.
Next time I will talk about some more challenging stories in Best British Short Stories 2017 that move from realism to magical realism.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Best British Short Stories 2017: Intro

I would like to make a couple of prefatory points about yearly collections of short stories that label themselves “Best of” before I begin my discussion of the 2017 editions of the three best-known such anthologies: Best British Short Stories, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Prize Stories.
First of all, you probably already know that such collections seldom get reviewed in the big circulation newspapers, e.g. New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, etc. Why is that?
One of the reasons is that book review editors do not want to waste space on works of fiction that have been previously published in periodicals.  They want something new and newsworthy. Previously published stories are, after all, not really news at all.
Moreover, whereas reviewers can focus on some unifying theme or style when reviewing a collection of stories by a single author, they find talking about twenty different stories by twenty different authors a daunting task, and editors just don’t want to use precious space on unfocused thumbnail notices.
The best a reviewer can do is to try to find some “trend” in a collection of what is presented as the “best” stories in a given year.  And let’s face it, short stories are just not trendy—at least not since Raymond Carver.  And if some promising young author suddenly appears, editors and reviewers will wait until a publisher brings out a whole book of stories by said author and pumps enough money in promotion for readings, interviews, adverts, and NPR/BBC appearances to give book review editors and reviewers a news “story.”
I could go on about this for some time; indeed, I have gone on about this for some time—at least for forty years of my career as a professor/critic. But enough whining.
The second prefatory point I want to make has to do with the issue of “Best of.”  Says who? What makes a story one of the “best” twenty stories published in a given year? Who decides and on what basis does that judge decide?
I won’t go into the history of the top three “best of” collections. The Best American Short Stories has been around for over a hundred years.  And since 1978, each issue has had a series editor and a guest editor.  The series editor is now Heidi Pitlor, who, she says, reads thousands of stories every year and then picks 120 of those she considers the “best.”  She then turns those over to a guest editor—always a fiction writer—who then chooses those he or she thinks are the best twenty stories, which then appear in the yearly volume, usually in the fall of the year.
The O. Henry Prize Stories, which has been around almost as long as BASS (1919), has one editor only—currently Laura Furman—who chooses all twenty stories in the yearly volume and then sends them to three different fiction writers who choose their favorite and write a brief essay about it that appears at the end of the volume.
The new kid on the block is Best British Short Stories, now in its seventh year, which is edited by Nicholas Royle, who chooses all twenty stories in each yearly collection. (There once was a series called Best English Short Stories that ran for about ten years between 1986 and 1995, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes.)
One of the main problems the editor of these three volumes must face, that is, beyond the task of trying to read every short story published in America, Canada, or England in a given year, is balancing between choosing what he or she thinks are the very best stories out of all the stories published, and then making a book out of them. The two demands are often  not the same.
Choosing the “best” stories necessitates, we assume, some understanding and appreciation not only of fiction in general, but the unique characteristics of the short story in particular. It does not necessitate, we assume, depending on personal taste, obsession, or author collegiality. It means choosing the very “best.”
However, making a book out of twenty stories depends on giving the reader some variety.  I mean, the editor would risk alienating his or her reader were he to choose twenty stories that were all similarly realistic or surrealistic, experimental, traditional, etc., even if he or she thought those were the very “best” stories he or she had read that year.
I have read all twenty stories in this year’s Best British Short Stories twice, as I always do, and I find that Nicholas Royle has, as he has in the first six volumes (all of which I have discussed on this blog), put together a book with a variety of different kinds of short stories. I cannot make a judgment on Royle’s judgment that these twenty stories are the “best” published in England this year.  No one can second guess Royle on this matter, for, I would wager, no one has read as many British stories as he has this year, and consequently no one is able to make the kind of comparative judgments he has.
However, during the month of September, I will offer some opinions about the stories in Best British Short Stories 2017 —what kind of stories they are, how significant they seem to be, how well they appear to be written, and what might conceivably have earned them a place as among the “best” stories published in England this past year. In some cases I might even say, “surely not,” and try to justify my judgment.
During the month of October, I will try to do the same for O. Henry Prize Stories: 2017, and during the month of November, I will make comments on the stories chosen for Best American Short Stories: 2017.
I hope you will purchase copies of all three books and join me.