Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A Short Story Bonanza

I've been on a short story reading binge for the last few weeks, catching up on my New Yorker subscription, but also dipping into several collections.

In the pages of recent issues of The New Yorker, I read: a bizarre story by Jonathan Lethem called "Super Goat Man," a surprisingly funny story about having a mother going into a nursing home by Anne Baettie ("The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation"), a strong story ("Suckers") by V.S.Naipaul (first writing I've ever read by him) about a middle-aged affair, one sharp with observations about (hetero)sexuality and class, and another story about sexuality by Updike ("Elsie by Starlight"), this one an account of a sexual affair between teens in the 50s. Also read "The Shore," the first fiction I've read by Richard Ford, and for a story about a real estate agent, it was surprisingly compelling. The excellent George Saunders' "Adams" is just about the shortest short I've seen run in the magazine, and I *think* it's an allegory about the US response to 9/11 in the Middle East, but maybe I'm reading too much into it. Joyce Carol Oates' recent "Spider Boy" upset me in the way it combined elements of the New Jersey governor's recent scandal and events from the recent documentary, Capturing the Friedmans. She plays fast and loose with homosexuality and pedophilia, fairly irresponsibly I think, but it's a gripping read.

I was disappointed with the much-praised "The Ordinary Son" by Ron Carlson (Best American Short Stories 2000), a somewhat Salingeresque story of an "ordinary" son in a family of geniuses. Despite some good ideas here and there, it was uncompelling. "Nilda" by Junot Diaz (BASS 2000), however, completely lived up to the amazing stories in his collection of a few years ago, Drown. In fact, it could have been included in that collection. (I was beginning to worry that the success of that book had killed off his writing. Now I guess I still have to worry about whether he can grow as a writer, but if he simply turned out a sequel of shorts as good, I'd be content.)

David Schickler's "The Smoker" (from the collection Kissing in Manhattan, being adapted for the screen by the great Richard Linklater) is not quite a great story, but it is wonderously light and enjoyable, the story of a bachelor English teacher/cinephile at a Manhattan private school and the precocious female student he finds himself tangling with. The story has some troubling undercurrents, and I wouldn't be surprised if Linklater draws them out to create something more substantial.

I also read some absolute stunners:

I sought out "The Destructors" by Graham Greene (from his 21 Stories) because it's mentioned in the film Donnie Darko, which I recently blogged about. The kids discuss the story in a high school English class, and, after what looks like an act of copycat destruction, the kids are considered suspects and the PTA debates censoring the story. Greene's story is a powerful, profoundly dark work that turns masterfully on subtle points of psychological insight. (Its view of group dynamics, especially in the relationship between Blackie and Trevor, is convincing and powerfully cynical.) I found it chilling and complex, right down to its ending. When Donnie observes in class that the children consider destruction a creative act, he is echoing a passage from the narration of the story itself and a major theme of the story. The story takes pains to emphasize the resources the children draw on in order to fulfill a destructive vision

In a collection recently written up in The New York Times and elsewhere, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (ed. Ben Marcus), I found several bizarre, sometimes experimental pieces, but only two real stand-outs. First, from the genius George Saunders, "Sea Oak," a brilliantly original work set in a strange alternate version of our world where the hero works at a strip joint and the economy is shit. ("What a stressful workplace. The minute your Cute Rating drops you're a goner. Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. Not that I'm complaining. At least I'm working. At least I'm not a stinker like Lloyd.") Then, in addition to the surreal, there's a touch of the supernatural. The story is somehow hilarious and yet at the same time a meditation on the meaning of death in a consumerist society. Second, Mark Richard's "Gentleman's Agreement" (described by The Times as Southern gothic) is the story of a boy who has been warned by his forest fire-fighting father not to throw stones anymore (after he's broken a windshield) or he'd nail his hand to the wall, finds himself unable to resist playing with rocks. The story uses ambiguity to build suspense, but also as a brilliant device of characterization. (It's difficult to discuss shorts without spoiling them!)

Of the three stories I read in Alice Munro's Selected Stories, my favorite was "Walker Brother Cowboy", the powerful slice of life of a family during the Great Depression. After the failure of the family farm, a man works as a door-to-door salesman for Walker Brothers. The story is told from his young daughter's point of view on a day she and her younger brother accompany their father on his rounds, and she learns something new about her father (which may also put her mother in a new light). Subtle and classic, sublimely heartfelt in a way her excellent stories sometimes aren't.

I was also knocked out by "Spring in Fialta" by Vladimir Nabokov (which I read in a decade-old collection I had lying around called, You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe): a dense, difficult piece about a narrator who is remembering a young woman whom he crossed paths with several times briefly throughout life, starting in pre-revolutionary Russia, then elsewhere in Europe (esp. Paris), then lastly in "Fialta," a fictional city that crosses Fiuma with Yalta. It strikes me as Proustian, from what I know of Proust--the young woman is preserved in this prose as if in amber. Time is fluid, nostalgic and strange. As if in a photo negative, the margins of the narrator's existence seem to become the core of his experience, while his daily life seems to dissolve away, a trivial thing. (And for fan's of Lolita, there's an enchanted moment in the background of the story.)

Lastly, I was delighted by Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald," a (Hugo-nominated) story written for Shadows over Baker Street, a collection of stories with a strange, unlikely premise: to take the character Sherlock Holmes and see how he fares in the world of horror master HP Lovecraft. I'd never read any Lovecraft (though I plan to, soon, just as a point of reference) or, for that matter, any Gaiman, but I've recently come to adore Sherlock Holmes stories. I know there's a huge library of Holmes stories written by authors other than Doyle, and someday when I finish all of Doyle I plan to explore them, but at least with the Holmes movie I'd seen recently--The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes--I'd started to form the opinion that no one can really capture the spirit of Holmes like Doyle. Well, Gaiman fails to quite capture him, either. However, I loved the story. It's a re-working of the original novella that introduced Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (the blood is now green instead of red), which, happily, I'd recently read, and the ending is sensational. That's all I'll say about it.

Looking forward to another short story binge in a few months, after I catch up on a stack of books. Speaking of which, here's a curiosity for you. The biggest book request (aside from the perennials) we seem to be getting at work these days is for The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Looks like just another well-intentioned book club pick, but we have a long waiting list for it.



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