Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Short Story Collections of 2010

It is New Year’s Eve, 2010. I have have looked over the “Best Books of 2010” lists of the major newspapers, networks, and magazines and list below the short story collections chosen for those lists, along with my own comments on those I have read.

The Washington Post listed only “Best Novels” in their fiction category, as if short stories did not exist.

The Village Voice listed no short story collections in their fiction list.

The San Francisco Chronicle listed only one: Selected Stories by William Trevor.

Publishers Weekly listed only one: Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.

Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin listed only The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New Yorker listed only Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy.

Slate listed only The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

Atlantic chose Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg & What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy

National Public Radio listed Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li & The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg. They listed Patricia Engel’s Vida as one of their “best debut collections.”

The Guardian asked individual reviewers to list their favorites:
A. S. Byatt picked Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Roddy Doyle picked Amy Bloom's collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Pankij Mishra, who asked: “Is short fiction with its necessarily fragmentary form and brisk epiphanies, better placed than the panoramic novel to capture the weird disjointedness and partial visions of modern life?” adding he was more captivated this year by short stories than long novels. Mishra chose: David Means's The Spot; Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New York Times’ 100 Notable books included ten short story collections:

Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr.
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Selected Stories by William Trevor.
Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy.
Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The Spot by David Means.
Vida by Patricia Engel.

Of all those listed above, here are the ones that I have read, with a brief comment on each:

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate. The best stories f Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern. Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.

Selected Stories by William Trevor
This is an anthology of stories from Trevor’s most recent collections. As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. Trevor’s stories are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the European Union, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. These are luminous, restrained stories. Every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie ranks second only to Raymond Carver as being responsible for the renaissance of the American short story in the 1970s and 80s. Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie has been alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine characters unable to understand themselves or others. Beattie's people seldom know what makes them do the things they do and have no real sense of purpose or destiny; thus instead of engaging in deliberate action, they more often seem acted upon. Beattie's characters seldom experience the kind of epiphany of awareness we have been accustomed to in twentieth century short fiction from James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson up through Eudora Welty and Bernard Malamud. Moreover, since many of her stories are told in present tense, her characters seldom engage in meditation or attempt a search for meaning, and there is little cause for her narrators to indulge in exposition or exploration. Beattie, especially in her early stories, seems to follow the Chekhovian-inspired dictum in one of her own stories: "Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it."

Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Since the appearance of his first collection The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1979), T. Coraghessan Boyle has published over a hundred stories, and, as this new collection is ample evidence, he is still the consummate showman—an old-fashioned yarn spinner who can mesmerize an auditorium audience of several hundred as though they were hunched wide-eyed around a campfire. Like the true professional he is, Boyle seems compelled to convert everything he experiences, reads, sees on television, or hears about into a story by the transformative process of “what if.” What if the California La Conchita earth slide of 2005 got in the way of a guy trying to get a liver transplant to Santa Barbara? What if a man bought a boa constrictor for a pet and then became so fond of the rats he bought to feed it that he got rid of the snake and let the rats take over? What if a rich couple’s dog died and they reincarnated it by cloning? What if a poor Mexican kid could feel no pain and his father exploited him like a sideshow freak? Of the fourteen new stories in this collection, some, especially those dealing with children, such as “Balto,” “Sin Dolor,” and the title story, are wisely and carefully controlled and thus emotionally irresistible. Others, such as “Admiral,” “Bulletproof,” and “Ash Monday,” exemplify a significant satiric point. Still others, such as “La Conchita,” “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado,” and “Thirteen Hundred Rats” are just clever excuses for stories. All in all, it’s a good mix of the meaningful and the merely amusing.

Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
One of the most critical differences between the novel and the short story is that whereas in the former the plot can wander and the writer can ramble almost aimlessly, in the latter, the action has to have some end-oriented intention on which the writer must focus scrupulously to give the story a unified thematic significance. The reader can perceive this difference immediately when reading a short story by a writer who is more comfortable writing novels. Such is the case with several stories in Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems. Stone has written some impressive novels in his career, e.g. Dog Soldiers (1975), but only one decent short story, “Helping” from his only other story collection Bear and His Daughter (1997). It’s not just that most of the stories in Fun With Problems are peopled by unpleasant drinking and drug-taking male throwbacks to the old days when Stone hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the 1960s—“Wine Dark Sea” about a free-lance journalist who gets drunk by six and often overlooks deadlines and entire assignments, “The Archer,” about an artist and university professor who goes after his wife and her lover with a crossbow while dressed in jockey shorts, and the title story wherein an aging attorney seduces a young woman trying to stay sober into drinking again--it’s that they are so haphazardly and indifferently written.

The Spot by David Means.
This is David Means’ fourth collection of short stories, and his publishers are probably tired of trying to get him to plunk down on their desks the manuscript of a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. The Spot, a collection of thirteen new stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper’s, and other places, is just one more piece of evidence that Means is very good at what he does. Since his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993), Means has largely moved away from Chekhovian realism, taking more chances with experimental narrative structure. Pursuing tactics begun in Assorted Fire Events and made more evident in his last collection, The Secret Goldfish (2004), Means takes increasing liberties in The Spot with storytelling techniques to explore the nature and importance of storytelling itself. David Means’ unerring ability to transform the seemingly casual into the meaningful causal is what makes him a master of the short story, placing him in the ranks of other great short story writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, who stubbornly resisted pressure to desert their chosen form for the more highly prized novel.

Here are the ones I have not read, but will order:

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
Vida by Patricia Engel.
Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

I will probably not buy Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah, because I have read all of Hannah's early stories, and this collection only contains four new oness. I will probably not buy Sourland because I have already read several of these stories in periodical publication, and because I just do not care for Oates.

Happy New Year to my readers!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Stories: "A Christmas Memory" and "The Dead"

It’s Christmas Eve, 2010. I wish every one who celebrates Christmas or any other winter festival a most happy holiday.

I will post one more blog before the end of the year: my usual survey and commentary on the annual “Best of 2010” “Notable,” “Favorite” Books listed by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, etc. etc. etc. I will comment why I agree or disagree with the short story choices and note with mea culpas those short story collections I have somehow failed to read so far.

Now, my Christmas blog:

There are basically two types of Christmas stories, it seems to me: stories of nostalgia and stories of conversion. The nostalgia stories, best represented by Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” and Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” are, of course, memories, memoirs, anecdotes, recollections--most often told by an adult recalling childhood.

The conversion stories include Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and such film favorites as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street.” They focus on some spiritual event that causes someone who is bitter or skeptical to be transformed into a selfless believer in the human community.

Nostalgia Christmas Stories: “A Christmas Memory”

Dylan Thomas once said, “I like very much people telling me about their childhood, but they’ll have to be quick or else I’ll be telling them about mine.” I know what he means. I have written many recollections of my own childhood, several of them about Christmas. (There’s no stopping me when I have a possible audience; here I go):

I was the oldest of the family, with two brothers and two sisters. We grew up in a beat-up little old house in a valley known as “The Nars,” a corruption of the word “Narrows.” The house perched precariously on the hillside above U.S. 23, which was just above the C&O Railroad tracks, which was just above the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River—all about two rural miles southeast of the small town (pop. 4,200) of Paintsville, Kentucky.

We were poor, but Christmas, of course, was always rich. My favorite gifts on three different Christmases were an erector set, a Red Ryder Daisy air rifle, and a portable phonograph. In the late fall, my brothers and I always nervously gathered black walnuts from a huge tree in a neighboring pasture (occupied by a very mean and very large bull); we would split open the green husks, getting our fingers black from stain, and array them on the roof to dry out. On Christmas Eve, we would crack them on the hearth of the small fireplace, and when we awoke the next morning, mom and dad, (who had stayed up all night making mysterious preparations) had set out on the mantle plates of fudge full of the walnuts. Lord, Lord, I could go on and on. But I won’t.

Although I like Dylan Thomas’s recollection of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” my favorite nostalgia story (and as his comment on the previous blog indicates, also the favorite of my son Alex) is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” What makes the story hard to resist is the present-tense voice of the boy describing his elderly friend” “I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins…. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

The story begins: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago…A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window…’Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’”

As much as I love the story—the voice and the relationship between the boy and the woman as they gather the ingredients (especially the bootleg whiskey from the Indian, Mr. Haha Jones) and prepare the fruitcakes to send to “people who’ve struck our fancy,” including President Roosevelt—this may be a rare case in which a film adaptation is even better than the written story. I cannot read this story any more without hearing the high pitched twang of Truman Capote doing the voiceover, and I cannot visualize the characters without seeing the wonderfully expressive face of Geraldine Page playing the boy’s “best friend.” The way she presses her lips together, squeezes her eyes close, and cocks her head coyly to the side breaks my heart every time.

And like my son, I cannot read the story or see the film, without my eyes tearing up. I know it is sentimental, but I don’t care. When the two of them fly those kites at the end of the story, and the voice tells us it is their last Christmas together, I choke up quite pleasurably. When the boy walks across a school campus in an early November twenty years later, he can hear her voice saying “Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather.” And he looks up, searching the sky. “As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.” Oh, my! Like all good nostalgia Christmas stories, “A Christmas Memory” recalls a time when life was simple and good, and filled with love.

Conversion Christmas Stories: “The Dead”

Conversion Christmas stories are, of course, also about love—about an old Scrooge or an old Grinch, filled with bitterness and bile, undergoing a spiritual transformation to understand the central message of Christmas--love, charity, selflessness. I very much enjoy Dickens’s "Christmas Carol." My favorite of the many film versions is the 1950s black and white version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge. I have an old VHS tape version that I watched with my family the other day.

However, the most complex Christmas conversion story, as my friend Dex correctly identified in a comment on my previous blog, is James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The events of the story do not take place on Christmas, but probably on January 6, which marks the Feast of The Epiphany, or the Twelfth Day of Christmas--the day the three Wise Men visited the Christ child. Joyce, who had already formulated his theory of epiphany from Aquinas in his first novel, Stephen Hero, perhaps purposely centered his final story in Dubliners on the day of the epiphany. The story combines both the nostalgia Christmas story and the conversion Christmas story.

The first section, which centers on the party given by the Morkan sisters in their dwelling on Usher’s Island, centers to a large extent on the past—the tradition of the party, the old singers from the past. The final section, when Gretta tells Gabriel that Michael Furey died for her, he comes to see the significance of the ultimate act of love—to die for the other. When Gretta says, “I think he died for me,” the Christ story is evoked. In practical, profane terms, for the young Michael Furey to stand out in the rain and die of pneumonia seems childishly absurd. However, it is precisely acting like a little child rather than a practical adult that marks the radical difference between the everyday world and the world of the spiritual.

Anyone reading “The Dead” for the first time might be hard pressed to understand its fame and influence. The narrative and description in the first two thirds of the story suggests that the story will end naturalistically with the end of the party. However, it is with the end of the party, of course that the lyrical nature of the story begins to emerge. Thematically, the conflict in "The Dead" that reflects its realistic/lyrical split is the difference revealed to both Gabriel and the reader between public life and private life, between life as it is in everyday experience and life perceived as the objectification of desire.

The party portion of "The Dead" is the story of Gabriel's public life, and his only psychic interest is what kind of figure he is going to cut publicly. However, throughout the party period of the story, there are moments--particularly those moments that focus on the past, on music, and on marital union--when reality is not presented as here and now, but as a mixture of memory and desire. Joyce's achievement in this story, its contribution to the development of the short story as a genre, can be best understood if we see its most basic theme as the difference between the kind of reality that realistic prose imitates and the kind of reality that romantic prose reveals.

Thematically, the basic issue the story poses is: In which one of these realms does true reality reside? Gabriel's discovery at the end of the story is not only that his wife has an inner life inaccessible to him but that his own life has been an outer life only. This is all the more devastating to him because on the journey to the hotel, he has indulged in his own self-delusion about their relationship: "moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.... Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illuminated his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy."

Filled with desire and the memory of intimacy, wishing Gretta to at one with him, Gabriel is annoyed that she seems so distracted. When he discovers that she has a secret life that has nothing to do with him, he tries to use his typical public devices of irony, but the very simplicity of her story undercuts the effort, and he sees the inadequacy of his public self. Michael Furey, who has romantically been willing to give his life for love of another, challenges Gabriel's own smug safety much the same way that Bartleby challenges the narrator in Melville's famous story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

In the much-discussed lyrical ending of "The Dead," Gabriel confronts the irony that the dead Michael is more alive than he is. "Generous tears" fill his eyes because he knows that he has never lived the life of desire, only the untransformed life of the everyday. The ending, in which Gabriel, awake and alone while his wife sleeps beside him, allows himself to lose self and imaginatively merge into a mythic lyrical sense of oneness, makes it possible for the reader to begin the story over again with this end in mind. "The Dead" is not a story that can be understood the way most novels are read--one thing after another--but the way the modern short story must be read--aesthetically patterned in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.

There are two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: one that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenon, sensate, and logical relation--a realm that the novel has always taken for its own--and the other that involves an experience that challenge the acceptance of the real world as simply sensate and reasonable—an experience that has dominated the short story since its beginnings. The novel involves an active quest for reality, a search for identity that is actually a reconciliation of the self with the social and experiential world—a reconciliation that is finally conceptually accepted, based on the experience one has undergone. The short story more often focus on a character who is confronted with the world of spirit, which then challenges his or her conceptual framework of reason and social experience.

“The Dead” is my favorite Christmas story, for it is a great short story, a classic short story that delicately and definitively does what all great short stories do.

As a postscript, I must share a personal note about “The Dead.” Fifteen years ago, my wife, her Irish mother (who had just lost her husband to a heart attack), my pre-teen daughter, and I spent a year living in a suburb just south of Dublin. I had a Fulbright Senior Fellowship and taught courses in short story theory and the American short story at University College, Dublin, and Trinity College. It was a sad year in some ways (I lost my mother to a lung infection at Easter that year), but it was also a wonderful year in many other ways. It was a fine experience for my daughter, attending an International school with children from Ireland and countries all over the world. It was good for my mother-in-law to spend the year in her home country after the death of her husband. It was good for my wife to get in touch with her Irish family and her heritage of Irish culture. And it was good for me in too many ways to enumerate here.

However, one of my most memorable experiences was walking down along the Liffy and looking up to the second storey of the house at Usher’s Island, and from there walking to O’Connell Street and down to the Grisham Hotel, where Gabriel stood and looked out the window at the snow, which was general all over Ireland, falling softly upon all the living and the dead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

O. Henry and "The Gift of the Magi"

In the first decade of the twentieth century, O. Henry was the most popular short-story writer in America. By 1920, nearly five million copies of his books were sold in the U.S. What was the secret of his success? Partially, it was the personality of the man whose voice was heard in the stories, a personality with which readers could identify and who spoke to some universal human need. William Saroyan once wrote that Americans loved O. Henry, for “He was a nobody, but he was a nobody who was also a somebody, everybody’s somebody.” One of the underlying assumptions of O. Henry’s stories is that there is some order in the world, some poetic justice that follows a plan. Everything happens for a reason in an O. Henry story, and everything fits into the overall pattern. Furthermore, O. Henry exploits a universal romantic wish that people are basically good and unselfish and possesses an inherent dignity.

O. Henry combines two different aspects of the short story that contributed to his success—the oral voice of the raconteur derived from frontier humorists and a highly patterned structure originated by Poe. Combining the local color and melodrama of Bret Harte with the ironic reversals and empathy for ordinary people of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry staked out his own territory of New York City and developed a storytelling voice more polished than the usual barroom wag who always seems to have one more tale to tell. He was a talented storyteller who would slap you on the back and stand you to a drink and a marketing specialist who knew exactly what buttons to push to make his audience react. He never really took himself seriously as an artist, preferring instead the title “journalist.”

O. Henry polished and formalized the kind of ironic reversal stories that Boccaccio innovated during the Renaissance. Russian Formalist critic of the 1920s, Boris Ejxenbaum, was one of the first to recognize that what O. Henry had discovered was something about the short story that was unique and characteristic of the form. In his brief study, O. Henry and the Theory of the Short Story, he argued that the short story is a fundamental or elementary form. Basing his theories largely on the stories of O. Henry, he suggested that the short story was constructed on the basis of some contradiction or incongruity and amassed its whole weight toward its ending. Whereas the novel ended with a point of letup or unraveling, the short story "gravitates toward maximal unexpectedness of a finale concentrating around itself all that has preceded."

The late nineteenth century focus on realism that made novels so popular and well respected marked a decline of interest in the short story that early nineteenth-century writers such as Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe had stimulated. O. Henry’s facility in creating snappy, comic and sentimental stories renewed the public’s interest in the form. As a result of his success, many other writers sought to emulate him and many academics began to study the characteristics of the form. One result was the creation of short-story handbooks—quasi-academic treatises that attempted to teach others how to write a short story. In the best early history of the form, Fred Lewis Pattee listed “ten commandments” of the short story codified in these handbooks and taught in college courses and correspondence schools, all of which were derived from the stories of O. Henry.

As a result of O. Henry’s success and the handbooks that sought to reveal his method, the short story became formalized and static. Finally serious readers and critics called for an end to it, filling the quality periodicals with articles on the "decline," the "decay," and the "senility" of the short story. Even Edward J. O'Brien, probably the greatest champion of the form America has ever had, wrote his book The Dance of the Machines in 1929, censuring the mechanized structure of American society and the machine-like short story that both sprang from it and reflected it. The short story did not recover from this O. Henry formalization until the seemingly unstructured stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson gained popularity in the 1920s.

O. Henry’s most famous story, “The Gift of the Magi,” translated and reprinted every Christmas around the world, was written in three hours to meet a deadline that O. Henry had ignored for several days. Here’s the way I have heard about how the story was written.

Near the end of the year in 1905, O. Henry was commissioned to write a Christmas story for the World newspaper. He kept putting it off and missed the deadline. The man hired to illustrate the story went to O. Henry to try to get some idea about the story so he could do the drawings. But O. Henry had not written anything. He told the illustrator to draw a picture of a poorly furnished room. He continued: “In the room there is only a chair or two, a chest of drawers, a bed, and a trunk. On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand. He is playing with it while he is thinking. The girl’s principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That’s all I can think of now. But the story is coming.” A few hours before final deadline, O. Henry told his editor to lie down and rest. He started drinking a bottle of Scotch and began. Three hours later, he had “The Gift of the Magi” finished, and they set up the type right away.

The plot alone—a young woman sells her long beautiful hair to buy her husband a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoise shell combs for her vanished hair—is sufficient to make the story a classic about the spirit of Christmas. But it is also O. Henry’s avuncular storytelling voice and his use of a scenic film style that makes it so accessible and irresistible. The story opens on a scene right out of a pantomimed melodrama of the young woman Della in her modest apartment crying because she has no money to buy her husband a Christmas gift, that is, until she thinks of the brilliant yet terrifying idea of selling her long beautiful hair to a wigmaker.

When the young husband comes home and sees his wife with her hair cropped off, the reader has no way of knowing that the peculiar expression of his face is not shock at her changed appearance, but rather bemused recognition that she will be unable to use the gift he has purchased for her. When he opens the combs, the reader sighs at Della’s grand but seemingly worthless sacrifice. When she gives him the watch fob, Jim just flops down on the couch, puts his hands under the back of his head and smiles, telling her simply that he sold the watch to get the money to buy her the combs. The story then ends with O. Henry’s little homily about the wise magi, who invented the at of giving Christmas presents, suggesting that the two “foolish children” of his “uneventful chronicle” who unwisely sacrificed for each other the “greatest treasures of their homes” are indeed the wisest of all, for “They are the magi.”

This is one of the few significant Christmas short stories I am aware of. Great writers seldom write about Christmas.

Next week I will talk about three other Christmas stories: Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and a third one—the most famous of all, and the best of all Christmas stories. Can you guess what it is? (not Dickens’s A Christmas Carol).

Please make some suggestions as to why you think there are few Christmas short stories, although there are many, many Christmas movies.

Cast a vote for your favorite Christmas story. Can you think of Christmas stories I have forgotten?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Twelve Short Story Gift or Wish List Suggestions for the Twelve Days of Christmas

If you love the short story and celebrate Christmas by exchanging gifts, then what better gift to give than a truly great collection of stories by one or more of the very best short story writers of the twentieth century? Or if someone has asked you for a gift idea, and you do not have all the following collections, send this list to your friend with your choice starred; you can’t lose on any of them. Short stories are truly the gift that keeps on giving, for unlike novels, you can read them again and again, year after year. My reward for posting this? Your gifting and reading pleasure.

Unless marked otherwise, the following prices are for paperbacks from Amazon, who, for my money, consistently has the best prices.

Flannery O’Connor,
Complete Stories $12.24
This is the collection that won “best of best” of National Book Awards. Challenging but unforgettable stories.

Eudora Welty
Collected Stories $10.88
Shortlisted for the “best of best” of National Book Awards. This is the one I voted for. Welty’s mythic world and unerring use of language are national treasures.

John Updike
Early Stories $13.57
A big fat book of crisp Updike stories from early in his career. Some of his best.

Alice Munro
Selected Stories $11.53
Runaway $10.20
Some of the best early Munro stories, classics of the genre, and, in my opinion, her best more recent collection.

Andre Dubus
Selected Stories $10.85
Dancing After Hours $11.76
The best of vintage Dubus and his memorable final collection.

William Trevor
Collected Stories $19.80
Selected Stories $23.10 (hardcover)
The first is a delicious fat volume of most early Trevor stories. The second includes stories from his last four collections. Not to be missed.

T. C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle Stories $13.60
Ah, he’s a lot a fun—lightweight and a showman, but still passes the time pleasantly.

Annie Proulx
Close Range $10.20
Bad Dirt $11.20
Fine the Way It Is $10.20
These are the three Wyoming Stories collections; they show what a truly great short story writer Proulx is.

Tobias Wolff
Our Story Begins $10.85
This is a selection of his vintage stories, plus a few recent ones. The early ones are better, but Wolfe is always worth reading. A master of the form.

David Means
Assorted Fire Events $5.44
The Secret Goldfish $5.58
The Spot $15.64 (hardcover)
These are David Mean’s three best books. If you haven’t read him, take advantage of Amazon’s cut-rate price on the first two.

Raymond Carver
Collected Stories $26.40 (hardcover)
This is the classic Library of America collection. Gotta read Carver again and again.

Bernard Malamud
The Complete Stories $13.60
Still one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. Even Flannery O’Connor liked him.

Happy Holidays, whatever your holiday, and thanks for reading "Reading the Short Story"

Friday, December 3, 2010

Terrence Holt's In The Valley of the Kings and Edgar Allan Poe

I have just finished reading Terrence Holt’s debut collection, In The Valley of the Kings (Norton, 2009). Holt started writing these stories while earning MFA and PhD degrees in English from Cornell. One of them, “Charybdis,” appeared in The Kenyon Review thirty years ago and was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories. He taught creative writing and English lit for ten years before earning an MD degree from the University of North Carolina, where he now teaches and practices medicine.

Holt is a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, telling an interviewer that he has loved Poe’s stories since grade school, adding that he often needs a voice “that can blur the lines between rationality and lunacy,” which he says turns out to sound a lot like Poe. Holt concludes, “I’m happy doing anything that makes people think about Poe.”

Since I am also one of those who started reading Poe in grade school, and who has since taught graduate-level seminars on Poe’s work and written a book about his contribution to the short story, reading Holt’s stories got me to thinking about Poe again. I would be happy if this blog entry makes you think about Poe and sends you to Holt’s stories, which I think get their energy from some of the primary sources of the short story as a form.

Poe was never highly respected among my colleagues in graduate school or at the university where I taught. I remember one professor asking me what in the hell I found to talk about in a semester-long course on Edgar Allan Poe, saying he had a hard time filling up one class meeting in his American Literature class on that adolescent-minded, alcoholic drug addict and child molester.

Because two of Holt’s stories--“Charybdis” and “Aurora”-- involve space travel to Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and two others--“ Ό Λογος" and Apocalypse”—center on a futuristic end of the world, the old genre issue of science fiction rears its Hydra head.
I suspect that Terrence Holt’s stories will raise the same kind of issues that Poe’s stories have always raised. When one writes “genre” fiction such as detective stories and science fiction, one risks being called light weight entertainment, appealing only to a small group of fans, such as Star Trek trekkies, but never having the respectability of serious literary writers.

In a Boston Globe interview last year, Holt said he avoids the science fiction label, noting that for him generic distinctions between what’s real and what’s fantastic doesn’t make much sense, since it’s all fiction. “And as part of a larger tendency to isolate things that make us uncomfortable, I think such distinctions are dangerous.” Holt says that it makes perfect sense we named everything in the cosmos after the gods. “When you set a story there you get a free pass into the realm of myth.”

And it is indeed the world of myth and mystery and magic that interests Holt. He says that he is interested in the limits of our capacity to understand ourselves. “For me, these stories are more than anything else about where stories come from, and where they take us. They’re about the moment-by-moment process by which our brains convince us that the world exists, and the gaps in that process as well. Those flaws in the illusion are what I want to capture. They’re the chinks in the structure where mystery gets in and haunts our lives—and through which one day we slip into eternity.” All this sounds very much like Poe, for whom the function of story is not to mirror external reality but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds only to the basic human desire for total unity.

In a New York Times review last September, William Giraldi suggested that Holt’s people are beyond the help of science, quoting one of his characters who says, “Science is a consolation only to the ignorant.” Giraldi asks, “What do we clutch at in place of science? What sustained and deceived us long before science, and what will we return to once modernity becomes an antiquated future? Mystery, magic, myth; the allegories and fables that crowbarred open our psyche.”

The “Power of Words” (which is the title of one of Poe’s stories) is central to Holt. Central is the opening story in Holt’s collection, entitled Ό Λογος” a Greek word that means “The word,” as in “In the beginning was the word” in John 1.1. The word of the title appears mysteriously on a young girl’s body, creating some sort of infection that kills her. When it is seen by others, they die also, and the disease then spreads to plague proportions that threatens the end of the world. Thus, instead of the beginning, it is “In the end was the word.”

The story also has a Latin head note: Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit. Some medieval manuscripts dealing with the Black Death end with the author's last prayer, "Videtur quod Auctor hic obiit" which means, "It seems the author died here." A similar “final word” motif is suggested by the head note for “Charybdis”: a quotation from Poe’s early prize-wining story that launched him on his career, “MS Found in a Bottle,” in which the narrator says that he will continue to write in his journal until the “last moment” when he will enclose the MS in a bottle and cast it within the sea. The story is not one of Poe’s best-known stories, but it is one of his most self reflexively complex.

Holt makes another reference to “Ms Found in a Bottle” in the story “Eurydike,” a futuristic version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Another isolated space traveler recognizes a word out of endless rows of empty letters on his screen, the word “discovery.”

In “Ms Found in a Bottle,” the narrator says a feeling for which he has no name takes possession of his soul--"a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of by-gone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key.” Such feelings are the sense of being "captured by the incredible" which is both the very essence of dreams, as Conrad's Marlowe insists in The Heart of Darkness, as well as the essence of story itself; for no "relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams." This realization is what the narrator refers to when he says a "new sense--a new entity is added to my soul." Moreover, this is what constitutes the unintelligible letters he unwittingly daubs on the sail, which, when the sail is put in use, spell out the word DISCOVERY. For the discovery the narrator makes is the discovery that dominates Poe's art and thought throughout his career; it is the discovery of the power of the imagination and thus the power of story.

Like the narrator, Poe himself felt impelled by a "curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of those awful regions . . .. It is evident that we are hurrying on to some exciting knowledge--some never-to-be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction." As Poe's masterworks "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Eureka make clear, the end of the imaginative journey is both the source and the end of life itself, for it is ultimate non-being. We imagine the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" lost in his fantasy, penning the last words--"going down"--and tossing his letter into the sea, from whence, eternally detached from its author, it is taken up by countless readers as a "dead letter" only to be made to live again continuously.

If the novel creates the illusion of reality by presenting a literal authenticity to the material facts of the external world, the short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality. If the novel's quest for extensional reality takes place in the social world and the material of its analyses are manners as the indication of one's soul, as Lionel Trilling says, the field of research for the short story is the primitive, antisocial world of the unconscious, and the material of its analysis are not manners, but dreams. The results of this distinction are that whereas the novel is primarily a social and public form, the short story is mythic and spiritual. While the novel is primarily structured on a conceptual and philosophic framework, the short story is intuitive and lyrical. The novel exists to reaffirm the world of "everyday" reality; the short story exists to "defamiliarize" the everyday. Storytelling does not spring from one's confrontation with the everyday world, but rather from one's encounter with the sacred (in which true reality is revealed in all its plenitude) or with the absurd (in which true reality is revealed in all its vacuity).

In the short story we are presented with characters in their essential aloneness, not in their taken-for-granted social world. Such an understanding of the two different realms of the short story and the novel helps to account for one of the best-known discussions of the subject matter of the short story--Frank O'Connor's intuitive analysis in The Lonely Voice. The novel, says O'Connor, can "adhere to the classical concept of civilized society, of man as an animal who lives in a community . . .; but the short story remains by its very nature remote from the community--romantic, individualistic, and intransigent. This is why, O'Connor says, the short story always presents a sense of "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society. . . . As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel--an intense awareness of human loneliness." We must approach the short story, O’Connor says, in the mood of Pascal’s “The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

All of Holt’s narrator protagonists face the silence of infinite spaces, the mystery of pushing the consciousness to such extremes that physical reality disappears. To read Holt’s stories is not only to be returned to Poe, it is to return to the primal origins of story itself.