Two anthologies intrigued me enough this year to use them in the classroom, a rare occurrence. New American Stories boasts a lineup of writers I appreciate -- Rebecca Lee, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Don DeLillo, Robert Coover, Denis Johnson, and Claire Vaye Watkins -- but its was the introduction by Ben Marcus that sold me on the book. I had written an essay on prefaces, introductions, and forewords this year for The Millions, so I’ve been particularly attuned to the existence of these literary first-acts. I am somehow becoming less cynical with age, so I don’t mind moments of literary cheerleading -- as long as the origin appears genuine. Marcus seems to love words, and what more could you ask of an anthology editor? I loved this: I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. Our skin is never pierced and yet stories break the barrier and infect us regardless. And later: Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why. To this list of crucial things, without we might perish, I would add stories. A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention. Marcus might also champion poetry in much the same words, and his introduction could suffice for the 2014 edition of The Best American Poetry, although guest editor Terrance Hayes’s own introduction is excellent. One of my least favorite annual complaints is the requisite lampooning of the Best American Series by Writers Who Were Not Included, and while I don’t begrudge anyone their rants, it is best to encounter each anthology on its own merits. Hayes’s introduction is a hilarious imagined dialogue with a poetry scholar that includes a few simple but sharp teaching suggestions (“In my classes I ask students to name a poem’s hot spots. The idea is that in any poem there is a line or two that heats the rest of the poem. A kind of focal point that both anchors and charges it.”) and a wonderful diagram by Jacques Maritain from the chapter “The Internalization of Music” in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Two of my favorite poems from the anthology are “To Survive the Revolution” by Traci Brimhall and the powerful “Fallen” by Vievee Francis. “But I was never the light of my father’s eyes, nor any / well-lit brother’s (that deep husked choir), so there / was no height from which to fall. I began here / in the proverbial bottom.” The route is worth enjoying, but her ending takes away my breath: “Lucifer’s a common story, a / child’s bogeyman. What should frighten you is this: / Imagine what he would be had he not fallen, had he never / known the elusive light at all, never been privy to the cords / of God’s neck, if he in fact doubted such things, / believing only in what anguishes and writhes, trusting / nothing more than what soils his hands.” Perhaps my lack of interest in criticizing these anthologies is that I never view them as truly the best of anything, regardless of their intentions. I view an anthology as a sequence of previews: most are well-produced, some are thin, some are out of place. A good anthology will feel like it carries a narrative arc, and has much the same feeling as completing a good collection of short stories. A great anthology will happily and humbly exist in the service of its writers, and will appreciate when readers put the collection down and seek more and more of the words that truly stir them. I’m thankful for such an experience twice in a single year. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government's history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it's difficult not to conclude they've researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency. I read a lot this year, enough so that I'm not embarrassed about it, but I didn't read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I'm contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I'm some kind of super fan but because I'm sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I'm wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you'll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I'm the only one who's struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit -- one book in my pile is a doorstop. When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity's Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you'll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant. All this explains why, around the the time Can't and Won't came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. "Hi there, douchebag," said the teen, his posture terrible. "Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?" "Okay," I said. "Please learn to shave and use deodorant." I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it? Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it's worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it's worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that. For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can't and Won't is any indication, she'll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like "French Lesson No. 1" are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent "Idea for a Sign." There is, I think, no "bad" Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind. The problem with reading huge books is it's hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That's why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I'd read a few already, among them "Home" by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed "Going for a Beer" shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and "The Arms and Legs of the Lake" gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there's the 78-word-long "Men," a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can't and Won't. I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don't know. Do you like Jameson? More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
“The short story is an odd form, forever dying out or undergoing a revival, impossible to define, sometimes seeming to be united by being nothing more than a text which happens to occupy around thirty pages or less: novels for people who can’t be arsed reading novels. Yet the best stories in both of these books show what the form is capable of: the world reflected in a puddle, the light gleaming for an instant, fireflies.” C.D. Rose reviews New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus, for 3:AM Magazine.
The first thing I did after I received a copy of New American Stories was compare its table of contents to that of its predecessor, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, published some 11 years earlier[i]. Unlike anthologies that cover a particular theme, region[ii], or narrow window of time, both New American Stories and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories have been linked only by the fancy of their editor, Ben Marcus. Marcus is known for experimental work, but his taste ranges widely -- for example, Deborah Eisenberg appears in both editions, as does George Saunders. (In fact, a quarter of the stories in New American Stories are by authors who also were published in the previous Anchor edition.[iii]) The second thing I did after I received a copy of New American Stories was read “Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu. Yu is one of those guys who I’d heard of through the book review sections of newspapers, whose books I’d always meant to pick up. I follow him on Twitter. Here is a real benefit provided by anthologies like NAS: the opportunity to read work by authors who are, to varying extents, new. And so, below are my favorite three stories from the collection, all by new-to-me authors. 1. Yu, who occupies a place somewhere between science fiction and literary fiction, does not disappoint. “Standard Loneliness Package” is about a futuristic call center where the wealthy can outsource their discomfort -- physical or otherwise. It’s a clever concept, but the magic here is in Yu’s application. The story starts off with a droll description of life at the firm, a workplace filled with familiar office banter and the know-it-all colleague in the cubicle next door. But as the main character continues to toil at his job, everyone’s displaced pain takes its toll on him. He returns home at the end of each day, shaken, and cries real tears at the funeral of someone else’s grandfather. He attends another funeral and recognizes, behind the eyes of the bereaved, his coworkers. At one point, about halfway through the story, he demonstrates the anguishing monotony of grief: I am in a hospital. My lungs burn. My heart aches. I’m on a bridge. My heart aches on a bridge. My heart aches on a cruise ship. My heart aches on an airplane, taking off at night. There is a love interest, and there is real world grief. And then, just as it seems like you’ve got a handle on the story, the ground shifts again in a weird and wonderful way. 2. And then there is “Paranoia,” a brilliant story by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, whose memoirish essays I’d read but whose fiction was entirely unfamiliar to me. Dean, the first-person narrator of “Paranoia,” is plagued with not only with paranoia but with also its twin: confusion. At the story’s outset, America is embarking on an unnamed war when “some line had been crossed, something said or done, something irrevocable on our said or on the enemy’s,” but the narrator is more concerned with the May heat as he rides a bus across town to visit his friend Roberto at the hospital. As he rides by “homes display[ing] the MIA and POW flags from some bygone wars, and every so often a window that said peace or no war or something to that effect,” he muses on how lucky Roberto is to have him. Dean regards Roberto as “a strange man in a strange land, hoping one day to magically transform into an American and have a real life.” As his bus moves into “the infamous Maple Tree Heights,” fear overcomes Dean. “Every week there was a report on the news of some unfortunate event, many involving white people who had lost their way.” He gets off the bus for his transfer and thinks of taking shelter at an American-flag draped Arby’s. But then fear takes root as “three black guys about my age came out of the restaurants with their roast-beef-sandwich bags and big boots and baseball caps.” His first thought is of the violence he’s sure lurks around every corner there: “I thought about running, but running implied terror. Or capitulation.” His fear is disrupted, somewhat, when he realizes that the group is comprised mostly of his old classmates. Dean bums a cigarette from one, which sets off what will become a series of quasi-financial transactions in the story -- the lending of money, the acquisition of electronics, and the commodification of humans as soldiers and prisoners. The story manages is funny and chilling and, somehow, a spot-on characterization of an entirely empty character. 3. And finally, there is Mathias Svalina. Who is this guy? A poet! And it makes sense, given the lyric, absurdist group of vignettes that make up his story, “Play.” The piece itself is not a story so much as it is a rule book for a dozen absurdist children’s games, with narratives folded in. I read most of “Play” aloud to my husband, and it will be difficult not to quote each section, in its entirety, here. “Drop the Handkerchief” imagines a complicated game that is part duck-duck-goose, part public shaming. A child is born It, and then chooses another child to join him. The other five children stand in a circle and “hold hands & refuse to allow either the It-child or the chosen child to stop running. These two continue running for the rest of their lives.” There is also a child born inside the circle. He, too, has a handkerchief, left for him by his estranged father, who “drives a bright blue car & can be seen working at the candle factory five nights a week.” In “Pop Goes the Weasel,” designed for four children “and an audience of voters,” a child is designated It. The It child walks into a crowd of thousands, shaking hands with all the men & kissing the cheeks of all the women & rubbing perfumed oils on the foreheads of all the babies. He must appear on TV & pretend like there is no camera in the room. Later, when the It child is assassinated, the other children write books about him or her. The games are united by motifs of masculinity and competition, with a decided emphasis on losing. They also often feature children engaging in pretend commerce, as with “Hide-&-Go-Seek” and “Everything Costs $20.” Of course, much of child’s play is actually about engaging in pretend commerce. This is another way Svalina’s piece succeeds -- the story, in its absurdity, still manages to tread in the familiar. Marcus recently said, in an interview with Flavorwire, that he does not want New American Stories to feel like a declaration of what is worthwhile as much as he wants it be experienced like a literary mixtape. But the book is, in fact, a reflection of what many American writers are thinking about today -- the limitations of late capitalism, the rush to quantify and app=ify every human need, the constant thrum of American interventions. Like the previous edition, here is a snapshot of our time, grim and funny and unreal. [i]. The new edition is published by Vintage; both Vintage and Anchor are imprints of Penguin Random House. [ii]. Even “American” is very loosely defined. Zadie Smith, for instance, is English, although she has made New York City her part-time home. [iii]. Lydia Davis, Anthony Doerr, Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders, Christine Schutt, Wells Tower.
"When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world, and tossed aloft until I cannot stand it, until everything is at stake and life feels almost unbearably vivid, I do something simple. I read short stories." Electric Literature has posted Ben Marcus's "paean to the contemporary American short story," which doubles as the introduction to New American Stories and does a pretty good job of capturing just what it is we love about reading fiction.