The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/kooikkari.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
Old School, by Tobias Wolff:
This limpid novel offers up a vivid anatomy of the adolescent sensibility. The challenge in writing about high-school age kids — particularly the sort of generally well-off and healthy kids that populate this book — is that the whole world lies before them, and even if they fail, they have years to recover. The stakes always feel high to adolescents, but adults tend to look back on all but the worst dramas from that period with the wistfulness of veterans who have stared down life’s real problems. Wolff, though, manages to make the stakes inOld School feel high even to an adult reader by never condescending to his characters. He gives them baroque angsts and passionate urges, but he also gives them a sense of proportion and an innate understanding of their own moral failings. Wolff takes seriously the predicament of a narrator, at any age, who wants more than he has and is willing to sink into a morass of moral turpitude to get it. He allows his narrator to fail and to know that he’s failing. After visits by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand (both personalities are dramatized unforgettably here), some gamesmanship around a chance to meet Ernest Hemingway provides the narrator an opportunity to enact the sort of calamitous bad judgment that can lead to profound regret and tip one over into adulthood. Adulthood, the book seems to argue (and this is where Wolff’s lack of condescension to his teenage characters comes through most beautifully) is just childhood with greater responsibilities and without the benefit of an apparently limitless future. The stakes, we feel at the end of this book, were really as high as they felt all along. The child is father to the man. Our regrets stay with us. Dean Makepeace set up the visit with Hemingway and hinted at knowing him personally, but he had no acquaintance with him. The dean put himself into a mental prison as a result of that bit of dissembling, but how much different is that prison from the tortures of adolescence? We may run from ourselves, Wolff seems to say, but we’ll never get very far — which sounds like a curse, but looks like a blessing at the end of this affecting book.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes:
What’s chilling in this book, beyond the dramatization of the way memories are corrupted by time, is the notion that it’s possible to see one’s present self in a positive light and not realize how much one’s own past actions have negatively affected others. The selves we take pride in, the parts of us we’re willing to be readily identified by, this book reminds us, are filtered versions of ourselves. Over the course of the novel, the narrator strips away the layers of his own illusion — or rather, he has them stripped away from him by force. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this beveled gem of a book. We cherish the progressive notion that if there is a moral imbalance in our lives, we will address it, but how can we address what we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the existence of entirely? We bury our mistakes so successfully that we no longer feel accountable for atoning for them. Much of life is a détente between whom we want to think we are and whom we are. This book is a draught of cold air, a slap in the face, a wakeup call.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid:
The way the second-person narration functions in this novel is a thrill to behold. Hamid keeps things tense by keeping them indeterminate. Part of that tension springs from the extraordinary politeness and deliberateness of Changez’s overtures to his unheard interlocutor (“if you will permit me”) which read as sinister somehow — something more out of the register of “The Cask of Amontillado” than any book of etiquette. The very fact that that politeness scans as sinister is part of the driving engine of this book. The frisson one feels in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes from the way Hamid implicates the reader in the narrator’s disillusionment. One is forced to interrogate one’s own assumption — the title leads us to it, archly — that the narrator has chosen the path of jihad. Could he not simply harbor non-violent objections to a way of life he’s come to disagree with? And his interlocutor, about whom we know so little — is he a regular civilian or an intelligence agent of some sort? I was spellbound by the artistry of a book that succeeds at the challenging task of making possible two diametrically opposed interpretations — that Changez is a jihadist, and that he is an ordinary man in an intense conversation who may be being radically misunderstood. As the book approaches its climactic final moment, the pitch of emotions rises subtly, inexorably, and one feels like a lobster in a slow-boiling pot. The book is a triumph of form, but it’s also an opportunity for an extended self-analysis on the reader’s part, and an argument for a more empathetic understanding of the lives of people on the margins.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell:
So much has been said about this extraordinary book that one wonders what one might add to the conversation. Still, it ought to be observed that in another writer’s hands, this material might have yielded a series of bloodless experiments. Instead, what we have is a full-blooded, big-hearted, human story. Mitchell’s triumph is to make every leap in time, every technological novelty feel utterly necessary, and to wring an astounding amount of emotion out of settings that could easily have felt cold and clinical. By scrupulously rendering the everyday reality of his characters’ lives, Mitchell earns the right to go to outlandish places in his telling. There is no ironic distance from the more conceptual material, no winking at the reader. He’s taking it all seriously, even the oddball stuff. We relax in the hands of a storyteller who will see to every detail and think through the larger implications of every choice. We settle in for the ride. And what a ride it is. One of the under-remarked aspects of this book is what a page-turner it turns out to be, how thoroughly engrossing. Mitchell’s talents seem to know no bounds.
The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates:
A book whose astringent worldview makes Revolutionary Road seem at times almost cheerful. These characters fail each other over and over, and fail themselves. I felt a keen sympathy for the divorced Walter Grimes when he’s visited by his young daughters at work. He’s not a reporter, the way they think he is; instead, he works at the copy desk. He’s not ashamed, just a little embarrassed, but their disappointment is palpable, and it sets the stage for this story of disillusionment on a grand scale. These sisters are estranged early and spend their lives running on parallel paths toward disappointment in men, in marriage, in careers, in life itself. They fail to meet, even when they’re in each other’s presence. There aren’t a lot of people to “like” in this book, but The Easter Parade provides the greatest antidote I can think of to the assertion that a book has to be populated with likable characters for it to be enjoyable. The impossible beauty in Yates’s sentences would be balm enough by itself, but when you combine it with the extraordinary perception about humanity on every page, one is left feeling less alone on the planet knowing that someone like Yates once walked around taking things in and caring enough about people in their flawed humanity to attempt to reproduce them convincingly on the page, however odious they could be at a given moment. He somehow loves everyone, even when he’s skewering them. The gorgeousness of Yates’s prose and the heartbreaking accuracy of his insight into our sometimes-dark hearts provide enormous emotional sustenance. The care he takes in getting his sentences right, in staring accurately into a moment, is its own kind of embrace. One need not get the milk of human kindness from Yates’s characters to get it from his books.
10:04, by Ben Lerner:
Among the many pleasures in reading this astonishingly nimble book is watching to see where this consciousness will take you. There are so many surprises here, so many things seen afresh with that particular sort of attention that Ezra Pound calls for in ABC of Reading, wherein to know a fish really well is to know it back and forth, to study it for weeks until it is a moldering pile of bones, but one has learned something about it. The thing that’s known in this case is the way the mind works, the tortuous byways one’s thoughts can wend on the path to an ever-receding but tantalizing total understanding of the workings of the universe for a fleeting moment. Lerner gives his narrator extreme perceptiveness, hyper-articulacy, great curiosity, and a laconic voice that suggests more emotional exposure at any given moment than he is prepared to handle. The triumph of this book — with its impacted sentences that involute on themselves and interrogate the meanings of words and pack as much signification as possible into each unit of cognition — is to present observations of such freshness, originality, and vivacity that they instantly feel like old wisdom one has had access to for years. Everything in this book one hadn’t seen before Lerner wrote it suddenly becomes an article of longstanding faith, a core principle one has lived by. I was particularly captivated by his discussion of the numinous power in “totaled” art, damaged works that have been declared valueless by an insurance company. Lerner spins the word “totaled” into a captivating riff that extends in several meditative directions. Seeing that art for what it was was just one of many new ways of perceiving the world that this book gave me as gifts. But the greatest gift this book gives is its willingness to slow everything down, to stop time for long enough to get everything thought and everything said that can be thought and said in a given moment. This preoccupation with accuracy and comprehensiveness makes the narrator a prison of his perceptions at times, because he sees with a fly’s eyes, taking in every stimulus around him and folding it into whatever thesis he is constructing in his mind at a given moment. In a culture that insists on speed and thoughtless consumption, Lerner’s willingness to parse a moment down to its component parts is a welcome corrective.
My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh:
This gutsy book (coming in 2015) examines the effects of a rape on both the victim and the community she grows up in in Louisiana. The identity of her attacker is unknown. The narrator is a classmate of hers who also happens to have had an obsessive crush on her for years. Right away, we know we’re in complicated territory. Like Lolita and The Stranger before it, My Sunshine Away understands that every confession is also an attempt to convert listeners to the speaker’s worldview. We’re not sure whether this confession will end in a revelation of evil or renew our faith in humanity, but the deft structural control, artful prose, and extraordinary psychological acuity on display mean we’re riveted either way. As we parse the narrator’s words to determine what he’s capable of, we conspire with him to direct attention away from the person who needs it the most, namely the victim. Walsh captures how the fear of discovery in untidy urges can turn ordinary people into monsters of pragmatism. The last third snaps with a tautness of a thriller, and Walsh keeps the reader guessing until the very end, as the best mystery writers do, but this is literature of the highest order, an elegy for lost youth everywhere and an argument for empathy at all costs. This book asks the essential questions: How much responsibility do we have to each other? Can we reassemble the pieces of broken lives? Walsh hints at answers, but none is more potent than the fact that he’s engaging such profound questions in the first place.
Small Mercies, by Eddie Joyce:
Small Mercies, also coming in 2015, is the Staten Island novel you didn’t know you were waiting to read. It’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather than writing a safe-remove “systems” novel about the roots and impacts of the attacks, Joyce takes on the more ambitious task of bringing vividly into focus one of the 3,000 people who died that day and the family members and friends who pressed on in the wake of their unspeakable loss. In telling the story of the demise of beloved Bobby Amendola — son, brother, husband, friend, lover of life, Staten Islander, firefighter — and the divergent ways his loved ones responded to it, Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. Joyce understands the role one’s native place plays in the development of one’s character, and he has a gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments. He builds his story around the negative space created by Billy’s absence, alternating perspectives throughout to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a people in grief. Small Mercies effortlessly tackles weighty subjects — the value of the bonds of family in changing times, what debts we owe the dead and ourselves, what to make of the American Dream of prosperity in an era when America’s influence is on the wane — without being weighed down by its own seriousness of purpose. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that it’s easy to fall in love not only with Billy’s memory, but with most of the flawed-but-human people who will carry that memory around in them for the rest of their days.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay:
Klay does outstanding work to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. We think we know war stories, and he makes us see that we don’t know these war stories. Whatever our preconceptions about war are, Klay estranges us from them. The bewildering array of technologies, the arcane system of acronyms, the rules of procedure in the contemporary theater of war, with military contractors, ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, and a direct engagement with civilians that dwarfs even that in Vietnam — all these are, for the reader who has never seen them personally, deeply unfamiliar, and Klay makes that unfamiliarity palpable.
In the end, though, war stories or not, these are stories about people in different states of crisis on either side of a divide, American or Iraqi, and Klay makes their experiences feel familiar enough to allow an enormous transference of empathy. The way the soldiers eat cobbler at the end of “Frago” stands in for so much about the way they try to preserve their humanity in the midst of inhuman psychological challenges. And the end of the title story, “Redeployment,” is a heartbreaker, with the narrator’s mind fuzzy as he tries to remember what he was going to do with the body of the beloved dog he has killed. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mental disturbance he is going to have to deal with going forward, as he tries to live a normal life.
When the narrator of “After Action Report” says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for,” it captures the predicament of civilians dealing with veterans in an era when there isn’t pervasive military service, and wars are fought on distant shores for reasons that remain abstract or inscrutable to ordinary people, and the experience of war, in part due to the technological advances, departs so radically from the one described in history books or movies. Part of this book’s argument is that the story of the senselessness of war needs to be told afresh in every generation for it to be heard at all.
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Back in 2003, I decided to start reading the fiction in The New Yorker consistently. Up until that point, I’d read the weekly fiction offering only if it happened to be something by a writer I particularly liked.
Part of my motivation had to do with my own ambitions as a fiction writer; another part had to do with my high school teaching job, which included a course in Reading and Writing Fiction. I thought maybe, by studying closely what the magazine was publishing, I’d get a better sense of just why my own stories were getting unceremoniously rejected everywhere I sent them (with the minor exception of a brief but kind note scribbled at the bottom of a form rejection from McSweeney’s.) If not, at least I’d maybe come away with some good stories to teach in class.
In the first few months of the project, I encountered some great pieces of fiction: Tobias Wolff’s “Class Picture” (an excerpt from his novel Old School), Maile Meloy’s “Red From Green,” and Lara Vapnyar’s “Love Lessons, Mondays, 8 a.m.” And I found that, having preemptively committed myself to reading each story, I sat down with a helpful patience, an openness to the experience and to the writer’s art.
The summer of that first year, I went back to an old issue I’d kept tucked away on a shelf—the one dated June 21 & 28, 1999. This issue was designed by rock-star book designer Chip Kidd. (Incidentally, it’s the only issue in the magazine’s history whose pages have artwork that bleeds to the edges.) The cover features an illustration of Chris Ware’s character Jimmy Corrigan on a beach, looking out at the sea. Scrolled down the page are twenty first sentences—from stories written by the twenty authors chosen to represent what editor Bill Buford, in his introductory comment, called “the twenty best young fiction writers in America today… the obvious names and the not-so-obvious, those who are only just now crossing a threshold of literary recognition and those who have been at home in it for some time.”
I’d dipped into this issue when it first came out. I had liked the Sherman Alexie piece and the David Foster Wallace one, but set the magazine aside after being unmoved by a couple of the others. Now, though, I dug back in and found more to like—a tense and mysterious story by Chang-Rae Lee, a wicked little one by Antonya Nelson, and soberly masterful stories by Edwidge Danticat and Jhumpa Lahiri. I found that the issue included an excerpt from Tony Earley’s gentle, pitch-perfect Jim the Boy, a novel which I’d read and loved.
Over the next seven years, I continued to read the New Yorker fiction fairly regularly. Some years I read more or less everything, while other years I took in only about half of the stories. I began to catalog my reactions in a spreadsheet. I fell in love with Alice Munro and George Saunders. I made up enough bonus-reading quizzes on stories I liked that I was able to offer one per day to my Reading and Writing Fiction students. I sat down and formulated my own criteria for evaluating fiction. I branched out into other sources of fiction, subscribing to smaller magazines like Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review.
I came to recognize, though, that reading magazine fiction is a crapshoot. I think that’s why many New Yorker readers rarely read this part of the magazine. When you read a piece of nonfiction, you know what you’re getting into, and you know you’ll come away from the experience with something tangible—some information or perspective on the world. And you can stop midway through and still have something to take with you. Fiction doesn’t work that way, at least for me. It’s like sex—uncomfortable if abandoned midway through. The rewards of fiction—the ecstatic transport when you’re pulled into the world of a story, given a new window into human experience—can be greater than those of nonfiction, but you can also finish a story angry that the writer has just wasted 45 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Given the risks involved in reading a piece of fiction, it helps to have someone whose taste you trust to limit the pool. Larry Dark became that type of guide for me in the O. Henry Prize collections from 1997 to 2002, which include dozens of stories that blew me away. The New Yorker fiction editors serve the same purpose. Though I don’t dispute that stories are published in smaller magazines that I would like better than a healthy percentage of the stories published in The New Yorker, I simply don’t have time to read all those little magazines. The New Yorker’s batting average is high enough—and it publishes enough heavy-hitters—that it’s as good a section as any to stand in if you hope to catch a home run.
As the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, there’s an unavoidable contingency to literary valuation—an arbitrariness on both a personal and a society-wide level. Yet we naturally make such judgments. We have to do so, simply to avoid being drowned by the deluge of written material that swamps us. Our literary judgments also help us define ourselves and our culture. Who am I? What do I like, and why? What vision of the world do I share? And who are we? What do we value? What stories do we want to hear about ourselves, what will our culture admit into its awareness?
So that’s the context in which I’m approaching this week’s New Yorker, in which the fiction editors offer, eleven years later, a new group of 20 writers, all under 40 years of age, as the future of fiction in America. It’s an effort to shape a literary culture. And it’s an effort by people whose taste I generally trust.
Overall, though, the new list doesn’t immediately excite me, I must say. ZZ Packer and Wells Tower have written debut collections of stories that I greatly admire, and several of the others have written stories that I thought were good. But, to return to the sexual metaphor of reading fiction, with some of the other writers on the list I’ve had one-night stands and never hooked up again. Others, sad to say, have fallen victim to episodes of literary coitus interruptus.
The fact is, this past year I’ve gotten a bit impatient with New Yorker fiction. Busy with other reading projects, I’ve slipped back into my old habits—reading only stories whose authors particularly grabbed my interest.
But—and this is another danger of magazine fiction—it’s all too easy to misjudge a writer harshly simply on the basis of one story. Like the 1999 issue, this one, I hope, will redirect my attention to worthy writers whom I may have unfairly written off.
Despite the periodic disappointments of reading fiction in magazines, there’s a unique magic to the experience. There’s the gift of a new story by one of your favorite writers. There’s the joy of beginning a story by a writer you’ve never read and suddenly realizing that you’re encountering something great. It’s like being struck by lightning, set suddenly afire with pleasure. No other reading experience can turn a chance hour into sheer delight in quite this way.
Say what you will, The New Yorker is one of our culture’s most stalwart curators of this type of literary experience. For that reason, its editors’ vision of the future of fiction is worth considering. It’s my hope that, like the 1999 issue, the 2010 version will include some surprising treats that open up new readerly enthusiasms for me.
Bonus Link: A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago
I used to be a monogamist. I honored that voice in my head that intoned “Thou shalt read just one book at a time” (it was the voice of my high school English teacher, Ms. Denize.) But something happened to me this summer – some unnoticed change took place – and now here I am reading no less than six books at once. Like juggling multiple girlfriends, it’s no easy task: I’m like a squirrel storing up nuts. I wonder if I might be preparing for a long winter of making love to War and Peace or something.In any case, here is the list of the books that currently lie unfinished at my bedside, in no particular order, along with some thoughts on each.Preston Falls by David Gates: My fellow Millionaire, Garth, introduced me to this book and its author. Who is this Gates? Apparently he’s a culture writer for Newsweek, a writing professor at Bennington, and a Pulitzer nominee for his first novel, Jernigan, back in 1991. Never has midlife crisis been so funny, or so extreme, as it is in Preston Falls. Gates goes deep between the ears of his two main characters, Willis and Jean, mining their thoughts for the plentiful deposits of self-defeatism, marital angst, parenting missteps, etc., that reside there. Like Willis’s ’74 Dodge pickup, his “hillbilly shitheap par excellence,” which he bought to show solidarity with the locals in their vacation town of Preston Falls (though they will always know he’s a poser), the wheels are coming off this cozy suburban family. It’s a car crash in slow motion but I can hardly turn away.Old School by Tobias Wolff: What can we say about Tobias Wolff? He’s like a wealthy benefactor, keeping us content with his avuncular offerings of solid prose. Set on the idyllic close of a New England prep school, Old School tracks the main character, an aspiring writer, through the evolution of his literary consciousness. In somewhat fantastic fashion, great writers visit the school in rapid succession. Robert Frost is followed, interestingly, by Ayn Rand, and the proclamations that issue from their mouths act as a sort of blueprint for writing, Frost in the affirmative, “‘Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stub-toe cry… You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry,'” Rand in the negative, “‘What you find in Hemingway is everything that is wrong with the so-called literature of this country. Weak premises. Weak defeated people.'” The narrator, formerly entranced by The Fountainhead, is shocked by the revelation of Rand’s naked misanthropy. Supposedly Hemingway, the boy’s hero, is on the way…Nick’s Trip by George P. Pelecanos: I had just moved and was lovingly establishing my modest library on its new shelves. I picked up this book, which I read years ago and which inspired me to consume the entire Pelecanos collection like a binging crime-noir junkie, and dove right in. With respect to Walter Mosely and Elmore Leonard, George P. is tops in my book. I’m from D.C., where his books take place, and thus biased. But for more evidence of Pelecanos’s prowess, travel up I-95 a short ways to Baltimore, where the HBO series The Wire is set. Pelecanos acts as writer and producer for the show, which Salon.com recently pitted against The Sopranos for the title of greatest T.V. show of all time.1776 by David McCullough: I thought a bit of non-fiction might go well with this smorgasbord. McCullough’s work is considered one of the finest and most accessible accounts of the Revolutionary War (and it did garner the author a Pulitzer). Patriots are cool, Lobster Backs suck, and George Washington? Fuhgeddaboudit; he’s the man. Currently I am reading about the Battle of Brooklyn, which constituted the first costly loss for the Continental Army, and is of particular interest to me because I live in Brooklyn and thus tread daily on the same ground as those soldiers. I wonder who wins in the end. Guess I’ll have to keep reading.Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke, is getting major play right now, and so it was fortuitous that a friend lent me this little book, which is a collection of short stories, because I had never read him. Johnson’s approach is as subtle as a shotgun blast. The writing is spare, the language stark, the stories possessed of a simple, dark beauty. An admirer of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Leonard Michaels, I guess I’m predisposed to liking Denis Johnson too. The first story, “Car Crash,” is exceptional.Three Years by Anton Chekhov: I picked up The Complete Short Novels of Chekhov because I had never read him and often heard him described as the greatest writer of short fiction. Ever. I was drawn to this particular story, Three Years because of themes relating to love and happiness, or the lack thereof, but have so far found it to be less impressive than I expected. I appreciate Chekhov’s writing, the facility with words, the pacing of phrase and meticulous form, but something about the writing seems a bit clinical (Chekhov was, after all, a physician). Not stilted, but perhaps a bit dear:He again clutched the parasol to his breast and said softly, unexpectedly for himself, not recognizing his own voice: “If you would consent to be my wife, I’d give anything. I’d give anything… There’s no price, no sacrifice I wouldn’t go to.”She gave a start and looked at him in surprise and fear.”What are you saying!” she said, turning pale. “It’s impossible, I assure you. Forgive me.”Then quickly, with the same rustling of her dress, she went further up and disappeared through the door.This should be an emotional scene, but it struck me as a little bit hollow, and I’m hoping that the work of this titan of modern literature grows on me.So there you have it, quite a gathering of authors. It occurs to me that I need to round out this group with a female writer or two. Maybe Emily will lend me her copy of the new Harry Potter…
My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my “Year in Reading” post, I thought I’d revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. What you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year – you’ll find many links to them below – Both “Grendel” at Earthgoat and “SD Byrd” at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:January 3, “I am a Novelist” (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a “club” of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story TodayJanuary 10, “Reading Lessons” by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami’s Little Haiti, is asked by her boss – and lover, “Principal Boyfriend” – to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.January 17, “The Juniper Tree” by Lorrie Moore: I really had to jog my memory to remember this one. It starts out with a woman who puts off visiting her dying friend Robin in the hospital. She plans to go in the morning but Robin has already died. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is Moore’s most recent collection. Links: Tingle Alley, Elegant VariationJanuary 24 & 31,”Ice” by Thomas McGuane: This story was more memorable. A young protagonist with a paper route is intimidated by a drum major. To overcome his fears he skates toward Canada on frozen Lake Erie as far as he dares. Presumably, this story will appear in McGuane’s upcoming collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: I Read A Short Story TodayFebruary 7, “The Roads of Home” by John Updike: The middle-aged absentee owner of his family’s Pennsylvania farm, David Kern returns to his childhood home after a long absence, feeling guilty and a little disoriented. A standard Updike story. Updike has a new book coming out this year called Terrorist. Links: This story has inspired a field trip sponsored by The Alton Chronicles – AKA The John Updike Reality Project.February 14 & 21, “Up North” by Charles D’Ambrosio: City guy visits the inlaws for Thanksgiving at their hunting lodge. He goes hunting with the family men and finds out about some skeletons in the closet. I remember liking this story. I’m guessing this story will appear in D’Ambrosio’s new collection, The Dead Fish Museum.February 28,”The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon: The narrator and Dedo, two Bosnian poets, are reunited in America after the war. This memorable story contrasts the hardness of their Bosnian experience with their new lives on the American academic circuit. Touching and funny. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: 3quarksdailyMarch 7, “The Gorge” by Umberto Eco: Italian boy and anarchist help Cassocks escape from Germans in war-torn Italy. Pretty straight-forward for a story by Eco, it turns out this piece was culled from his then-forthcoming novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Links: Conversational Reading, A Roguish Chrestomathy, Unhappy with the New Yorker’s editing: The LaboratoriumMarch 14, “Della” by Anne Enright: I’d completely forgotten this story. It made no impression at all, but upon rereading I see that it’s a sad story about two old folks living next door to each other, one worrying the other is dead, and beneath its somber surface, there’s a little humor to it. Enright’s most recent book is The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.March 21, “Men of Ireland” by William Trevor: I’ve never been a big fan of Trevor, his stories are a little too gray for my taste, but it can’t be denied that he’s a great storyteller. In this one a destitute man accuses his childhood priest of long ago improprieties. Though we can’t know the truth for sure, somehow, in this telling, both seem guilty. Trevor’s most recent collection is A Bit on the Side. Links: James Tata.March 28, “A Secret Station” by David Gates: A classic New Yorker story: An old man ruminates on his wasted life – multiple marriages and infidelities, dabbling in prescription drugs to dull the pain. But Gates paints the characters well and this is a good read. Gates is best known for his novel Preston Falls. Links: shes-krafty.com.April 4, “Solace” by Donald Antrim: I’ve always enjoyed Antrim’s stories. This one is sort of a romantic comedy about two disfunctional people who, due to difficult housing arrangements, must conduct their relationship only in borrowed apartments. Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, pieces of which have appeared in the New Yorker, will be published in May.April 11, “Mallam Sile” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Another good story, especially if you like exotic locales. This one is about the original 40-year-old virgin, a tea seller in Ghana. It is included in Ali’s recent collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Links: James Tata.April 18, “The Orlov-Sokolovs” by Ludmila Ulitskaya: I’ve had the impression for a while now that the New Yorker publishes a lot of stories by Russians, but perhaps it just seems this way because they loom so large on the page. This story is about a young couple that falls prey to Soviet bureaucracy. The story appears in Ulitskaya’s collection Sonechka.April 25, the only issue of the year with no fiction. Instead, a remembrance of Saul Bellow by Philip Roth.May 2, “Where I’m Likely to Find It” by Haruki Murakami: The first of three Murakami stories that appeared in the New Yorker (Yes, he does get in there a lot.) In this one, we have a typically-Murakami detached narrator who investigates missing people, but, this being Murakami, it’s not a typical mystery story. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat.May 9, “Along the Highways” by Nick Arvin: A sad fellow named Graham follows his brother’s widow and some guy named Doug as they drive out of Detroit for a weekend getaway. Graham does this out of jealousy and a misplaced protective instinct. It does not end well for him. Arvin’s debut novel, Articles of War, came out in 2005. Links: Earthgoat.May 16, “The Room” by William Trevor: The second of three Trevor stories in the New Yorker this year (Yes, he gets in there a lot, too.) Another gray story, but, of course, well-crafted. It’s about a woman who covered for her murderer husband and is now admitting everything to her the man she’s cheating on the murderer with. It sounds more thriller-like than it is. Links: Earthgoat.May 23, “Two’s Company” by Jonathan Franzen: Franzen goes Hollywood in this tight little story about a screenwriting couple that battles over a script that celebrates monogamy. There’s no Franzen fiction in the pipeline that I’m aware of, so if you haven’t read it already, ignore the hype and read The Corrections. It’s that good. Links: James Tata.May 30, “The Russian Riviera” by David Bezmozgis: This is a great story. One that I still remember well more than six months after I read it. There’s something about boxers. It seems they’re always getting suckered when all they want is a shot at the big time, like in a favorite movie of mine, On the Waterfront. Bezmozgis received much praise for his debut collection, Natasha. Links: Earthgoat.June 6 “A Mouthful of Cut Glass” by Tessa Hadley: Normally, I dislike Hadley’s stories, but this one stands out as better than the others I’ve read. It’s about being young and in love and the tendency that those so afflicted have to romanticize their partners. No false notes in this story. Hadley’s most recent book is Everything Will Be All Right. Links: Simply Wait, Earthgoat.June 13 & 20. Then came the Debut Fiction issue in which three stories appeared, “An Ex-Mas Feast” by Uwem Akpan, “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing and “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell. I discussed the issue here. My favorite was the Akpan for its exotic setting. I was also impressed to learn that Russell was just 23. Of the three, only Tussing has a book on the way, The Best People in the World.June 27, “The Blow” by J.M. Coetzee (not available online): This novel excerpt (from Slow Man) is about an elderly amputee who, after at first resenting his caretaker, allows himself to be fatherly to her son. Good, but too long. I wish the New Yorker would do away with these novel excerpts. They’re not really short stories. Links: Conversational Reading, Earthgoat.July 4, “Ashes” by Cristina Henriquez: This story is set in Panama City and it’s about a young woman whose mother dies. Her family is already in tatters so it’s up to her to try to keep everything together. Henriquez’s debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart comes out this year. Links: Simply Wait.July 11 & 18, “Long-Distance Client” by Allegra Goodman: This, I think, was my favorite story in the New Yorker this year. In it, Mel, the oldest employee at a tech start-up, bewildered by his coworkers, finds himself misaligned and in severe pain. He goes to an odd sort of chiropractor, Bobby, who, when not giving Mel the runaround, is able to straighten him out. But Bobby claims to have a client that he treats over the phone, and the truth behind Bobby’s claim becomes the quirky question at the heart of this story. Goodman has a new novel coming out soon, Intuition. Links: Earthgoat.July 25, “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff: The masterful Wolff puts together a brief story that deftly circles the topic of gays in the military. It’s funny that now that we’re at war, the once popular gays in the military controversy is old, old news, and, somehow, without being obvious, Wolff manages to highlight that irony. Wolff’s most recent book is Old School. Links: Earthgoat.August 1, “Commcomm” by George Saunders: There’s no one writing like George Saunders. “Commcomm” is too weird to briefly summarize, but in typical Saunders fashion, he places us in an alternate and oddly terrifying universe where people talk like zombies yet somehow remind us of people we interact with every day. “Commcomm” includes an element I’d never seen before in a Saunders story: ghosts. Saunders’ new collection, In Persuasion Nation will come out this summer. Links: standBy Bert (featuring an appearance by Saunders in the comments), Earthgoat.August 8 & 15, “Gomez Palacio” by Roberto Bolano (Not available online): A somewhat oblique story, this one is about a young man teaching in Gomez Palacio. Both he and the director of the school are poets and they’re a little odd. They go for a long drive together. That’s about all that happens. A new book by Bolano is coming out this year: The Last Evenings on Earth. Links: Earthgoat.August 22, “Thicker Than Water” by Gina Ochsner: This story is about a Latvian girl who lives across the street from a family of Jews. Latvia being what it is I suppose, her parents are suspicious of these people, but she is fascinated by them. In the end, there is an ill-fated chess tournament. Ochsner’s most recent book is People I Wanted to Be. Links: Earthgoat. August 29, “The View from Castle Rock” by Alice Munro: An unusual setting for a Munroe story – a ship heading for Canada in 1818. I like Munroe’s stories generally and this one is no exception, though the drama at the center of this long story – a young man who meets a well off father and daughter who tantalizingly offer to lift him from his poorer circumstances so that he must choose between his family and the promise of a better life – it’s a bit trite. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: literarylover, mike.whybark.com, Earthgoat.September 5, “Club Des Amis” by Tony D’Souza: Mr. Wu, who lies at the center of this story, is a Chinese man in Africa. The narrator is a Western aid worker, and he relates how Wu’s son “went native” and died in the bush and now Wu is trying to be a distant benefactor to the son his son had with a native woman. I’m a fan of exotic locales, so I liked this one. This story appears to be an excerpt from D’Souza’s forthcoming novel, Whiteman.September 12, “Coping Stones” by Ann Beattie: A very good story that asks how well do we really know the people we think we know. A widower, Dr. Cahill, rents a house on his property to a young man, Matt, who he treats as a son, but one day the authorities come looking for Matt. Beattie’s most recent collection of stories is Follies.September 19, “Cowboy” by Thomas McGuane: This story is about An old cowboy who hires a young cowboy to work with him. Both exist under the watchful eye of the old cowboy’s sister, who eventually dies. I think this story is about friendship, really, one that grows slowly over many years. This story will appear in McGuane’s collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: Literarylover.September 26, “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami: What if you knew in advance that you would only love three women (or men) in your life? Would you worry, with each new person you met, whether he or she was one of three. This is Junpei’s problem and it makes relationships pretty tough for him. Links: shake it off.October 3, “Companion” by Sana Krasikov: I enjoyed this story. Ilona, thrice divorced we quickly learn, is living with Earl, a man much her senior, not because she is “with” him but because she is in financial straits and he has offered her a room. This makes pursuing her love life difficult and all of her friends somewhat snidely assume Ilona and Earl are together. Earl’s family meanwhile is quite suspicious of her. I like the desperation in this story. A sample description: “The air was stale with the yeasty scent of bread.”October 10, “Early Music” by Jeffrey Eugenides: Another story of desperation. Rodney just wants to play “early music” on his clavichord, but he and his wife Rebecca are in serious debt. She is trying to make ends meet with her ridiculous invention, Mice ‘n’ Warm. His precious clavichord on the verge of being repossessed, Rodney watches his life’s dream slipping away. Eugenides’ most recent book is Middlesex.October 17, “Path Lights” by Tom Drury: A bottle falls out of the sky – no, it’s not The Gods Must Be Crazy – and almost hits Bobby. He becomes obsessed with this bottle, Blind Street Ale, and eventually tracks down the bottle-thrower, but it’s awkward. This story may be an excerpt from Drury’s forthcoming novel, Driftless Area. Links: Short Story Craft.October 24, “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote (not available online): This is an excerpt from a long-lost, recently found Capote novel. The story is well-crafted, if a bit formulaic. Rich girl gets mixed up with tough guy who she thinks she can “save.” You can tell that Capote wrote this when he was young – he was only 19 – but still, his talent is evident. Links: Earthgoat.October 31, “The Children” by William Trevor: Another Trevor story, the final one of the year, and he uses the same palate we’re used to, the scrubby Irish countryside. Young Connie and her father Robert suffer the death of a mother and wife and when he decides to marry the mother of Connie’s friend, we think all might be well, but as Robert new wife Theresa discovers, “nothing was as tidy as she’d imagined.”November 7, “God of War” by Marisa Silver: A daring choice of main character, the troubled child Ares, is at the heart of this story. Set near the desolate Salton Sea, this story covers Ares’ relationship with his brother Malcolm, whose inability to speak Ares may have caused, thus dooming them both. Silver’s most recent book is No Direction Home. Links: Wuff.November 14, “The Best Year of My Life” by Paul Theroux: A young man and woman are in love but nonetheless, she is pregnant with his baby. To escape scrutiny (the story is set in an earlier time), they hide out in Puerto Rico, where they are miserable, but somehow find the experience heartening. If there’s anything I enjoy as much as stories with exotic locales, it’s stories in which the protagonists travel. Theroux’s most recent book is Blinding Light. Links: Short Story CraftNovember 21, “The Year of Spaghetti” by Haruki Murakami: One of the weakest stories to appear in the New Yorker this year. Murakami brings us a guy who eats a lot of spaghetti, then a girl calls looking for an old friend of his, the narrator demurs and returns to cooking spaghetti. That’s about the extent of it. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat, Short Story Craft.November 28, “Love and Obstacles” by Aleksandar Hemon: I loved this story; exotic locale,traveling, etc. An adolescent Croatian (I think) narrator is sent by his family to buy a freezer in Slovenia. Desperate for adventure, he treats this errand as though he were a wandering poet, but he turns out to be more bumbling than anything else. Funny and poignant. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: Short Story Craft, The Glory of Carniola.December 5, “Wenlock Edge” by Alice Munro: This was one of my favorite stories of the year. It starts out very predictably before taking a deliciously strange turn. I won’t ruin it for you, but basically our narrator gets thrown in with an oddball roommate in college, and this roommate lures her into some odd situations. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: Short Story Craft.December 12, “La Conchita” by T.C. Boyle: Boyle, a California resident, loves to make use of his home state’s frequent natural disasters in his fiction. In this story, we’re dealing with mudslides, which impede the route of the narrator who is delivering a kidney for transplantation. He is on a journey to save a life but he stops on the way to try to save another. Boyle has a book coming out this year called Talk Talk.December 19, “Twenty Grand” by Rebecca Curtis: A pretty good story. A harried young mother is forced to give away an old coin – a family heirloom – at a toll booth, only later discovering the coin’s real value. The story is told from the perspective of the young daughter. Links: Short Story CraftDecember 26 & January 2, The year ended with the International Fiction Issue. It contains five stories. In lieu of descriptions, I’ll rank them in order of my favorite to least favorite and provide links when available. “Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolano, “The Albanian Writers’ Union as Mirrored by a Woman” by Ismail Kadare, “Beauty is a Fate Better Than Death” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa, “The Word” by Vladimir Nabokov. Links: Literary Saloon.If you want to keep up with the fiction next year, you can always subscribe.