State of the Union: A review of New American Stories
By C.D. Rose.
New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus (Granta, 2015)
When a book presents itself like this, you can’t help but think it’s a statement of intent. The intent, in this case, is so clear that it’s plastered all over the (handsome) cover: a chunk of Ben Marcus’ introduction to the collection is superimposed on the title. This is not a mere collection of stories, this, it suggests, is a manifesto.
“Language is a drug,” begins the cover extract, “but a short story cannot be smoked.” Marcus has described the intoxicant powers of language before (his novel The Flame Alphabet imagines a world where children’s language becomes a fatal poison for adults), and conjures its incantatory qualities again here; it goes on: “You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled in a cream,” its charm and power starting to creak a little until it tells you, “You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man.” No indeed, you certainly can’t. While Marcus is to be admired for fully exploiting a powerful metaphor, this veers dangerously close to lit theory Alan Partridge.
But turn to the introduction proper and the whole thing is rather more nuanced and thoughtful than this breathless extract may seem. Marcus tells the tale of play-scaring his young son, and claims stories have the same effect on their readers: “When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world… I read short stories.” The book, on the whole, achieves this aim: the thirty-two New American Stories variously ambush and capture, create strange and vivid worlds, and – occasionally – simply baffle.
Yet if the book isn’t quite a manifesto, its cover and weight do perhaps stake a claim at making it a statement publication, a landmark in the development of the American short story. And while the introduction certainly makes no grandiose claims about representing American life (pace Richard Ford’s introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story in which he snarkily refutes the possibility of such a thing), it can be difficult not to extrapolate something State-of-the-Nation about such a portentous collection: thirty-two contemporary writers amassed to glimpse into America’s soul.
And what there is to see there isn’t entirely pretty: almost all the stories possess some sense of queasiness, something very much not quite right about the world. This is an America which is distinctly unheimlich. In Lucy Corin’s ‘Madmen’, American adolescents are required to choose a person with severe mental health issues to take home, and live with. Charles Yu’s ‘Standard Loneliness Package’ has call centre workers taking on outsourced emotional pain, while Tao Lin and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh set their stories in a land where the characters are haunted by the spectre of terrorism. Families, too, are put under the microscope and found wanting: Rebecca Curtis’ ‘The Toast’ has a brilliantly unreliable narrator composing a wedding address to her estranged sister, venting a controlled anger while her own world seems to be falling utterly to pieces around her. Don DeLillo works with his familiar themes of power, money and corruption as a jailed trader watches his teenage daughters becoming TV-star celebrity financial commentators. Christine Schutt’s ‘A Happy Rural Seat of Various View’ offers anything but its title, as a couple move into a house offering rural bliss despite their relationship already having disintegrated.
The historical is a rarity: the stories here are almost all present or near-future set, or – as Marcus himself notes – are “set in some gummy mixture of the two”. It is interesting, then, that two of the strongest stories have historical settings. Anthony Doerr’s ‘The Deep’ and Claire Vaye Watkins’ ‘The Diggings’ look at salt miners in Detroit and gold hunters in California respectively. Neither story offers comfort (an oft-levelled criticism of historically-set fiction), but glances at the barbarous, the brutal, at histories out of tilt, little known episodes of things locked away in America’s attic.
Mostly, this is an America that is defined through language itself, a culture only perceptible and intelligible through those “skeletal marks on paper or a screen”, as Marcus puts it in his introduction. In ‘This Appointment Occurs in the Past’ Sam Lipsyte writes “Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve”, a sentence so intimate with American culture it almost needs footnotes. Tao Lin describes “a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound,” hinting at advertising copy (“The 2015 terrorists are now in!”). George Saunders’ narrator goes into a shop selling plastic tags marked ‘MiiVOXMIN’ and ‘MiiVoxMAX’ and buys one without even knowing what it is. Some of the most interesting stories here are part of what Marcus isn’t crass enough to refer to as a ‘school’, but there is some recognisable DNA shared by him, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and Wells Tower, for example. These are stories intensely aware of themselves as stories (Lipsyte’s ‘This Appointment Occurs In The Past’ is not so much a nod to Chekov as a full on nut), and as language. These writers seem to be brothers from the same strange and brilliant family, entertaining and hugely talented, but reading them has the cumulative effect of being repeatedly battered around the head by an undeniably clever but somewhat irritating child. When Lydia Davis arrives with the one paragraph ‘Men,’ it’s like a soothing glass of cool water. The smartass brothers’ more intelligent and rather more modest older sister.
It is Davis, of course, who picks at the very notion of what ‘story’ is – Marcus repeatedly uses this term instead of the more specific (and market-unfriendly) ‘short story’, and never bothers (thankfully) to define quite what he means by it. It is interesting, though, that everything Marcus says about story in his introduction could certainly apply to the novel, or to the short story’s closest sibling, the poem. Some of these stories feel like novels: the Vaye Watkins story mentioned above runs to fifty pages and has separate chapters, as does Denis Johnson’s brilliant ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’, detailing the slow breakdown of an adman (a classic American tale). But they stick out notably given the remarkable consistency of Marcus’ aesthetic (many reviews even seem to be treating the book as if Marcus had written the whole thing himself).
Other than their settings and the above-mentioned hyperinflated language used by some of the writers, there is also no clear sense of why these should be American stories. (Marcus’ inclusion of Zadie Smith has raised one or two eyebrows, but if someone lives in a country and writes about it, that’s good enough for me.) Frank O’Connor said that for Americans the short story was practically “a national art form”, something that Nicholas Royle and Salt’s ongoing annual selection Best British Short Stories, now in its fifth year, would seem to give the lie to. It would be facile to contrast the supposed American quality of brashness with the British virtue of modesty, but Best British Stories 2015 does no more than it claims on its cover, has a brief grumble of an intro from Royle which then turns into a modest yet strong statement about the vitality of the form. While it is true that there isn’t the readership in the UK that there may be in the US, Royle notes with approval “the rise of the single short story publication” (citing Daunt Books and Knives Forks and Spoons Press, coyly not mentioning his own Nightjar Press who also publish excellent single-story chapbooks), and the growth of a number of small magazines (Lighthouse and Gorse, in particular). Rather than pontificating about the wider significance of the form, the introduction is a simple enticement to get on with the stories.
This is to compare like with like – as an annual event, BBSS has less pressure on it to be a statement and its continual reappearance makes it a seam, a vein of ore, rather than a monolith.
Another intriguing contrast comes from looking at the two books’ lists of contributors. Almost all of the thirty-two Americans note the college or university where they hold a teaching position; only two of the British do likewise. In a 2006 essay in n+1, ‘Short Story & Novel’, Elif Batuman bemoans this state of affairs, claiming that the short story is a zombie form, only kept alive by its use and practice in the Academy. Despite the undoubted brilliance of New American Stories, this does ring true: of course there’s no living in writing short fiction, and I don’t begrudge the NAS contributors a good job, but it would perhaps have been interesting to read stories by writers not associated with academia. Best British Short Stories, and Royle’s introduction to it, deny this state of affairs, showing that short fiction can thrive outside of MFA workshops.
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. If I had to pick the best stories from each collection, I’d go for two which have much in common: Robert Coover’s ‘Going For A Beer’ and Jim Hinks’ ‘Green Boots’ Cave’ both fold entire lives into a few pages. They are both intensely focused on language and narrative, yet poke out of the page, looking at you, unsettling everything you think you know. They bring themselves into being, they aren’t even about anything other than being the thing themselves. They are hermetic: sealed, mercurial, enigmatic. Indeed, the best stories couldn’t exist in any other form: call it a prose poem or a ten page novel, if you will, it matters little. The best stories in these books hold the heritage of Kafka and Gogol more than that of Hemingway or Carver. Short stories are slippery things, and have no truck with nationality or borders, but mess with identity and time itself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.D. Rose is the editor of The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House) and author of ‘Arkady Who Couldn’t See And Artem Who Couldn’t Hear’ (Galley Beggar).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 7th, 2015.