The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
by Ben Marcus
An Enormous Leap of Faith
A review by Priya Jain
What makes a short story worth reading? This is the question at the heart of the
29 stories Ben Marcus has collected in The Anchor Book of New American Short
Stories. And it's the question that the writers themselves are trying to answer,
in 29 different ways. But this isn't just a textbook for creative writing workshoppers;
it is also a collection of entertaining, moving and sometimes shocking fiction,
and as such, deserves to be read by everyone.
Marcus, an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia University and
the author of the story collection The
Age of Wire and String (1995) and the novel Notable
American Women (2002), assembled this anthology with an essentially personal
approach. "In each case as I sat down to read," he writes in the book's
introduction, "I had to be turned from a somewhat dull, unpromising person
into one enlivened, antagonized, buttressed, awed, stunned by what he was reading."
It's an intimate way of putting together a book, the publishing equivalent of
a friend saying, "Read this! It's great!" Lucky for us, Marcus is
a friend whose enthusiasm we can share.
What makes these stories "new" isn't their age or their writers.
Most of the authors featured in this collection -- George
Gaitskill and David
Foster Wallace among them -- are well-known and have been writing for a
long time. Their stories, too, have all been previously published sometime in
the last 16 years.
Calling these stories new, Marcus writes, "is a way of saying that the
writers are laboring in an entirely new stylistic moment." What that moment
is he doesn't elaborate, although it's clearly related to the bleak climate
for short fiction that we've been living in since the mid-1980s. With a couple
of notable exceptions -- Lorrie Moore's 1998 bestseller, Birds
of America, and Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning The
Interpreter of Maladies (1999) -- short story collections in the last 20
years have rarely found an audience outside academia. Partly this is due to
the diminished market -- less fiction is published in major magazines -- and
the circular relationship between obscurity and experimentation: Laboring without
hope of a large audience, writers feel freer to experiment; the stories they
produce are then too experimental to find a large audience.
Many such stories have no beginning or ending or narrative arc, or are so short
that they contain no more than a single line, or are written with so many made-up
words that they warrant their own dictionary. Often they feel like they were
written for MFA students, the one cohesive audience that short stories have
left. And here is where the stories in The Anchor Book differentiate
themselves: Almost all of them (and more on the rest later) seem to have been
written for real readers. Stylistically, they revolt against tradition, but
they are also less interested in making formalistic statements than they are
in lodging themselves in our imagination. "This is [the authors'] guess,"
writes Marcus, "at what literary styles will puncture our inattention and
qualify as relevancies."
The best example of this is Aleksandar
Hemon's "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders." In a series of
disjointed, biographical statements, Hemon presents Kauders, a forestry bibliographer
and lover of pornography whose life intersects with real-life villains of the
20th century: Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Tito. The result is an absurd and darkly
funny view of cataclysmic events, as if Kauders was the personified spirit of
the two world wars and the Soviet Revolution. One of the fragments reads, in
total, "Alphonse Kauders was the owner of the revolver used to assassinate
King Alexander." In another, Kauders effectively starts World War I when
he stands behind a trembling Gavrilo Princip and whispers, chillingly, "Shoot,
brother, what kind of Serb are you?"
Hemon's use of fragments works for "Alphonse Kauders"; the structure
reflects the story's blurring of fiction and nonfiction. And the parts add up
to more than their sum: We fill in what is not said with our knowledge of history.
A few of the stories in this collection, however, don't say enough. Incoherent
and ultimately shallow, they offer little besides quirky observations. In "Short
Carson presents a series of unrelated paragraphs with titles like "On
Disappointments in Music" and "On Trout." Lydia
Davis' "The Old Dictionary" is a single long paragraph in which
the narrator wonders why she treats her dictionary more carefully than her son.
And "Letters to Wendy's," which Joe
Wenderoth conceives as a story in fast-food restaurant comment cards, contains
exasperating nuggets of absurdities. In one entry, for example, the narrator
flatly declares: "It is rare for a baby to be so bad that it is sentenced
to be hanged, and even rarer for the sentence to be carried out, and yet, when
a baby is hung, what a pleasant surprise it is for the passersby." Wenderoth
doesnt really expand on this statement, and hanged babies have nothing
to do with the rest of the comment-card entries. Its an outrageous image
with no context, one that shocks and disturbs but signifies nothing.
At best, "Short Talks," "The Old Dictionary" and "Letters
to Wendy's" are prose poems, filled with vivid images and smart turns of
phrase. But they offer nothing in the way of narrative, no revelation of the
human condition. They not only experiment with form but take experimentation
to such an extreme that it's impossible to even call them stories. Which is
not to say that shortness or disjointedness can't produce a great story: Diane
Williams' "All American," included in this anthology, is shorter
than Davis' contribution, but in its six brief paragraphs we get an entire narrative
about a woman tinkering with the boundaries of aggression and love. The three
"interviews" that comprise an excerpt from David Foster Wallace's
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are really two monologues and a conversation
by unrelated characters. But they work together to portray an entire world of
lives that revolve around sexual obsessions.
More common in this collection are stories that experiment with language and
genre, and they are the ones that are the most satisfying. In George
Saunders' "Sea Oak," the narrator, who works at a male strip club
called "Joysticks," and his sister and cousin, young mothers who watch
a TV show called "How My Child Died Violently" while halfheartedly
studying for their GEDs, fester in a low-rent, ambitionless existence. The story
feels like a typical treatise on poverty, until the characters' aunt comes back
from the dead and, while decomposing in the living room, orders them to get
their lives together. In "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,"
by Wells Tower, a group of marauding Vikings, who talk like contemporary badasses,
set sail on their last kill-and-pillage mission. As with "Sea Oak"
and "Alphonse Kauders," the surreal elements here give a new perspective
to terrible events -- in this case, the merciless slaughter of an island's innocent
citizens. And it's oddly hilarious when Djarf, the bloodthirsty captain, loses
it when his crew insists on abandoning the mission. "Aaaaah! You motherfuckers
are mutinizing me?" he yells in disbelief.
"A writer has to believe, and prove, that there are, if not new stories,
then new ways of telling the old ones," writes Marcus. Anachronisms and
touches of science fiction are not the only way that the writers in this collection
do this. Others are more subtle and realistic, presenting stories that are,
in fact, told and retold, but with a fresh perspective. A.M.
Homes' "Do Not Disturb" and Mary Gaitskill's "Tiny, Smiling
Daddy" quietly reveal a large story behind a protagonist's narrow point
of view. Homes' narrator is trying to leave a bad marriage, "a situation
that has become oxygenless and addictive, a suffocating annihilation,"
when his wife develops ovarian cancer. She is, as they both readily admit, a
bitch, but we also see him needling her unnecessarily, unaware of his own role
in their fights. Similarly, the father in "Tiny, Smiling Daddy" cannot
understand why his daughter feels estranged from him, but through his account
we see him rejecting her for being gay.
Stories are our most primal way of explaining ourselves to ourselves; they
are an instinctual need. Most of the stories here put this need first, and that's
why they work. It doesn't even really matter that they are structurally experimental,
or that they defy classification by genre. What matters is that they contain
that kind of story magic that can leave a person, as Marcus describes it, "paralyzed
on the outside, but very nearly spasming within."
Although it comes closer to the end of the book, the spiritual center of the
collection is Deborah
Eisenberg's breathtaking story "Someone to Talk To." In it, Shapiro,
a washed-up and somewhat depressed pianist, on a visit to a war-torn Latin American
country, is interviewed by an English radio journalist named Beale who can't
stop talking long enough to ask Shapiro any questions. Beale is an accidental
prophet, an insufferable person who unknowingly reveals secret answers to Shapiro's
private sufferings. In a sudden, impassioned speech (which purports to be about
radio, not literature), he perfectly sums up the transaction between writer
and reader that makes stories such a thrilling process of discovery:
"Oh my darling! Someone is talking to you, and you don't know ... what
thing they've found to tell you on that very day, at that very moment. Maybe
someone will talk to you about cookery. Maybe someone will talk to you about
a Cabinet Minister. And then that particular thing is yours, do you see what
I mean? Who knows whether it's something worth hearing? Who knows whether there's
someone out there to hear it! It's a leap of faith, do you see? That both parties
are making. Really the most enormous leap of faith."