Short Cuts

A novel is not designed to be read in one sitting. A reader finds herself in different moods, and different chairs, over the course of a novel; its pages become saturated with meals and conversations and days good and bad. A short story is read all at once, and alone. It might get knitted into life if it is reread many times over the years, but it always arrives complete, a thing apart and sufficient unto itself, like an asteroid. It is at once smaller and more vulnerable than a novel, and stranger and stiffer, somehow more independent. It doesn’t ask for attachment. It asks only to be heard.

Three collections of American short stories have been recently published. They are New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor; and The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from the Paris Review, edited by Lorin Stein. Each is a victory lap and a thrown gauntlet. Their editorial sensibilities could be plotted across any number of axes: experimentalism vs. realism; global identity vs. bourgeois America; political fury vs. apathy; situation vs. character. The editors agree on one thing: The story’s prerogative has something to do with provoking feeling—with giving pleasure, making aghast or afraid, breaking hearts, entertaining. Or inflicting pain. “Each story here is a different weapon,” Marcus enthuses in the introduction to New American Stories. “Let’s get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways.” Moore compares the story’s business to “open[ing] up a little window or a door” in the mind, an image whose trepanating horror is only momentarily mitigated by that sunny “little.” Stein is less morbid. Rather than treat the story as hole saw, promising explosion or aeration or enlargement, he politely cites its compactness, “the intensity and perfection found only in small things.”

For those who think that the words “short story” are interchangeable with the words “the New Yorker magazine,” or imagine that the history of short fiction ended with Raymond Carver, 100 Years of the Best provides a good curriculum. Carver is here, and John Cheever, but so are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Jamaica Kincaid, Akhil Sharma, Joyce Carol Oates. Read in its entirety, this book constitutes a course in American history, a chronicle of race, class, migrations, and war, as well as the perennial literary themes of marriage, family, career, and what we might call ways of life: religion, friendship, existential despair, bigotry, pride, ignorance, abuse.

The stories in Best American take themselves seriously. They feel like they are aspiring to canonization. The contemporary selections (since 2000) are not especially daring in style; there are no fireworks in terms of inventive structure, wild narrative voice, or big jokes. They are humane. These are socially aware, intimate stories that pivot on reveals; many could easily be turned into movies. They are finely attuned to place and atmosphere. Some of them tug too importunately on the heartstrings, like Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”; Edward P. Jones’s gorgeous “Old Boys, Old Girls,” about a man in prison and how he redeems himself after his release, made me glad to cry.

New American Stories is wound tighter. It goes for fireworks, and the result is invigorating. Marcus’s inflamed rhetoric is justified—these stories really do make you feel sick and weakened, or elated, or breathless. The stakes are very high. The body count is also very high. People are constantly dying in New American Stories. They kill themselves, or others, or remember having killed in the past, or are terminally ill, or already dead and communing from beyond the grave. Of course, the body count in life is pretty high, too, so maybe Marcus is more of a realist than he lets on.

Marcus chose thirty-two stories from the past ten years or so, from gifted and accomplished writers including Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, and Joy Williams, as well as younger comers including Rebecca Curtis, Claire Vaye Watkins, Tao Lin, and Rebecca Lee. Marcus is himself a highly regarded story writer and professor in Columbia’s MFA program. A quick word on MFA programs: They’re often blamed for what’s wrong with American fiction, but less seldom stated is that they also produce almost everything that’s right with it—at least when it comes to short stories, a form that is at once unremunerative and the engine of an alternate, university-based economy of debt, adjuncting, and, for those at the tippy-top, tenure. It’s worth pointing out that, across the volume, at least three-quarters of the stories published since 2000 were written by authors who either attended a program or have taught in one. One might conclude that the story’s relative insulation from the commercial marketplace is more than incidental to its aesthetic vitality. No one starts writing short stories for money or fame. Only people who are hopelessly impractical or in love with the form are stupid enough to dedicate themselves to it.

Cycles of death and rebirth are endemic to all art forms, but what’s most noticeable about the current short-story boom is that it is less easy to encapsulate in a trend or school than boomlets past. New American Stories offers a breadth of approaches—psychological realism, lyricism, surrealism, science-fiction, overstylized caricature—but is weighted toward the experimental, by which I mean that instead of disappearing like a windowpane, language becomes the main event. It’s reduced to bare, stubborn thrift or overflows self-consciously, even ham-fistedly. (For example, here’s Sam Lipsyte: “I floated in a bitter-tasting cloud, but in that moment I also glimpsed everything that was good and sweet and fresh, and also incredibly refreshing and relaxing, and I saw how I could reach that place and remain there for a very long time.”) Time loops over lifetimes or, in one absurd case, human history; it shrinks to a single evening.

Taken as a whole, the collection makes the strongest possible case for the story as a genre of mighty linguistic dazzle, truths told slant, and philosophical workout. Many of its pieces concern recognizable “people like us” who are caught up in situations that are fantastic or futuristic, or in cultures that are exaggerated from our own, and must cope with their consequences. (A good example of this is Jesse Ball’s “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr,” in which a group of men bound to an honor code fight a series of increasingly senseless duels.) The “America” the collection calls into being is not the multicultural melting pot of the 1990s but a dark and dystopian, post-9/11, last-days empire. It’s a nasty and brutish place of extreme weather (Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia”) and ecological disaster (Wells Tower’s “Raw Water”), and its citizens are fully implicated in the suffering all around them.

The narrator of Don DeLillo’s “Hammer and Sickle” is in prison for crimes related to international financial markets. In Maureen McHugh’s “Special Economics,” a teenager from Baoding travels to Shenzhen, finds herself enslaved in a factory, cleverly escapes, and tells her story to the Wall Street Journal. Charles Yu’s “Standard Loneliness Package” imagines a company in Bangalore staffed by workers to whom wealthy Americans outsource their bad feelings. NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Shhhh” concerns a young girl whose father returns from South Africa wasting away with AIDS. She tries to hide him from her friends from the village who have come around to play “Find bin Laden.” But the story ends, gorgeously, with the father surrounded by the children laying their curious, terrified hands on him: “He feels like dry wood in my hands, but there is a strange light in his sunken eyes, like he has swallowed the sun.”

In Claire Vaye Watkins’s wonderful story “The Diggings,” a young man travels west to pan for gold with his brother Errol, who is driven mad by their failures and becomes convinced that the Chinese uncle and nephew who have joined their camp are holding out on them. When the action comes to a head, the narrator—whose lies to Errol have laid the groundwork for the predicament—runs away, learning afterward that the two Chinese men were hanged for attempted murder. Their deaths have been preceded by a much-publicized frontier entertainment, a battle between a bear named General Scott and two bulls. “The grizzly roared then, his long, blood-covered teeth gleaming in the November sun. It was a forlorn, haunting sound, not at all the monstrous bellow I had yearned for at the battle’s onset.” It ends badly for the General.

And then there is war—the actual, present-day wars, two of them, that soldier on despite our best attempts to forget them. Mary Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” floats among several minds, including that of a veteran recently returned from service, and has an ending so biting that I wish I could have waited a week before I read anything else, even a newspaper. The narrator of George Saunders’s “Home” has returned from service in Iraq, where he was involved in something undisclosed and terrible at al-Raz. He visits the house where his babies and ex-wife live with his ex-wife’s new husband. The two of them own three cars, a fact the narrator finds incredible.

That part of town was full of castles. Inside one was a couple embracing. Inside another a woman had like nine million little Christmas houses out on a table, like she was taking inventory. Across the river the castles got smaller. By our part of town, the houses were like peasant huts. Inside one peasant hut were five kids standing perfectly still on the back of a couch. Then they all leapt off at once and their dogs went crazy.

I love the simple and indelible use of the word “castles” to signify modern wealth. I love that inside a large house, a woman is hoarding other, smaller houses. I love the tableau that bursts into action, as if a film has been unpaused. On the basis of very little information and without any writing that you could properly term descriptive, the reader is given a rich sense of place. If we left the inside of the narrator’s mind, we would be able to walk around the streets of this town, peer through its windows, glimpse other rich ladies doing rich-lady stuff. Its sense of place is abstract, cartoonish or mythic—there is a river that divides rich and poor; it’s Anytown. But it is also grounded. It feels inhabited, just as much as the more realistically detailed Italian restaurant of another highlight of the book, Donald Antrim’s “Another Manhattan.”That is not an easy thing to do with economy.

Photo: Ed Brownson/Flickr.
Photo: Ed Brownson/Flickr.

The stories in The Unprofessionals do something rather different. They begin from characters’ consciousness rather than from premises or situations. The predicaments they are in are not any more wholesome than those that face the characters in New American Stories, but they are narrower. There are more relationship problems here, treated in isolation; more people alone, talking to themselves, remembering. This is not an accident, but an aesthetic. Stein is committed to “a voice that speaks on the page, one individual to another.” We continue reading not to see what will happen, but to find out how the narrator will think about whatever happens to happen. Though characters wake up in beds, walk around city streets, or drive in trucks, they do not really live anywhere except their own minds. They sense place as one might sense a phantom limb.

Dislocation is not synonymous with disembodiment. A strong attention to bodily experience runs through The Unprofessionals. Non-procreative sex and drugs are frequent themes. (In New American Stories, Marcus compares his favorite stories to drugs; the Paris Review publishes stories about drugs. Do with that what you will.) The voices speak in two broad registers of realism. The first favors a lyrical realism of poetic dysfunction; the best version of it is Atticus Lish’s macho, tender “Jimmy,” about a biker in prison. Other stories favor a cockeyed, witty, first-person realism of bourgeois dysfunction, most perfectly realized by Ottessa Moshfegh’s creepy “A Dark and Winding Road,” in which the repressed narrator retreats to his parents’ cabin, where he winds up smoking crystal meth with his derelict brother’s friend. The other exceptional story is Benjamin Nugent’s “God,” which delivers a keenly tuned grandiloquence that makes life in its fraternity house into an opera of heroism, longing, and despair.

A typical short-story strategy is to write a character who is slightly deluded or lacks self-awareness, so that the reader knows her better than she knows herself. Another is to prioritize incident over ideas. Ben Lerner’s “False Spring” defies both of these tricks, standing out for its neurotic self-reflection and intellectual seriousness. Zadie Smith’s “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” is a gem, though one wonders how she (or Lerner) wound up in a book called The Unprofessionals. The title suggests a resistance to the actual material situation of its writers—a fantasy—but also a style, an aesthetic of anti-craft. While the stories in New American Stories strain—in many cases brilliantly—for perfection, the stories in The Unprofessionals strain for naturalism, a deliberately half-polished, loose-limbed effect.

Smith is the only author represented in both Marcus’s and Stein’s books, a fact worth mentioning because Smith is a novelist-who-sometimes-writes-stories, rather than a short-story-writer-per-se. In Public Books two years ago, Nicholas Dames observed that novelists, drawn to the freedom of the short story, had taken a renewed interest in it. “The story remains exempt from the responsibilities novels must shoulder,” he wrote, “to be the history of the present, to teach empathy, to save culture (or, as some have it, our brains) by functioning as the antidote to our smartphones or SSRIs.” It’s all the more notable, then, that at least a third of the stories in The Unprofessionals, despite Stein’s stated ideal of the “perfection found only in small things,” are excerpted or adapted from novels. You can tell by reading them—these stories feel different. They feel like fragments of lives lived more fully elsewhere; you put them down and they will continue, off in the other room.

This is somewhat unusual for a short story, which typically leaves the reader with a strong sense of being “done”—that though there is much to be contemplated, no more can be said. Some stories do this by encompassing an entire life history. 100 Years of the Best contains two of this kind from the past fifteen years—Jhumpa Lahiri’s remarkable “The Third and Final Continent” and Lauren Groff’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners.” Other stories give you a life’s most memorable event, so that even if you don’t know everything about the character, you know the most important thing; some give a representative event that stands in for the whole, like the narrator’s mental breakdown in Antrim’s “Another Manhattan.” This sense of conclusiveness or finality is part of how a story justifies itself; you read it because in it you come to know a stranger entirely.

How New American Stories manages time has something to do with how it manages violence. New American Stories makes it a point of honor to inflict the very worst the world has to offer on the reader, and it also privileges tightly wrapped endings that eliminate any possibility for things to be different, or other than they were. One way to make such an ending snap is to circle back to an event from the past. One example of this is the end of Lipsyte’s “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” which circles back to an autoerotic asphyxiation that the narrative had skipped over. Or Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”: “They wouldn’t think his sister would win the prize, but she would; she would race on her horse ahead of everybody, her family cheering for her . . . . Like the Iraqis had cheered when they first came into the town. Before they had shot.”

Time remains more open-ended in The Unprofessionals. This both takes a little air out of the story’s sails and reinvigorates it in an interesting way, making it more suggestive, less hermetic, and a little less brutal. The worst will happen, but the reader won’t be around for it. The events in The Unprofessionals are never as bad as they could—or will—be. Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” and Nugent’s “God” end with the promise of future despair. “I would desire it, though I didn’t desire it now, and for a time I would resist my desire but only for a time,” thinks Greenwell’s narrator. “They chanted in unison, a single, iambic owl: uh-ooh uh-ooh. It sounded like, beware, beware,” writes Nugent.

Lerner’s even ends with the hope for future hope: “You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down from the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event.” The point is the same: that the future has not yet arrived.

Joy Williams has a theory that “a story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived. It gives the form a sort of heartless quality.” Probably short-story writers put too much pressure on themselves to break hearts every time. Undoubtedly they put too much pressure on their last sentences. The thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have time to teach you how to read it. So very often we come up on an ending unprepared.

Christine Smallwood writes the New Books column for Harper’s Magazine. Her short stories have been published in the Paris Review, n+1, and McSweeney’s (forthcoming).