Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Fiction in the Atlantic! 2008!
In a famous recent editorial decision, the venerable Atlantic magazine stopped publishing a new short story every month. At the time, the usual blather was floated as justification, but even so, it was impossible not to read in the decision some kind of comment on the state of the American short story - either the supply of its validity or the reach of its commerce. Fans of the short story form had to look elsewhere; the Atlantic, in so many ways the founding home of the American short story, was no longer in the game.
But not quite. In a sop to the howls of outrage those fans did not, in fact, raise, the Atlantic sets aside one annual issue and therein presents a nosegay of short stories, a special 'Fiction Issue' that is likewise a bulls-eye for unavoidable inference: that this handful of stories aren't just the last few samples to come over the transom, that they are, at least in some way, the best of the best. If there was an implication that the state of story submissions at the magazine was too pitiful to warrant monthly publication, the same implication must regard the 'Fiction Issue' stories as the cream of the crop.
This issue's table of contents is about as stark an affair as the Atlantic has ever sported: no letters, no editorials, no book reviews, no feature articles - no nonfiction at all except for one pompous and self-serving little piece by novelist Anne Patchett (at the climax of which she says her most prized possession is a signed collection of Eudora Welty stories then relates how at one of her own book signings, she imparted words of wisdom to a little girl who'd waited for her signature; "I know better than anyone I am no Eudora Welty," she faux-humbly asserts, which tells us one thing only: she thinks she's better than Eudora Welty). Instead, there are eight short stories and nine poems. The poems were so uniformly wretched even I wasn't tempted to like any of them.
That leaves the stories. We'll take them in order of appearance, and we'll see what we can learn about the state of the art today, at least according to the Atlantic.
The first is "Nine" by Aryn Kyle. It's the story of little Tess (who's about to turn nine), her father, her absent mother, her father's tobacco-addict ballet dancer girlfriend, and the unending stream of lies Tess tells for no discernible reason to every single person in her life. Tess's father is concerned about the lies she tells:
"Some things are real and some things aren't," he says. "Part of getting older is learning to understand the difference. OK?" Tess's head feels heavy on top of her neck. Her brain is smooth and shiny like plastic. Her blood is ketchup. She could hold her own hand against a hot stove and not feel a thing. "OK," she says.
From which we're supposed to glean that Tess is unhappy. The reader is given no hint as to who thinks Tess' blood is ketchup - it sounds like something a kid might think, but, in a sloppy manner that's typical of the story as a whole, we're left to assume on our own. The bulk of the prose is likewise lazy. Take a for instance chosen at random:
When Miss Morris calls from school to say that Tess has said her father is dying of lung cancer, he laughs. He assures Miss Morris that he isn't even a smoker (well, hardly), that he is as right as rain.
Unbelievably, those italics aren't mine: the author herself has called attention to her use of a cliche, and that smarmy-cutesy "well, hardly" doesn't help matters. The climax of the story revolves around a little incident so trite and predictable the reader will at first suspect a practical joke has been played by the author, but no: that's all there is. Tess and her father start the story unhappy and uncommunicative, and they end it that way, and there's no indication whatsoever that Tess' ninth year will be any different from any other. Nothing changes in the story - except that the story itself went from 'unpublished' to 'published in the Atlantic's annual fiction issue.'
Kyle's biographical blurb says she's currently working on her first collection of short stories, in which "Nine" will no doubt appear. My friend John Cotter is currently shopping around his first short story collection, from which a story as flat and unyielding as "Nine" would have been culled before it was shown to even one potential publisher. The injustices of the print world can sometimes be quite bitter on the tongue.
Next is "Stand By Me," by Wendell Berry who, I'm assuming, is on hand to do the 'old publishing figure we couldn't refuse' duties usually reserved for John Updike (who, amazingly, is not represented in this issue). His piece isn't a short story in any functional sense of the term - I think 145 paragraphs go by before there's any dialog exchanged - instead, it's a fragmentary story-premise dashed off and sent to the magazine under the serene assumption that there are no circumstances under which it would be examined, much less rejected.
The story premise involves a bunch of simple country folk and the various roles grief and loss and loneliness play in their lives, but throughout the prose is muddied with repetitions and needless circumlocutions, until even the most avid Berry fan must be able to sense the master twiddling his thumbs, just doodling until the next real piece of prose comes to mind. Even the best bit manages to sound like an unsuccessful first draft for Our Town:
What gets you is the knowledge, that sometimes can fall on you in a clap, that the dead are gone absolutely from this world. As has been said around here over and over again, you are not going to see them here anymore, ever. Whatever was done or said before is done or said for good. Any questions you think you ought to've asked while you had a chance are never going to be answered. The dead know, and you don't.
After Berry comes "Patient, Female" by Julie Schumacher, who, we're told, directs the creative writing program at the University of Minnesota (as has been noted by various pundits, creative writing programs have sprouted like toadstools throughout the land). In the story, the female narrator spends her days working as a so-called "professional patient," giving doctors-in-training some hands-on experience in clinics (one of those picaresque "jobs" that are so odd they carry their own trenchant metaphors around with them like Marley's chains; creative writing types love those kinds of jobs because real life is, you know, so boring), and she spends her nights arguing with her ailing father, who, like Tess, lies a lot for no discernible reason.
The narrator is selfish without being interesting, bitter without being virtuous, and thus repellent without being in any way redeeming to read about. The hermeneutics of this piece mark it a mile off as being 'workshop fiction,' which, for the uninitiated, means it was never meant to make sense or engage the reader; no, it's meant for rarer atmospheres than those available to the Petey Punch-Clocks and Judy Lunch-Pails who might encounter this issue at the newsstand and actually try to read it. As in "Tess," nothing happens in "Patient, Female," nothing changes, and nobody learns anything. In case you didn't get enough of all three of those things in the other parts of your life.
Fortunately, our losing streak ends next, with a fast-paced, sweet, and moving short story by Carter Simms Benton called "The Second Coming of Gray Badger." This story concerns two young brothers who're racing a stolen horse in a string of fifth-rate matches in an attempt to raise enough prize money to bail their father out of jail. Walter is the thinker behind the scheme, and bantam-weight Oscar is the rider of the horse, and in no time they fall in with Edith the waitress, who's a good deal smarter than either of them and no fool about what they're doing. Her presence throws their plans a-kilter, of course, but it's Benton's spare, lovely prose that's the point:
"You talk to Dad again?" he [Oscar] asked. "He's happy," I said. "He's real proud of you. Said it's too bad you're a thief, though. You could have done something good." I lied about calling the jail. I had decided not to call Dad until we'd settled on what to do. My head was telling me some things, like what handcuffs felt like, and I felt mean about it. "Oh, I'm a thief and you're a horse trainer," Oscar wiped his lips and looked up at me. "He didn't say that." "We're all thieves," I said and looked at Edith. "You too." "Maybe if I got some money I would be." She answered sharply. "You-all are a couple of daddy's boys, anyway. Thieves don't call their daddy every day." "Took you about two days to start whining." Oscar had his shoulder square to Edith on his stool. "Let's play some pool so Miss Dodge City can have some fun." Edith smiled and got up. We followed her to a table in the middle of the bar. She racked the table for Nine-Ball, pushing hair behind her ears. At that point, I was sure she knew everything.
Benton won the Atlantic's Student Fiction contest a while back, and his biographical note says he's working on a novel, and those are two hopeful notes for the future of fiction, in my opinion.
The next story is "Carmen Elcira: A (Love) Story" by Cristina Henriquez, and if you think that parenthetical (love) is just about as annoying an orthographical trick as our author (who's been published extensively and is working on her first novel) can devise, hoo-boy, have you got another think coming! The plot is the love life of the title character, from her fiery first love Diego (you can tell the author likes the two of them together because she has them meet cute and supplies them with snappy patter) to sad-sack Joseph, with whom she settles for the spending of her life, with occasional regrets:
For the rest of her life, Carmen Elcira lived with Joseph in the house where she had grown up and where she would grow old. Every so often, because there are tender spots in every human heart that never disappear, no matter if the tenderness is caused by bruising or by love or if, as is often the case, the two are indistinguishable, she would wonder about Diego.
That bit about the bruises of the heart is pretty good and augurs good things for Henriquez' upcoming debut novel, but all its worth is subsumed by the freakish, MOLTENLY annoying fact that our author has chosen to refer to Carmen, whose name is Carmen Elcira Salazar, as "Carmen Elcira" every single time she's mentioned. No matter that the name "Carmen" is, thanks to Bizet, known to all; no matter that even other characters in the story point out how damn odd it is - doesn't matter! Carmen Elcira goes to market; Carmen Elcira falls in and out of love; Carmen Elcira thinks to herself, "Carmen Elcira, if you do this, you'll never be able to look at Carmen Elcira in the mirror again." It sinks the story and leaves not a bubble on the surface to mark its passing. By the time the tale is done, the poor reader has that name indelibly tattoo'd on his brain and can't wait to flee to the next story.
Luckily, that next story, "We are all Businessmen" by Mark Fabiano, is one of the strongest in the issue. Fabiano has had his fiction published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and something called German Village After Dark (proof positive that Fabiano himself wrote his author-bio, and that he's possessed of a puckish sense of humor), and more to the point, he's spent time in Sri Lanka, which he captures beautifully in this tale of a good-natured hard-working Sri Lankan man Ranil who is working hard as the guide and entertainer for a crass, boorish visiting American named "Mr. Richard" whose firm, Ranil hopes, will provide a scholarship for his son Arjuna. Fabiano makes sure the reader knows that for all Ranil's hopes for his son, they both come from a place the story's harried Western readers will think sounds a lot like paradise:
But I don't like to live in towns. They are impure. The people are sad. Out here the sun ripens our crops, and welcomes the spirits of our ancestors. The shade of our trees comforts us, and it is known that the water from our well is cool and clear.
When Ranil and the boorish Mr. Richard arrived at a closed bank, "Mr. Richard swears. He says some bad things about the bank and my country: "Damned Lankans. Only good for fucking coconuts and bananas."
But what about our tea? I think. Our beaches? Our mountains? The gems? But I know it is in anger. He is from Christian and doesn't know about the Buddha and how to calm himself. When my boy has gone and become a rich engineer, and then sends for his parents, I will say, "What was listening to a few bad words then, for my son is now an important man?"
As all but small children will by now have guessed, things do not go well for Ranil's hopes. But such is Fabiano's understated skill that the reader will be kept tense and delighted right to the end, as predictable as that end is. And really, all colonial fiction is intensely predictable, which is hardly Fabiano's fault. He's a very, very talented young writer; the 21st century's A Passage to India may very well come from his pen.
The next story in this Fiction Issue is the most perplexing. It's called "Obituary," and it's by Jessica Murphy Moo (who has the greatest writer-name in the long history of all literature, so on that basis alone she deserves to enjoy a long career, at least until Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen hits her stride!) who, we're told, is the communications editor for the Seattle Opera, a post one would think would leave little spare time for pecking away at short stories, but then, some young people manage their time better than others.
The story is perplexing for a number of reasons. The main character, Gus, lives on his boat in a tony marina with his diabetic dog. He's a seedy old fellow (that's perplexing thing #1: Murphy Moo writes him perfectly, even though she herself is not, in fact, a seedy old fellow)(presumably) whose departure would please the marina association. The head of the association, an officious older woman Gus refers to as the Commodore, makes it plain to him:
"I have a proposition for you, and if you'll listen for a second, it might be of some interest. We know you have a lifetime deed, but as you well know, we'd like you to leave, and the board has decided that we're willing to pay you to do it." "You had a board meeting today? Already?" She raises an eyebrow above the frame of her sunglasses, as if daring him to question him further, and she continues. "You can tell us where you'd like to go. Any marina on the eastern seaboard, and we'll find a way to get you there. If you don't remember how to drive your boat, we can arrange for a refresher, maybe even a crew, if it comes to that."
This is perplexing thing #2: although copious allusions are made, we never really get the details of why the marina folk hate Gus so much (nor why the Commodore herself seems to have a softer streak toward him, something Gus himself comments on), nor why (#3) his straightlaced son Bradley (and his wife) hate him so much. Murphy Moo is content in this story merely to hint that Gus has been in his life what one genteel soul once referred to as "a real shitbag." Gus has lots of regrets about this general impression, but not enough of them to do anything about it, and that's perplexing thing #4.
But maybe all these perplexing things are just facets of the one central flaw with "Obituary": it's not a short story, it's a novel. Here's hoping Murphy Moo knows this herself, and that the first novel we're told she's working on will be called "Obituary" and will feature the rest of this entertaining story.
Alas, the final story in this Atlantic is anything but entertaining. It's an intensely boring little piece called "Amritsar" by Jess Row, an otherwise accomplished young writer who's here turned in a turgid misfire about India that couldn't be any less involving for Western readers if it were chipped out on stone in Sanskrit. Like Henriquez' story, it's almost certainly here to fill out some 'exotic' quotient - which is odd, because the issue's two best stories, by Benton and Fabiano, are clear examples of how to put stories in exotic locations and still make them work as entertainments.
But then, the editorial decisions that went into creating this Fiction Issue are impenetrable. There is no Editor's Note to talk about the selections, no piece reflecting on the process of picking these stories from what must have been many hundreds of candidates. Instead, the issue and its contents are offered up as a flat enigma, without comment or secondary material of any kind. This is interpretable either as some kind of oracular opacity or as a child's petulant bare-minimum approach to a chore he doesn't want to perform at all, but in either case, one thing is beyond argument: short fiction deserves better from the Atlantic.