Saturday, April 18, 2009

Great fiction in the Penny Press!

There are as many ways of reading The New Yorker as there are readers, I think. There are the readers how turn first to the humorous pieces by such writers as David Sedaris; there are readers who seek out the movie criticism of David Denby or Anthony Lane; there were even a few misguided souls who intentionally looked for something by John Updike. And of course there's the vast majority of New Yorker readers who follow the time-honored strategy that goes something like this: buy every issue, agonize over reading it, put it in a gigantic, teetering mulch-pile of previous issues dating back to 1841, and never, in fact, read it at all. The New Yorker has got to be the only major periodical in history who's subscribers continuously abstain from actually reading it.

One way of reading the magazine that was once, in decades past, far more popular than it is today is to concentrate on the fiction. This is, alas, understandable: despite the vociferous objections of various editors over the years, New Yorker short stories really do tend to conform to a certain outline, tend to convey a certain attitude - tend, in other words, to resemble each other quite a bit. Oh, there's some variety in the settings of the stories, but their hearts are almost always identical, and their gist can usually be summed up fairly easily: somebody with an ample amount of money in the bank overreacts to one of the mountains they've made out of the molehills in their life, has that overreaction pointed out to them, and a) stops overreacting and b) irrationally resents the person who pointed it out. I believe this is known on the map as "Cheever country."

This isn't to say stories of genuine worth can't be eked out of that outline, and of course there have been the occasional New Yorker stories that stepped outside it altogether, for good or ill. The outline itself is not surprising - The New Yorker has settled into a very comfortable dowager era in its lifespan, after all, and isn't really enthused about upsetting or unsettling its subscribers.

Every so often, something truly remarkable slips through the gilt-and-doily comfort and manages to make its way into an issue. The 20 April issue of The New Yorker contains just such a story.

It's "A Tiny Feast" by Chris Adrian, and it's about a tossed-off line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which we're told Oberon, the King of the Fairies, gave his Queen Titania a human baby as a kind of pet, to soothe her temper after one of their married spats. In "A Tiny Feast," Adrian imagines what that reality would be like - how the fierce and rough-magicked Titania especially would be changed against her will by the boy:

The child grew, and changed, and became even more delightful to her, and she imagined that they could go on forever like that, that he would always be her favorite thing. Maybe it would have been better if he had stayed her favorite thing - a toy and not a son - because now he would just be a broken toy. She ought to have had the foresight to make him dumb, or Oberon ought to have, since the boy had been his terrible gift to her. But one evening the boy ran to her and climbed upon her throne, and giggled at the dancing faerie bodies leaping and jumping all around them, and put his face to her breast, and sighed a word at her, "molly" or "moony" or "middlebury" - she still didn't know what it was exactly. But it was close enough to "Mommy" to ruin everything.

As you can guess from that excerpt, the little changeling child becomes sick, "broken," and what follows will wring your heart.

There are other things to recommend this issue, of course. Burkhard Bilger writes a fascinating piece on all the various ways exotic predator species can be let loose into the suburbanized comforts of residential Florida, and Hlton Als writes one of his strongest essays in years on the magnificent recent Library of America collection of Katherine Anne Porter. But this time around, it's the fiction that hits the high note in The New Yorker. I can't recommend "A Tiny Feast" strongly enough; those of you who want a lightning-bolt of a 15-minute read should buy the issue even if you read nothing else in it.

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