Friday, June 05, 2009

the New Yorker Fiction Issue in the Penny Press!

Well, the New Yorker Fiction Issue is here, and as you'd expect, there's plenty to hate.

I'm less disposed to that hatred than I was in previous years, mainly because I've just recently had a hand in helping to create a Fiction Issue myself (over at Open Letters - plenty of good stuff for you to enjoy this month! More good stuff, if I may be so bold, than can be found in this issue of the New Yorker), so I've experienced some of the frustrations and compromises any group of editors must face in pulling together a double-sized special issue like this one. A freelancer who's multiple-submitted a piece all over creation and hasn't told you, so you only stumble across the fact that you've been scooped two days before deadline, with no time to find an article to take the place of what is now yesterday's news? It happens. A long, scholarly piece that just germinates new typos, no matter how many editorial eyes scrutinize it? They exist. Writers who use the special mission of a Fiction Issue to heap praise on authors who don't deserve it? Oh yes. And then there's the most basic compromise of all, the one that faces every editor of any capacity not just with special theme-issues but all the time: not all writers are created equal. Some of them try their hardest, bless 'em, and only manage to produce marginally-readable prose, whereas others wait until the last minute and flash out brilliant patter. It all adds to the challenge of creating a Fiction Issue in the first place, and it gives me an added dose of empathy for the folks at the New Yorker.

Still, plenty to hate.

Yiyun Li turns in a brief meditation on what it meant to her to read Hemingway during her compulsory time in the Chinese Army - turns out the experience convinced her how much cooler she is than anything written by Hemingway, because books aren't real, because in the end they're simplistic, escapist things. As Li discovered, "All would be well if you lived in a novel." Great way to start a Fiction Issue. Yeesh.

The estimable Roger Angell writes another brief piece (pitched, as so much of his recent stuff has been, as though he himself were roughly 100 - and reminding me that such a sentimental it's-poignant-because-it's-me tone is tedious in any writer, no matter how distinguished, no matter if he really is 100) remembering books in his family's summer cottage in Maine. He turns in a good bit on the scorned art of re-reading:

There's a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. Yes, we really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please. My first vacation book this year will be like my first swim, a venture into assured bliss.

Good prose, but the same crackbrained premise that underlies this whole Fiction Issue: that "summer reading" or "vacation reading" is somehow a legitimate category, that on vacation (and as I've pointed out before, so many magazines still craft issues like this one as though all summer reading were vacation reading, as though all of us were members of the 18th century London Ton and as soon as June rolls around, we shutter up our town-houses and decamp for three solid months of delicious frolic at our country estates, when in reality we're sniffing some fat-ass's garlic-breath on a jam-packed subway car with no air conditioning, on our way to our same old daily job, winter or summer) it's not only OK but expected to read lighter stuff. Needless to say, I hate this premise, since its most glaring implication is that non-summer reading is a boring chore, a duty we slog through dutifully but unhappily. Angell, firmly stuck in cranky-old-man mode, enthusiastically reinforces that premise, but I can assure you: there are new books on Darwin that would thrill you more deeply than any "beach reading" you're planning this summer. Angell knows this; he's just being a putz, denigrating reading right there in the middle of the Fiction Issue.

I thought I saw a glimmer of relief in the fact that the hugely talented David Grossman wrote an article about the hugely talented Bruno Schulz - but I was wrong! Schulz wrote some wonderful prose and led a fascinating, frustrating life (until it was ended in an anecdote too shopworn to need repeating here), but it turns out he's not the subject of Grossman's article: Grossman is. More specifically, the fact that Grossman used Schulz as a character in his novel See Under: Love. Grossman mechanically recites all the pertinent biographical details about Schulz, but he doesn't take much trouble to hide the fact that what he really wants to talk about is himself, his books, his writing process, etc. Schulz is just there as window-dressing, which is, upon a moment's reflection, a tad insulting for Schulz.

And that's nothing compared to how Thomas Mann would feel if he could come back from Hell and read Aleksandar Hemon's one-page confessional about how much Magic Mountain meant to him. The answer: squat. Reading his three columns of breathless prose, you quickly become aware that the only author who's ever meant anything to Hemon is that hugely talented criminally underpraised author, Aleksandar Hemon. Mann is entirely forgotten almost as soon as he's invoked. It's enough to make me wonder if the editors of this issue aren't playing a prank on the readers; "let's commission what-this-book-meant-to-me" pieces from writers who hate reading." Or something like that.

There aren't many such little pieces in the issue, thank gawd, but there's still plenty more to hate. Naturally, R. Crumb will always appear at or near the top of any list. For thirty years, I've been puzzling about this talentless moron's cult popularity, and now I get to match that puzzlement with outrage, because the talentless moron has apparently taken it into his head to illustrate the Bible. Excerpted here in the New Yorker is his rendition of the Book of Genesis, to which he appends the following assurance: "Nothing Left Out!"

Nothing left out, but plenty added in - not only Fat Ugly Amazon Women (they're expected, since they're in every single thing Crumb draws) but also a God with a long white beard and flowing robes, when no such spectacle is described in Genesis. And it goes on from there, cluttering up and uglying up the first chapter in the greatest of all books. In the accompanying brief preface, Crumb says that he occasionally turns to Ecclesiastes for insight, but never the Book of Genesis - because it's "too primitive." So he's got the irony thing down pat.

Wandering in such a desert, I naturally perked up at an article by Louis Menand. As far as deadline-writers go, he's in the upper ranks of those who usually do no wrong, and his subject here, the history of writing workshops in America, is promising. Unlike so much in this New Yorker, he doesn't disappoint. Right from the start, he's tossing the quips like a fine salad:

The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.

Menand is a good deal more generous in his conclusions about writing workshops than I would have been. I have some familiarity with the phenomenon, and I've come to the conclusion that Kay Boyle was write: they should be illegal. Fully one-half of the rot that rivens the entire superstructure of contemporary fiction is caused by writing workshops carefully, lovingly molly-coddling crappy prose all the way to publication (the other half? Hordes of idiot readers clamoring for books to be video games - always completely new, always explosively over-stimulating from the first sentence, anything, as long as it's crack cocaine and not, you know, the boring old experience of reading - because really, who likes that?)(I have a dear friend who sometimes dabbles in this kind of idiocy, though she bloody well knows better; she'll finish a piece of poop by somebody like Yiyun Li and say, "Boy, reading that really made me want to meet the author," when she knows perfectly well good fiction will only prompt the response, "Boy, reading that really made me want to read something else by the author"). So the widespread growth of writing workshops can only be deplored, and Menand gets kudos for deploring in such a balanced, gentlemanly fashion.

And what, you ask, about the fiction in the Fiction Issue?

Plenty to hate.

There's the merely boring - Edna O'Brien turns in a story so long and pointless I kept checking to make sure it wasn't by Alice Munro. I find it hard to believe there were no bigger-name authors clamoring for a spot in the New Yorker Fiction Issue, and O'Brien's presence here makes me dread a Munro-Trevor one-two punch in the Atlantic's Fiction Issue.

And there's the gawd-awful - Jonathan Franzen writes a story called "Good Neighbors" that couldn't be more lazy or narcissistic if it were called "Jonathan Franzen, hung over, sits down to cobble something together for the New Yorker Fiction Issue." Franzen's story is nominally about some yuppies who move into a down-at-heels neighborhood and proceed to gentrify it, but who can concentrate on even so flimsy and gimmicky a plot as that, when you have to wade through cliches, idioms, and already-dated slang to get to it? The yuppies - the Berglunds - ask all the typical yuppie questions:

... how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.

Loathsome stuff, yes, and rendered all that more loathsome by the sickeningly solid conviction that it isn't really fiction at all, that it's just a barely-transposed excerpts from Franzen's own 'To Do' list. Reading this lazy, pointless prose tends to make me seethe, as I seethed throughout the entire self-indulgent monstrous length of The Corrections. I keep wondering what ever convinced Franzen that he was a writer, that this stuff he produces is worthy of general publication. I suspect there's a writing workshop at the heart of it.

But I can't only complain about writing workshops, since they sometimes produce gems. The best short story in this Fiction Issue - indeed, the best short story I've read anywhere so far in 2009 - so obviously comes from a workshop that I don't even need to know the biography if its author, Tea Obreht, to know she's spent a lot of time perched at a conference table, murmuring 'constructive criticism' about crapola. Her story, "The Tiger's Wife," is the issue's piece of debut fiction, and it's a stunning debut. Whether or not Obreht ever lives up to the promise of this story is an open question (she has a book coming out in 2010); certainly I've loved New Yorker short stories this much by authors who then disappeared, or wrote garbage for the rest of their lives.

But for now, I can only urge each and every one of you: read "The Tiger's Wife." Go out and buy the Fiction Issue of the New Yorker just for this story.

The tale is set during World War II - German bombs fall on a city somewhere in Europe, breaking open the wall of a tiger cage in the town zoo and setting free the scorched and bewildered tiger inside. He wanders through the chaos of town and eventually makes his way up into the mountain villages, slowly learning to listen to his instincts, slowly learning how to hunt and kill his own food rather than wait for his handlers to feed him. He takes up residence near a village which Obreht populates with characters who are intensely, unostentatiously real, and as they grow more anxious about the lurking presence of the tiger in the foothills, they decide to organize a hunting party. Obreht's story makes compulsive reading; her descriptive abilities are first-rate:

The day was intermittently gray and bright. A freezing rain had fallen during the night, and the trees, twisting under the weight of their ice-laden branches, had transformed the forest into a snarl of crystal.

... and her comic timing - that rarest of writerly gifts - is well-nigh flawless, as in this moment when the shooter's first shot misses the tiger and it bounds across a frozen lake straight at him:

The tiger was almost over the pond, bounding on muscles like springs. He heard Jovo muttering, "Fuck me," helplessly, and the sound of Jovo's footsteps moving away. The blacksmith had the ramrod out and he was shoving it into the muzzle, pumping and pumping and pumping furiously, his hand already on the trigger, and he was ready to fire, strangely calm with the tiger there, almost on him, its whiskers so close and surprisingly bright and rigid. At last, it was done, and he tossed the ramrod aside and peered into the barrel, just to be sure, and blew his own head off with a thunderclap.

In a perfect world, the special Fiction Issue of the New Yorker would be filled with such gems as "The Tiger's Wife," but no. You have to hunt for such great stuff, sifting through crap in a dozen different magazines, always hoping you'll find something that glows in the dark. It almost never happens, but oh, it's so sweet when it does. Maybe the next Fiction Issue will do it again. I'll read it, and I'll let you know.


ewendel said...

i totally agree about TIGER'S WIFE..I'm overwhelmed with the prose, wit, mystery, just the whole thing. Lying in bed recovering from surgery, it lit up my entire room, just lit it up..and it is raining in l.a....I never write to anyone about their work, but thank god you loved it too!!!! Just incredible. elmarie wendel

Anonymous said...

Yiyun Li is a woman.

steve said...

As I've been trying to explain for the last 210 years, that's no excuse for writing lousy prose...

Alexis Fancher said...

The TIGER'S WIFE is by far the best story in New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue. I sat on the beach, homemade strawberry smoothie in one hand, magazine in the other, and got lost in the beauty of Tea Obreht's story. Such magical prose! Every once in a while the New Yorker gets it right.
The Edna O'Brien story was a huge yawn, I kept skipping ahead, hoping it would get more interesting. And Johnthan Franzen seems bent on carrying on where John Updike left off. Ho hum, so 20th century. Anyway, kudos to Ms. Obrecht! She rocks!

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