Literary Fiction Today: A Look at the Best

Copyright by Paul Burga, 6/21/07


The stories reviewed come from The 2005 Best American Short Stories. Why 2005? Why not? Each year the overall quality of the collections is basically the same.

I've "graded" them by assigning a "++" or "+" for those stories that belong in an anthology entitled the "best." For those which don't belong, I've assigned an "x" or "xx."

Needless to say, these are my opinions. What are yours?


The Smile on Happy Chang's Face - Tom Perrotta (BA in English from Yale; MA in creative writing from Syracuse)

Perrotta had a simply-presented story that was moving along nicely. He was also revealing the failures in life that the narrator had brought upon himself. I was engaged. But at the exact moment that Lori Chang is hit by a beanball, the story changes. Perrotta becomes primarily concerned with making meaningful insights, but this is done at the expense of his characters and plot. So it is that we come to the last inning, with Lori back on the mound; two outs, bases loaded, a 3-2 count. Our main character, the umpire, would if he were a real person (which he no longer is) have his eyes glued to the strike zone. Instead Perrotta has him in a reverie, thinking about redemption; he can't make the call. He takes off his umpire's gear, walks off the field (among boos and angry cries) and climbs the centerfield fence (yes, the story deteriorates into outright silliness). Perrotta climbed that fence too; he abandoned his story. And me? I was with the fans in the bleachers, booing. (x)


Until Gwen - Dennis Lehane (graduate of the Eckerd College Writers' Workshop; MFA from Florida International University)

Lehane has one foot in the tough guy crime genre (in the first sentence the main character is picked up from prison by his father in a stolen car containing an 8-ball of coke and a hooker named Mandy) and the other in the literary fiction genre (the story is told in 2nd person, in fragments, and with impressionist flashbacks). There's an evasiveness pervading "Until Gwen." First: The love between Gwen and Bobby is presented through Bobby's gauzy memories of something beautiful between them. But how about a fully-developed scene that makes us believe in their love? Instead we have Gwen in action at a hospital, disguised as a nurse, injecting an old lady with knock-out drugs (the scene comes across as cruelly comic; this is not a compliment). Second: The Deadly Daddy is a product of authorial overindulgence; Lehane loved his creation so much that he expends many words implying that he killed Mandy as if the guy can't meet someone without murdering them. Third: The plot mechanics don't stand up to scrutiny. Lehane is skilled enough to gloss over at least ten improbabilities, one being the crucial issue of the whereabouts of the missing diamond (a huge one, filling the "entire palm" of a man's hand). I couldn't swallow this story. Its only "virtues" are a showy homicidal psychopath, quirky, street-smart dialogue and inventive gore. (x)


A Taste of Dust - Lynne Sharon Schwartz (BA from Barnard College, 1959; MA from Bryn Mawr, 1961; Ph.D work at New York University, 1967-1972)

The story depicts the visit of an ex-wife to her ex-husband and his new family, many years after their marriage ended. (Why she is doing this is never made clear.) There's a minimum of action, but a lot of thoughts, observations, memories, feelings. It's done well; but, as Schwartz says in her Contributor's Notes, the story is "ordinary and predictable" except, she writes, for the "turn" in the final paragraph. I found that turn to be ordinary and predictable. It seemed a tacked-on insight, something an experienced author would pull out of her hat when she knew a story didn't add up to much. (x)


Old Friends - Thomas McGuane (MFA from Yale,1965; Wallace Stegner fellow in creative writing at Stanford 1966-67)

The two men in the title are not friends and never were; they dislike one another. Does that make the title meaningful? There's a third character a drunken schoolteacher that Faucher, the ne'er-do-well "friend," picks up on his way to Briggs' summer home in Montana. Briggs, the main character, listens to her "feral screeches" as Faucher has sex with her. Afterwards, Faucher comes downstairs; he refers to the woman as "Marge, short for margarine, the cheap spread" and offers her to Briggs. Briggs nobly declines; instead he listens to a CD recording of "Recuerdos de la Alhambra." The next evening Briggs takes Faucher to dinner in a nearby town. When the mayor stops at their table Faucher interrupts him with, "Pal. Give it a rest. We're trying to eat." Marge happens to be at the bar (how does she keep her teaching job in a small community?); she comes by to chat, but Faucher dismisses her with a "Has it possibly occurred to you that we're having a private conversation?" Later, in a drunken rage, she approaches the two men outside the restaurant and slaps Briggs ("You think you're above all this, don't you?"). These are the only solid, sustained scenes in the story. Briggs, who remains Mr. Steady (when compared to the other two), has a vague job that sends him globetrotting to exotic places, negotiating causes; but he's a man incapable of a firm conviction. He thinks a lot, but can't figure out why his short-lived marriage failed. He can't figure out why he puts up with the obnoxious Faucher. This crew of contrived characters interact aimlessly, often speaking in a strangely stilted way (example from Faucher: "Perhaps once I'm a cowboy you'll invest your remarks with greater meaning."). Well, McGuane is a cowboy and maybe that's why his story is treated as meaningful literary fiction. (x)


Eight Pieces for the Left Hand - J. Robert Lennon (BA in English from University of Pennsylvania; MFA from the University of Montana)

This is good. Good "what"? These eight short pieces concern disparate events in a "tiny upstate town" (as the haiku at the end describes the place). The narrator sometimes simply relates what happened, at other times he plays a role, either as a boy or as a young married man; but his is a shadowy, muted presence. Lennon leads the reader quietly, and goes only so far. When I ended a piece I was left with the feeling that a tantalizing mystery had opened before me. This is especially true in # Six, in which children in a school play lose the ability to recognize real names; this seems to affect some for the rest of their lives. The premise is bizarre (all the pieces have that aspect) but not cheap bizarre. For me, a major shortcoming in a story is a lack of authenticity in character and plot. But what Lennon does is unique, fresh and confident; I was willing to judge it by his rules. Despite the wide variance in the subject matter some pieces are grim and unsettling, some humorous and meditative at the end I felt that this was one complete story. It all coalesced into a feeling. An evocative feeling hard to describe. (+)


Stone Animals - Kelly Link (BA in English from Columbia University; MFA from the University of North Carolina; graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop)

The title should have been "Stone Rabbits." Rabbits, in the hundreds, fill this FORTY-TWO page story. But I do not wish to examine its faults (there are too many of them). So, instead, I'll describe the punishment I've devised for the three responsible for "Stone Animals" making it onto the pages of Best (I absolve Kelly Link of all responsibility). But Bradford Morrow (the editor of Conjunctions), Katrina Kennison (if she exists), and Michael Chabon will be put into cell-like rooms (cot, sink/toilet, desk); there can be no communication between them. They will have copies of Best, and they must count how many times each of the following words (or any form of them) appear in the story: rabbits, painting, haunted. When they all come up with three identical numbers, they will be released. Maybe, after laboring (possibly for months), over this foolish, ugly, boring, utterly pointless story they will emerge transformed, enlightened. They may give up writing/editing and devote themselves to helping the poor. (xx)


First Four Measures - Nathaniel Bellows (MFA from Columbia University)

This is a Boy Taking Piano Lessons story. It was going along OK, but it was raising a lot of equivocal issues. It needed an ending that resolved things. There was a conspicuous lack of an ending. Either Bellows didn't have one or he wasn't up to the nitty-gritty of dealing with the situations he had partially developed. If the reader is to take on the task of understanding what is not there, or what is only suggested, the author must make that task a compelling one. There was nothing about this story to make me care much. (x)


The Scheme of Things - Charles D'Ambrosio (MFA from University of Iowa)

The appallingly bad "The Screenwriter" (Ambrosio's story in the 2004 Best) made me suspicious of the author (is he capable of an authentic emotion?). So I was surprised that this story got to me. Kirsten and her meth-addled boyfriend are carrying on a scam in the Iowa heartland; there's a supernatural incident (which could have been left out). All this worked OK. But what I believed in was the damage that had been done to Kirsten, and that there was a core of goodness in her that could grow. Crucial to the story is her relationship with the old lady, Gen. One searching for a mother, one for a child, and both giving simple gifts to the other. The thank-you note Kirsten writes is moving. As is Kirsten's last act, before she and Lance hit the road. With Gen watching silently from an upstairs window, Kirsten takes the old lady's bra off the clothesline and puts it on. Moments like these made the story for me. (+)


Silence - Alice Munro (English major at University of Western Ontario 1949-51)

Silence is at the heart of the story. An unsettling mystery contained in one question: Why? I've complained about stories leaving things unresolved. Munro leaves us with a void; yet I cared so much about her characters that the void was one I tried to fill (though knowing I never could). When the mother makes her attempts to explain the long and relentless silence of her daughter, the results are wrenching. She presses her finger on a wound the wound of her own failings so sensitive that I flinched. All this is just to say that Munro succeeded in the remarkable feat of making me feel what the character felt. Alice Munro is a diver into the deep waters of emotions. This is, despite what she says in the Contributors' Notes, a sad story. A tragic story. How could she think otherwise? (++)


Death Defier - Tom Bissell (BA in English from Michigan State University; editor at W. W. Norton and Henry Holt)

I don't know whether Bissell got the world of war-ravaged Afghanistan right, but I was convinced and absorbed. The writing creates a picture of a strange and forbidding place, both its people and its landscape. It is laudable that Bissell addresses the issue of death, but it is also an aspect of the story that seemed artificially imposed. I didn't believe in Donk's desire to embrace death. But he's a strong character, complex and likeable. When Bissell goes into Donk's childhood, I felt that this story was part of a larger work, but it didn't bother me because I stayed interested. Bissell's intelligence is one of his virtues as a writer. (+)


The Girls - Joy Williams (MFA from University of Iowa in 1965)

This odd story is told in such a way that it has a surface sparkle of brightness. But the "girls" (unmarried sisters in their thirties) are a dark pair. They are so close they are abnormal; blithely so, for they care only about what each other thinks and feels, and what they think and feel is identical. The pet cats that populate the story reflect the girls their cold attentiveness and cruelty toward a prey. Neither cats nor girls have compassion. In fact, the girls are not human, and in this respect the story is not realistic. But it gives us a view of evil that is unique and repellent. (+)


Anda's Game - Cory Doctorow (graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop)

Perhaps, God help us, this is the future of fiction. A story for people who don't like to read. It's about computer gaming. Many words describe the battles. Far too many words; this could be a third shorter. The rest of the story is OK, I guess: Fat girl, empowerment through gaming, etc. But it's thin stuff. It took me a long, long time to plow through this juvenile nonsense, and when I was done I felt bleak. (Note: three authors in this year's Best have attended the Clarion Writers' Workshop.) (xx)


Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student - Alix Ohlin (BA from Harvard; MFA from the University of Texas)

Another Boy Taking Piano Lessons story. The opening sentences describe him picking his nose; I guess that's supposed to engage the reader, though maybe it reveals character. After this rousing start the story settles into the literary fiction mode of today, where sensitivity replaces substance. We get understatement, unresolved situations. When I was done I felt "So what?" A story that has nothing worth saying, isn't very entertaining and is instantaneously forgettable. (By the way, the instructor is a Mrs. Tanizaki; does that name strike a chord with anyone?) (x)


Old Boys, Old Girls - Edward P. Jones (MFA from the University of Virginia)

Jones' stories appear perennially in Best. His prose is smooth, engaging; his characters and situations engross the reader (though they do so on the cheap he often uses sordid material). Despite this pandering aspect, his work is held in high esteem. I am usually left feeling highly disaffected as I was with "Old Boys, Old Girls." The story is about Caesar. Through much of it he's a hardened killer. After his release from prison he moves into a rooming house where an ex-love named Yvonne just so happens to live, and we get into "redemption" territory. Long ago Yvonne had left Caesar, without a word of explanation; after that his life spiraled down. Yet the man who Jones vividly describes beating up a cell mate and urinating on his belongings is transformed, in the scenes with Yvonne, as a beneficent sleepwalker. Improbabilities allow Jones to avoid dealing with messy complications (eg., though they lived together for years, Yvonne never recognizes Caesar). The story ends with Caesar finding Yvonne dead (no cause given); he cleans her body and her room with loving care; outside, he begins walking; he stops occasionally and flips a coin to determine what direction he will take; the last sentence of the story is, "The coin reached its apex and then it fell." Like this ending, the story is pretentious and evasive. (x)


The Secret Goldfish - David Means (BA in English from the University of Wooster; MFA from Columbia University)

Seems like the title for a children's book, but this is a complex story. We are in the minds of a mother whose husband is leaving her; her children; a stranger glimpsing their home as he passes; a goldfish. Yes, we are in the mind of a goldfish. Furthermore, Means imparts far-reaching meaning to the life swings of Fish. He is neglected when things in the family are bad, but he resolutely survives in the murk and sludge of his tank; periodically he is rescued, his tank cleaned, things are again bright and new. The story's audacity distracted me. Until the next day, when I thought about it and all was clear. A fresh approach, but the main issue was the dissolution of a marriage and its implications for the humans involved. Means skips around this, touching it gingerly and then scooting away (it seems like he's playing a clever literary game); he devotes the majority of his words to Fish. It is Fish we remember, and that's silly. (x)


The Cousins - Joyce Carol Oates (BA in English from Syracuse University, 1960; MA in English from the University of Wisconsin, 1961)

An epistolary story, which gives it a sense of intimacy and directness. It also imposes the problem of how to structure a plot. Oates succeeds in creating a fragmented but distinct story, one in which the Holocaust looms in the background (but doesn't overwhelm all else). Both letter writers emerge strongly. I liked Freyda's anger, I liked the shift in the relationship between the two women. The emotions rang true (except for Rebecca's coming to see Freyda at an award ceremony but not introducing herself). The problem is the level of my involvement. It wasn't low and it wasn't high. I wonder if this story was meant to be part of something longer; maybe that gives it a truncated feel. Still, it imparts a sense of sadness. The indeterminate ending (we are left hanging) conveys the feeling that life is full of victims. (+)


Natasha - David Bezmozgis (BA in English from McGill University; MFA in filmmaking from the University of Southern California)

Berman is Bezmozgis' sixteen-year-old protagonist; he lives in the suburbs of Toronto. He spends his summer days in his basement, smoking hash, watching TV, reading and masturbating. He has a job delivering dope to other suburban kids; his boss/dealer is Rufus, a twenty-year-old studying philosophy at the University. Rufus has other entrepreneurial interests; his income is such that he owns a house in a tony subdivision. He introduces Berman to Camus, Heraclitus, Catullus, and Kafka. Into Berman's life arrives a fourteen-year-old Russian girl named Natasha. Soon, at her blunt invitation, they begin having sex. She teaches him a variety of positions (in Russia, you see, she had made pornographic films at a director's beautiful dacha). OK, back to Canada. A crisis, and Natasha goes away; she reappears as a fixture at Rufus's house (where a pool area with Doric columns is being built). The closing dialogue between Rufus and Berman is a study in coolness; all three of these characters are cool. There's a moment of epiphany at the end, but excuse me, please, let me ask you: Doesn't this sound like the fantasy of a sixteen-year-old? Maybe that's how to read it. Berman actually remained alone in his basement, smoking pot, watching TV, reading, masturbating and dreaming up characters and situations like this. All very natural. This is how boys think. (x)


Hart and Boot - Tim Pratt (BA in English from Appalachian State University; graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop)

A work should be partially judged on the basis of how well the author succeeds at what he attempts. After taking about a page to get on his wave length, I was won over by Pratt's fantastical piece. Pearl Hart tries hard to be a bad girl, cussin' and having sex a lot, but there's a childlike innocence to it all. She, and this story, are rather sweet and charming. The wild west setting works well, probably because that territory is already mythical, with its stereotyped (from movies) characters and scenarios. This story is beyond description, for it takes place in never-never land. I didn't bother myself with higher considerations. I just enjoyed the ride. (+)


Justice Shiva Ram Murthy - Rishi Reddi (law degree; studied creative writing independently under Anita Desai)

An excellent character study. Told in the first person (and I felt I was in the mind of a distinct individual), I saw clearly what Justice Murthy does not. His faults and self-delusions are laid bare, but there is an underlying sympathy for this man. His friend, Manu, is wonderfully drawn, and the plot (revolving around a beef burrito) is engrossing. It all works smoothly and goes deep. Reddi explores the burden of aging, especially when one is cut off from one's familiar world and is as rigid as Justice Murthy. Though even he, as unbending as he is, needs a friend. (++)


Bohemians - George Saunders (MA in creative writing from Syracuse University)

A blast of buckshot. Bizarreness flying everywhere. The people, the situations all bizarre. And that's it. No evocation of childhood, no revealing of character, no point. A girl is called Raccoon "for the bags under her eyes from never sleeping." (Do raccoons have bags under their eyes?) She can't sleep because her parents fight constantly: "At dusk they stood on their porch whacking each other with weather stripping." (Really? With weather stripping?) I had the feeling that this was written by a tired author. Then I read his Contributor's Notes, and I almost felt sorry for Saunders. The final scene has Raccoon making a tiny boat on which she places a turd from her dog, Svengooli. The boat goes over a little waterfall, the kids cheer. And so this story, and the 2005 Best, ends. With a turd and a cheer. (x)


I gave this collection 14 x's and 10 +'s. Eight stories "belonged," twelve didn't. Does this indicate a problem?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]


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