Last year, I thought BASS was a little on the safe side. This year was anything but safe.
Nearly every story was initially confusing, in a variety of ways. Structures that weren’t immediately predictable. Unexpected voices. Tense shifts, blurry settings, missing landmarks. And nearly every story, with a little patience and a little work on my part, delivered.
I had a good time. And I learned a little bit more about what’s possible in a story.
Putting together my “favorites” list is always hard, since how I feel about a story or a group of stories varies from day to day, from year to year, and sometimes changes on re-reading on another day or in another year. But I like forcing myself to prioritize. Each of my favorites is a favorite for a slightly different reason, sometimes because of the emotional punch, sometimes because I admire the craft that went into it, sometimes both. And misses are embarrassing, since they always end up on someone’s “best story of the year” list and I feel like an idiot for not getting it. Nevertheless, my list:
“La Pulchra Nota” by Molly McNett
“Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin
“Hover” by Nell Freudenberger
“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris
“After the Flood” by Peter Cameron
“Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” by Karen Russell
“Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg
My least favorite:
“Next to Nothing” by Stephen O’Connor
I could’ve added a few more to the “Other Favorites” category, but that’ll cover most of it.
Some themes emerged. Religion seemed prevalent. As I look back at the list, I see overt religion prominent in only one story, really, maybe two, but was a factor in several others. Is this unusual, or was I simply primed by taking a couple of MOOCs with religious content? Looking back over past tables of contents, I think there was slightly more mention of religion this year, but some of it was merely in titles or passing reference, so it’s probably a combination of both. I found a lot of eye imagery, but again, is that unusual, or did I just happen to notice it? War made its appearance, but war has a way of showing up in fiction. So does bad weather. Troubled children. And death.
I keep coming back to the elusiveness of the stories as a unifying theme. For me, at least, these weren’t lyrically beautiful casual reads about familiar human relationships; these stories took more roundabout paths that required more effort. There was often lyric beauty, and of course human relationships are pretty much what lies at the heart of all fiction, whether it’s about war or a frat party or an unexpected house guest or a music student; but the key relational aspect wasn’t always evident at first glance, because the story presented some challenges to getting on board. I like that. I’m no fan of unearned intimacy.
I have to wonder: If I’d encountered this volume five or six years ago – would I have hated it? Would I have had the patience to find the way in to stories which, for the most part, were as disorienting as Jennifer Egan promised in her introduction? That leads to a more important question: what am I too impatient for, right now?