In this year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories, we are treated to characters like Kavitha, the emotionally numb wife who comes alive only in the face of violence… a desperate absentee father… an emasculated man who sells dental equipment…. a ruthless champion speedboat racer and oil heiress… Here are living, breathing people who screw up terribly and want and need and think uneasy thoughts. Did I like these characters? I very much liked reading tehir stories… I liked the honesty of the portrayals, and their poetry and humor and surprise.~~ Heidi Pitlor, introduction
I’ve been blogging BASS since 2010, and reading cover-to-cover for two years before that. I’ve noticed a pattern: I tend to like even years better than odd years. I have no idea if that’s coincidence, or if there’s some reason for the oscillation, but being somewhat rational, I suspect the former.
That doesn’t mean I don’t learn something from stories I’m not so crazy about. That’s a good thing, for me, since it serves as a do-it-yourself English class. I think there were more stories I “respected rather than liked” this year than I’ve noticed in other volumes. Perhaps I’m just respecting more as I go along. Or again, coincidence.
I did find two stories I particularly liked: Colum McCann’s “Sh’khol” and Aria Beth Sloss’s “North“. As I read, I was immersed, I wanted to keep reading, and when I got to the end, I felt like I understood something, something important, better than I had before. Because I was immersed, craft took a back seat on first read, but later I noticed some interesting writers’ choices. Since I’ve enumerated what I liked about them in the individual posts, I won’t repeat the litany here.
Then there were the almost-likes, the “I like you but I don’t like-like you.” These are stories that may just grow on me as they tumble around in my subconscious, as other things bring them to mind. The reason I respected them varies. For example:
“Fingerprints” by Justin Bigos came perhaps the closest to being promoted to outright-like. I enjoyed the way the fragments fit together, how the theme of fingerprints carried through, and how all of the characters seemed deeply flawed, but sympathetic instead of blameworthy. However, I realize now, I’ve barely thought about it since reading it.
Julia Elliott’s “Bride” worked for me because of the setting in a medieval scriptorium, the hallucinatory character, and the escalating hilarity.
Ben Fowlkes’ “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” appealed to me for reasons I can’t explain, against all my usual predilections, in fact, but I wasn’t sure of the ending. I’ve already thought of this one a few times in connection with other stories and other events, which is a good sign.
I liked Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” far more than I’d expected I would (I’ve never read him before; maybe I should start) and I found the individual segments wonderful. I just wonder if it’s a little pretentious. Then again, if you’re Denis Johnson, I guess you’re entitled to some pretension.
“Jack, July” by Victor Lodato had some wonderful scenes, and I rather liked all the doors, but it still seemed like a lot of sound and fury over a guy who needs to be in a hospital.
“Motherlode” is in this category, even though I truly hated it while reading, because Thomas McGuane’s Contributor Notes made it click. Yes, that’s considered cheating – the story must stand on its own – but once I understood the symbolism, I quite admired how he constructed the story. But I really don’t want to read it again.
I felt similarly about Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus” – the idea that she was thinking of collaborators and resistors in postwar France amazed me – but I enjoyed the story much more, simply because I’m a complete sucker for a dead pet story. And for exactly that reason, I demand it do more. It did, but I didn’t see it. My failing, as with McGuane? Sure, I’ll take the hit. But still, the fact remains: I didn’t get it, so I can’t really claim it to have liked it on its own terms.
Then there was a trio of WTF stories – there always are – but I won’t list them. Again, I’ll take the hit for not seeing the brilliance there. Maybe it’s a different-wavelength thing, or personal taste, whatever.
One pleasant surprise for this year’s reading was the consistent presence of another reader, leaving comments on each story. I greatly enjoyed trading what we liked and disliked, and what stood out for each of us; whether we agreed or disagreed, I learned from each comment. In a world (and a social media environment) – where the New York Times just declared “Obnoxiousness is the new charisma” – a world more and more conflict-driven, where even trivial discussion becomes an argument and winning is the goal, it’s great to find a place where the genuine exchange of ideas can take place.
Exit BASS – pursued by Pushcart XL.