Exit (BASS 2015)

Van Gogh's sketch for his painting, "Woman Reading"

Van Gogh’s sketch for his painting, “Woman Reading”

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.

3 responses to “Exit (BASS 2015)

  1. It was nice to go over these stories with you, although it’s a little depressing, in a way, to have such a tete-a-tete nearly uninterrupted by others. It’s a testament to how little the interest in these stories–nominally the best we have to offer–is.

    I was very struck by Heidi Pitlor’s introduction, and how it may be a sad light on fiction of all stripes these days. Pitlor chided those who wanted “likeable” characters. She contrasted likability, which she considers something shallow people look for, with “alive characters,” nearly making them into two polar opposites. She quoted various luminaries who said things about likable characters, things like “commonplace, ordinary, insubstantial.”

    By contrast, “intelligent readers,” (now quoting Atwood) “do not confuse the quality of a book with the moral rectitude of its characters.” Pitlor hits a fairly shrill crescendo, suggesting those who want “goodigoodiness” should look to “Victorian good-girl religious novels that would suit them just fine.”

    I’m a little fed up with this kind of attitude. I don’t want a “didactic novel” in the old sense, that’s true. I’m fine with characters who are utterly depraved. I like it sometimes. I like it better when a depraved character makes me laugh, but sometimes dramatic and depraved is good. It’s just that I now feel like we cling to these kinds of stories like the Victorian age clung to good girl stories. We also seem to think that if we aren’t writing stories with assholes in them, we must be trying to shove morality down the throats of our readers.

    I’ve said before that literature took the place of religion for me when that no longer worked. But that doesn’t mean I’m so simple I want Aesop’s fables. But I do want literature to challenge me to change my life in some way, even if it’s just to challenge my thinking on a subject or to present a problem that doesn’t have a clear answer. The logic of narrative isn’t like the moral logic of faith. You don’t know ahead of time how it’s going to work out. It might not have an edifying end.

    But if we can learn something from stories of people who have been bent and embittered by the world, surely it is possible to still write stories of people who manage decency? Convincing decency, I mean. People who have all the cynicism necessary to survive, but still decent? Is this really not possible? Is any story with a likable character just Polyanna bullshit?

    If that’s really what the editors of these anthologies think, it’s little wonder we’re having a nearly unbroken discussion for two. It’s little wonder last year’s editor complained that only other writers seem to write short stories. Normal people are looking for a reason to get up another day or to not throttle the person they work with (or spouse, or child). You’re not going to find that in a lot of the stories here.

    • I don’t really understand it either, the lack of interest. I guess most people read a story and feel like they’ve “got” what they need from it, they don’t want to think about it over couple of days and reflect, they want to read the next story and the next book. Everything’s a numbers game these days – commit to reading so many books this year, people are so proud of having read 50 or 100 or 200 books in a year, right along with Twitter followers or Facebook likes; everyone’s ego is bound up in these numbers. At this point, with the coursework i’m doing, I’m down to 2 books a year (plus any reading for courses) but I’m fine with that, because I prefer doing it this way right now.
      That may change – everything does – but it won’t be because I want to be able to post a number on Goodreads!

  2. Yes, I see that tendency in some people to read far more (or say they’ve read far more) than I know almost anyone can read with any kind of reflection. If you can’t determine quality of something, you always fall back on counting things.

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