PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Final thoughts, and Comparison to BASS 2010

The Royal College of Arts and Grand Eastern Hotel collaboration: readable bedcovers

When I finished BASS 2010 (which covers about the same time period), I ran through a series of parameters, and now I can compare PEN/O.Henry 2011 in these areas (some are difficult to determine, so these aren’t absolute definitions):

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
BASS: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
POH: Jim Shepard, “Your Fate Hurtles Down At You”
Kenneth Calhoun: “Nightblooming”
Tamas Dobozy, “The Restoration of the Villa where Tibor Kalman Once Lived”
Jane Delury, “Nothing of Consequence”
Leslie Parry, “The Vanishing American”
Mark Slouka, “Crossing”

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included:
BASS: Ron Rash, “The Ascent“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water“
POH: Helen Simpson, “Diary of an Interesting Year”

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
BASS: Jim Shepard (two – well, one and a half – collections)
Joshua Ferris (debut novel Then We Came To The End)
Steve Almond (all kinds of stuff)
James Lasdun (online story)
Ron Rash (New Yorker story)
Rebecca Makkai (Tin House story)
Lori Ostlund (P/OH sory)
POH: David Means (New Yorker story)

Authors I plan to read more of:
BASS: Charles Baxter, “The Cousins” (though I’m still intimidated)
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events“
Wells Tower, “Raw Water” (because he must be better than that story) (and he is, see Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Danielle Evans, “Someone Ought To Tell Her…” because she’s got chops at a young age.
Brendan Mathews, “…Lion Tamer” because Zin loved it.
POH: Lori Ostlund

Journals represented by multiple stories:
BASS: Tin House (4)
McSweeney’s (3)
The Atlantic (3)
The New Yorker (2)
POH: Ecotone (2)
Kenyon Review (2)
Narrative (2)
Paris Review (2)

BASS: Men wrote 11, women wrote 9 of these stories.
POH: Men wrote 10, women wrote 10

Stories by writers of color:
BASS: 1 (possibly more, not certain)
POH: 1 (possibly more, not certain)

Stories by writers born outside the US:
BASS: 2 (London, Yugoslavia; Wells Tower not included)
POH: 5 (Canada, England, South Africa, France)

Oldest author:
BASS: 64 (Charles Baxter)
POH: 72 (Lily Tuck)

Youngest Author:
BASS: 26 (Tea Obreht)
POH: 27 (Matthew Neill Null)

Stories with non-traditional narrative structure:
BASS: 1 (Jill McCorkle, “PS” uses a letter)
POH: 1 (Diary)

Stories primarily based on humor:
BASS: 2 (Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” and Jill McCorkle, “PS”. YMMV.)
POH: 0

Stories set outside the US:
BASS: 5 (Africa (2), France, Australia, The Netherlands)
POH: 7 (Switz, England (2), Hungary, Africa (3))

Stories set entirely outside of the present time:
BASS: 4 (The Depression, WWII, Near Past, Near Future)
POH: 9 (WWII, future, Depression, Reconstruction, Undefined)

Per the editor: “New” authors:
BASS: 5 (Harrison, Mathews, Obreht, Ostlund, Shipstead).
POH: Uncertain

Additional category: Stories with gay characters (as opposed to stories in which the gayness of a character is a problem):
POH: 3 (Ostlund, Adrian, Foulds)

I think PEN/O.Henry has more variety and the stories in general are more accessible. Overall, I enjoyed it more, but I think a lot of that has to do with my natural stubbornness: if you tell me, “Here are the best stories of the year,” my nature is to say, “Oh, yeah, says who?” and to be extra-picky, to expect each story to dance when the strength may be more subtle. And there’s no arguing with my lack of sophistication. Add personal preference to that, and it’s really hard to compare volumes. I do think BASS, at least in this edition, aims more for technical and narrative sophistication, while PEN/O.Henry gives equal credit to story and engagement. But I can’t quantify that at all. Other than the list of multiple stories: While BASS culls The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, POH gathers from Ecotone and Kenyon Review. These are, of course, excellent journals, but you’re not likely to find them in your lawyer’s reception room.

I like both volumes. For me, the main draw (besides the likelyhood that I’ll find something to learn about writing from each story, even those not to my taste) is the Contributor Notes. And they are both great places to mine for collections I want to read, authors I want to see more from. That this year I found less of that in PEN/O.Henry is a matter of time. I simply got to BASS first.

And what’s next? I’m in a bit of a quandary. I’m toying with the idea of declaring this the year of the short story, and moving on to novels next year. But… I love stories! I’m going to go pick up the new BASS any day now, Steve Almond has a new collection coming out, Zin’s workshop is going to do the “European Stories,” and I still have some unread collections and anthologies calling to me. There is only so much that can be read. And I have the journals I’m following: One Story (which I love dearly), Tin House (which I will probably drop, very reluctantly at the next renewal; it’s lovely, #46 is a treasure and I’ve found treasures in other issues, but I may want to try McSweeney’s for a while too), the weekly New Yorker fiction (which I may become more selective about, though it’s hard to say; again, there are treasures in there)… there is only so much that can be read, and it breaks my heart to have to choose between gems.

And I have this overall tendency towards inertia – to keep doing what I am doing unless something forces a change, at which point I scream and stamp my feet and a short time later am just as inertive on the new path as I was on the old.

So I don’t know what will be happening. I suspect I’ll be starting BASS 2011 very soon. But who knows. I wish I could start writing again. And that’s the kicker: I started all this high-end reading (and have neglected a great deal of excellent less-recognized fiction) because I wanted to develop a better aesthetic sense, a better intuitive knowledge of what is good, what is great, what is not up to par. I’m not sure that’s happened, but I’ve become convinced that I can’t do what these folks do. It’s not a matter of practice and learning; it’s an intrinsic thing, a grasp of motivations and actions and characters and voice that I simply lack. It’s a colorblind artist trying to work in oils. I fear I may be stuck sketching in pencil forever (this – this here – is pencil. Tell someone you spend a lot of time writing a blog, and they give a tight little smile and say, “That’s nice.” Pencil sketches. But right now I have a place to say what I want, without worrying about pleasing anyone, and I no longer care that no one’s listening – it’s the saying, for now, I want).

BASS 2010 – Final Thoughts, and what’s next: 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories

Now that I’ve read BASS 2010 in its entirety, I’ve put together some overall notes.

Stories I found to be amazingly wonderful:
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events

Stories that made me shake my head and wonder why they were included:
Ron Rash, “The Ascent
Wells Tower, “Raw Water

Authors I’ve read more of since reading their stories here:
Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water” (I’ve read two – well, one and a half – collections)
Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” (I didn’t see the greatness in the story, but kept reading how it was a disappointment from his debut novel so I read it – and I agree)
Steve Almond, “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” (I’ve read his non-fiction, already read a tiny flash/essay collection and a short story collection)
James Lasdun, “The Hollow” (read “It’s Beginning to Hurt“, a story that appeared online)
Ron Rash, “The Ascent” (“The Trusty” appeared in The New Yorker; I liked it better)
Rebecca Makkai, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship” (“Peter Torrelli Falling Apart” was in my first issue of Tin House and I’m glad; it will be included in BASS 2011)

Authors I plan to read more of:
Charles Baxter, “The Cousins” (though I’m still intimidated)
Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events
Wells Tower, “Raw Water” (because he must be better than that story)
Danielle Evans, “Someone Ought To Tell Her…” because she’s got chops at a young age.
Brendan Mathews, “…Lion Tamer” because Zin loved it.

Journals represented by multiple stories:
Tin House (4)
McSweeney’s (3)
The Atlantic (3)
The New Yorker (2)

Men wrote 11, women wrote 9 of these stories.
Stories by writers of color: 1 (I think; I’m not 100% positive, if anyone knows differently, please let me know).
Stories by writers born outside the US: 2 (one London, one Yugoslavia; Wells Tower was born in Vancouver but says he grew up in NC so I haven’t counted him)
Oldest author: 64 (Charles Baxter)
Youngest Author: 26 (Tea Obreht)

Stories with non-traditional narrative structure: 1(Jill McCorkle, “PS” uses a letter)
Stories primarily based on humor: 2 (Joshua Ferris, “The Valetudinarian” and Jill McCorkle, “PS”. YMMV.)
Stories set outside the US: 5 – Africa (2), France, Australia, The Netherlands
Stories set entirely outside of the present time: 4 (The Depression, WWII, Near Past, Near Future)

Per the editor: “New” authors: 5 (Harrison, Mathews, Obreht, Ostlund, Shipstead).

So now we move on to the 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories. Zin’s workshop is reading it, so I’ll follow along.

BASS 2010 – Wells Tower, “Raw Water”

Remember when I was nervous about getting myself in trouble because I hated Ron Rash’s “The Ascent“? No? Well, it doesn’t matter, just know that I was. I’m even more nervous now. Because I’m going to be snide. And scathing. In fact, I couldn’t decide which scathing/snide approach to take, so I’ll give you a choice:

1) I’m appalled.
2) This is Stephen King without a character to care about.
3) This is Jim Shepard without all the careful research and emotional impact on a central character.
4) When literary fiction people sneer at science fiction, this is why.
5) Wasn’t this a Star Trek:TNG episode?

Ok, enough (I love Star Trek:TNG btw, but that was a really dumb episode).

This story was from the same McSweeney’s assignment as “The Netherlands Lives With Water” – write a story that happens 25 years in the future, and we’ll send you to the location to prepare. So of course Wells Tower chose to go to… Arizona?

Following Libya’s lead, the US has, 25 years from now, created an artificial inland ocean to reduce the increase in sea level due to global warming. It works for Libya (in the story) but things go wrong in Arizona, and the lake turns red and viscous due to microbes that love the concentrated salt levels. Having owned an aquarium, I can testify to the existence of “pink slime” (which is actually algae, I was told). But that’s fresh water. I have no trouble believing in the existence of such salt-water critters, however.

Rodney and Cora Booth move to this garden spot, which started out in a land boom but went bust a decade ago. She’s an artist, and wants to photograph the area. That seems to me like a one-year visit, maybe, not a permanent move, but what do I know, it wasn’t me that McSweeney’s commissioned to write this story. They’re an older couple. She’s 43 and just finished menopause which is a little early but reasonable. He has some kind of part time job with an insurance company that he can do over the internet.

They find the people there are all fat half-wits. And ugly. Most of the people left long ago, but those that are left, including their neighbors and real estate agents, the Nevins, are just plain strange. The Nevins invite them over for dinner right away: mussels harvested from the lake. And swimming. In the red lake. Now, forgive me, but don’t these people have any sense at all? The Booths, I mean. The Nevins have been there a while, so they’re already affected by whatever it is that’s making people fat and stupid and ugly, but the Booths, wouldn’t they take one look at this – Mrs. Nevin is nursing an infant though she’s probably 60 years old, and Mr. Nevin can barely speak at times – and run in the other direction? Or at least worry? Or say, gee, thanks, but I think I’ll just eat some canned soup and you enjoy those mussels all you want, and have a nice swim while I sit here and try not to breathe in the water vapor? Nope.

So everyone in the town is turning into apes (there’s a riotous scene, intentionally or not, of two teenage boys grooming each other), and Rodney starts to turn into an ape. He can’t eat enough no matter how much he eats. He fantasizes about the Nevin’s teenage daughter, who’s, as I’ve already said, fat and ugly, but he doesn’t care. He fucks dirt. Literally. Then he breaks into the Nevins house and gnaws on a ham, pees on the floor, and snuggles up to the Nevin girl. Mr. Nevin shows up to interrupt, and the next day is hospitalized for an aneurysm. Nevin dies, and Rodney hits on his wife. That’s about it, really. Cora never shows any effects of whatever it is, and never comments on her husband turning into an ape, though she is annoyed he wants more sex than he’s wanted in years. She kind of disappears from the story.

One thing I should say on the bright side: it doesn’t go all cliché, with the newcomers discovering what’s going on and trying to get the authorities to help but finding the townspeople opposing them, Dean Koontz style. In fact, nobody in the story seems to care about anything except eating and sex, which I guess is what happens when you become more animal than human. But there’s no real resolution at all. There’s no real conflict, in fact. People just turn into apes, and that’s that. I guess we’re supposed to be horrified, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

One of the headscratching points for me is that this lake is an economic failure, so why is the project still going? Nobody’s paying any attention to the red water? Or they’re just saying it’s fine, and the people who still live there, well, that’s their problem? Nobody’s noticing what’s happening to them? They don’t have brothers or cousins or children elsewhere who are saying, “What’s happened to Mikey?” It just seems absurd. I guess the people stupid enough to stay and live there are beyond caring about. So why write a story about them?

I’m also not crazy about the narration jumping around so much. There are a couple of places where this bothered me in particular, enough to mark the margins with a question mark. It wasn’t even the narrative shifts per se, it was more that the information seemed presented in somewhat repetitive fashion: Rodney sees the remaining locals, then the omniscient narrator explains the locals a few pages later, and shifts right into Nevis’ POV. When I start to notice narrative shifts, they must be pretty dramatic. It just doesn’t feel like a story – it feels like it ended because there was nowhere else to go with it. And it feels pretty absurd. Maybe it’s supposed to be absurdist? But it doesn’t feel that absurd (gee, you can’t please some people, can you?).

In his Contributor Notes, Tower says this story was based on a news item that some scientists were kicking this idea about inland seas around. I’m not sure how hard they were kicking it, but it didn’t fall in line here. In fact, he goes on to explain that his first version, straight manmade-sea-gone-bad without the monkeyshines, was deemed not urgent enough in a science fiction way. So he said, “How about if the bacteria in the lake are, like supercharging everybody’s Darwinistic faculties.You know, making them act like monkeys?” And some damn fool thought this was a great idea.

I want to read more of his work – he’s one of the NY Top 20 Under 40 people, and he’s won two Pushcarts. Like I said – I’m appalled.

BASS 2010 – Maggie Shipstead, “Cowboy Tango”

I was dreading this story since I got the book last September, because I hate cowboy stories. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself really enjoying this. I did lose interest a little once it became evident it was simply a love triangle in a different setting, but the setting was realistically portrayed (as far as I know, never having been anywhere near a ranch or the west). I was surprised to find out via the Virginia Quarterly Review interview accompanying this story’s original publication that Maggie Shipstead has never been in Montana, either, though she was spending time in Colorado which is pretty Western, I suppose. And she’s ridden pretty extensively, albeit Eastern style, so she understands and appreciates horses. She also had a friend fill her in on some details, such as the way in which horses were disposed of once they outlived their usefulness. But she admits “Plenty of other details are pure invention or composites.” I find it interesting how some authors invest a lot of time and energy researching minute details, and others just wing it. This felt real enough to be the former.

There’s an interesting, if sometimes intrusive, use of Sammy’s braid that reminds me of a horse’s bridle. And the whole tango idea. The story moves over years and decades; what might’ve happened over the course of six months in Philadelphia or a small New England town takes much longer in Big Sky country. I think that’s appropriate. I also enjoyed how the story resolved itself at the auction. It was, all in all, just a tale of unrequited love, and I suppose if I enjoyed the Lion Tamer story (though not as much as Zin did) I have to give allowances for this as well. I can’t be enthusiastic about it, but I’m happy to consider it’s more my own prejudices than the story.

BASS 2010: Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water”

Pakistani appeal poster for the 1953 Dutch flood victims (Radio Netherlands)

It’s the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or really for as long as we’ve existed: we had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.

As I read this story, set in an imagined Rotterdam 25 years from now, I thought, now, if the US were threatened by water, we’d have imposed global warning restrictions on the entire world by now. Except, you know what? New Orleans; the Outer Banks; Tampa; we are threatened by water, and every time a hurricane rolls by, we go into a tizzy, and then relax because, after all, it wasn’t the French Quarter of New Orleans that was submerged up to the rooftops. And we convince ourselves this isn’t going to happen anyway, it’s all a myth.

It was a great distraction to the story here.

The story, let me say, is marvelous. It goes along those lines, in fact: there’s a catastrophe coming, everyone’s known it’s coming, and here it is, hey, what’s going on? There are parallel catastrophes as there usually are in literary fiction: the literal one of Rotterdam and the more figurative catastrophe of marital collapse, and a secondary catastrophe of an aging mother whose need for more care has been ignored too long. Everyone who has any relationship with another person – that is, all of us – is facing a future catastrophe, as all relationships end one way or another. All stories are told with precision and care. The history of the Netherlands is detailed, as well as the lives of these fictional characters. Now, I suppose there’s someone somewhere who’d already written out the historical and technical chronology here, from a dike collapsing on Christmas of 1717, to the Saint Felix flood, the All Saints Flood, the 1953 flood, all the waterways and maneuvers to manage impending disaster. But I suspect a lot of research went into this, and a lot of winnowing out a small percentage of the information for inclusion into this story. I think of my friend Marko (hi Marko!) who is researching the Mongols and discovering all manner of interesting things about them, and I see him as another Jim Shepard, or another Anthony Doerr, all patiently researching information to include small bits into a fictional story that will sweep over the reader more forcefully than any academic text.

In the Contributor’s Notes, the author describes how McSweeney’s wanted a story about some world city 25 years in the future, and sweetened the pot by offering a trip to the city chosen. He describes how helpful the Dutch were, in providing information, escorting him to various locations: “I kept reminding everyone, somewhat meekly, that I was only writing a short story for a magazine called McSweeney’s, and not a cover article for The New York Times Magazine, but they all seemed unfazed. I was a writer who shared their interests, and was in need of help. So they helped. It was one of those moments when I’ve been acutely aware that I wasn’t in the United States.” Hmmm. I’m not so sure I agree with this assessment, but I can see what he means.

This story is included in Shephard’s latest collection, You Think That’s Bad, eleven stories about catastrophe. Sounds like a fun read. I have it on order at the library – there are two holds ahead of me. Catastrophe is quite popular.

(addendum: You Think That’s Bad read and blogged here.

BASS 2010: Karen Russell, “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”

Faust's Homunculus

Faust's Homunculus, 19th century engraving, unknown artist

I’m not sure where the seagulls came from. In retrospect, it seems a little bonkers to have ever thought, “Of course, what this story needs more of are time-traveling seagulls!” Maybe for me the horror of the gulls has something to do with the fizzy sensation that many unseen forces must be altering our lives in the future. And the unsettling fact that things are going to happen to us and to our loved ones without any regard for our beliefs about what’s “meant to be.”

That isn’t from the story itself; it’s from the Contributor’s Notes, but it adds a flavor to the story that I sort of missed on first read. I have trouble seeing humor sometimes, when grimness is presented as humorous. In this story, there’s plenty of grimness, and, yes, humor as well. And seagulls. But you must’ve guessed that.

Nal is a very smart young teen whose life is unraveling bit by bit. His mother was fired from her job. This means Nal can’t go to the summer school program he’d qualified for, one that came with a promise of a college scholarship if all four summers are completed. His cousin Steve, as part of taking a mail order course (the story is set in 1979, pre-internet) from a beauty school, does awful things to his hair for practice, resulting in something like blue tentacles over his forehead. His brother Samson starts dating Vanessa, the girl Nal has adored from afar for a while now. Nal’s having a rough time. And then the seagulls arrive, lots of them, and they turn out to be scavengers who gather things, including a coin dated a couple of years in the future, and… a screw. This serves as a platform to dive into “fate” and how it gets meddled with and leads Nal to take matters more firmly into his own hands and get the girl for himself.

I was disoriented most of the way through the story because the aforementioned barber course was from Nevada, America, which meant to me the story didn’t take place in the US, but I didn’t pick up exactly where it did take place. Names like Nal (unusual but no discernable ethnicity for me), Samson and Steve were no help. Finally Whitsunday Island was mentioned which made me think Australia or New Zealand (it turns out to be the former). But for half the story, I didn’t know if “Nevada, America” was an ironic comment on how far out of touch they were, or if this was set in some strange imaginary world where Nevada seceded (it does dance the magical realism waltz), or something else, and it mattered to me. I should’ve looked up Atherton, which is in the first sentence of the story. But it isn’t like Atherton naturally leads one to think, “Oh, sure, that’s in Australia!” I am disappointed in my inability to shrug off the uncertain setting and proceed; I think I would’ve enjoyed the first read much more had I been able to do so. But I’m also disappointed that the writer didn’t think it important enough to work into the beginning of the story.

There was a lot about this I liked very much. In the opening scene, a seagull swipes Nal’s burger from between its bun while he’s occupied obtaining mustard, and he doesn’t realize it until he bites into the meatless bread. Then he’s at the beach at night writing poetry: “White gobs of gull shit kept falling from the sky, a cascade that Nal found inimical to his writing process.” Yes, I would think so. There are days I wish I could blame my lack of progress on seagull shit. The whole seagull trope – there’s a nest in the hollow of a tree where he finds all manner of things, some from the future – is wonderful, as is the entwined theme of fate and future. The circumstances surrounding the mother losing her job, particularly the media coverage, are well-played and both realistic and outrageous. Vanessa is just strange enough – her parents freaked out when she started to develop breasts, so to get them off her back she binds her chest with an Ace bandage, having learned of such a technique from Shakespeare’s Rosalind.

And then there’s Nal’s internal homunculus:

He felt incapable of spontaneous action: before he could do anything, a tiny homunculus had to generate a flowchart in his brain. If p, then q; If z, then back to a. This homunculus could gnaw a pencil down to a nub, deliberating. All day, he could hear the homunculus clacking in his brain like a secretary from a 1940s movie; Nal shouldn’t! Nal can’t! Nal won’t! and then hitting the bell of the return key. He pictured the homunculus as a tiny, blankly handsome man in a green sweater, very agreeably going about his task of wringing the life from Nal’s life.

I think I have one of those myself.

Overall, though, the story didn’t quite hang together for me. The parts were greater than the sum. But the parts were damn good, anyway.

BASS 2010: Ron Rash, “The Ascent”

I’m going to get myself in trouble here. Because I didn’t think much of this story, and I seem to be the only person on the planet – including the Tin House editors, Richard Russo, and whoever it is that decides who wins the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award – who felt it was manipulative and trite. But come on – Lyndee doesn’t like Jared, our ten-year-old narrator, because his clothes smell bad, so he fantasizes about protecting her from imaginary bears, Mom and Dad are crackheads (or whatever the drug is, meth I’m told) and Mom’s making a Christmas tree by draping tin foil over logs in the fire, and Dad swipes the ring ten-year-old Jared swiped off a dead body and buys more crack (plus a box of Lucky Charms and a beat-up old bike). And Jared would rather spend time in a plane with two dead bodies than with the dying bodies he lives with. What, no “Please, sir, I want some more”?

Maybe I’ve become hardened. But I don’t think so. I’ve read stories about children in tough situations that broke my heart – “Summer, Boys” and “All Boy” to name two very recent ones. Maybe I’m just not up to unrelenting misery and injustice, a la “Rollingwood”. Maybe I’m just read out. Maybe if I read it again in a few months I’ll feel differently. But it just felt like overkill.

Originally published in Tin House, this story is included in the collection Burning Bright which won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2010. So I’m a little nervous posting this. But I swore I’d be honest in these comments, and I felt jerked around, with every possible woe heaped on this kid. And of course, it’s Christmas. Maybe that was the tipping point. I’m not naïve; I know there are kids who live this kind of life. I didn’t feel compassion or empathy with this kid. I just got annoyed at the author standing over my shoulder saying “Look how bad it is!” every three paragraphs.

I guess I still have a lot to learn.

BASS 2010: Lori Ostlund – “All Boy”

“…[H]uman beings always work harder to avoid losing what they already have rather than to acquire more. You see, loss is always more devastating than the potential for gain is motivating. I want you to remember that, Harold.”

We have here an unreliable child narrator who has some glimmer that he is unreliable but is not sure exactly where his world-view falls short. And we have some very strange parents. In fact, I would say the parents are beyond believability if they did not in places remind me of my own. The babysitter is fired, but not for locking Harold (age eleven) in a closet so she could watch television without dealing with his constant questions. She is fired for wearing Dad’s socks, “an intimacy beyond what he could bear.” Now, I understand both of these things. I understand how Harold took the closeting as so normal he kept a survival kit, complete with LifeSavers, a flashlight and books, in the closet, and understood his questioning, while just part of his curiosity, was distracting. I understand how his parents explained it away as “character building” because it would just be too much trouble to find another babysitter (presumably). And I understand how having an old woman (who has toenails so thick and yellow she needs her daughter to come over with a special tool resembling hedge clippers to cut them) wear one’s socks is a bit disgusting. And I understand that there was a time (this story is set in the mid-seventies, judging from the Carter-Ford reference) when children were seen and not heard, were not the center of the universe but were considered indestructible and were not coddled or protected in the way they are today. I understand this because I, too, have been an unreliable narrator. Haven’t we all.

Harold is an eleven-year-old who distinguishes between “can” and “may”, who hates science but writes great reports because it is easier to write them well than to write them poorly, who has no friends, who has many books and is beginning to realize that saying “I’m a voracious reader” is not the way to make friends, and who recognizes his teacher is ridiculing him to be part of the group, part of “us” whereas he is “them.” Pretty good for an unreliable narrator.

Harold’s unreliability is unreliable; sometimes he is simply uninformed, and sometimes perhaps willfully blind. He is unfamiliar with the word “fag” and when a potential friend calls the librarian by this name, Harold thinks from the context it might mean “helpful” and agrees. This potential friend then calls Harold a fag, and Harold looks it up in a dictionary and discovers it means “hard-working.” He then reports to his parents that the librarian is a fag, which he thinks is a compliment, and his mother scolds him for saying such an awful thing. His father has an exercise room with gym equipment and “motivational” pictures of well-cut men; Harold sometimes hears him groaning within.

There are two overheard phone conversations between Mom and her sister. This strikes me as a tired device, but a necessary (if artless) one to keep the reader informed that Dad does not have sex with her and Dad is gay and has been all along. Apparently Mom has ignored this – a little willful blindness on her part as well – but the climax of the story is Dad leaving, with the words of wisdom quoted above. Even a ridiculous marriage is something not to be lost, until it becomes just too ridiculous. Dad leaves the closet, and Harold longs for the closet the babysitter would lock him in, because he didn’t have to deal with reality that way. I can understand that, too.

You can see Lori Ostlund read this story on Vimeo. It was originally published in New England Review, and is in her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection, The Bigness of the World.

BASS 2010: “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht

I didn’t so much read this story as wrestle it to the ground, so my enjoyment level wasn’t as high as it could have been. I had a hard time with the opening paragraphs, figuring out who was who, and it wasn’t until several pages in that I realized that Femi was not a child. That happens sometimes, and I’m inclined to think it has more to do with my mindset at the time than with the complexity of the story.

Because this story, once I got it into a full nelson, isn’t all that complex. Roland, freshly widowed, and friend Neal. Who knew what, when? Who did what on purpose, and what was just coincidence? It takes some doing to unravel the details – wildebeests, hyenas, (the story is set in Africa), hot-air balloons, unloaded rifles. It’s quite beautiful, actually, dark and heavy and slow (I don’t mean that as a criticism, those are all appropriate for the story), hot and smelly, returning to the hot-air balloon a few times before we find out, almost at the end, its significance, and the significance of the title.

You can read the story at the Atlantic where it was first published, as well as an interview with the astonishingly young (24 at the time it was published) and unfairly beautiful (ok, yes, I am being petty, but really, would it be too much to ask to spread the gifts around a little more evenly?) author, who arrived at Cornell at the age of 12 via Yugoslavia and Egypt.

BASS 2010: Kevin Moffett, “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” from McSweeeney’s

Oh, I love this story about a father and son who write “truish stories about fathers and sons.” From the beginning there’s a quality – vulnerability? Honesty? – that had me close to tears throughout. It’s constructed perfectly, with Harry Hodget, the son’s writing mentor, playing the part of wise outsider. His key line: “Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories.” And so this father and son write stories, based on real-life events, to say what is worth saying to each other. It’s a remarkable story.

Of course, it’s a story about writers and writing, and I always enjoy those, even though they’re anathema to most journal editors. But I take away some writing advice from stories like these. I don’t know if the advice in the story is sincere or satirical, but a lot of it resonates with me.

First we have the “Six Rules of Writing” which of course the story breaks one after the other:

Never dramatize a dream.
Never use more than one exclamation point per story.
Never write about writing.
Never dramatize phone conversations. Put them in the same room, see what they do when they can’t hang up.
Never dramatize a funeral or a trip to the cemetery.
Never end your story with a character realizing something. Characters shouldn’t realize something, readers should.

This last one is key to me. I’ve put it in my “craft folder”. Along with: “Find a time for your characters when things might’ve turned out differently. Find the moment a choice was made that made other choices impossible. Readers like to see characters making choices.” And the comforting, “You’ll never earn a living writing stories, not if you’re any good at it.”

The mentor is an interesting character, a secondary father to the narrator. He asks, instead of “How are you,” “What are you pretending to be today?” When Frederick, the first-person narrator and the “son” of the primary father-son pair, complains about not having written for a month, the mentor spits out his father once tried to staple a dead squirrel to his scrotum, so stop whining. Yeah.

And there’s the element of competition, as Father starts writing stories that get published right next to Son’s. I understand how this feels to Son. But I also understand how it feels to Father, trying to communicate with a Son who isn’t really hearing, hasn’t been for some time. This effect is exaggerated as Father and Son have the same name.

Frederick (son) works as a remedial writing teacher at a community college. There’s a lot of complaining about too many stories about academics (hey, it’s what writers know) but this isn’t academia by any stretch. Frederick seems to be quite cynical about his class of literary underachievers, until a bag of Cheetos moves him to tears. I’m calling it a secondary father-son relationship, in which he’s the father all of a sudden. He doesn’t have a son of his own. He will someday. And won’t that be fun.

There are many stories told within this setup. Some are factually true; some are factual adaptations to serve truth. They are all beautiful, and it’s amazing to see what father and son are telling each other in these stories, these interpretations of real life events. There’s humor (Son calls to find out where baby carrots come from, then tries to write a story based on “babies are adults cut down to size”). There’s heartbreak. There’s not a false note throughout. Like I said, masterful.

BASS 2010 – PS by Jill McCorkle

I confess, I did not like this story. I will give some reasons, but the main reason, I think, is that I just didn’t care for it. I happen to be something of an expert on marriage counseling (from the counselee’s point of view) and this just felt ho-hum. Jerry, well into his marriage to Hannah, suddenly becomes a born-again Christian and keeps trying to save her. Yes, this is annoying. It’s probably a good reason to leave him, since it probably masks a deeper problem. She has trouble finding a suitable marriage counselor, finally arriving at the office of $200-an-hour Dr. Love, whose name is a deal-breaker for me. Some details of their marriage are revealed, none of which are that interesting. It’s more interesting that she hides in the bathroom of the doctor’s office reading People magazine. It’s very interesting she confesses to an affair with the plumber which never happened, then takes offense that Jerry would believe her. She has recovered from her bad marriage, and it’s interesting she’s letting the doctor know that. But it’s just not a story I care about, it’s not a character I care about, and while I find some of the incidents funny or bittersweet (the Chihuahua trying to hump the Labrador reminds her of Dudley Moore and Susan Anton, and of her own relationship with Jerry, who is shorter than she is; the opposite of love is apathy, not hate) it just never went beyond Redbook fiction for me. Back when there was Redbook fiction. Which I understand no longer exists, though I haven’t seen an issue of Redbook in a few decades.

However, I’m not fool enough to think my judgment is superior to that of Richard Russo, The Atlantic (where the story was first published and in whose archives it can be read in its entirety), or Jill McCorkle (who in her Atlantic interview describes it as a woman’s journey to come out the other side). So I’ll just say my experiences got in the way and I wasn’t able to appreciate the story. Which is the sort of thing a decade of marriage counseling will teach you to say. See, I told you I was an expert.

p.s. It is indeed the p.s. of the story that carries it, which may be part of my annoyance at having to read through all that to get to the Space Needle imagery: we get tossed around, we get scared, and we immediately get in line to have another turn. And we no longer look like shit on a stick.

BASS 2010: Brendan Mathews – “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer”

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Circus lion tamer, lithograph by Gibson & Co., 1873

Hello, I am Zin! I now have my own account! I am officially a Contributor to A Just Recompense! I am very happy about this! I want a T-shirt too but I will settle for a Gravatar. We took all day to figure out how to do this and I hope this post works. We will have to figure out who does what stories but for now we agreed whoever liked the story best gets it so I am doing “My Last Attempt To Explain To You What Happened With The Lion Tamer” by Brendan Mathews – because how can you not love a story with a title like that?

It is not easy to write a story about unrequited love without getting all sappy and stupid and trite, so making the love triangle about a lion tamer, an aerialist, and a clown certainly helps avoid those things! I thought maybe Mathews worked in a circus for a while, but no, he was a nuclear weapons journalist before he went for his MFA. I did not even know that was a job! In his contributor notes (hey, he is a contributor too, just like me! But I think his contributorship is a lot more prestigious than mine) he said it took him five years to go from draft to story, with several major changes including the idea to put the “you” in there. I am still interested in the “you”. It is an unusual approach for a story and I think it works very well here, which is surprising, it could go bad very quickly but it does not. It makes me want to read more by this writer!

I love that this story is both surreal and very down-to-earth. I love the first line: “He wasn’t even a good lion tamer, not before you showed up.” Hah, I remember that writing exercise about first lines, and this one is a doozy. It sets up the situation, creates interest, and introduces the three characters. And all three characters are people I cared about very much! I knew from the beginning something would happen to the lion tamer of course, and I figured it would be bad, so it was not really surprising but somehow it was satisfying in terms of resolution. As usual the ending is not nailed down – this is something I need to work on, because I do not know that I could leave it literally up in the air like that, about the aerialist, but that is what fiction is now and I must learn to do this.

Richard Russo said on an NPR interview that he loved the story because of its whimsy and how well Mathews created a circus world. You can also read an excerpt from the beginning of the story in that same interview.

Thank you for reading my first review as a Contributor! Please let me know if you like it or not, so I can improve!

~ zin

BASS 2010: Rebecca Makkai – “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”

Jane Morris as Rossetti's Proserpine

This story originally appeared in Ploughshares 2009/2010.

In her afternotes, Rebecca Makkai says the origin of this tale was an idea to write a series of stories about English professors hoisted on their own petards, so to speak. I love that concept!

And I loved the story while I was reading it, and, like strip-mall Chinese take-out, for about an hour after. Then I started seeing some issues. Mainly, that the Ancient Mariner shot his Albatross on purpose, in a fit of spite, after the bird had been so helpful; thus he deserved his penance. Alex, the character here, shot her albatross purely by mistake. And bad luck? Where is that part of the Rime? An English professor should know better. Though I suppose it is clever enough, to have an accidental albatross shooting (a unique event, to be sure) become the beginning of a turn of bad luck, to loosely follow the story rather than stay true thematically. Am I picking nits?

Well, here’s another one. Her encounter with Eden Su is complex and interesting. I have to admire the multiple layers here. I’m a little bewildered by how the situation began, however. Why does she assume an Asian student is an exchange student from Korea? It seems bizarre to me. Maybe this university is a really popular place for Korean exchange students, but that wouldn’t be the first assumption on my list. The offense taken at her remarks seemed out of proportion as well, and turns out, it was. But… I’m still a little confused, because Eden was on track for a B and could’ve ended up with an A if she’d spoken out in class. Are we to presume her papers were not hers, and she hadn’t read anything the whole semester, so she couldn’t earn the A? Would she go to such great lengths to avoid a B? It doesn’t quite play for me.

The story is, by the way, chick lit. No man would feel any remorse about the albatross. A man would bribe someone to smuggle it out of Australia and have it stuffed and mounted on his living room wall, wings spanning the full six feet. Men do not worry about how their women see them. They don’t have to. Their women reassure them constantly, because men do not, um, function without such props. And no man would sit still for the Grievance Committee lashing.

Still, Alex does remedy all these things. She pays the fine for the albatross. She probably could’ve wept her way out of it, but more power to her, she didn’t. And eventually, with the help of Tossman (a wonderful character, sadly overlooked by me until the very end, which is impressive because that’s exactly what should have happened), she realizes it is not a curse, and deals with the other troubles in her life. She faces fiancé Malcolm and gets one of the sweetest reassurances I’ve read. Guys, next time your woman asks how she looks to you, draw a stick figure with wavy lines emanating from it, and tell her, “That’s your awesomeness.” Benefits will ensue, I promise. I was ready to do Malcolm after reading that and he isn’t even a real person. See? Chick lit.

Ah, Tossman, the man with the crush on the unattainable Alex, the man with the lucky cards. In another BASS story – “Safari” by Jennifer Egan – I was critical of a super-fast flash-forward that occurred at the end; it felt disjointed and tacked-on. I have no problem with this one; it flows smoothly from the story. And Bill Tossman had for me the opposite of the Chinese Food Effect: I wasn’t sure what he was doing in the story until I thought about it for a while. I’m still not sure I can articulate it – sure, he provides an axis on which Alex turns her luck around. And he provides the third option for her closing comments on her penitential telling of the story to friends later: “The point, the moral, was how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it, kill it, or at least fail to save it.” But you know what? Sometimes people have to make some effort to make themselves recognizable.

So Alex corrects her perceptions: the albatross was just an expensive accident, Malcolm thinks she’s beautiful, sometimes a quiet Asian student is a shark in disguise. While I was reading, I was charmed, so I’d call it successful. I’m not sure some of the details hold up to scrutiny, however. But hell, do you scrutinize your Kung Pao, or do you just enjoy it?

BASS 2010 – James Lasdun: “The Hollow” from Paris Review Spring 2009

This story is available online at The Paris Review. It can be found under the title “Oh, Death” in the author’s short story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt and in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories of 2010.

I feel like there’s something about this story I didn’t quite get, so maybe if I think about it a little, I’ll get closer to it. It’s written in first person but the narrator is largely an observer, not a participant, so it’s more like an opinionated third person. Ah, the good old days, when you could have a third person narrator that actually had a point of view. That’s gone out of fashion, so these days you use a neighbor. The narrator is a shadow character. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he moved into the Hollow five years ago (assuming the end of the story is the present, the story covers five years), he has a wife, he makes his living “gaming the system” (a phrase that is never explained), drives an hour to work (presumably he’s some kind of financial wizard?) and he owns a new Subaru; the fact that this impresses Rick, the actual main character, says more about Rick than it does about the narrator.

Rick Parker is the main character. We meet him with his dad, though Dad drops out of the story when Rick’s girlfriend, and later, wife, moves in. Rick’s an interesting character. It’d be easy to dismiss him as a rough-and-tough mountain man, but there’s more to him. He freelances, doing whatever manual labor he can get, from construction to woodcutting, but tree work is his favorite. He leaves beer cans out in the woods (the narrator calls them “gleaming spoor”) and drives an ATV that tears up the ground and leaks oil but he knows the names and properties of every plant like a biologist: “…he knew the woods up here with an intimacy that seemed its own kind of love.” He’s what I think of as a true libertarian: someone who can fix his house, hunt his dinner, and chop his own wood, and he isn’t happy about new houses snapping up land and turning his hunting ground into private property: “he hated it all, though his hatred stopped short of the actual human beings responsible for these incursions.” So while he isn’t pleased that Cora Chastine is selling off parcels that cramp his style, he describes her as a nice lady and is happy to do chores for her in the middle of the night when she calls him for help. The Tea Party should take notice of this. It makes him immensely likeable, and makes what happens to him more tragic for the reader.

In a key scene, Rick tells the narrator he’s building a cabin on the other side of the ridge. It’s state land, but so what (this is an attitude that should enrage me but I find it endearing in this case). It’s just somewhere to go. Because when you live out in a rural Hollow it’s not deserted enough for you. There’s a naturalness to this character that says something. He also claims to have seen a mountain lion, to have an impression of its paw print, though the narrator doesn’t quite believe this as he’s read there are no mountain lions around here in spite of occasional claims to the contrary.

As I read it, the downturn in his life is the fault of a bad woman. Or, a woman gone bad. Or just a woman who is damaged to the point of being unable to be good, and who he was unable to recognize as such. We discover later she has her reasons for not being able to be good, perhaps. Faye has two children when they meet, and Rick is credited with fine fathering skills.

Next comes a scene I find telling. A hurricane, “unusual in these parts,” (I believe this takes place in upstate NY, although for most of it I assumed it was the rural South, but the author, a transplanted Londoner, lives in NY and a snowy winter is described so I’m taking some liberties) strikes after Rick and Faye have another daughter. The destruction is dramatic, and Rick offers his clean-up services to the narrator, who declines on advice of counsel as Rick does not have insurance and thus could sue for injuries. A commercial crew – “professional” is how the narrator describes them – comes in and pretty much tears up the woods taking away the trees. The difference between natural damage of the hurricane and man-made damage of the clean up crew strikes me, as does the narrator’s description of Rick’s proposal which seems, to my completely naïve eye, to be far more ecologically pure, regardless of his gleaming spoor and ATV. I think this is important.

Rick and Faye marry, he slaughters a pig at the wedding (hey, it was a gift, and it was also the main course), and things start to go downhill. Things go pretty much as you’d expect from there. Rick ends up literally hoisted on his own petard; his downfall is quite sad, really, and I’d come to think of him as a good guy so it felt really tragic when he turned into a not-so-nice guy. And the narrator ends up in Rick’s cabin, possibly facing a ghost or an impossibility or a reincarnation, I’m not really sure. The last paragraph has been described elsewhere as a reversal of roles, and as a coming to terms with mortality. I’m afraid it went by me.

It’s a good story. I just don’t quite get the metaphysical level that’s been attributed to it elsewhere. It reminds me a little of “Boar Taint” a story I read in the Kenyon Review a few years ago: people, nature, and what happens between them. I think there’s been a dearth of man vs. nature stories in recent decades as writers have delved more deeply into psychological, sociopolitical and economic themes. So maybe that’s it, it’s man vs. nature, nature won, and maybe won more than I realize.

I’m intrigued by the title change. I immediately flashed on several Bach cantatas and bible verses (Oh, Death, Where is thy Sting) and possibly John Donne, though he does not include “Oh” in “Death, Be Not Proud”. But I now see there is a song by the Stanley Brothers from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou titled “O Death” (the lyrics include the “h” although the title does not) which may fit the bill more closely, as the author said he wrote the piece after a the accidental death of a neighbor. “The Hollow” is a little more obvious, since the locality is named Vanderbeck Hollow, but it’s conceivable a mountain lion’s paw print preserved in mud could have a hollow…

BASS 2010: Charles Baxter – The Cousins

I skipped over this story when I started reading BASS 2010, because I’m afraid of Charles Baxter. A few years ago when I was agonizing over one of my stories, I read his collection of essays and lectures on writing, Burning Down The House. It terrified me. I had no idea what he was talking about, or why he was talking about defamiliarization and responsibility when I was looking at sentences and words and paragraphs. To be fair, I really needed, and was looking for, something more like What If? or the Gotham Writer’s Workshop book, something nuts-and-bolts, and that I ended up with Baxter – and with From Where You Dream and a selection of other more advanced books about writing process shows how confused and ignorant I was. I still don’t understand the process books. But at least now I see a difference between them and the more basic texts. Some day I’ll move on to these Great Ideas, maybe soon, but first I need to get Beginnings, Middles, and Endings under control.

Having now read this story, since the Zoetrope BASS office started on it, I found it more scary in the abstract than in the reading. It’s an engaging story. I don’t fully understand it, and the more I read about it from Zoetropers who’ve been through MFAs and Bread Loaf and Tin House, the more I understand I don’t understand, but even at face value it’s good reading.

At face value, the story concerns two cousins: narrator Benjamin, twenty years older, a Minnesota lawyer who’d done his sowing wild oats in New York years before as an aspiring actor slash waiter; and Brantford, still in the New York phase, his college fund depleted. The opening scene has them meeting at a high-priced restaurant for lunch, at Brantford’s urging. Benjamin’s admiration for his cousin is clear: “…he was one of those people who always makes you happier the moment you see them.” It strikes me now, how oddly this sentence is worded, how wrong the tenses and numbers are. Now that I’ve heard some comments from some friends at Zoetrope, I don’t think that’s by accident. At lunch, Brantford says he feels like he’s murdered someone, though he’s not sure who or when or why or that he even did, it just feels like he might have. Benjamin then goes into a flashback about his youth in New York, a hot party with a famous poet who called him “the scum of the earth” and where he lost his girlfriend Giulietta and encounters a drunk in the subway, and we learn more in a flash-forward about his present life. This is one of the hallmarks of the story, the back-and-forth timeline, and it’s hard to say just what the “present” of the story is or when something is taking place. The story continues in this way, with other important encounters and revelations about both cousins, and back-and-forth time line motion, culminating with Benjamin’s very pointed conversation with a Minneapolis cab driver, the kind of conversation in a story that screams “Pay Attention! Highly Important Dialogue! Deep Symbolism!” and then his bit of slightly strange behavior at his house. It sounds very confusing to relate. It isn’t that confusing in the reading, until you try to put it all together and explain it without revealing key points that would diminish the effect of surprise should someone wish to read it.

Favorite lines:

But then, somehow, usually by accident, you experience joy. And the problem with joy is that it binds you to life; it makes you greedy for more happiness. You experience avarice. You hope your life will go on forever.

The Missouri Review had this to say of this story, which of all the BASS 2010 stories they admired most: ” What does Baxter’s story do? It engages. He is ‘occupying the attention and efforts’ of the reader. The story is challenging, surprising, non-linear, beautiful, and strange. This effort to engage the reader, to make the reading a pleasing effort, is what makes the story moving and memorable: one is challenged to keep up and understand what has happened both physically and emotionally in the narrative. It is not neat and it is not easy.” I find it annoying that non-linear here is used as a compliment, whereas I have been scolded on many occasions for not staying in the moment, in the present of the story, for lapsing into flashbacks and musings on what came before, and instead of telling me that I am not yet ready to advance to that, I’ve been told “No!” like a bad puppy. Either that, or you have to be Charles Baxter to get away with it.

I found a review in the NYT by Joyce Carol Oates (who I am still struggling to like after having read Steve Almond’s description of her in his Kurt Vonnegut essay) which called Benjamin “genial” and his actions at the very end “playful”. I am surprised by those descriptions. If I’d been presented with a list of words, I’m not sure I would have chosen them. But I’m not about to second-guess Joyce Carol Oates, no matter how she came across in the essay.

And then there’s the zombie idea. I don’t even want to think about that. I’m not up on zombie lore. Maybe that’s why I don’t “get” it. Something is definitely off with Benjamin, but does it have to be zombiehood?

I’m glad I stopped hiding and read the story. I should put him on the active list of people to read. I’m not sure I’m ready yet, but at least I should try. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll read Salman Rushie as well. But that’s probably a ways off yet.

BASS 2010 Preface and Intro

[Zin Kenter] BASS 2010 Zoetrope discussion – Preface and Intro – WARNING: Too Much follows! I can not stop!

I got this book in October 2010. I had asked my Fiercely Independent local bookstore (everyone should have one of these – oh, Amazon is fine some of the time, we all need to save a buck, but, well, you know the rant about local bookstores) to put me on the notify list back in September when it was supposed to come out. I am that excited about the BASS series. I love the forewords and the afternotes as much as the stories.

I remember being very depressed by the Preface – but I was very depressed about my own writing at the time so that may factor in. Short fiction is dead. Fiction journals are closing. Writers are dying! The end is near, repent! And I looked at the TOC, and felt like everything was from The New Yorker or Tin House (that is not the case but that is how it felt). She says that early in the year they were worried they might not have enough outstanding stories for a volume, and I wondered how it must feel to a writer published in the New Yorker or Tin House or whatever in January, February, April, to know this. As I said, I was very depressed about my own writing at the time (and I still am but there are glimmers of hope).

I just re-read it, and it is not depressing to me now. It is the perennial Call to Doom and Gloom, how nothing now is like in The Old Days. No matter where you are, no matter when, you will find someone declaring this. Zoetrope is not as good as it was in the Days of the Giants. I read a lot of books about doctors going through medical school, and the term “Days of the Giants” is an actual idiom there, to denote when interns worked a week without sleep and were picking up laundry and rolling bandages (one of the reasons they were overworked as peons is because there was little for them to do, since any diagnosis serious enough to put someone in the hospital was going to kill them). I played an online game for the last three of its four years, and from the time I started someone was declaring “it isn’t like it was in the old days.” When I was a student, teachers said school wasn’t like it used to be. They are still saying that now, and I am old enough to be the parent of some of the teachers saying that. Maybe I have gained perspective.

But a preface is necessary, and what is she going to say, “Here is the book and I hope you enjoyed it, we worked hard to put it together, here is a fun anecdote about an interaction I had with this year’s editor”? Yes, that would be good. Consider that next year, please?

The foreword is a different matter. I always love these. I loved this one. But it reminded me of something. Brace yourself, I am going to venture into TV land. It is all right, it will not last long, you can skip it if you find this all that upsetting. An episode of The West Wing dealt with a poet who described the job of the artist, not to find truth, but to hold the attention of the audience for as long as possible. The TWoP message board (serious West Wing junkies there, a thread is still going strong four years after the series was cancelled, with almost daily comparisons of the Obama and Bartlet administrations, having already exhausted comparisons between the Obama and Santos campaigns) erupted. That is entertainment! Entertainment, not art! Art is about more lofty purpose, not to entertain! Art should disrupt, upset, scare, confuse! And I was thrown back into the whole thing, what is the difference between Art and entertainment? One is Capitalized, the other is capitalized? I have no idea. I do not know there is a difference but I am interested in the discussion. I like “to entertain and instruct” though the word “entertain” has a pejorative air for me. To entrance, entice, mesmerize, fascinate – to hold the attention? And what is the first thing they tell you in writing class? Do they tell you to find six layers of symbolism, to find words that evoke contrasting images, to have a permeating mood here and a bright note there? No, they tell you to tell a story, a good story, a story that makes someone want to know what happened next. And that is where I am struggling most, not with words, but with getting to that “what happened next I need to know” point. Is that entertainment? Of course, but accomplishing it is artistry, is it not? If it was easy, everyone would be able to do it. Writing a manual on oil changes is not art. Writing a story that makes you think of the complexities of love or fix something gone astray in your life every time you get an oil change, is.

As someone already said, I was entertained… and instructed.

BASS 2010: Wayne Harrison – “Least Resistance”

I typically sit down to read a story when I have sufficient time – at least a half hour, more likely an hour – to read it, think for a few minutes, jump through it looking for answers to any questions that have sprung up, read it again, think some more, etc. But for some reason, I was waiting for my computer to get itself warmed up (you have no idea) so I picked up BASS 2010 which happened to be on top of the pile of books I’ve left on my printer (including What If? and the Ha Jin collection) and read a few paragraphs of “Least Resistance.” Something happened – I’m not sure what – but I was called away, and I was surprised at how disappointed I was that I couldn’t continue reading this story about a bunch of grease monkeys. The car-fixing kind, not the software package. Do they still call mechanics that?

At any rate, I have less than no interest in cars. I don’t even drive unless I’m forced to do so, I hate them so much. But there was something about the opening paragraphs – Nick the superstar mechanic, the narrator who sees himself “transformed from pathetic teenager to minor superhero” by him, the customer who is reporting what seems to be a problem with Nick’s work, another employee who jumps to find out what the problem is – that gripped me. I couldn’t wait to get back to these guys and find out if Nick had goofed, why it was freaking the narrator out so much, and what the story was about. I was pretty sure it wasn’t about cars, though I hadn’t read anything but cars so far.

Sure enough, it wasn’t about cars. It was about a marriage, about relationships, about tragedy, about love, and about the ability of people to be at their best when at their worst. I even enjoyed the car talk. And there’s a lot of it. In fact, at times it seems a little aggressive. The author was a grease monkey himself right after high school, according to the afternotes, and occasionally I get the sense he’s pouring it on a little thick – “see, I really do know about this stuff.” But that’s not a big deal. What the characters do is perfectly rendered, another instance of that inevitable surprise. And I think the first page, which left me so eager to return, embodies the idea of narrative tension; I had to read on.

An exquisite story. Not fancy, but emotionally true and very moving, and, yes, surprising.

(I have discovered a Zoetrope office which will be reading the BASS 2010 stories starting this month. I had already made notes on this one, but I will now stop until the office catches up – which may take a few months, depending on how fast they go. I have plenty of other things to read – finish Ha Jin, new New Yorker stories, the backlog from last year, and the collections I haven’t even mentioned yet, not to mention novels.)

BASS 2010: Lauren Groff – “Delicate Edible Birds”

I found this story in BASS 2010; the story was published in Glimmer Train in Spring 2009, and it is also the title story of her January 2009 collection.

 This story was a strange journey for me, but the ones that aren’t never make it to these pages, they’re read and forgotten. I had several points of complaint, then read the afternotes (I completely forgot, which is odd since the afternotes are my favorite part of the BASS volumes) and discovered my complaints were the product of my own ignorance. This is quite embarrassing. Perhaps the story should come with a warning: know a little about Martha Gellhorn, Mitterand’s last meal, and the Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif” before reading.

 Before I even got to the story, the title reminded me of the introductory passage from Anthony Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, which I read and posted about here about three weeks ago. He recounts some secret underground dinner, attended by chefs who are not named but who, the reader is assured, are widely recognized, and features a ritual eating of ortolan (small finches), now illegal to hunt, traditionally (but not in this case) blinded, overfed, and drowned in a distinctive brandy, pan roasted and fried in oil and butter, eaten whole – yes, bones, beak, guts, and all, just dropped into the mouth feet first – while a napkin covers the face of each diner. At the time I wasn’t sure if his account was a dark fantasy (it smacked of The Freshman, which featured a dinner of endangered species) or something real.

 Groff’s story includes, in flashback, an account of female war correspondent Bern’s affair at age 16 with the mayor of Philadelphia and their attendance at such a feast in Montreal. Having just read of this ritual made me fond of the story, because I felt like an insider – my hand waving wildly over my head, “Hey, call on me, yes, I know about this, I’ve heard of it!”  But it also struck me as odd, that I should hear about something so strange twice within three weeks, having never heard of it before. Then again, the list of things I’ve never heard of is quite long, by its very nature far longer than I realize. Groff mentions in her afternotes that this ritual dinner was reputed to be Mitterand’s last meal in 1995, and apparently it’s been a quite popular topic lately, at least to those in certain circles. Oops, my bad.

I wondered about the timeline of the story. The character Bern was 22 when covering the Spanish Civil War, awfully young for a war correspondent, and making her 16 some time between 1930 and 1933 – during the Great Depression, which is not mentioned even in passing during her recollection of the limo drive to Montreal where they are served this exotic meal under silver. And then she a prize-winning story published, which has people calling her L’Ortolan, as her last name is Orton. This seems a bit coincidental and forced. Groff’s afternotes again to the rescue – she based the character on Martha Gellhorn, who was indeed a novelist and war correspondent (and Hemingway’s third wife) at a very young age, though not quite as young as the character Bern. My bad again.

 Overall the story carries some interesting and hard-hitting images of WWII, and the “delicate, edible birds” image works throughout, applying to French countrymen strafed by a German plane, to pretty much everyone in the path of the Nazis as they occupied France, to these journalists, to women in general, and to Bern herself. They are racing to get to Bordeaux, believing it to be safe there. I’m a little hazy on the Occupation and Vichy France and all, but my understanding is that journalists were interned at Lourdes and Baden Baden, safely and relatively comfortably, so I had trouble understanding the urgency to escape – but I am willing to accept that history may show things very differently from how they would’ve been perceived at the time, and had I been a journalist I would’ve been quite eager to get the hell out of there before any swastikas showed up. And again, Groff’s afternotes point out that the Maupassant short story “Boule de Suif”, as well as the collected letters of Ms. Gellhorn, were the basis for the journalists’ escapades. And by now I’m downright embarrassed by my stupidity. And as a result, of course, I hate this story. Wouldn’t you? But I realize that isn’t fair.

 The crux of the story of this carload of journalists – from Italy, Russia, the US and England – is whether or not Bern should sleep with a civilian captor to obtain his help to flee the approaching German army. There is little surprise here; it’s a story not of plot but of people, interactions, backstories, and personality, though the people don’t surprise me either. Their French civilian captor (with his family of aged mother and two sons) at times seems like something out of a cross between the playwright in The Producers and the banjo people in Deliverance, but then he becomes quite eloquent and articulate, which seems odd, as if the character changes. But I may be supplying the oafish quality on my own.

 There’s something about the story that I enjoyed, and I’m not sure it was limited to the “Me, too” phenomenon. It seemed a little too precious at times (one of the male correspondents sees Bern as “the future” and I’ve already mentioned her last name being coincidentally similar to ortolan).  And maybe, if truth is stranger than fiction, I’d rather read about the real Martha Gellhorn than the fictional Bern, because, frankly, Bern seems a bit too staged to me. But there’s great potential as a discussion piece. How would it go down today? What are the motives of the men as they urge her to act in one way or another? How does the time in the barn change things? When she says, “It isn’t about courage” what is it about? Does she go because the men pressure her, or because she, too, is scared? There are many powerful moments, particularly regarding the car of journalists passing a crowd of straffed French civilians, and the backstories the journalists reveal. It’s a story worth reading and contains a lot of food for thought (other than birds). Especially for those smarter than I.

BASS 2010 – The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris

As I read through this story, I kept wondering how it was in The New Yorker. It just doesn’t seem like a New Yorker story. It seemed like a 30’s screwball comedy – no, it doesn’t, well, yes, it does, except the only reason I say that is because there’s a snippet of conversation in the book about 30’s screwball comedies and how they didn’t have to say F-this and F-that every other minute and here’s this 30’s screwball comedy about an old man, a Russian prostitute, and Viagra, which is also a bit incongruous with a 30’s screwball comedy.

I had a lot of problems with the way this was written. Well, no, I didn’t have problems with it – I found it easy to read and enjoyable – but I don’t understand how this is a “best” story. It was rather routine, actually – of course his buddy gets him a hooker for his birthday, of course he takes the pill, of course he’s happy about it, so while it was a fun romp to read, it was fun because it was quite predictable once the 30’s screwball comedy vibe was set (which took a while). This is the second story I’ve read in this volume where it seemed like it was two stories, one that was exposition and set-up, and then the actual story. Maybe I’ve been reading too much flash. Or maybe this whole get into the story immediately and grab the reader from the first line is only required from neophytes, and the Joshual Ferrises of this world can do whatever they want.

There’s only a page of true exposition before we get to the birthday, which is when the action starts. The kids call. Then he calls for a pizza. Then the hooker shows up, which is when things start to happen. So it wasn’t really that long, it just seemed long, but I think maybe that was the point, the interminable calls from the kids and the grandchild showcasing his life, that this is what he’d been waiting all day for, and he harps on his health knowing the kid doesn’t want to hear it and no one really listens to him anyway.

I don’t know, this is where I start to worry about my “taste level” to use the infamous phrase from Project Runway. I thought this was a fair story. Not a New Yorker story. Not a BASS story. There was nothing surprising in it. It was mildly entertaining at best. What the hell is wrong with me? Let me revise: I wouldn’t say there was nothing surprising in it – I was surprised he took a casual attitute towards whether the hooker accepted his offer of financial help or not, that he was content once he made the offer, and he let go of her hand to wave at Mrs. Z – so he wasn’t a complete fool. And the ending was kind of nice, except it’s that wrap-it-all-up-upbeat kind of ending that’s not common in well-ranked stories these days.

I’ve read elsewhere the ending is almost identical to another end-with-a-baseball-memory story, I forget which, and it’s possibly an homage to the other author (I have to make note of it and read it). Maybe I’m just not well-read enough to appreciate this.

The POV is something I can learn from, I think. Starts off very general, clearly an omnisicent 3rd narrator, lots of psychic distance, a wide shot as it were. Then it moves in to details and becomes 3rd person Arty. And just when the hooker scene is getting interesting, it shifts to Mrs. Zegerman and her snoopvision. After his somewhat miraculous recovery from his fall and heart whatever, they really share the POV, the most poignant paragraph for me being, not Arty’s decision to take the blue pill, but Mrs. Zegerman giving up her fantasy of being a hero and tending to him for a year as he slowly recovers, probably with hopes of becoming Mrs. Arty, all blown apart when he leaps from the car without his cane. Then he sees her later in the car, crying, which felt false to me, how could he see that far? The end goes back to a wide shot, clear narrator info about the hairline fracture in the baseball game. This makes very clear the difference between character, narrator, and author – the author isn’t really there at all, the narrator is clearly distinguished from the characters of Arty and Mrs. Zegerman. But… while I liked it, I didn’t see greatness in it. I saw Eclectica rather than The New Yorker (which is not a swipe at Eclectica, they’ve pubished some really good stories, but they aren’t The New Yorker). Which gets back to my dubious taste level. Ay.

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

BASS 2010 “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” by Danielle Evans

I did not want to read this story. As soon as I saw it was about a soldier going to Iraq and leaving his girlfriend behind, I thought, uh oh, it’s either a PTSD story or a she-done-me-wrong story. It couldn’t be a she-did-me-right story because, well, those aren’t found in literary fiction – happy stories do not exist. But neither do cliched stories, at least not in BASS, so I shouldn’t have worried.

And there is some PTSD and some relationship stuff, and it’s important, because it feeds into the main story about the main character, Georgie, and his girlfriend’s five year old daughter, Esther. It gets into how pretend-just-to-make-us-feel-better turns into complicated lies, and how that has consequences. It’s about how obscene war is, how obscene Iraq was, how obscene the mall is, how obscene Hannah Montana is (I don’t actually know which $500 a pop celeb Mindy is based on, the muppets? Do they cost $500?), how obscene the news media is. It gets almost funny towards the end – it would be actually funny if it weren’t for the fact that this is all about Georgie who really wasn’t out to hurt anyone, let alone this little girl, and just like the little girl in Iraq, he did hurt her. By the end of the story I admired it, though it took a while to get there.

Best line: the reporters demanding how this could have happened – “there were so many things they could never understand about how, so many explanations they’d never bother to demand. How could it not have happened?” I wanted to stand up and cheer. The reporters are part of how it happened, and why aren’t they demanding to know how Iraq happened, or how a $500-a-ticket show for children happened, or how manicures for 3-year-olds happened, or how any of it happened?

As a writer, I need to adjust my thinking about in media res, because I think I’m misinterpreting it. The heart of this story starts when Georgie returns, but the situation with Lanae when he left – how she told him she wasn’t waiting for him, and he knew she wouldn’t – is of course crucial, as it sets up the oddness of his relationship with Esther. The incident in Iraq with the girl in the house is crucial. And his early discharge is crucial. I’ve been interpreting structure as using flashbacks for these things, but I think maybe I need to look at starting stories earlier. This one skips over a year in a few pages.

One final note of irony – I was poking around looking for comments about this story, and came across the author’s website. She has a note there, explaining that she isn’t the Danielle Evans who won America’s Next Top Model, “if you got here by accident”. To be fair, she also explains she isn’t the martial arts champion or the, um, something else accomplished by another Danielle Evans. I wonder if the ANTM winner has to put a note on her website that she is not the author (since at 26 Ms. Evans has accomplished quite a bit more than winning a modelling reality show). And then I want to go back to obscenities above, because, well, of course not.