Review by Kristin Livdahl
In The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus brings together 29 stories published over the last sixteen years covering a whole spectrum of different styles. Marcus's own fiction forays into the experimental, see his books, Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, so it comes as no surprise that this collection leans heavily to the experimental. By experimental, I mean that most of these stories play with language, style and structure, or blend genre, both genre in the sense of fiction subgenres such as science fiction and horror and the larger genres dividing creative writing such as prose and poetry. Experimental writing is often characterized as challenging for the reader. Familiarity with a type of writing does makes reading it easier. Certainly some of these pieces require more effort from the reader and maybe even require a larger initial suspension of belief. What isn't required, though, is the sacrifice of story as, for the most part, these stories do resonate and stay with the reader long after the initial reading. While the majority of works are experimental in some way, there is plenty of straightforward narrative, both realistic and nonrealistic. The first two stories of the anthology are among the strongest and both have easy to follow, linear plots.
In "Sea Oak," George Saunders presents us with an extended family shaken by the death of their aunt and even more shaken when she returns from the dead. The family is right off the set of a Jerry Springer show complete with an apartment in the projects, young, single mother sisters, and a brother who works at a kind of Hooters for the female set. The story is tender look at the family, whose members are caring and who retain a kind of innocence, despite their circumstances.
Newcomer Wells Tower pairs a Viking saga with contemporary language in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." This is a raiding tale with the twist of the cast of characters being made up of the guys who hang out down at your neighborhood bar. Modern slang fits well with the story, which shouldn't be a surprise as the pillaging involved isn't any more violent than that seen on an average episode of The Shield or The Sopranos.
Many of the stories focus on the relationship between parents and children. "The Old Dictionary," by Lydia Davis, reads like a short essay comparing the narrator's treatment of a fragile, old dictionary she uses for her writing and her treatment of her son, but really is poignant meditation on parenting and the difficulty of knowing and acknowledging needs of a child. Four of the stories focus on the complicated relationship between fathers and daughters. Aimee Bender's "Girl in the Flammable Skirt," carries her own quirky brand of fabulism with the father slowly goes to pieces while the daughter is required to shoulder more and more responsibility. Christine Schutt's edgy and tough "You Drive" about a developing incestuous relationship is written in hard emotional slivers. Gary Lutz's "People Shouldn't Have to be the Ones to Tell You," tells of a man who brings his adult daughters together and begins to fade away. The highlight of the story is his beautiful play with language.
"At the Laundromat, he had chosen the dryer with a spent fabric-softener sheet teased behind inside it. He brought the sheet home afterward to wonder whether it was more a mysticism of a tissue than a denigration of one. It was sparser in its weave yet harder to tear apart, ready in his hand when unthrobbing things of his life could stand to be swabbed and cleaned."
This language use is also what could make reading difficult for some people. In an interview with Gadfly Online, Marcus said about Gary Lutz.
"It's dismaying to me that a writer like Gary Lutz, for instance, has too few readers. Sure, his sentences are sort of strenuous, but there are so many insights and disturbances in them that what amounts to labor for some people is for me a form of pleasure. Here he is an artist of the sentence, yet readers can't stay with his work because it demands too much of them."
A number of the stories contain modern gothic elements. Mary Caponegro's "The Father's Blessing," is a fabulist tale of an eager priest with very bad boundaries. The 2001 O. Henry award winner, "The Paperhanger," by William Gay follows the disintegration of a family after the abduction of their child by a serial killer. There are also the 1998 O. Henry award winner, "The Two Brothers," a horror story about the two sons of an evangelical minister, by Brian Evenson, and "Gentlemen's Agreement," a gentler but no less chilling story about a disobedient young son of a firefighter by Mark Richard.
Writers Anthony Doerr with "The Caretaker," and Jhumpa Lahiri with "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" both bring stories of visitors to the United States dealing with the effects of war in their home countries. While neither story appears to stray from realism, the Doerr story borders on surreal as it follows a refugee from Africa and the disastrous results of his decision to move to the United States and work as a winter caretaker on an estate.
Some of the authors play with form, like Aleksandar Hemon's "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders" a fragmented biography of an imaginary pornographer and contemporary of Hitler written in single, disparate sentences, or Joe Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's," from his book of the same name, which is a series of short and strange notes from comment cards at the fast food restaurant. "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" by David Foster Wallace takes the form of short interviews with men on the subject of women.
The authors may be building on the traditions of the past and dealing with the same subjects as always but all of them are bringing a contemporary sensibility, both realistic or nonrealistic, to the stories. For lovers of short fiction, this anthology will assume a treasured spot on the bookshelf to be revisited periodically. It may even prove to be one of those works that inspires the next generation of writers.
23 October 2004
Ben Marcuss Site The editors homepage.
Gadfly Online Interview with Ben Marcus The 4/22/02 interview includes the comments about Gary Lutz quoted in the review.
AlterNet interview with Ben Marcus The 10/15/02 interview focuses on The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories.