I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.
Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.
I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.
Flings by Justin Taylor
I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.
Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.
I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.
I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:
"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'
To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.
Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.
Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.
Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer
If Justin Taylor's collection feels like a grab bag, Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine feels like a tunnel, and it takes only a few words before we realize how fully we have entered it. Here's the first paragraph of her first story, "Eye Socket Girls":
I don't want to jump out any window. I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living. They pump the air in here out of machines. It stinks like Play-Doh. Open a window, please -- I won't jump -- I'm not a suicide patient. I just don't eat.
This eye-socket girl is hospitalized for anorexia bulimia, and her crisp, efficient narrative leaves us with the chilling realization that she has no intention at all of allowing herself to be cured.
An odd and Poe-esque physical or sexual dread is a lurking note in many of Paula Bomer's carefully composed short stories, which tend to cohere to a single structural backbone: we meet a person whose inner thoughts drive her crazy, and we follow these thoughts towards their inevitable collisions.
Like a recurring bad dream, this pattern was also evident in Paula Bomer's first story collection Baby, in which the protagonist tended to be a financially comfortable New York City socialite in a very troubled marriage. Inside Madeleine mostly takes us back to the growing-up years, as if a prequel to Baby. The intensity of Bomer's steady voice remains; in simple words and sentences, devoid of pop-culture distractions or historical events or grand intentions, Paula Bomer takes us into a dark interior space and asks us to look around.
What demons, exactly, do we find? Every reader may project his or her own concerns into these Rorschach diagrams, but when I analyze these confused characters I see a looming self-hatred. In "Outsiders", a college student with plenty to be proud of can only fixate on the superficial and trivial flaws that alienate her from her peers. In "Cleveland Circle House", a psychology student gets a job in a halfway house packed with rowdy mentally ill drifters, and then begins battling her secret sense that she is one of them.
In "Reading to the Blind Girl", yet another college student is so overpowered by the domineering personalities that bluster around her that she ends up guiltily avoiding the blind girl she has been reading lessons to, banking on the fact that the blind girl cannot see her walk by. But this is a Paula Bomer story, which means that even this blind girl somehow seems to catch the guilty act.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
I'm not going to lie; I didn't enjoy a couple of the stories in Hilary Mantel's new volume at all.
There's a story called "Comma" about a kid who goes to grandma's and sees a lady whose baby has birth defects and is wrapped up like a comma:
Now the dark flowers on her frock had blown their petals and bled out into the night. She ran the few steps toward the wheeled chair, paused for a split second, her hand fluttering over the comma's head; then she flicked her head back to the house and bawled, her voice harsh, "Fetch a torch!" That harshness shocked me, from a throat I had thought would coo like a dove, like a pigeon; but then she turned again, and the last thing I saw before we ran was how she bent over the comma, and wrapped the shawl, so tender, about the lamenting skull.
I don't know. I guess this is the kind of writing that wins awards, but it comes across a bit plummy to me, and I certainly wouldn't want to read an entire book in this Joycean voice (okay, if the book is called Dubliners I would, but it's not my favorite kind of voice).
There are a few stories in this volume that I didn't think amounted to time well spent, but then there were a few that scored, like the opening piece "Sorry To Disturb". In this story, which appears to be autobiographical, the wife of a Canadian engineer who is stationed in Saudi Arabia tries to make friends with another foreigner, a Pakistani.
This dignified housewife's effort is not a success, and it's clear that Hilary Mantel is a writer who likes to see fault lines move, who likes the crash of cataclysmic change. I really loved the title story of this collection, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher", which offers an alternate reality in which the rigidly Conservative British Prime Minister is targeted by an assassin. We see it all close up, very close, though the occasion is entirely accidental.
Hilary Mantel's voice is cool and elegant here, and with this comic material her command of the art of fast fiction can be clearly seen. Even when her stories don't move me -- and about half of them don't -- I am impressed by the authority and intellectual confidence behind her literary voice.
In the same way, I'm impressed by Paula Bomer's control and consistency, and by Justin Taylor's puckish agility. Maybe this is still a golden age for short stories after all.