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Ben Marcus, edt: New American Stories [2015]

§ If you want to get power in the Lit scene, you can, a) have sex with a publisher, b) commit a heinous crime and write it up, or c) put together a big fat anthology of your peers (let them fight and kiss ass to join your club).

Got your attention? It’s called a ‘hook’ in the writing business, and writers who try the short story better have one as there isn’t much distance or time to make a move.

'...there isn't much distance or time to make a move' -- or so I thought before reading this interesting collection compiled and edited by Ben Marcus. If your idea of 'short' is something like a Raymond Carver story or an Alice Munro or something by one of the ancient masters like Chekhov or Maupassant... O'Flaherty or X, Y, and Z, you'll find that most of these new stories are proto-novels, episodic narratives stretched across Time rather than compressed to an axiomatic situation that contains -- as the photographer Robert Frank called it -- "the decisive moment".

Ben Marcus: New American Stories

No matter. The writing is good here, and there's not a real stinker by any of the 32 authors represented. Most write social realism -- everyday detail, vernacular voice, reportage rather than poetics -- and as such a number of the stories capture the uneasy mood of American culture beset by long wars, crazy economics and multi-cultural fractionalism.

In the George Saunders story Home, a young vet returns from an unspecified middle east war to find his wife and kids shacked up with an old schoolmate in middle class splendor [two Saabs & an El Dorado in the driveway] while his profane, ailing mother is being evicted from her rental house with her useless layabout partner. The schizoid gap between the trailer park class and the suburban consumer class is only closed by their common incomprehension of what the imperial American dream is all about. The cruel combat world of 'Al Raz' is surpassed by the messy dysfunctional world the vet finds when he returns "home", a cruel reward for his service [the story could've been called "We Thank You For Your Service", the platitude all who meet the protag mouth].

The POV is very good, an impressionism that catches the poetry of illiteracy. A "New Age fist up my ass" indeed.

Why did I get the feeling that Jesse Bell inhaled deeply and got into some Edward Gorey before he wrote his unsettling ethereal story The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr? No social realism here but rather a dreamy Kafkaesque narrative wherein some horseplay leads to a tragic and treacherous finale. Despite its well-mapped stylistic antecedents, this one stands apart from most of the other stories in the anthology. The period imagery, the sense of symbolic possibility, the reversals, the tight dramatics and the dreamy patina all combine to make the action unpredictable even though it's entirely predictable. And while the determinism is relentless, Fate is at least a painterly adversary.

Who else? Lydia Davis, a flash story in no more than a hundred words... called Men, with no plot, no characterization, just a poetic rumination that could be a caption for an expressionist calendar illustration or the Marlboro Man... Donald Antrim's Another Manhattan, 3rd person bourgeois stuff, fluid, professional, even if it all seems -- technically, psychologically -- a bit deja vu. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson isn't bad, gives credence to the notion that it doesn't matter where you end as long as you remain interesting [and the portrait of Tony Fido the religious painter who thinks he's better than Edward Hopper is pretty interesting, as is the guy who propositions the narrator in a public toilet during a bout of diarrhea][oblique self-criticism?].

You could swing an axe, I suppose, as there are so many pieces in here that there has to be something you don't like. Don DeLillo has a chunk, and you think, well, his books come wrapped in cellophane, don't they? What would an assembly line hacker like him know about writing a short story? Sorry to report that Hammer & Sickle is very good. Fast, real, metaphorically potent... and what's more, deals with a subject most creative writers know very little about: economics. At times the frag dialogue explodes as shrapnel, as free verse, as newscast hypnosis. And all this authentic exposition puts us right inside today's global America despite the fact that the setting is restricted to one of those country club prisons that house eminent fraudsters, art lovers and fallen publishers (like, say, Conrad Black).

You might wonder why Zadie Smith (England) makes the list, or Rebecca Lee (Canada or somewhere), or Yiyun Li (China), or NoViolet Bulawayo (Africa); all good stuff to be sure, yet is this an opportunistic anschluss of the English-speaking world or what? Perhaps they all teach c.w. in the US. Their inclusion is generous because how many Americans would make it into a similar anthology of, say, British writing? And while Hispanics make up 17% of the US population, I don't see anything that reflects their writing. Just a thought, not a condemnation.

© LR 2015

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