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Nonetheless, opportunities such as thisintroduction encourage implausible pronouncements and sweeping generalizations, and though I am not easily encouraged, I am surely immune from nothing - a lesson learned from literature.
There is no thoroughly convincing theory of the short story - it is technically a genre, not a form, but resists the definitions that usually cluster around both. There is the defining length (an unedifying fifty-page range), there is the short story's lonely voice from a submerged population (Frank O'Connor's famous hypothesis), and there are various "slice of life" ideas and notions of literary apprenticeship (stories are what writers do on their way to a novel).
All of these convey what happens sometimes - what happens a lot - but in lieu of a truly winning overriding theory, we should rely perhaps on simple descriptions, in which case the more the merrier. Let me throw some into the pot. Many that I've heard - and used myself - are fashioned as metaphors comparing shorter and longer narratives, attempting to define the one through its relationship to the other. A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage.
A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film. A short story is a weekend guest; a novel is a long-term boarder. A story is a brick; a novel is a brick wall. And my favorite, the asymmetrical a short story is a flower; a novel is a job.
From its own tradition, the novel arrives to reader and writer alike, baggy, ad hoc, bitter with ambition, already half ruined. The short story arrives, modest, prim, and purposeful, aiming for perfection, though the lengthier it is, the more novel-like, the more it puts all that at risk, acquiring instead, in a compelling trade, the greater, sustained attention of the reader, upon whom a more lasting impression will be made, if all goes well. (This year's anthology, I think, tends to favor the longer short story.)
Yet a story's very shortness ensures its largeness of accomplishment, its selfhood and purity. Having long lost its ability to pay an author's rent (in that golden blip between Henry James and television, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for one, wrote stories to fund his novels), the short story has been freed of its commercial life to become serious art, by its virtually every practitioner. As a result, short or long, a story lies less. It sings and informs and blurts. It has nothing to lose.
In adding my own heedless descriptions to the stew, I have often liked to think that short stories have something in common with songs - not just the digested-in-a-single-sitting aspect of them, but their distillation of emotion and circumstance, their interest in beautiful pain. Like songs, there is often more urgency to them, less forewarning and professional calculation in their creation. Similarly, like songs, they are often about some kind of love gone bad - love for an overcoat, a tenor, a babysitter, to name three famous ones (by Gogol, Joyce, and Cheever) - or, at random from this book, love for a ranch, a waitress, a goat, a daughter (Proulx, Boyle, Munro, Lewis). These love objects represent lives and possibilities, spiritual entrances and exits, which are at one time within reach of a person but, as the story tells us, due to interesting, musical, and sorrowful particularities, soon pass by and away and without - like a long, empty train at a crossing.
For now, for my purposes here, this may have to do for a coarse, working hypothesis of the short story.
If literature exists, as one wag has it, so that readers can spend time with people they would never want to in real life, then a short story might be considered doubly, deeply literary in that even its author - not just its reader - has decided to spend an abbreviated amount of time with its inhabitants (the characters a writer commits a lot of time to end up in novels).
Perhaps this limitation accounts for the prevailing sadness of short stories. Authors of short stories are interested in the difficult emotions of their protagonists only up to a point. They are more interested in constructing a quick palimpsest of wounds and tones and triggering events. After that, the authors depart, exactly where the reader must depart: pre-noose. That is part of a story's melancholy and civility. Leave the bustling communities, cathartic weddings, and firing squads for novels.
As for their oft stated affinity with poetry, short stories do have in common with poems an interest in how language completes one's understanding of the world, although the way language is used by ordinary people (registered within a story as the voices of its characters) can also disguise and obscure that understanding, a psychological and dramatic element a story usually takes more interest in than a poem. I would say that all the stories included herein are interested in how people talk. They are interested in the value, beauty, and malarkey of words that people utter to themselves or others. That is how human life is best captured on the page: through its sound. The stories here are interested, too, in the settings that shape this sound - landscapes are given vivid paint and life. Finally, stories generally, and certainly the ones here, are interested in some cultural truth delivered and given amnesty through the paradoxical project of narrative invention and the mechanisms of imagination. Unlike novels or poems, but more akin to a play, the short story is also an end-oriented form, and in the best ones the endings shine a light back upon the story illumining its meaning with both surprise and inevitability. If a story is not always, therapeutically, an axe for the frozen sea within us, then it is at least a pair of brutally sharpened ice skates.
As for this year's story selection itself, correctly or not, I didn't view the process as a contest - why pit an apple against an orange - but as the assembling of a book, and the great variety of first-rate reading that is in it, I think, speaks to the health of the North American short story. (Eat your fruit!) Much has been made in this series about the editorial custom of "reading blind" - an honorable phrase suggestive of a fluency in Braille - and I did, late in the process, gruesomely burst a blood vessel in my eye, which made it difficult sometimes to see. But I must confess: I had read some of these stories before they came to me with their authors' names blackened out. I did so simply because I was not going to forego my usual habit of reading short stories as they appeared throughout the year in various magazines. This did not affect my opinions one way or the other, however, nor - I swear - did holding those babies up to the window light to see if I could make out any of those blacked-out names. Friends? Relatives? Could I pretend that brazen copyediting had caused me to fail to recognize one of my own stories and accidentally-on-purpose choose it? With all too many stories to pick from, in the end, as editorial criteria, I was left with only my own visceral responses to the stories themselves: Was I riveted? Did a story haunt me for days? Or did one nail drive out the other, as I ultimately read them in that most ungenerous but revealing of ways: from piles. Before reading all of them, as I received them in large packets in the mail (from Katrina Kenison, whose lovely name, in a spell of midwinter doldrums, I began to covet), I imagined my "editorial criteria" might be a simple matter of suicide prevention - which stories, for instance, did not send my own hands flying to my throat - though somewhat unexpectedly the reading became a joyous activity I felt disappointed to conclude (in the end, coveting Katrina Kenison's job, as well).
The stories collected here impressed me with their depth of knowledge and feeling of character, setting, and situation - or at least with their convincingly fabricated semblance thereof. They spoke with amused intelligence, compassion, and dispassion, and I trusted their imaginative sources, which seemed not casual but from the deep center of a witnessing life and a thoughtful mind. True eloquence, said Daniel Webster, a little theatrically, cannot be brought from afar but must exist in the person, the subject, the occasion. "If it comes at all it comes like the outbreaking of a fountain from the earth or the bursting of volcanic fires with spontaneous, original, native force, the clear conception outrunning the deductions of logic." Outrunning the deductions of logic is what literature does and why we read it. And a story - with its narrative version of a short man's complex - aims for quick eloquence and authority in voice and theme. But emotional heart and dramatic unpredictability are part of why it is the preferred form of fiction writers learning their art and why it has taken over much of our literary education - the Napoleon of the narrative world. A story's economy, its being one writer's intimate response to a world (as opposed to a novelist's long creation of a world), a response that must immerse a reader vividly and immediately, allows a gathering of twenty such responses in an anthology such as this and offers a kind of group portrait of how humanity is currently faring. Is that not, too, why we read short stories? To see in ways that television and newspapers cannot show us what others are up to - those who are ostensibly like us, as well as those ostensibly not? The stories here, I felt, did that.
In the end, I noticed an assortment of perhaps not accidental things, such as the number of stories set in the distant past which failed to win me over entirely (is the short story sometimes too abbreviated a space to close that distance authentically and make the long ago seem real?). On the other hand, I noticed that a number of stories I'd chosen were written from the point of view of the opposite sex of the author (those by Fox, Smith, Proulx, Eisenberg, Waters). (Is the short story especially hospitable to this kind of transgendered sympathy and ventriloquism?)
Mostly, however, I was intrigued by the very different stories I'd chosen that had certain random themes in common - or I assume random. One would be reluctant, even foolish, to offer these things up as indicative of something that in a widespread way is on the American mind. Nonetheless, two stories - Nell Freudenberger's "The Tutor" and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's "Accomplice" - focus on a girl's academic ambitions and the awkward relationship those ambitions have to each girl's devoted father. "'A toast,' said Julia's father," writes Freudenberger in a moment charged with love and irony. "'To my daughter the genius.'" And in Bynum's "Accomplice": There she saw her father, leaning forward very slightly, and holding onto the pew in front of him. He was smiling at her. Hugely. She lost her bearings entirely."
Two urban romances - "Grace" by Paula Fox and "Tooth and Claw," T. C. Boyle's loose update of "The Lady or the Tiger?" - use animals as MacGuffins, emblems, touchstones, and substitutes for human emotion, character, and appetite, as does Alice Munro's "Runaway." Here is Munro's quite useful description of a goat: "At first she had been Clark's pet entirely, following him everywhere, dancing for his attention. She was as quick and graceful and provocative as a kitten, and her resemblance to a guileless girl in love had made them both laugh. But as she grew older she seemed to attach herself to Carla, and in this attachment she was suddenly much wiser, less skittish - she seemed capable, instead, of a subdued and ironic sort of humor." And here is Boyle's wild African serval locked in a bedroom: "The carpeting - every last strip of it - had been torn out of the floor, leaving an expanse of dirty plywood studded with nails, and there seemed to be a hole in the plasterboard just to the left of the window. A substantial hole. Even through the closed door I could smell the reek of cat piss or spray or whatever it was. 'There goes my deposit,' I said."
Two stories - by the poet R. T. Smith and by Mary Yukari Waters - compassionately satirize the custodial culture that can spring up decades later in a war-vanquished land. Waters's "Mirror Studies" begins: "The Kashigawa district, two hours from the Endos' home in Tokyo, was an isolated farming community with two claims to distinction: indigenous harrier monkeys up in the hills, and a new restaurant - Fireside Rations - that served 'rice' made from locally grown yams. This restaurant had been featured in an Asahi Shimbun article about the trendy resurgence of wartime food, also known as nostalgia cuisine ... City dwellers, jaded by French and Madeiran cuisine, were flocking out on weekends to try it." In Smith's dramatic monologue, "Docent," a romantically jilted tour guide, done up with Confederate absurdity in a hoop skirt and hairnet, warns, "If you have a morbid curiosity about the Fall of the South - which is not the same as a healthy historical interest - please save your comments for your own diaries and private conversations."
Edward Jones's "A Rich Man" and Thomas McGuane's "Gallatin Canyon" pull no punches in their sharply written tales of masculine vanity's bravado and backfirings. In "A Rich Man," Horace, set up for a fall, sees himself as "the cock of the walk." When, in "Gallatin Canyon," the protagonist, proud of his recent material success, asks his girlfriend what she thinks of the new prosperity around them, she says, presciently, "I'm not sure it's such a good thing, living in a boomtown. It's basically a high-end carny atmosphere." Which is what, in a way, ensues in both stories.
Excerpted from The Best American Short Stories 2004 Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin . Excerpted by permission.
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|What you pawn I will redeem||1|
|Tooth and claw||22|
|Written in stone||44|
|Some other, better Otto||143|
|A rich man||232|
|All Saints Day||336|
|What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?||355|
|The walk with Elizanne||386|
|What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence||412|