Short stories are like unwanted orphans. Some lucky ones are published in major periodicals or an author’s collection or win a prize. But even great short stories can appear in a literary review and remain largely unread except by a devout following of readers. They languish in the background waiting to be noticed. Thankfully the Best American Short Stories anthology helps to highlight some stellar examples of story telling every year. This year’s anthology holds particularly impressive examples with stories that differ wildly in form and subject matter as well as spanning many different time periods and locations. The narrator of one story is former female soldier suffering from post traumatic stress while another narrator has kidnapped her stepson and yet another narrator is a closeted macho fraternity brother. There is a story set in 1370 and a story set on Antarctica and a story with sprawling multiple endings. It’s particularly touching that this anthology includes a beautiful, unusual story about a marriage disrupted (or perhaps not) from an affair by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who died in April of 2013. Every other author has written what might be called “added bonus material” for the end of this anthology where each of them discusses their inspiration for writing her/his story.
Virtually all the writers included are well established and have published multiple books. So these stories are like fantastic tasters from authors such as Stephen O’Connor, Lauren Groff and Karen Russell whom I haven’t read before and I’m now eager to read much more of their work. O’Connor’s ‘Next to Nothing’ is an episodic story about the lives of two unusual sisters who maintain perspectives so alarming that it’s an utterly enthralling read: “Isabel and Ivy’s natural tendency is to see human society as a pointlessly complex mechanical device of no use to anybody, and most likely broken.” The story’s ending is so shocking I was completely gripped. Groff’s ‘At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners’ manages to compress a man’s entire life into seventeen pages. It emblematizes a particular kind of solitude: “He thought of himself as an island in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of seeing another island in the distance, or even a ship passing by.” The summation of his life is handled so delicately and is told with such exquisitely precise language I found it incredibly moving. Karen Russell’s ‘Madame Bovary’s Greyhound’ focuses on the life and trial’s of Emma’s pet dog. It gives a different slant to the meaning of passion for one of literature’s most famous characters: “Love had returned, and it went spoiling through them with no outlet.” For a canine character that could be taken so whimsically, this story makes powerful statements about love, loyalty and independence.
Then there are authors whose books I have read like Joshua Ferris, Peter Cameron and Joyce Carol Oates that show in these stories skills and an engagement with subjects which feel surprisingly fresh and demonstrate what dynamic writers they are. Ferris’ story ‘The Breeze’ considers the possibilities of how a couple might spend their NYC evening and the way thwarted intentions impacts their feelings for each other. This is an ingeniously constructed story and all the more impressive when you read at the book’s end that Ferris wrote the story entirely on his phone! The narrator of Peter Cameron’s story ‘After the Flood’ sees an older Christian couple cajoled into taking an impoverished family into their home. The story eloquently explores issues of self-denial, the deleterious effects of grief on a relationship, economic disparity and ethical complications. The narrator is one of those tough-to-like characters who has learned through adversity to keep an arm’s length from being emotionally present in life. She notes how “my presence – or if not presence, for I rarely feel present anywhere these days, my existence” as if the experience of being fully present is too painful. This story artfully demonstrates how memories can haunt an individual through finding parallels in the present. Where the couple in this story attempts to shore themselves up against death through a life of habit and stasis, the couple in Joyce Carol Oates’ story ‘Mastiff’ are more cavalier in embracing adventure when they are unexpectedly confronted by an agent of death in the form of a rabid dog during a hike. This chilling story is a reminder of the inevitability of death no matter the hard-won love and tender companionship two people may find together. The dog is like an anamorphic symbol hanging in the foreground of this skilfully written narrative like the skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors.
There are plenty of other striking stories in this anthology including Charles Baxter’s story ‘Charity’ which is a sensitive, heart-breaking tale that makes the reader reconsider individuals many could easily vilify or dismiss. T.C. Boyle’s ‘The Night of the Satellite’ shows the way others’ emotions and lives affect us and our own relationships. The protagonist of Nicole Cullen’s ‘Long tom Lookout’ tries to retreat from the world by stealing her estranged husband’s step child and living in a national forest’s fire look-out station with devastating consequences. Craig Davidson’s writing frequently portrays the cunning way damaged individuals can survive despite adversity and his story ‘Medium Tough’ sees him ingeniously reconfigure this theme in his tale of a surgeon born with a defect which causes his body to be disproportionate. This is an example of this story’s mesmerising, determined voice: “I wanted to tell him: Life is all technique. The world is full of us, Aaron. The mildly broken, the factory recalls and misfit toys. And we must work a lot harder. Out-hustle, out-think… out-technique.” In Brendan Mathews’ ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ he touchingly describes a how people idealistically strive for artistic expression before they so frequently become bogged down by life’s responsibilities. Laura Van Den Berg story ‘Antarctica’ is a sustained meditation on grief and what we choose not to know.
Of course, there are some stories which didn’t chime so well with me. David Gates’ ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ seemed to me to contain a lot of superfluous detail when short stories ought to be more streamlined. The central metaphor of Nell Freudenberger’s ‘Hover’ about a mother who imagines she can levitate didn’t quite hit the mark for me although the story touchingly describes the psychological discomfort a child experiences in the face of his parents’ separation. Will Mackin gives an interesting take on the frontlines of battle in Afghanistan with some striking descriptions, but the narrative voice in ‘Kattekoppen’ felt to me to be too scattered. As always with the experience of reading, maybe it was just my mood at the time of reading them or maybe the style doesn’t jell with my sensibility. Whatever the reason, these few haven't left as lasting an impression as many of the others.
It’s been an absolute pleasure taking my time reading through the stories in this anthology. I made a daily habit of reading a single story every morning and felt the effect of each distinctive voice hover in the back of my mind throughout the rest of the day. Series editor Heidi Pitlor gives an impassioned and inspiring statement about what a lively presence the short story maintains in the minds of readers and in the marketplace. While Jennifer Egan acknowledges in her well-reasoned introduction that no such anthology can be truly authoritative despite the 120 stories she considered in total. But nevertheless the “excellent” mission of such a book respectably stands as a celebration of the short story and she gives intelligent reasons for the inclusion of each one she selected. More crucially, she hopes the stories will initiate a conversation. Having read all of these diverse and entertaining stories I now eagerly want to discuss all of them.