Reading, short and spicy

Short stories have always been the stepchildren of the fiction family. Why is that? To me, the short story is the perfect form of reading for today’s digital, short-attention-span culture. So it should get more respect.

But that’s not the best reason to appreciate short stories. A good short story is gripping and insightful about a character, a place or a moment in time. A short story collection is perfect for commuter reading, before-you-go-to-sleep reading, or lazy Sunday afternoon reading.

Now the digital age may be changing the short story’s relationship to the fiction family. A recent issue of The New York Times Book Review (March 24, 2013) was devoted to “Fresh Voices.” Of the eight fiction works discussed, four were short-story collections. And a February article in the Times pointed out that short fiction is a “good fit for today’s little screens.”

My book group gave up on Henry James’ The Ambassadors (400 pages on my Kindle). We revolted en masse about finishing it. But most of us finished and enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (~650 pages). So I don’t think that means we are 21st century Philistines. The Mantel book is fascinating, if dense, historical fiction; with a lot of events transpiring and a lot of people named Thomas. The Ambassadors, on the other hand, is a drawing room drama that languishes.

However, among the last few books we’ve read and liked are several in the short fiction genre. I’m going to talk about those and a few of my other favorite short story writers. None of these authors are really traditional fiction writers. But I recommend any or all of them if you want to dip into contemporary short fiction.

tenthofdecGeorge Saunders’ Tenth of December (2013). Saunders has been getting movie-star publicity lately. The release of this book earlier this year was treated like the arrival of the latest Batman movie. His stories are rooted in pop culture, technology and current affairs and written in various styles. One story is in the form of a corporate memo involving personal confession; another is a series of shorthand diary entries by a man who tries to bring his family’s life up to the level of affluent neighbors. In fact, most of the stories are about downwardly mobile people trying to survive. Class and status distinctions abound. Most of the stories are sad, some are jarringly violent; and most have ambiguous endings. Here’s a link to a half-hour Saunders interview, where Saunders talks about his writing. I liked his description of how he edits until he gets “jangly sentences.”

Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her (2012). Diaz also has celebrity status as a writer; he’s a 2012 MacArthur Fellow and his 2008 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His new book is a series of loosely linked stories about love and trying to make it work, involving the immigrant experiences of Dominican-Americans. His writing is a blend of Spanglish and streetwise slang and becomes more formal in the stories about his older characters. The stories have a strong autobiographical feel, although Diaz does not describe them that way. My favorite is “Invierno,” the story of a Dominican family’s arrival in their new New Jersey home in the middle of a snowstorm. The two brothers Rafa and Yunior yearn to be outside and play with the gringo kids, but their father does his best to keep them inside.

goodsquadJennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010). This book of short fiction is a series of interlocking stories that stand alone or read novelistically. The leading characters are Bennie, a former punk rocker turned record executive, and Sasha, the young woman he employs, who goes through several incarnations and ends up living with husband and two children in the California desert. One story, by the way, is a PowerPoint presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” by Sasha’s daughter. The stories play out over a period of 50 years or more, with characters evolving and linking back and forth. The last story ends in a mass musical event on the site known as the Footprint, where the World Trade Centers once stood. This is a really creative work of short fiction.

Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago (1990), I Sailed With Magellan (2003), and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980). Dybek is my favorite short story writer and one of my favorite writers. The Coast of Chicago was the 2004 selection for One Book, One Chicago. His writing, his characters, his geography are so quintessentially Chicago that his books would make me homesick if I didn’t live here. He also has two wonderful books of Chicago poems: Streets in Their Own Ink (2004) and Brass Knuckles (1979). I’m going to devote a whole essay to Dybek in the near future, so I will save my commentary for that.

greasylakeT. Coraghessan Boyle’s Greasy Lake & Other Stories (1985), and Wild Child and Other Stories (2010). T.C. Boyle is a witty and imaginative writer. His stories are rarely realistic but always fascinating. I guess I should confess that I picked up Greasy Lake in a bookstore because of the title — it’s the name of a fictional place in a Bruce Springsteen song, “Spirit in the Night,” from his first album Greetings from Asbury Park (1972). Boyle’s characters include an Elvis impersonator, a presidential staffer who facilitates Ike’s steamy affair with Nina Khrushchev (I said this was fiction, didn’t I?), and a blues musician who may be Robert Johnson. And that’s just in Greasy Lake & Other Stories. Wild Child includes many stories published in literary magazines and “Best of” compilations. His writing is colorful and often poetic. Boyle’s stories are so delicious that looking them over for this post made me want to read them all over again.

Here’s a random sample of Boyle’s prose: “Robert’s dream is thick with the thighs of women, the liquid image of songs sung and songs to come, bright wire wheels and sloping fenders, swamps, trees, power lines, and the road, the road spinning out like string from a spool, like veins, blood and heart, distance without end, without horizon.”

The Best in Rock Fiction (2005), edited by June Skinner Sawyers, introduction by Anthony DeCurtis. This is a book of short stories and excerpts from longer works by writers who have a rock and roll sensibility, as Sawyers says in her preface. “I want to capture the way rock sounds on the page, its unpredictability, the possibility that anything could happen,” she says. Some of the writers whose work is included are Nick Hornby, Don DeLillo, T.C. Boyle, Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem. Some of my favorites from this book are “White Noise” by DeLillo, an excerpt from “Eddie and the Cruisers” by P.F. Kluge, and an excerpt from Hornby’s book High Fidelity. “The Girl Who Sang With the Beatles” by Robert Hemenway is a wistful 1960s story about Cynthia, who is mesmerized by the Beatles’ music, and her husband, Larry, who prefers foreign movies and chamber music. For a while, they each listen to their own music on separate stereo headphones but at the end, Larry enters into her Beatles world.

I should acknowledge that June is a Chicago writer and a personal friend. See more about her work here

Finally, here are some comments about short stories by an English journalist in Metro, a London version of Chicago’s Red Eye. The news peg is that the Costa Awards decided to add the short story to its traditional literary prize genres.

“The commercial reality is that short stories simply don’t shift as well as novels. People can argue – as many do – that the espresso-style adrenalin shot the genre offers is perfectly suited to today’s on-the-move culture and that new digital technology can support the form in the way traditional magazines used to. But the evidence remains that you are more likely to buy the new, unevenly reviewed JK Rowling for a friend for Christmas than Junot Díaz’s new, excellently received collection of short stories.”

Do you agree? Join me in becoming a short story fan.