Object Lessons: The Art of the Short Story
Edited by The Paris Review (2012)
Unevenness is an inevitable characteristic of short story anthologies, not because the quality of story varies across the collection, but rather because among such variety there’s bound to be certain styles that please one’s individual taste more or less than others. It’s not something you can really hold against the anthology, however, because it’s simply part of its nature. If you don’t like the variety, you should read something different.
You can blame this particular anthology, however, for not fulfilling its mission of being “useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique,” which happens here occasionally with the introductions that are included ostensibly to help you. Some of them achieve the goal of clarity, with Alarcon on Joy Williams, Beattie on Craig Nova, Davis on Jane Bowles, and Williams on Dallas Wiebe being some specific examples of illumination. Others are maddeningly vague and amorphous; even after reading them I felt unclear of the story’s point. As the probable nadir of these introductions, Wells Towers’s intro to “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” is not only useless but outrageously pretentious, as if he were trying to show up every other presenter (and failing miserably).
Largely though, the intros are helpful in pointing out what to look for in appreciating each short story, something I was greatly looking forward to in starting this collection because the short story form, like poetry, is something I’ve never really felt I “got.” It’s most likely related to my love of the novel, and the fact that short stories are exponentially compacted and therefore require a corresponding augmentation in one’s attention to detail. My habit of zipping through a page-turning novel doesn’t transfer well here, where instead focus and contemplation are more rewarding. I appreciated that most of these intros provided certain tips on how best I could channel my attention.
Strangely, I may have appreciated even more the intros to the stories I didn’t like. Whereas before I would have felt defective for not understanding an acclaimed story, the intros helped me see that I merely do not value the goals of those particular stories, particularly those that are almost wholly experiments in form. As a novel-lover, I value story above all else, followed by character. As a rule, form and style are interesting to me only insofar as they complement one of the former aspects. In certain books and stories, however, the author is concerned primarily with investigating the boundaries and possibilities of form, a focus which bores me in very short order.
Here, stories like Leonard Michaels’s “City Boy,” Glynn’s “Except for the Sickness,” Barthelme’s “Several Garlic Tales,” and Davenport’s “Dinner at the Bank of England” fell into this category. Borges often devolves into this exercise as well, though he does it better than almost anyone else. But now, thanks to this book, I’m okay with not liking them. I don’t feel like a failure. I can simply recognize that they’re not my bag.
Most of the other stories were in my “Pretty Great” category of stuff I enjoyed but that didn’t blow me away: Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets” was a satisfying depiction of childhood nostalgia; Carver’s “Why Don’t We Dance?”, like most Carver, is a hauntingly sad look at the opacity of human interaction; Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm” is a multi-layered absurdist romp and the similarly distinct structures of both Davis’s “Ten Stories from Flaubert” and Connell’s “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” enhance the effects of their poignant observations. Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler” scratched my recent Graham Greene itch with its vivid depiction of a seedy foreign land. Jane Bowles provides a good mix of her husband and J.D. Salinger with her gripping diary of a deteriorating psyche. Rush’s “Lying Presences” is one of my favorites, a fascinating character study of two estranged (er. . . alienated?) brothers.
The next notable group are those select authors whose works I will actively seek out after this sampling. I’m sheepish to reveal that they’re all men, but I don’t know how much I can consciously alter which works impact me most. The first is James Salter, whose “Bangkok” is, as Dave Eggers notes in his excellent introduction, “a nine-page master class in dialogue.” Rarely have I become so well acquainted with two characters over such a short space and with only their spoken words to know them by. It’s downright voyeuristic. The next is Denis Johnson, who a friend highly recommended to me. His “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” reads like a bad mushroom trip, one with delusions of grandeur and a crushing, heartbreaking sense of nihilism. In painting form it would be Munch’s “The Scream.”
But my favorite of the whole collection was Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief.” I can’t even really explain why. Maybe it’s the classic, unadorned narration or the fascinating sociopathy of the main subject. A lot of it has to do with the heartbreaking and all-too-familiar cowardice of the narrator himself. Maybe it’s just the length, which makes it more a novella and consequently more in my wheelhouse. Canin presents the whole thing as almost a mystery while everything told seems absolutely inevitable. It’s a terrific mix and the most satisfying of the bunch for me.
All in all it’s a good collection, perhaps not as helpful as I had hoped in terms of understanding the art form, but enjoyable and rarely boring. The strangest part is that while I consider myself very well-read, I only recognized four of the authors’ names (six including the presenters). I think it’s mostly because I’m largely out of touch with contemporary literature, and even moreso with contemporary short stories. In that sense the collection is disheartening, as it reveals a whole world of fantastic authors of which I’ve hitherto been unaware. It’s one of those (sigh) humbling moments when I realize I haven’t traversed nearly as much terrain as I had thought.