This, we’re told, is the moment of the short story. Critics, desperate for encouraging news in discouraging times, have declared the short story the perfect form for our attention-addled souls. Why read a novel, which requires hours away from Twitter and Tumblr, when you can read a short story in a single sitting? Why read a lyric poem, which asks you to read slowly and listen intently if you are to uncover its riches, when the short story can give you the same thrills at a much cheaper temporal cost? Universally acclaimed (and relatively strong-selling) collections by Alice Munro, Junot Díaz, and George Saunders have all been published in the last six months, and they all seem to say the same thing: If contemporary fiction is to get up off the mat, it will be as much through the blockbuster collection as through the blockbuster novel.
Much of this critical narrative is suspect. After all, art doesn’t have to reflect the kinds of attention cultivated by modern technology; it can also challenge them. I’d argue that the defining modern experience of art isn’t reading a short story but rather watching an entire television series in a marathon session. You start watching The Wire and can’t tear yourself away; Twitter tumbles away and all you care about is Baltimore crime, Baltimore politics, Baltimore newspapers. We seem to want extended experiences of art that are more immersive, not less.
But critics are right about one thing: 2012 and 2013 have been excellent years for the short story. Over the past month, I’ve read four new short-story collections. Taken as a whole, they show the incredible flexibility of the form—its ability to represent short, epiphanic experience and longer, more expansive narratives, to be played for straight laughs and to generate pathos. The short story isn’t especially well suited to the Age of Twitter because, in the end, “the short story” isn’t any one thing.
I Want to Show You More is Jamie Quatro’s first collection of stories, and it is an outstanding and occasionally baffling work. Most of the stories take place in the town of Lookout Mountain, where Quatro herself lives. The town borders Georgia and Tennessee—for the houses that lie in both, Quatro writes, “state of residence depends on the master bedroom”—and the stories are obsessed with the border lines between the sacred and the secular, the faithful and the faithless, the banal and the apocalyptic.
The collection’s opening story, “Caught Up,” is one of its most powerful. Told by an unnamed female narrator who returns throughout the books, the story begins with this memory:
The vision started coming when I was nine. It was always the same: I was alone, standing on the brick patio in front of our house, watching thick clouds above the mountains turn shades of red and purple, then draw themselves together and spiral. Whirlpool, hurricane, galaxy. The wind picked up, my hair whipped my face, and I felt—knew—that the world was on the cusp of cataclysm. Then came a tugging in my middle, as if I were a kite about to be yanked up by a string attached just below my navel. Takeoff was imminent; all I had to do was surrender—close my eyes, relax my limbs—and I would be catapulted, belly-first, into the vortex.
For the narrator’s mother, these visions are premonitions of the Rapture: she tells her daughter that “God speaks to his children in dreams” and that she “should always be ready for the Lord’s return.” But as the narrator gets older, the visions depart. Rapture gives way to realism—she marries, has kids, and leads an ordinary life.
But then, after seventeen years of faithful marriage, the narrator enters into a long-distance affair with another man, complete with phone sex and the exchange of explicit photos. When she considers meeting up with the man for the first time, her old visions return. Consummating the affair would be, it seems, its own kind of apocalypse.
The story ends up being about the visionary possibilities of erotic experience: if they were to meet up, the man tells the narrator, “It would be devotional.... I would lay myself on your tongue like a Communion wafer.” The narrator thinks about what happens when we accept these possibilities (“God is there, smiling down, and what he is saying, over and over, is Yes”) and what happens when we renounce them. The story concerns crucial decisions—whether or not to cheat—and our feelings of insufficiency when confronted with these decisions (notice the passive voice of the title). All this is done in just over three pages, in language that is both precise and lyrical, in a voice that uses religion to describe sex but doesn’t, somehow, reduce one to the other.
Not every story is as delicately written and dramatically imagined as “Caught Up.” Some, like “1.7 to Tennessee,” trade too easily in liberal pieties; others, in their surrealist allegories, read like Donald Barthelme–lite. But when Quatro is on—when, for example, she’s describing how a teenage track star feels “touched by the divine” in “Sinkhole”—she’s really on.
Unlike many contemporary writers, Quatro writes seriously and convincingly about sex; unlike almost all contemporary writers, she writes seriously and convincingly about God. In “Relatives of God,” the collection’s final story, the narrator (the same as the one in “Caught Up”) has phone sex with her long-distance lover and then, years later, after painfully ending the affair, marvels with her husband at the beauty of their children: “Look what we made, he said. We are relatives of God.” It’s a sign of Quatro’s skill that she is able to address both topics, the creaturely and the godly, with equal seriousness.
"SERIOUSNESS” IS NOT A WORD generally associated with Sam Lipsyte. The darkly comic writer attracted a cult following until finding popular success with his 2010 novel The Ask—the most incisive, funniest study of late capitalist/American/masculine desperation I’ve ever read.
The book followed the misadventures of Milo Burke, a critical-theory spouting, self-lacerating schlub working in “the development office of a mediocre university in New York City.” But the real heart of the book is Lipsyte’s voice—smart, vulgar, and disciplined despite its constant flirtations with derangement. Here Milo describes how his wealthy friend, Purdy, lives a relatively modest life:
I suppose there was a certain glory in it, this slumming with the middle and upper-middle classes. Maybe not the glory of rushing a Nazi mortar position, or braving municipal billy bats to stop a war in Indochina, but the privileged of our generation did what they could, like the rest of us. We were stuck between meanings. Or were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.
The ability to blend the world-historical (the fall of the Soviet Union) with the completely banal (nachos); the careful control of rhythm and pacing that leads to the final punch line: that is why you read Lipsyte, and it’s why fans of The Ask will also enjoy Lipsyte’s new story collection, The Fun Parts.
Almost every page—strike that: almost every paragraph—has a perfectly paced, memorably phrased line. In “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” a story about a memoirist whose moment of fame has passed, we read, “Out my window was traffic, suffering, euphoria, pretzel carts”; two paragraphs later, we hear that a character “got by, as many widowers do, on peanut butter and hate.” In “The Worm in Philly,” the best story in the collection, a broke, unemployed drug addict considers writing a book for young readers about the boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler: “Why for children? Children were people you could reach. You could reach out and reach them. Plus, low word count. That meant I’d get the money faster. I was experimenting with unemployment, needed to make rent quickly. I was no longer experimenting with drugs. I knew exactly what to do with them.”
The problem with The Fun Parts, though, is that, with rare exceptions, it really is only the fun parts—the gags and the one-liners, the absurd plotlines and the cutting social observations. (My favorite: a hipster restaurant that “specialized in artisanal scrapple”). The Ask balanced the stylistic high jinks with real pathos: Yes, Milo was a pathetic loser, but he was also a father. Hiding beneath the jokes and the rants, The Ask was a serious consideration of fatherhood and masculinity. The Fun Parts feels like literary junk food: lots of calories but little nourishment.
On the occasions when Lipsyte opens his stories up to larger concerns, however, he dazzles. “The Climber Room,” for instance, tells the story of Tovah Gold, a failed poet trying to make ends meet by working at a preschool. Lipsyte mines the situation for comedy, as always, but he also shows us how difficult life is for a thirty-six-year-old woman, professionally unsuccessful and without kids, living in a culture that tells her “that all committed mothers could also manage begemmed careers, that only the weak or untalented had to choose.” The story ends with a rant about how women are up against it: “We are alone and suicidal or we have children and are suicidal. The only women who escape this are the rich.” But this is immediately undercut by a rich, older man exposing himself. The story is ridiculous, of course, but it’s also moving. It’s greater than the sum of its fun parts.
TWO FINAL COLLECTIONS, one by a young star and another by a living legend, are the most successful of the bunch, in part because they show how the short story’s liminal status—not quite a novel, not quite a poem—can be used to good purpose.
Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is, like her 2011 Pulitzer-nominated novel Swamplandia!, weird in the best sense of the word. In one story, a group of young women in Meiji-era Japan are transformed into silkworms and then enslaved, only to rebel against their captors; in another, eleven former U.S. presidents, including Rutherford Hayes and James Buchanan, are reincarnated as horses on a farm that may be heaven, may be hell, and may be something altogether different; in the title story, two aged vampires give up sucking blood and instead try sucking lemons.
Russell is, to quote her earlier collection of stories, the wonderfully titled St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, “a cartographer of imaginary places”—an explorer eager to push off from the shores of the known and journey toward the strange and scary. Such ventures can be a lonesome business. Russell’s stories often concern themselves with the monstrous—those whom society deems other and therefore threatening—and the desperate attempts of the monstrous to form their own kind of intimacy. Here is how Russell describes two vampires meeting another of their kind after long years of isolation: “There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species. And now that loneliness was over.”
Russell’s most effective narrators are adolescents: what feels more monstrous, after all, than being thirteen years old, not quite a child and not quite an adult? Nal, the narrator of “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” is a lonely boy with a crippling sense of self-consciousness: “before he could do anything, a tiny homunculus had to generate a flowchart in his brain. If p, then q; If z, then back to a.” Larry Rubio, the narrator of “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis,” is a tough kid who briefly befriends an outsider (nicknamed Mutant) before meanly pulling back, with terrible consequences. In each case, Russell dramatizes what it’s like to be the metaphorical mutant—to long for an intimacy that probably can’t be achieved, to know that one is considered an outsider and to try to overcome this social fact.
RUSSELL, WHO BORROWS tropes and plotlines from science fiction, fantasy, and horror, is one of a number of young writers trying to bridge the gap between “literary” and “genre” fiction. (Others include Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and Colson Whitehead.) They cite as influences Tolstoy and Tolkien, Lawrence and Lovecraft. Almost all these writers point to Ursula K. Le Guin as an important precursor, and with good reason. It’s hard to think of a living writer who has produced more work of lasting value. She has written one of the best fantasy cycles of all time (the Earthsea cycle); she has written two of the best science-fiction novels ever (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness); she has written excellent young-adult fiction, wonderful historical novels, some accomplished poetry, and everything in between.
Now we have what may be the crowning achievement of her career: a two-volume collection of short stories titled The Unreal and the Real. The first volume, Where on Earth, brings together some of her more realistic stories (though hers is always realism at a slant); the second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, collects her science fiction.
The title of this new collection is appropriate, since Le Guin writes realistically about the unreal and fantastically about the real. The collection is too varied to summarize. There are works of allegory and works of unsparing realism; there is rape and rapture, politics and poetry.
Karen Russell is a wonderful writer. But just as everything in Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, everything in contemporary genre-bending fiction is a footnote to Le Guin. (In Where on Earth, there’s a story of human-to-equine transformation that far surpasses Russell’s.) Most of the stories in The Unreal and the Real were written long before Twitter or the iPad, and they celebrate virtues—deep interiority and the necessity of political and ecological engagement—that remain essential. One of Le Guin’s stories puts it best: “Nothing is boring if you are aware of it. It may be irritating, but it is not boring…. Being aware is the hardest work the soul can do, I think.”