Thoughts on Short Fiction: The Superlatives of 2013
Finishing my last short story collection this year, Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are?, I can conclude that this is a good year for short fiction. Of the 68 books that I’ve read so far for 2013, 23 were short story collections or anthologies and that is not mentioning the various short stories that I’ve read online or in magazines. Of course, reading all those stories, I mentally made lists regarding what stories were part of what I call “The Superlatives.” You know, the best, the coolest, the funniest, the most heartbreaking, etc. And this is what this post is all about. Ladies and gentlemen, I present The Superlatives:
The Coolest: Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard
Here’s the rundown. The main character is Raylan Gives, a 20th century lawman with 19th century sensibilities. Even though Raylan is a US Marshal, he acts like a sheriff from the Old West. He is a sharpshooter, wears a cool cowboy hat, sleeps with witnesses, and say cool phrases like:
“You make me pull, I’ll put you down.”
The story is cool because of the protagonist. He’s calm and collected in dangerous situations plus he has the aura of The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. The plot may be filled with your run-of-the-mill cliches of the Western genre but it’s really the protagonist and Leonard’s ear for dialogue that sells this story.
Runners-up: Superassassin by Lysley Tenorio; Satan Has Already Bought U by Lourd de Veyra
The Funniest: Pastoralia by George Saunders
Any of the stories from Saunder’s collection, Pastoralia, can take the title of the funniest story this year but, personally, I believe that the title story should take the cake. It’s set in a sort-of amusement park where the main character is a pretend-caveman in a diorama, spends his day with a female pretend-caveman, and act out the actions of real cave men for the park’s visitors to see.
What’s funny about the story is how Saunder’s uses the language and create sentences that are whimsical and outrageous. Add to that the living situation of the characters who have to pretend all day that they live in prehistoric times while dealing with modern problems like a sick child or a problematic child who’s addicted to drugs. Not to mention the fact that the amusement park is firing employees because of the lack in business so the characters are constantly worrying about their jobs. Now, this may sound depressing but once you read the story, the humor is present all the time in a dark-comedy sort of way. Just read this quote about the characters pretending to catch and eat flies:
“We pretend to catch and eat more pretend bugs than could ever actually live in one cave. The number of pretend bugs we pretend to catch and eat would in reality basically fill a cave the size of our cave.”
Runners-up: Emergency by Denis Johnson; She Waits, Seething, Blooming by Dave Eggers
The Most Innovative: The Index by JG Ballard
JG Ballard’s The Index is the most innovative short story that I read this year because he has written it in index form. It tells the story of a man, Henry Rhodes Hamilton, who has risen to the top of the global hierarchy and is a main figure in history with powerful influence on the major events of the day.
It reads like this:
Acton, Harold, 142–7, 213
Alcazar, Siege of, 221–5
Alimony, HRH pays, 172, 247, 367, 453
Anaxagoras, 35, 67, 69–78, 481
Arden, Elizabeth, 189, 194, 376–84
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, The (Stein), 112
Avignon, birthplace of HRH, 9–13; childhood holidays, 27; research at Pasteur Institute of Ophthalmology, 101; attempts to restore anti-Papacy, 420–35
At the start, you will think that a story like this does not have a proper chronology but, as you read on, you will realize that Ballard did somehow write a linear story even though the illusion is that he did not. If you will notice, the entries in “A” contains the birth of HRH and “Z” has an entry that will more or less wrap up the story. Clever right?
Runners-up: We Miss You by Lydia Davis; Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges
The Most Heartbreaking: Boys and Girls by Alice Munro
Munro is always going to be a shoo-in for this category. All of her stories possess all the qualities needed for a heartbreaking story although not all her stories are heartbreaking. The rural setting, the quietness of the characters, the moments of introspection, and the hard truths expressed especially in the conclusion.
These elements converge in Munro’s Boys and Girls to provide a sad realization for the protagonist, a girl growing up in a rural farm who wanted to be more than what her gender allows her to be and who looks up to her father and to the difficult pleasure she gets from doing chores with him, a sad realization delivered by the same father that she admires:
She’s only a girl.
Runners-up: Something That Needs Nothing by Miranda July; How To Be An Other Woman by Lorrie Moore
The Most Beautifully Written: Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov
Is there any other short story writer who wrote the short stories that I read this year who can lay claim to be a better prose stylist than Vladimir Nabokov? In my opinion, as I am the reader of the stories themselves, no one can match the beauty of Nabokov’s prose. Many others can come close but only in the hands of Nabokov can a fictional town like Fialta become alive. Here is the opening paragraph:
Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull. Everything is damp; the piebald trunks of the plane trees, the juniper shrubs, the railings, the gravel. Far away, in a watery vista between jade edges of pale blush houses, which tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way), the blurred Mount St George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece dream of seashells. The air is windless and warm, with a faint tang of burning. The sea,its salt drowned in a solution of rain, is less glaucuous and gray with waves too sluggish to break into foam.
The story itself, one about a married man who encounters a love of his life in Fialta, may be a bit pedestrian or clichéd but the way that Nabokov writes it separates it from others of its ilk. It bears Nabokov’s signature techniques: the unreliable narrator; recreating events through memory; and a non-chronological timeline. With this and Lolita, Nabokov cements his legacy in my eyes.
Runners-up: A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner; The Dead by James Joyce
The Most Terrifying: Tell The Women We’re Going by Raymond Carver
When you think of terrifying story, you won’t always think of Raymond Carver. Carver is known for middle-class ennui and minimalist blue-collar experiences. This is not to say that what happened in Tell The Women We’re Going was not the result of said ennui and blue collar experiences. All the elements of a Carver story were all in the story but what separated it from the rest of Carver’s works (from what I read anyway) was the ending.
I was only provided a brief flash of what happened in the end but the brief flash was enough to make me reeling and mortified. However, in retrospect, the sense of dread pervades throughout the story and there is a decaying quality to it that can be attributed to the friendship between the two protagonists in the story. It is a terrifying story not because of the ending (the ending only aggravates it) but because of the condition that the characters are in and because of the frightening realization that the same can happen to us anytime.
Runners-up: Greasy Lake by TC Boyle; Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser
The Best: Why Don’t You Dance by Raymond Carver
Technically, all of the stories mentioned in this post is the best in their own way. However, Why Don’t You Dance is a different matter and must be singled out altogether. It’s a proof of the high esteem that I have of Carver that he appears on this list twice. Why Don’t You Dance does everything all at once and never falters. It’s terrifying, beautifully written, and heartbreaking all at once. You may find some moments of cool, humor, and innovation in the story too if you would consider all factors.
The story is about a man who holds a yard sale in front of his house. Everything is laid out in his yard and Carver makes subtle hints that the man is selling all of his possessions and also that it was owned by two people. What ever happened that precipitated into the yard sale being held was not discussed. The story just presents an image of a lonely old man; a young couple who stops by to look at the merchandise; and the lengths that the old man goes to just to ease the loneliness. Everything is written so beautifully and perfectly that I knew it was going to be the best short story that I will ever read for the year 2013.
Runners-up: Bangkok by James Salter; Who Do You Think You Are by Alice Munro;