Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The New Strength of the Short Story

For years, short stories have been given short shrift (is there any other kind of shrift?).  The complaints are many: collections don't sell as well as novels, the authors lack the ability to write full-length works, the reading public wants one long story, blah, freakin' blah, freakin' blah.  Oh yeah?  One word for you: Hemingway.  Another: Salinger.  I could go on but I won't belabor the point, an unusual position for me since many say that's what I do best. 

Interestingly, a recent Times article (http://goo.gl/ZNtMa) argues that the short story is making a comeback because it fits well on tablets and phones and because the distinct lack of length complements the collective short attention span of the early 21st century. Therefore, I find it especially heartening to find two short story collections included on the latest New York Times bestsellers list: Tenth of December by George Saunders and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. 

Some assess the work of George Saunders as "weird just to be weird".  They are not only mistaken but are missing the point. Tenth of December, which has been lauded as "the best book you'll read this year" (http://goo.gl/DuSo1), is indeed his breakthrough book, a breathtaking collection of stories that left me panting.  It has boundless heart and humor (Puppy, Victory Lap), generous grace and warmth (the title story) and yet, like the bulk of Saunders' backlist, remains odd (My Chivalric Fiasco), often uncomfortable (Escape From Spiderhead), and sated with sadness (Home).  All of Saunders' work has always touched me deeply but he has reached new heights here.  His greatness is that he makes us feel and feel deeply for these characters.
Karen Russell can make something absolutely beautiful out of nothing.  St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves, her debut collection, was wildly imaginative, and her novel, Swamplandia!, itself born from a short story, proved she was only going to continue to amaze us.  The eight stories that comprise Vampires in the Lemon Grove are a testament to how well she writes and is replete with those breathless moments I relish.  The only drawback is that I found the collection a bit uneven. 

My favorite, The Barn at the End of Our Term, imagines former U. S. presidents reincarnated as horses. The main character is Rutherford B. Hayes and it is touching and funny and makes you wonder how in hell she ever arrived at the premise.  That said, it is her expert execution of that very premise that makes Russell shine.  Much the same can be said about the haunting Proving Up and Reeling for the Empire in which women in a Japanese silk factory begin to metamorphose into actual silkworms.  The title story somehow manages to make us think about vampires not as Bela Lugosi or their more recent incarnation as pale teen boyfriends but as people faced with living too long. 
Unfortunately, the overlong and, frankly, exhausting The New Veterans and the story on Arctic tail-gating that reads like a Shouts & Murmurs piece that needed an editor, bring down the collection by a notch.  There is still plenty at which to marvel, to absorb and commit to memory. 

The new face among the collections I've read recently is Clare Vaye Watkins and her impressive debut, Battleborn.  Watkins is only 28 but writes like the old soul I imagine she was at 8 and 12 and 18.  Throughout all ten stories, we are presented with characters in desperate need to connect, be it with the world, each other or themselves.  Watkins' home state of Nevada provides the setting for all the stories and often acts like a character itself, all dusty, hot, desperate, and often unforgiving.   

The Diggings is a tale of two brothers who set out for California in search of gold but find only madness and desperation.  It is terrifying.  Ghosts, Cowboys contains some autobiographical details about the author (or does it?). Watkins' father was known as Charles Manson's wingman and the story includes history of the Spahn ranch, the desert hideout of Manson's Family.  This may be a chance for the author to rid herself of the inglorious association into which she was born.  The Last Thing We Need, a story told in one-sided letters, is another stand-out.  Unlike Karen Russell's latest, Battleborn is the opposite of uneven. It thrills, it frightens, it questions, it aches and it delivers.  

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