Paris Review Spring 2008 – Short fiction
Posted June 3, 2008on:
Some days ago there was a kerfuffle about The Virginia Quartlery Review public airing of its readers commentary on submitted stories. I haven’t bothered to read the disgruntled comments because writers (online) tend to get disgruntled about a lot of things for which I, as a reader, can only raise a disinterested eyebrow. One good post that came out of it was Rhian Ellis’ evaluation of the stories in a VQR issue (via pinkyspaperhaus). She claimed that, typical of a trend in literary magazines, the stories focused on external, cultural and/or political events at the expense of characters; these tended to be ciphers for the author’s ideas.
The only lit mag fiction I read on a regular basis is what’s published in The Paris Review — I prefer critical journals. Many of the stores it prints aren’t proper ones but excerpts from soon-to-be published novels, which I find mildly annoying. Actual short stories, even only competent ones work better than novel excerpts of similar quality because they are structured to. I find TPR‘s selection to be the opposite of VQR‘s per Ellis’ take.
Here the stories tend to be nothing but character studies of one kind or another: US immigrants dealing with culture shock (often in university settings); divorced family dealing with everyday life in the aftermath; settled parent dealing with wayward young or not so young offspring; some childhood memory; uniquely middle-class problems like stock problem obsession…you get the drift. I don’t have anything against fiction about the middle-class, of which I am an enthusiastic member. But I do relish variety and I find that it’s the contributors who depart from the norm that offer the most impressive pieces (ie I go to Chapters.ca or call the indie book store and order their books immediately). It’s not impossible that this is partly so simply because they are so different. It may be coincidental that the stories that veer off the beaten TPR path are a notch above the rest or that those writers have to be so much better to get printed while a Pulitzer winner’s stodgy, middle-of-the-way entry sails in. (It also helps if you’re dead and woefully under-appreciated or dead and famous.) Anyway, it’s not that the middle-class isn’t important — it’s not that any topic you choose to write about must hit such arbitrary criteria — it’s that you must make me feel as if your fiction needs to exist.
Significant departures in theme or style tend to occur when the writer isn’t American, and/or is of an older generation, like Daniel Kehlman and Alessandro Barricco or dead Russian writers who do cryptic political parables. The exceptions to this are Benjamin Percy and Jesse Ball, the first who writes about the lower classes and the second who doesn’t only travel on the typical realist road. Of those who write the TPR standard and make it compelling, again they tend to be foreigners like Mohsin Hamid and Damon Galgut. This is no surprise: for whatever reason I’m almost always unimpressed by the TPR-published authors that everyone else is praising and handing out awards to. Remember that Icebergs tale I shrugged at earlier this year? Got a National Magazine Award nomination. (As did André Aciman‘s and Uzodinma Iweala‘s. From that lot only Iweala’s story grabbed me.)
If you open any recent issue 9.9 times out of 10 you’ll get a story done in a conventional style, 1st or 3rd person, male narrator/protagonist. Style-wise Balls and Barricco’s stories are the most inventive ones I’ve yet read; both happened to play with space on the page. For Barricco the spaces between groups of words worked like they sometimes do in poetry, putting breaks in thoughts without the use of punctuation which impacts on rhythm as well; and he used no paragraph breaks. He wrote from multiple narrative perspectives, too, different genders and class, allowing a more complete and varied picture of the first, and very dangerous, car race in Europe. In Ball’s story, winner of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, I discerned the breaks in the way sentences, paragraphs and dialogue were put together without any spatial reinforcement. It was gratifying to read in his Bookslut blog interview (which I can’t find because the site was created to be impervious to all search engines — brilliant idea) that the original manuscript is about twice as long because of the gaps he interspersed throughout the text. The gruesome revenge by duels, random violent acts, disjointed, surreal sequences that may or may not be dreams, the lack of “realistic” characters, all are memorable and not the TPR norm. I like when the magazine surprises, and the people involved do too, so let’s hope stories like that are published more often.
Unfortunately, the fiction in the Spring 2008 issue came too early to fulfil that expressed desire. The first story ended on a high note, the second started strong then petered out and the third didn’t get (me) anywhere.
Tim Winton is an Australian writer who has the honour of being a Booker finalist. Therefore it’s no surprise that he writes fine, elegant prose — a superior example of the readable type — that carries one along as the narrator describes moments from his childhood living with his parents in a small seaside town during the 60s. (So I assume since he and a pal meet up with a bunch of hippie surfers (one can be both right?).) Winton writes of the relationship between the child and his parents with a delicate tension that makes one believe that there’s more that went on, perhaps later in the narrator’s life, that is not revealed. All we get is a father anxious about his son going near any sizeable water body because of an old friend’s fatal drowning incident and his own lack of swimming ability. It’s the son’s new friend Loonie who tells him about the first source of the father’s anxiety. Loonie is, of course, an extrovert and a rapscallion while the narrator is a quiet, “solitary by nature” type although not bereft of all childish mischief. (For once I’d like to read the rapscallion’s story. Any takers?)
It’s all very, very nice but not very exciting, eh? Rather same old, same old until a page or two at the end when the narrator describes the euphoria he feels when he watches and then does surfing for the first time.
I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands…The only exception was strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-word toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But…people said he was half mad anyway.
For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together…we never spoke about the business of beauty…There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We…quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned from just watching. We talked about skill and courage and luck — we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death — but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
I admit it’s arguable whether Winton assuredly rode that wave of sentimentality or wiped out but for me the earnestness and emotional fervency innervated a boring seascape. It broke through Winton’s proper prose and, perhaps because I’m an island girl, the kinship the man feels in his old age at the very end, when he witnesses a child going through a similar experience, lent the story a memorable grace weightier than the kind he tried to achieve in the previous bits. But if this is a novel excerpt — since I detected that nagging lack I suspect it is — I’d only accept the book free of charge. Maybe.
In comparison to Winton’s gated community fiction — yes, his character appears to be working class but the *writing style strangled that completely — Ryan McIlvain’s is less cordoned off and settled, not only because it is set mostly among impoverished Brazilian neighbourhoods and involves Mormon missionaries. There is a wider variety of characters, many out-of-place, and all interacting and getting into conflicts. McLeod is a young Mormon from the USA a few months away from the end of his missionary work. So close to finishing he hits up against an accumulation of obstacles as his missionary partner, Elder Passos who he doesn’t much like, and other hitherto friendlier parties pile on the negative critiques on his country’s foreign policy right around the time the USA begins to bomb Iraq. The story entices for a while as one gets a peek into the how people from all classes live, some amusing encounters between the missionaries and their flock, and McLeod’s grapples with his weakening faith (inversely proportioned to his sexual desire).
Near the end I became frustrated with McLeod’s smug victim-complex. More importantly I wasn’t sure what McIlvain was up to with his motley crew of earthy, wise-cracking 20 something Mormon missionaries, self-righteous, condescending anti-American Brazilians and colourful local citizenry with special attention given to luscious, brazen, flirty women and prostitutes with a no-nonsense, professional air. Maybe he didn’t need one but all the elements just hung together. When I reached the end where McLeod and Pessos engage in fisticuffs I felt as though I’d seen the detail of a painting put in a frame with lots of empty space around needing to be filled in order to have the detail make sense. The basic theme is of this young man’s burgeoning self coming to the fore in a foreign land after living a repressive lifestyle but…so? It was at this point that I began to wonder if Gabriel Josipovici had spoilt me for modern fiction until Stefan Zweig and A.L. Kennedy came to rescue.
J. David Steven’s “Box” is the last of the trio. I don’t get it. *shrugs* It has a slightly quirky, absurd quality. A random group of persons in a hotel meeting room are at the location to attend several different conferences on anything from accounting tips to kitchen knives. They’re all socialising in a single room with a locked door (they soon discover) when one of the walls goes up to reveal another room. Some people move into it to explore the new space when the partition suddenly lowers, allowing a few to scramble back to the first room before its sealed off. There is no door in the new space and the 20 occupants, including one child, hear a strange flushing noise from the original room. This happens over and over again with the rooms shrinking in size and so tough decisions have to be made about who should stay behind while the others continue. Predictably, they choose a fair and random system which they all abide by at first until human selfishness and survival instincts pervert. It comes off as a humorously written psychological experiment that ends on a darker note. I must be missing some clever reference that makes this story — the only contribution that reads like the writer conceived it as a short story — more than the sum of its parts.
*Which is not to say that if you write about the working class there has to be a lot of swear words and slang but for god’s sakes I think the milieu and lifestyle needs to count for something different, some adjustment. He could have written about a Rockefeller kid in the same tone and you wouldn’t notice a lick of difference: all covered in pleasant silk gauze.