The Best American Short Stories 2011
Mariner Books, 2011
384 pp., $21.95
Linda McCullough Moore
The Best American Short Stories 2011
I'm in an airport bookstore looking at the art. I haven't seen this many nudes outside the Louvre. One exception is a small Picador edition called Humiliation. The lovely trompe l'oeil notwithstanding, I don't pick it up—its subject one I am attempting to learn nothing more about. But there, beside Humiliation, I spot a novel written by my neighbor. The bare torso on the cover sports a second neighbor's glowing commendation in a bold cursive font just between the tattoo and the piercings. On the flipside are accolades by three other writers from our local dog park. (On an early morning dog walk, what language would one borrow to decline an invitation to exclaim?) So, these are the people who would tell us what to read: friends of the author.
All of which explains my gratitude to Geraldine Brooks, the editor of this year's The Best American Short Stories. The world would be a better place if someone could do with novels what Brooks does here with stories. To wit: put all the good ones in one place. (I'm thinking along the lines of a separate display rack, clearly marked, maybe in an alcove, with good light and big chairs.)
Brooks is herself a lovely writer. Even her introduction bears rereading. She dubs a former professor "a day-old baguette." A great story is "one you can feel on your skin"; another story, "an ethical Rubik's cube," and great writing technique without soul, a thing that causes "amazement to become a kind of boredom." She writes about stories in a way that makes me want to go out and buy all her books. Her notes to writers are worth the price of admission: "Enuf adultery!" "Foreign countries exist." "Consider the following: Caravaggio's Conversion of Saint Paul, Handel's Messiah, Martin Luther King. Why, if religion turns up in a story, is it generally only there as a foil for humor?" and on said humor: "There's so little. Why, writers, so haggard and so woebegone?"
Stories think aloud, in everything from diatribe to rumination, and, when blessed, in narrative alone. Stories wonder and pontificate, they ponder and insinuate these little explanations that can niggle, jolt, and, as if by sleight of hand, persuade. We don't read a story to see what happens. We read to see the how and who and why. We read to understand. What was that woman thinking? What on earth possessed her? (My own grandmother's query, designed to properly assign, if never shift, all blame.) So many of the stories in this collection take on worthy questions.
How much is too much? In Tom Bissell's wonderful "A Bridge Under Water" a couple tours Italy, the wife musing: "In many cities, history was a loud voice at a party at which one felt underdressed. In Rome she felt history pressing in on all sides. But in a pleasant, consensual way. Rome's weight was without expectation." Her husband interrupts her reveries, declaring Italians "basically the most complicated, uninteresting people in the world." He's clever, for all that. Asked if he is disappointed, he denies that this is disappointment. "Disappointment," he says, "is a beautiful woman reading Ayn Rand." Things fall apart in a chilling final scene marked by his cruelty, and in the odd, ensuing calm the wife wonders "if maybe couples in newly dead marriages get along in a way akin to the cheerfulness of people about to kill themselves." Divorce looming, "She knows this sound, this sound of different hopes collapsing, of separate divinities forming, of exclusion, of closed doors, of one story's end."
In "The Call of Blood," Jess Row questions the nature of other differences between us. Here is a Korean woman whose boyfriend is a Jamaican nurse. He has such compassion for his patients: "The saddest cases, the old women with half-melted faces, their minds wiped clean by a clot smaller than a baby's fingernail." But, in a different voice he says, this time of his lover: "We're all so easily insulted. Just quivering, waiting for someone to slip up so we can take offense. It's just as tribal and parochial and dimwitted as the creationists in Kansas." This, after his girlfriend has confided, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. I pass that sign every time I go out to Queens. And I always think, just for a second, I hate you. I just want to stop the car and say, Go back to Egypt if you're so sure. Go back to Saudi Arabia. I'm just so sick of pretending that coexistence is easy or natural. It's like I'm allergic to New York, but I am New York; it's an autoimmune thing." In his contributor's note, Row wonders, in this century, who has not felt "dispossession, homelessness, alienation, self-estrangement." Are we not all a member of some minority group? And if we are, how are we to touch one another? The nurse says of their love affair: "You spatter words around like fingerpaint and call that a conversation, you say horrible things and take them back, and say, that's a relationship."