The Best American
Short Stories 2011
By Geraldine Brooks
I was nine years old when a piece of fiction captured me utterly. It was a novel by the English children’s writer Enid Blyton, and featured Nazi art looters, plucky kids, and a secret mountain hideout behind a waterfall. I couldn’t put it down, and when someone advertised the other seven titles in the series sale, I convinced my parents to buy the lot. They were used hardbacks with lavishly illustrated dust jackets, plastic-covered, meticulously kept. I lined them up in order, and I started to feel...odd. I was breathing fast. My neck was flushed. There was a taste, buttery and warm, in the back of my throat. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was unfamiliar and I didn’t have a word for it. It would be six years before I felt that way again, in a very different context. And by then I knew the word.
Since that first encounter with lust, I have always thought of literature as a physical matter. A great piece of writing is the one you feel on your skin. It has to do something: Make the heart beat harder or the hairs stand up. Provoke laughter or tears. (The latter not hard, in my case. I once handed my sister a short story involving a tulip and a paper clip and said, “Read this — it made me cry.” “So what?” she replied. “You cry over the weather report.”) There is some very good writing, of course, that does not stir the blood. It’s cool, cerebral. Tricksy, clever. I admire it, in the same way I admire the technical proficiency of a Cirque de Soleil acrobat: “Look what she’s doing up there. I didn’t realize a rotator cuff had that range of motion.” But I’m not moved by it. And by the end of the show, so many amazing things have been done that amazement be comes a kind of boredom.
Last fall, when the first fat pile of tidily copied stories arrived at my place, I felt like my nine-year-old self in distant suburban Sydney. I shook the stories from the envelope and laid them out on my dining table. They were crisp, dazzling, each with its own paper clip holding together pages of possibility. There were names I knew, and some I’d never heard of. It was like walking into the best kind of party, where you can hole up in a corner with old friends for a while, then launch out among interesting strangers. There would be two more piles, one arriving in the depth of winter and the last as the groundhog emerged blinking from his snowy burrow. One hundred and twenty preselected stories from a field of over four thousand. As the days shortened and the foghorn moaned, I sat beside the fire and read, and read.
It is spring now. The chickadees are back, and on the sunny side of the house the first hyacinth has poked a tight- furled green fist out of the soil. The stories sit on my desk, no longer clean and white but well thumbed and disheveled. Some are smudged with the charcoal residue of my fire-stoking fingers, others puckered from an accidental slide into the bathtub. Rumpled, lofted by handling, they take up more space now, in their nonvirgin state. This seems fitting to me: a page that has been read, pored over, should stake claim to more territory.
Another difference: on the front page of each is scrawled a single word:
Yes (or, in a few cases, Yes!!)
And then a very large pile with the very small word, No.
It was not as hard as I thought it might be, to do this initial triage. Like the battlefield nurse dropping color-coded tags atop casualties, I moved with a kind of professional detachment from story to story. Triage is provisional, after all. It is a guess. It does not determine outcome. It was only when I went back, under deadline pressure, that the task became suddenly onerous, morally taxing. Now I was not the triage nurse but the euthanizer. No meant no. A story, often a very good story, would not be deemed among the best, because I said so. There are some I can barely look at as I go through the pile. They rebuke me, like a neglected friend, a jilted ex. “I still love you, but it just didn’t work out...”
And who was I, anyway, to be making this call? I, who had never written a short story. (Okay, one. In the tenth grade. A dark sci-fi romance, destined for our school literary magazine, which we published on a hand-cranked Gestetner that reeked of wax and solvent.) In my adult writing life, I had leapt recklessly from journalism and narrative nonfiction to writing novels. I looked sideways at short stories, like a nervy horse at an unknown rider. I wasn’t quite sure how they worked.
Not long after I started reading that first batch of stories, I found myself at a literary event in Dayton. After the dinner and the speeches, a few of the writers adjourned to a bar. During the first round of drinks, someone started telling jokes. We took it in turns then, dredging up ethnic jokes, light-bulb riddles, and shaggy dog stories from forgotten vaults of memory. Most of us ran out of material fairly quickly, but one had the recall of a Homeric bard, and kept us laughing at joke after joke until the bartender called time and kicked us out into the night. That jokester was Richard Bausch, master of the short story.
This was no coincidence. The best short stories and the most successful jokes have a lot in common. Each form relies on suggestion and economy. Characters have to be drawn in a few deft strokes. There’s generally a setup, a reveal, a reversal, and a release. The structure is delicate. If one element fails, the edifice crumbles. In a novel you might get away with a loose line or two, a saggy paragraph, even a limp chapter. But in the joke and in the short story, the beginning and end are precisely anchored tent poles, and what lies between must pull so taut it twangs.
I’m not sure if there is any pattern to these selections. I did not spend a lot of time with those that seemed afraid to tell stories, that handled plot as if it were a hair in the soup, unwelcome and embarrassing. I also tended not to revisit stories that seemed bleak without having earned it, where the emotional notes were false, or where the writing was tricked out or primped up with fashionable devices stressing form over content.
I do know that the easiest and the first choices were the stories to which I had a physical response. I read Jennifer Egan’s “Out of Body” clenched from head to toe by tension as her suicidal, drugaddled protagonist moves through the Manhattan night toward an unforgivable betrayal. I shed tears over two stories of childhood shadowed by unbearable memory: “The Hare’s Mask,” by Mark Slouka, with its piercing ending, and Claire Keegan’s Irish inflected tale of neglect and rescue, “Foster.” Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property” so moved me, with its sudden perception shift along the wavering sightlines of loss and grief. Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” opened with a gasp-inducing act of unexpected violence and evolved into an ethical Rubik’s cube. A couple of stories made me laugh: Tom Bissell’s “A Bridge Under Water,” even as it foreshadows the dissolution of a marriage and probes what religion does for us, and to us; and Richard Powers’s “To the Measures Fall,” a deftly comic meditation on the uses of literature in the course of a life, and a lifetime.
Some stories didn’t call forth such a strong immediate response but had instead a lingering resonance. Of these, many dealt with love and its costs, leaving behind indelible images. In Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts,” a bereaved daughter drives miles to visit her dead mother’s parrot because she yearns to hear the bird mimic her mother’s voice. In Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” a jilted fiancée lets her art class paint all over her wedding dress. In Ehud Havazelet’s spare and tender story, “Gurov in Manhattan,” an ailing man and his aging dog must confront life’s necessary losses. A complicated, only partly welcome romance blossoms between a Korean woman and her demented mother’s Jamaican night nurse in “The Call of Blood,” by Jess Row. And in “Ceiling,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perfectly captures the yearning spirit of a man who has settled for the wrong wife, the wrong life, in the stultifying salons of Lagos’s corrupt upper class.
Two stories in opposite settings got at large truths about friendships under stress. In “Soldier of Fortune,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the accidental scalding of a toddler severs and remakes bonds in a Texas military town. In “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” by Rebecca Makkai, a gay man tries to help his once dazzling best friend as he staggers through a public breakdown amid Chicago’s artistic elite. Three beautifully crafted stories examined, with great originality, the parent-child bond. “ID,” by Joyce Carol Oates, is a plangent tragedy with an unforgettable protagonist. The troubled savant of Ricardo Nuila’s “Dog Bites” struggles to see his father through the overbright glare of his quirky vision. And in “The Dungeon Master,” by Sam Lipsyte, a role-playing game bleeds into real life and seeps into the story’s quirky prose.
In the end, the stories I fell upon with perhaps the greatest delight were the outliers, the handful or so that defied the overwhelming gravitational pull toward small-canvas contemporary realism. “Phantoms,” by Steven Millhauser, takes the form of a dispassionate evaluation by one citizen of a town long visited by ghostlike apparitions. The assessor’s cool tone plays beautifully against the eerie events he is describing. “The Sleep,” by Caitlin Horrocks, is a suave, unexpectedly exhilarating satire about a beaten, blizzard-scoured prairie town that takes up hibernation as a way to manage the pain of ordinary living. And “Escape from Spiderhead,” by George Saunders, was that rare example of full-bore speculative fiction to make it through the literary magazines’ anti-sci-fi force field. Coming across this story elicited the same joyful surprise I once felt when offered a glass of wine after a dry week in Riyadh. In “Spiderhead,” convict volunteers are the human test subjects for an array of psychoactive drugs that manipulate the deepest workings of the soul. The setting is fantastical and futuristic, but the heart is achingly familiar, and real human dilemmas are enacted against the highly imaginative backdrop. I would like to raise a small, vigorously waving hand in favor of releasing more such stories out of the genre ghetto and into the literary mainstream.
While I’m up here on the soapbox, I might as well set down a few more carps of the day:
1. Enuf adultery eds. Too many stories about the wrong cock in the wrong cunt/anus/armpit/Airedale.
2. Eros thanatos necessarily. Not all love stories have to have bleak out comes.
3. Foreign countries exist.
4. There’s a war on. The war in Afghanistan, in the year it became America’s longest, appeared as a brief aside in only two of one hundred and twenty stories.
5. Consider the following: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul, Handel’s Messiah, Martin Luther King. Female genital mutilation, military-funeral picketers, abortion-doctor assassins. So why, if religion turns up in a story, is it generally only there as a foil for humor?
6. Not that I want to discourage humor. There’s so little. Why, writers, so haggard and so woebegone...
La belle dame sans levity hath thee in thrall,
And no mirth rings.
I should stipulate that the above carps refer to a hive mind that became apparent only because I read a mass of stories in a compressed time frame. There’s nothing wrong with writing stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens. These are the places where we spend large slabs of our lives. But the air be comes stale there. And after a dozen — a hundred — such stories, I became claustrophobic.
When I was in journalism school I had a professor, Melvin Mencher, for whom the description “crusty” did scant justice. The man was a day-old baguette. When I tried to hide thin reporting under stylistic flourish, he would put a red line through my fine prose and scrawl: You can’t write writing.
Later, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, I had an editor named Paul Ingrassia, whose pet hate was to catch someone in his newsroom looking up something online. He would creep up to the terminal and bark: “The story’s not on Nexus. It’s on the street. Get out there!”
So, for whatever it is worth, I’m passing on this advice to the next generation of short story writers, those jeunesse dorée who will come to the form at what might be the most perfect time in its history — a golden age to rival and perhaps surpass the era of the popular weeklies. The form is perfectly suited not only to the emerging platforms of our times but also to the users of those platforms, a new generation of young readers who love and demand good stories, their imaginations nourished by a decade-long boom in children’s fiction. The right short stories, with their highly skilled writing, tough minded, somber adult themes, but undaunting length, can be the perfect form for young readers still developing and experimenting with their fictional tastes. But here’s the caveat: these kids have been raised on actual stories with plot, where x leads inexorably to y, with x being interesting and y being more interesting; on wizards and dragon riders, on Eoin Colfer’s inspired Die Hard-with-fairies mashup and Philip Pullman’s Milton meets string theory. I might be wrong, but I don’t think affectless Carveresque minimalism, no matter how liminal or luminous, is going to cut it for them.
So, at the risk of calling down the wrath of the MFAfia, my advice to young writers is, read this book. Enjoy the stories, admire the craft. Then put it in your backpack and go. As far as you can, for as long as you can afford it. Preferably someplace where you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another. Get a job there. Rent a room. stick around. Do something. If it doesn’t work out, do something else. Whatever it is, you will be able to use it in the stories you will write later. And if that story turns out to be about grungy sex in an East Coast dorm room with an emotionally withholding semiotics major, that’s okay. It will be a better story for the fact that you have been somewhere and carried part of it home with you in your soul.