Short Stories Lately

Lately I’ve been trying to read a short story a day, which would be evening, but home after work, tired, watching an infant becoming more and more a toddler, by the time he hits the hay, wiped and wanting to keep up with novels and eek out something of my own. In any case…

“Rough Deeds,” Annie Proulx. Feels like part of a novel? Feels tightly researched, this story about timber mills in Canada and Maine decades before their countries were formed. Both tightly researched yet jumpy in terms of getting the narrative finished, about a years-long vendetta following violence in the wilderness.

“Still Life,” Don DeLillo. Did not know, once reading, but expected, that it was part of his novel Falling Man. Still believe Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is the only credible take on how things felt just after. Much of this piece feels wrong – no one is acting quite how people acted afterwards, but then Mr. DeLillo isn’t always great at characterization, more at brittle, confining ideas. I don’t think ‘suicide bomber’ was in conversational currency until later. I could be wrong. Felt as inert as, say, Cosmopolis was inert.

“Dimension,” Alice Munro. It is crushing to read about the deaths of children now that I have a young son. Primarily this read as the literary analog to Dear Zachary, the devastating documentary from a while back. Leaving it there, this would have been a dark, anguished stone of a story, yet Munro keeps going, bothering with Lloyd’s metaphysical hogwash that feels risible after such a pounding – risible, yet admittedly goofily, scarily plausible, coming from a lunatic. Already the story feels too long. Then she compounds it with what I assume was an internal desire to force a happy conclusion and suddenly a bathetic, sappy event pops up to brush aside the earlier impact.

“Black Box,” Jennifer Egan. Have only read A Visit From the Goon Squad but now I’m thinking she could be the brightest American writer right now, even if she hasn’t hit her marks. (The ‘linked short stories’ thing obscures that novel.) She is willing to go pretty far afield in this one – imagining a squicky bit of sex-dripped espionage. Mostly I’m impressed with the narrative strategies she employs. Here, the subjunctive tense combines with the second person to assert actions instead of suggest them. The story is marred by cutesy use of future-tech devices, which I think will be dated, a sweeping turn into supa-adventure James Bond territory, and a needlessly sentimental return to the character’s domestic memories and past. But she surprises with her observations and her strategies are great. Thinking of the first chapter of Goon Squad, with the adroit flash forwards/temporal shifts. Looking forward to more of her, but I fret about a constant turn toward – god help me – bourgeouis mawkishness / middle-brow crowd-pleasingness.

“That in Aleppo Once…”, Vladimir Nabokov. Often mentioned as one of the great butterfly hunter’s key short stories, I don’t get it. Character not sound or convincing enough to care whether his memories of a wife are true or not. His language as marvelous as ever, yet, unmodulated, it does what it usually does in his writing: plates up any humanity behind sheaves of armor and ratchets up the gamesmanship. By setting this as a letter we deal with yet another Nabokovian unreliable narrator and here it’s tiresome. A whiff of the bat on this one for me.

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