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New Yorker stories

The last 13 New Yorker stories, blurbed

No, I haven’t stopped reading them, dear reader. I just got behind. And while every week is still hit or miss there’ve been enough enjoyable moments to make me believe this a worthwhile exercise. What I don’t want this to come across as is some form of judgment on each writer (though I suppose that may be impossible), think of these more as notes on what worked and didn’t work for me personally while encountering each of these stories.

“Victory” by Yu Hua (August 26, 2013 issue) — A cheating husband always presents a potentially interesting scenario. Unfortunately I found the language (translated from the Chinese) too cold and distant to foster much empathy.

“The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover (September 2, 2013 issue) — A group of revolutionaries gathers to plot a coup. Loved the tone and atmosphere of this piece, as the characters size each other up like suspects in a game of Clue.

“The Heron” by Dorthe Nors (September 8, 2013 issue) — I actually appreciate when authors have the conviction to make their short stories short. Unfortunately this one, about a narrator’s thoughts at a park, just didn’t have enough meat on the bone to stay with me.

“By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun (September 16, 2013 issue) — An interesting portrait of the life of an Arab street seller that takes a sudden political turn. For me the ending felt a little too jarring and pointed, not quite earned.

“Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley (September 23, 2013 issue) — A young child has a bad dream in which she finds the details of one of her favorite books have changed. The premise seemed a bit indulgent to me, but the consequences of the dream and what it foreshadows for the parents felt like the hint of a great story to be.

“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris (September 30, 2013 issue) — A New York couple plays out several hypothetical date-night scenarios as they live through modern relationship ennui. This story frustrated me. A great premise, great setups that cause you to reflect on your own life and relationships, exceptionally confusing execution.

“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux (October 7, 2013 issue) — A grown man goes back to visit the bedside of a dying childhood teacher. I really appreciated the oblique angle in which this story approaches its subject matter, showing that there are never easy answers (or straightforward consequences) to childhood horrors.

“Katania” by Lara Vapnyar (October 14, 2013 issue) — Two girls growing up in Soviet Russia compare dolls and dollhouses, and by extension their lives. Vapnyar does a great job of putting you in the shoes (and shoebox dollhouses) of these girls; the ending just didn’t work for me though, and seems to completely undercut the realism that comes before it.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (October 21, 2013 issue) — This reprint (first published December 27, 1999) felt more like a valedictory lap for both The New Yorker and Munro immediately following her Nobel prize. It’s probably unfair to even evaluate this story along with the others shown here because it’s so damn good; within the first page it was clear that Munro simply writes on a different level.

“Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (October 28, 2013 issue) — A cockroach awakens to find he is now Gregor Samsa. I count myself a huge Murakami fan, but even this (his first New Yorker story in a while) felt too Murakami-esque with not enough wrinkles to imply any kind of interesting growth. At what point should a writer be concerned about becoming a parody of himself?

“Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane (November 4, 2013 issue) — A construction worker helps his dad lose weight in order to reunite with his mom. This was one of my favorite stories from this group; its sheer joy of language shines through in the narrator’s colorful diction and idioms, and there’s a loopy world-weariness that seems honest and hard-won. I really need to read more from McGuane.

“Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta (November 11, 2013 issue) — A lonely rich man becomes involved with a married woman. I enjoyed the sly trickery this piece is constructed on; the existential question it ends with is food for thought as well.

“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides (November 18, 2013 issue) — A man approaches his old house and family, including his wife who has a restraining order against him. This was an incredibly fun read, with a main character who is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators but charms you anyway with his wit, hysterical voice and the exciting possibility that anything can happen in the next paragraph. I loved every minute.

New Yorker Stories: “Meet the President!” by Zadie Smith (August 12 & 19, 2013 issue)

Hollywood may have finally milked future dystopia and the post-apocalypse to death but I still get tickled pink every time an unexpected writer throws their hat into the sci-fi ring. This week’s New Yorker gives us Zadie Smith (of White Teeth and On Beauty fame) with an original story in that genre. It’s not wholly complete, in the way that short story sketches are wont to be, but it does have some intriguing extrapolations about living in a future mediated age of augmented realities and contextual displacement.

In “Meet the President!” Bill Peek is a young boy outfitted with some sort of personal technology (descriptive details are both few and ambiguous) temporarily visiting a nature scene whose nearby human inhabitants have not been privy to the same toys he has. His special equipment allows him simultaneous access to the world’s information and a more interesting existence in the form of a virtual layer that gamifies his real-world surroundings. The equipment also allows Bill to be perpetually distracted and disinclined to connect with the primitive, technologically unaided young girl and older woman he encounters in real life. Why live in the Now when you could always live in the More Interesting?

As one might guess, the story (thin plot and all) isn’t really about the tech itself. It may not even be about the inherent relationship with technology and class, something Smith is probably quite interested in; it may simply be about quality of life, of finding a true experience. The title seems flippant but the ending is infused with such strange foreboding that one could interpret this story’s theme in a number of pleasurable or damning ways. I have yet to read any of her books to know where these ideas stand in relation but I wouldn’t mind a return trip to the world of this brief but interesting thought experiment.

New Yorker Stories: “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson (August 8, 2013 issue)

Previously unpublished, “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson reads like a prototypical Philip K. Dick or Hitchcock yarn. It centers on a man named Beresford as he makes his way home from work for his wife’s birthday while attempting to evade a mysterious man who seems to be everywhere at once. There are some goodly unsettling moments here, where background characters may not be who they seem — even the mysterious stranger himself alternates between menacing and ambivalent — but it’s really the distance imposed by the language (the protagonist is consistently referred to only as “Mr. Beresford”) and the deliberately spare choice of details (the stranger is “the man in the light hat”) that succeed in amping up the unease. For a story written half a century ago the details are so choice that it reads like it could have taken place in 2013 New York, excepting the fact that the subway no longer costs a nickel to ride.

While the story doesn’t amount to too much it did make me appreciate the subversiveness of Jackson; her most famous story “The Lottery” was a New Yorker premiere, and one wonders what it would take to make a New Yorker story of today feel equally boundary-pushing and revelatory.

New Yorker stories: “Collectors” by Daniel Alarcón (July 29, 2013 issue)

Of the last ten New Yorker stories I’ve read, Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” might be my favorite. It hums along at a good pace, has several well-observed moments and effectively sketches an environment (a dangerous prison in Peru) that is believably familiar yet unique. The story tracks the lives of two cell co-habitants in Collectors prison: Rogelio is a simple-minded mechanic brought in for drug trafficking, while Henry is a playwright imprisoned on charges of terrorism for a play he wrote. The pseudo-climax of the story (of course the hardcore prisoners end up staging a play) stretches believability, but it’s the postscript that helps put things in perspective and leaves you wondering about how at least one of the characters fares after.

My only real quibble: “Collectors” is excerpted from Alarcón’s upcoming novel “At Night We Walk in Circles”. It always bums me out a little to read excerpts; Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent short “Brotherly Love” from a few weeks ago was similarly extracted from her new novel. Commercial interests aside I’ll admit that these are effective in getting me re-interested in these writers but I always take a moment to mourn the weekly slot that could have gone to an original short. Can’t we at least have these well-known writers promote their novels with original material — e.g. a prequel short story incorporating the novel’s characters, or new scenes involving secondary characters? Even deleted scenes might be interesting…

New Yorker Stories: Childcare by Lorrie Moore

Childcare by Lorrie Moore is hands down the best New Yorker story I’ve read this year.   It’s consistently surprisingly, deft and clever in its dialogue, descriptions and characterizations, and just damn fun to read.  I actually found myself dreading reaching the end, knowing that no matter when it happened it would be too soon.  The story is about a midwestern college student with the unusual moniker of Tassie Keltjin.  She’s interviewing for babysitting (“childcare”) gigs to support herself during her upcoming winter term when her inquiries lead her to one Sarah Brink, a working woman in her 40’s who has decided to adopt.  Sarah makes it clear she will actually be adopting two people: first, the as-yet-unborn child (of a spunky young woman on parole, whom we eventually meet), and second, the caretaker she is looking to hire.  Both will be integral parts of her expanding family.

Moore does a great job fleshing out Tassie’s easy-going midwestern demeanor, and the homely small-townness she finds herself (still) growing up in is truthfully rendered.  Tassie’s own observations of Sarah are subtle and more knowing than she realizes, and there’s a wonderful interplay between the two as we begin to wonder whether Tassie may in fact be observing a future version of herself.

Moore’s Wikipedia entry indicates she has a new novel coming out in the fall, Gate at the Stairs, which this story may or may not be an excerpt from.  Either way, I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff.  Bravo!

New Yorker Stories: In the South by Salman Rushdie

Despite its lackluster title, Salman Rushdie’s In the South ends up being a satisfying little exercise with enough frills to keep me interested. The story centers around two senescent Indian neighbors who have little to do except wait around for the end together, having outlasted most of their immediate family members. Their sobriquets are Junior and Senior because they share the same last name, and while their relationship isn’t overtly affectionate they’ve come to rely upon each other as relevant signposts on the final leg of their journey. The language isn’t quite as lyrical as his best stuff from East, West (one of my favorites), but there’s some good metaphor dealing with shadows and a well-drawn scene with the two men guiding each other to the post office to collect their pension checks.

True to form, Rushdie is quick to poke fun at himself before coming across too purple or enamored of himself, and so one character’s interesting conceit of a “mortal soul” is immediately dismissed by the other as pure tommyrot. Yeah, I just found that word by thesaurusing “rubbish.” And yeah, I just used thesaurus as a verb. What are you gonna do about it?

You can check out the story for yourself here.

New Yorker stories: The Headstrong Historian

So I’m perusing the fiction page on the New Yorker website looking for my next story to read when I realize that T. Coraghessan Boyle has not one, not two, but three of the most recent 25 stories listed.  Really, New Yorker?  Really???  Not only do you give John Updike two stories, but Coraghessan gets THREE?  This is almost worse than discovering Joyce Carol Oates has suddenly put out another novel, as she’s so prone to doing.  I think I’ve been down this rant before so I’ll keep it short — I don’t actually have anything against Coraghessan, I just really wish the New Yorker would spread it around a little bit more.

Thus I resolutely plunged into The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a writer who, though not unsuccessful (so Wikipedia tells me) isn’t usually entitled to five New Yorker stories a year.  The result was pretty inspiring: Adichie has crafted a nice family history of a Nigerian woman named Nwamgba who first lives through her husband, then through her Anglicized son, then finally through a granddaughter who manages to grow up and recover Nwamgba’s lost culture long after she’s gone in the span of a few breathtaking sentences.  It’s a refreshing peak into another culture that doesn’t feel exoticized or forced.

New Yorker Stories: “Deep-Holes” by Alice Munro

Alice Munro’s latest story in the New Yorker is called Deep-Holes.  You can read it here.

To me the sheer scope of this piece ends up getting in its own way.  The story spans at least a couple decades, and its characters (a family with three children) pass through time so quickly that it’s difficult to get a lock on their personalities, ambitions and perceptions.  The story is a third person limited from the perspective of Sally, the mother of the three children and spouse of an academic geologist.  Munro’s prose is crisp as always and I like the theme of the estranged favorite son, but some of the plot points make these characters turn more quickly than I feel comfortable believing: an accident changes a boy forever, a sudden death in the family is received differently than one might expect, a dramatic fire (Munro’s own adjective) brings the family back together.  The story does possess one of the more satisfyingly ambiguous endings I’ve read, but overall the piece still ends up being a little too cold from all the temporal distance it needs to cover.

New Yorker Stories: “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro

All I can say is WOW – leave it to a frakkin’ legend like Alice Munro to screw my head back on about New Yorker fiction. If reading the weekly New Yorker story is like a dubious session of panning for gold, reading Free Radicals by Alice Munro is like finding a big fat nugget of the good stuff in your pan. She sets up this story with such straightforward innocence it totally had me fooled, though I really should have known better. I love how it builds a sort of quiet foreboding in the early paragraphs, even though you’re not really sure what to suspect. It’s got that rustic gothic mood most recently felt in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and before you realize it the plot’s already turned on you. Several times at that. And while the ending might feel one turn too frivolous, this is brilliant stuff. I’m not even gonna summarize, you should just read it now. And I really need to be reading more Munro.

New Yorker Stories: “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley

I’m sure expectations for some sort of profound revelation are building with each passing day, but for now I’d just like to try and get back into an executional groove with this blog so I’m going to start out with one of our recurring features and a promise to make it more recurring than history has thus far indicated.

Friendly Fire by Tessa Hadley is the first New Yorker story I’ve read in several months, and while it went remarkably quickly and had some charming details, there’s simply no plot to speak of – the main character is a middle-aged woman named Shelley who’s earning extra money by doing some work for her friend Pam’s cleaning business. The two clean a warehouse in the middle of the night. The end. Shelley also has a son in the British army stationed in Afghanistan, which is an interesting wrinkle given our (understandable) preoccupation with American soldiers overseas but the perspective ends up being under-utilized. While visiting Karan in New York last summer I vaguely remember having met a literary girl who cited Tessa Hadley as a favorite author, and there are indeed some nicely observed moments here – the soldier son now kisses his mother goodbye “as if he were putting her aside, kindly but firmly” – but there just isn’t enough here to hang a hat on.