Year in Review: The New Yorker Short Fiction of 2009

If there are any of you are trying to find some engaging material to read over the holidays, I can’t recommend enough searching through the fiction (and other articles) of The New Yorker.  A subscription would be a great gift to you or from you (I know, because that’s how I got my subscription).  The New Yorker is my favorite place to read short fiction, as well as many other things — no, any other thing.  If you missed David Grann’s brilliant — brilliant – article on the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and the investigations leading to his conviction, you must read it (you can click on the link above to read the whole aticle online).  It is a tour de force in reporting and writing, a perfect specimen of what I consider The New Yorker to be.  Also, I thoroughly enjoyed Ian Frazier’s long two-part article on his travel across Siberia (unfortunately, this links only to the abstract — you need a subscription to read it).  And then there’s the fun “Shouts & Murmurs” column which featured this comical colloquium (also by Ian Frazier) on how climate change is affecting the temperature in Hell as well as this fun take on that farmboy who wants to use Rosetta Stone software to ensure his only chance with that Italian supermodel isn’t a failure: “Personalmente, sono stato un ammiratore di Valentino fin dalla scuola agraria” & “Familiarize yourself with the conjugation of the verb ‘to milk'”!  (Wow!  Also by Ian Frazier — sir, cheers to you!)

Back to the fiction — and there’s no Ian Frazier here — I have a hard time getting through a whole collection of short stories by one author, but a weekly short story from a variety of authors is just the ticket to maintaining a healthy short story appetite.  Last year I saw that The Millions blog did a quick review of all of the short fiction titles published in The New Yorker in 2008, and I decided that I wanted to do that same thing this year.  This goal forced me to keep current in my reading, which was certainly a pleasure, and to more deeply consider the gems (or duds) that come with this publication.  Here’s what there was, complete with links to the stories should you be interested (and you should be : ) ).  Links to each story, all but two available in its entirety on The New Yorker website, are included.  My favorites of the year have the dates bolded, though others were also very good.  Interestingly, I tended to favor the very strange stories, often involving myth or the supernatural, rather than the more realist pieces I would have first suspected.

New Yorker Original Cover

January 5 – Julian Barnes: “The Limner” — Should be a good year for fiction that starts with Julian Barnes.  This story takes readers back to an age of portrait painting.  The limner of the title has just been commissioned to paint the portrait of the pompous customs collector.  Barnes evokes the feel of an old story nicely while showing how this mute, deaf limner can interpret and portray hidden human traits.

January 12 – Joyce Carol Oates: “Pumpkin Head” — This disturbing story begins by immediately unsettling the reader.  A widowed 39-year-old answers the door to find a tall, lanky man with a pumpkin in place of his head.  While the immediate horror dissipates soon, the unsettling feeling continues when the widow invites the man into her home for a drink.  Strange that with such a conceit, the story dwells on Americans’ relationships with other nationalities.

January 19 – Antonya Nelson: “Soldier’s Joy” — I both liked and didn’t like this story.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the account of a slightly-over-middle-aged woman not really being the central person in anyone’slife.  The central story is about the emptiness she feels as she navigates in her relationships with her husband, her friend, her ex-lover, her parents, and her dogs, though to them she’s a side-story.  To the septuagenarian husband, she’s what makes him feel young, vital, and shamefully exciting.  For her parents, she’s a lost cause they’ve already found a replacement for.  For her ex-lover, she’s the fling who will never be the focus.  And the way this emptiness makes her feel like an abandoned, mopey adolescent is intriguing.  However, and this is not always a fault in a story, I had a hard time connecting with any of the stories.  These are all empty people.  They caused their own problems.  That she would “love” her ex-lover, a stoner who kicked his children out of their own treehouse while he “searches for a job” is part of my problem with the characters.  And this time, my problems with the characters turned into my problem with the story.

January 26 – Aravind Adiga: “The Elephant” — I was both intrigued and wary when I saw Mr. Adiga following up his Booker win with a short story in The New Yorker.  While I was among the few who liked The White Tiger, I didn’t think it deserved the Booker.  This story (on the longish side for The New Yorkerthese days) takes us to India, again, where a cooley is delivering items on a cycle-cart (or his head).  I wasn’t enjoying it until I saw that the three rupee tip he got at one place was basically used to pay the boss for the opportunity to do the delivery.  It’s the illumination of that kind of routine in India’s economy that helped me appreciate The White Tiger.  Like that work, though, this short story felt a bit like an apprentice-piece.  It was worthwhile but not entirely satisfying, and it was full of juvenile imagery that, to me, subverted the serious work without emphasizing the indignities therein.

February 2George Saunders: “Al Roosten” — Al Roosten is the overweight man in a gondolier costume waiting in a queue behind an attractive man in a skimpy swimsuit.  That man is about to walk out to the stage for the Local Celebrity Auction, a charity event to raise money to fight drugs.  Here’s a great line: “Roosten was deaf to the charity in this.”  This is about as close a third-person narrator as your going to find, and it works brilliantly to show the angry, jealous mind of Al Roosten.  It also helps usher in a mother who taps her foot impatiently at him in heaven when he acts out his frustration in an impotent manner when obviously he’d like to do so much more.  Highly recommended.

February 9 & 16 – Steven Millhauser: “The Invasion from Outer Space” — One of the shortest of the year’s stories, “The Invasion from Outer Space” is about a town’s anticipation at the approach of something from above.  Then there is disappointment.  Though this story is short, Millhauser still manages to imbue it with his excellent run of fluid details.

February 23 – Italo Calvino: “The Daughers of the Moon” (translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin) — For those unitiated in Calvino’s Cosmicomicsthis story might be a bit too abstract.  In these tales, narrated by the extremely old Qfwfq, Calvino extends some scientific tidbit into a great imaginative work.  The tidbit this time?  The gradual dissolution of the moon and its consequent descent to Earth.  Or perhaps it’s more correct to say the dissolution of amoon, Qfwfq having seen so many come and go.  Calvino links this dissolution with a highly consumeristic society, where the moon is one blighted ceiling that is due to be thrown away and a better one acquired.  This is not my favorite story in the Cosmicomics(I have only read a few).  I recommend beginning with some others and getting a sense of the motief and Qfwfq.

March 2 – A.M. Homes: “Brother on Sunday” — This was a rather slow moving story, which fit because most of it takes place on a sunny beach while Tom, a skin doctor, waits with some friends for his older brother Roger to arrive, like he does each year.  Tom and his wife often go out with these friends, and they seem to know Tom doesn’t particularly like them.  Still, as the story moves forward, we realize that Tom dislikes his brother even more, and fears somewhat that he considers these friends his friends.  Then Roger arrives “like a storm.”

March 9David Foster Wallace: “Wiggle Room” — Possibly my favorite of the year, this short story is actually a segment of Wallace’s unfinished book, The Pale King.  Here we go into the head of a man who reviews tax returns for any inconsistencies.  Wallace shows how mind-numbing this job is and how a man seeks to get by, trying to keep from something simple like looking at the clock and to keep from something not so simple like thoughts of suicide.  In walks a man who knows the history of the word “bore.”

March 16 – No fiction this issue, but there is a large selection of recent John Updike poems.

March 23 – Tessa Hadley: “She’s the One” — I didn’t think I’d like this story once I started it and realized what it was about.  The main character is Ally, a young graduate of English studies who lives in Manchester, England, close to the moors.  Her little brother Ryan has just committed suicide.  It’s not that I don’t find this premise important.  I just feel like I’ve read it several times.  However, what I found instead was a freshly written account of the aftermath of such a tragedy, especially when the narrative introduces Ryan’s girlfriend Yvonne.

March 30 – Craig Raine: “Julia and Byron” — Though short, this story manages to get through the diagnosis and treatment of a cancer patient, her death, and the repercussions on the husband, who never treated her well.  Its quality stems from the short details that give a lot of depth to Julia and Byron.  Still, not one of my favorites of the year.

April 6 – Brad Watson: “Visitation” — This nicely paced, tense narrative describes a divorced father’s attempts to maintain a relationship with his young son.  There’s a tragic sense of failure as the father takes the son to McDonald’s and then to a run-down hotel by the freeway for their weekend together.  Turns out this is how they typically spend their time.  Things are worse this weekend, however, when an obnoxious family of four takes over the swimming pool and intimidates the guests.  I took a family law class wherein we read sad case after sad case, sad law review article after sad law review article, about “visitation.”  This piece takes it in a different direction while maintaining the desperation.

April 13 – Colm Tóibín: “The Color of Shadows” — This was a fairly simple story about Dublin man, Paul, whose elderly aunt Josie, after falling in her home, needs now to be put into a rest home.  We get a look at some elements that are expected: the guilt of putting someone you love in a care center when they just want to be home.  However, as to be expected from such a brilliant writer, the story has other intriguing elements.  Paul’s mother abandoned him when he was a young child, too young to remember her; Josie raised him.  Sometime in this process, Paul’s mother has moved back the area.  The ending, referring to breath, feels like a deep breath, opening up a larger story while remaining sadly ambiguous.

April 20Chris Adrian: “A Tiny Feast” — This strange little story took me by surprise.  To reconcile after an argument, Oberon gives Titania a stolen mortal child.  As a toddler, however, the child begins to suffer from leukemia, forcing the faerie king and queen to interact with mortals in a cancer ward.  Mixing dark humor with genuine sadness, Adrian presents a unique perspective on parental love and on mortal folly.  I love a story that shows how even a bizarre, implausible, potentially lame idea can become wonderful when rendered by a master.  Here’s a quick passage where Titania reflects on the young child’s chemotherapy: “Within a few days, the poisons had made him peaceful.  Titania could not conceive of the way they were made, except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair . . . .  Oberon had voiced a fear that the boy was sick for human things, that the cancer in his blood was only a symptom of a greater ill — that he was homesick unto death.  So she imagined they were putting into him a sort of liquid mortal sadness, a corrective against a dangerous abundance of faerie joy.”

April 27Guillermo Martínez: “Vast Hell” (translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel) — This short short takes its name from an Argentinian proverb: “A small town is a vast hell.”  And we go into one of those small towns.  The narrator is a grocery store clerk, and he begins to reminisce about “that young man whose name we never knew and whom no one in town mentioned again.”  Martínez lays bare the way gossip spreads and poisons a small town’s people, which has been done before.  It is done very well here.  But that is not where the heart of the story lies.  What is discovered is far more hideous than the truth that gossip can cause pain.  One of my favorites of the year.

May 4Gail Hareven: “The Slows” (translated from the Hebrew by Yaacov Jeffrey Green) — Yet another bizarre but excellently crafted story.  Whoever said The New Yorker only publishes realism is way off this year.  Still, here again we have a bizarre situation told in a realist voice.  The narrator is a researcher at a Preserve, home of the Slows.  I’ll let you find out for yourself who the Slows are, and what ethical battles the researcher must battle when a Slow woman comes to ask him not to take their children.

May 11J.G. Ballard: “The Autobiography of J.G.B.”  — Placed in one of the year’s longest issues, this was the shortest story at a mere three columns.  If we are to follow the title, apparently Ballard woke up one morning to find his neighborhood absolutely empty of its inhabitants — except for him.  A bit of roaming around leads him to discover that his neighborhood is not the only one suddenly empty, with no explanations.

May 18 – Salman Rushdie: “In the South” — I admit it: Rushdie completely lost me with The Enchantress of Florence.  About halfway through that book the author I respected (I loved Midnight’s Children) became for me what he was already for others: over writing, self-indulgent, overrated.  I was not excited to read this short story, which only a year before I would have been thrilled about.  I can’t say this story brought me back into the fold, but neither did it fully reinforce my disdain.  A simple story — two octogenarians, Junior and Senior, live next door to each other, have opposing views on almost everything, and don’t want to get away from each other.  Rushdie gives them and their environment a nice symbolic meaning, but I didn’t feel it ended up saying too much.  Still, the last one-third of the story had me deep in though.

May 25 – Jonathan Lethem: “Ava’s Apartment” — A man abandons his old life and, following the directions of a friend, takes up residence in a strange apartment complex, an apartment complex made for abandoned dogs.  His own roommate happens to be Ava, a three-legged pit-bull.  Together they form a new life.  While this maintained my interest, I kept hoping for more.  Despite its pensive, drawn-out sentences and its tone, it actually seemed to take great pains to tie things together to say something meaningful.

June 1 – Craig Raine: “Love Affair with Secondaries” — And so Craig Raine becomes the first author to have a second story appear in the same year.  I didn’t much care for “Julia and Byron.”  Here we have a married man in the middle of an affair.  While this one was better, it still left me a bit cold.

June 8 & 15 – Fiction Issue:

  • Jonathan Franzen: “Good Neighbors” — In my opinion, this was the best written story in the fiction issue.  It’s a disturbing tale about the dissolution of a family through the years.  Starting out like a dream, the young couple moves into a cheap fixer-upper into a neighborhood not yet gentrified.  Two children come along and grow up as the neighborhood does — and while the neighborhood’s gossip and backbiting grow.  The wife seems to be mysteriously impervious to such talk; rather than cast judgment when she hears others gossip, she merely says something was “weird.”  The husband remains aloof from the neighborhood and the family.  Yet this family becomes the center of it all.  I like this one because, while the topic is what feels typical in The New Yorker, its style if quite different, told from multiple perspectives, the verdict on this particular family is, to me at least, unascertainable.
  • Edna O’Brien: “Old Wounds” (subscription required to read online) — It seems a good contemporary Irish story can’t help but deal with family wounds and burials.  While different, I didn’t feel that this story added anything to this tradition, though I still enjoyed this story.  The narrator’s mother’s family had a falling out when the narrator was very young.  The only time they would get together was at funerals.  Years later, the narrator meets and creates a healing friendship with her cousin, the cause of the initial falling out.  Now much older, the two cousins feel that the wounds are healing, but the cousin’s wife and the burial ground come in between.
  • Téa Obreht: “The Tiger’s Wife” (subscription required to read online) — This is the début fiction piece, and it did feel like the product of a creative writing program: each sentence carries a weight of profundity, there’s a multi-generational and multi-cultural current, the ending attempts to interpret it all before drifting into its own unknown.  Often these features turn me off to new writers’ fiction, though I greatly respect what they are doing and wish them all the best and want to support them.  While these features did limit my response, “The Tiger’s Wife” has the advantage of being well constructed and interesting.  We are situated in Eastern Europe in 1941.  Into the village walks a strange survivor of a recent battle: a tiger formerly held in a zoo.  At first more of a phantom, soon the village is confronting its reality.  Among those confronting the tiger are the narrator’s grandfather and a young Muslim girl purchased by the town’s butcher to be his wife.  Sixty years later, the grandfather’s story reveals more about the psychology of the villagers than it does about the truth.

June 22 – Tim Gautreaux: “Idols” — I very much enjoyed this one about a lost remnant to a great family.  In the beginning, our narrator, a fixer of manual typewriters who is over sixty, finds out that he has inherited what is left of his great-grandfather’s estate, which now includes only just over $20,000 and a dilapidated grand house.  He decides to move to the house and fix it up to its original grandeur.  To do this he hires a man in his fifties whose been kicked out by his wife.  The man needs money to get his tatoo collection burned off his skin, hoping his wife will take him back then.  So the hired man proceeds to fix up the house while going to the doctor weekly to get his tatoos burned off.  It’s a nice story that looks at loneliness and greed.

June 29Stephen O’Connor: “Ziggurat” — Yet again, one of my favorites of the year takes some fantastical element and modernizes it and brings it into mundane realism (at least partly).  Here the creature is the minotaur.  The story starts when he sees one of the new virgins (well, not really, according to her, but, you know, what to tell the mother) playing a video game while he lounges on a pool table in some strange room in the labyrinth.  I couldn’t believe that a story that combines some Greek myth with the decadent present would be that good, but it did an excellent job exploring emptiness.  Definitely one of my favorites.

July 6 & 13 – Lorrie Moore: “Childcare” — I’ve been interested in reading something by Lorrie Moore because some of my friends get very anxious whenever something by her is put out there.  They were really excited when this piece was published.  When I began the piece, here’s what I was thinking: This is excellent stuff!  She really does have a natural fluency in her writing!  Then because of some distraction I put the magazine down and didn’t feel the need to pick it up again until two weeks later.  I was ultimately pleased with the story which deals with a young woman getting a childcare job before the employer has even adopted her child.  They go together to an interview with the birth mother, a sassy teen wearing an electronic bracelet.  On the whole I enjoyed perspective this young employee provided on the tension between the birth mother and the hopeful adoptive mother, though I have to say that somewhere the steam ran out — but that was probably just me and my distractions.  It was definitely excellently written and made me more interested in Moore.

July 20William Styron: “Rat Beach” — I was really excited when I saw that for this issue we’d be taken back to a prior era of writing.  I wasn’t disappointed!  Styron’s story about a young marine preparing to invade Japan during the final stages of WWII is affecting both because of its subject matter but also because of its powerful, controlled, and lucid prose.  It’s an excellent look at a young man frightened to death trying to find any distractions, and what motivates him.  Highly recommended read.

July 27Kirstin Valdez Quade: “The Five Wounds” — This fascinating story about a man playing Jesus in his community’s annual Passion play is well written with varied subtexts.  Astonishing to me that this deft piece of writing was written by a recent MFA graduate.  I like new writers’ material, but this one — to me — lacked the flaws inherent in most.  Amadeo Padilla, the thirty-three-year-old man playing Jesus, is attempting to get holy and in the zone for the big day — he might just be the best Jesus since Manuel Garcia, who, because he actually used real nails, is still a legend as he wanders around the city, judging people with his curled, useless hands.  Amadeo has been feeling pretty good, but then his pregnant fourteen-year-old daughter (who’ll turn fifteen on Good Friday) arrives, threatening to tarnish the whole affair.  Very recommended.

August 3Joshua Ferris: “The Valetudinarian” — I’ve actually put off reading anything by Joshua Ferris, thinking he fit into what I consider to be the young, loud, overwriting writer.  If this short story is any indication, I am so wrong.  This story about a widower living his retirement alone in Florida is heartwarming/rending and funny and very nicely controlled.  One of my favorites of the year.

August 10 & 17 – Sherman Alexie: “War Dances” — A few years ago I heard Sherman Alexie speak about his writing and his Indian heritage.  I found it interesting, and though I know he’s a talented writer, I’ve always found it to be a one-note song: Native Americans have a tragic past and a tragic present suffering from alcoholism and nostalgia.  It always seems he feels his job is to desentimentalize the Native American mystique.  A bit of that is in here, but it is incidental to a much larger and subtler story about a man (Native American) suffering from a mysterious diagnosis that seems to be a recurrence of his hydrocephalia he suffered as a child.  With wiffs of Kafka’s “Metamorphisis,” this is a stylistically acute piece of writing.

August 24 – Dave Eggers: “Max at Sea” — I was looking forward to this one.  Even though I would never have thought to expand on the wonderful children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, the trailer for the film version of Eggers’s work gave me hope.  I have not seen the film, but if this short story is any indication, it will be awful.  Sometimes an author can breath new life into a classic work, show some other dimensions, expand it a bit.  This piece, however, diminishes the original, seems to limit it by defining what makes everything tick.  It begins before the classic story did, explaining why Max is having such a wild day.  Here Max is picked on by his older sister’s friends.  She does not defend him.  He retaliates.  His high-strung mother punishes him.  His father has left the family, though Max is still attached.  The mother’s new boyfriend is a fat dweeb.  The classic story contains all of this and so much more — not the least, the very real possibility that Max was simply being a child rather than being psychologically damaged (by all sorts of complexes).  It also limits the magic of the island with the wild things, who are all unimpressively named.  To me this story was a stroke against imagination.  The writing was flat and clichéd.  It failed on every level.  Why did The New Yorker publish this?

August 31 – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “The Fountain House” (tr. from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers) — Very short and even more strange.  This story begins just after a bus has blown up.  A man’s daughter was killed and taken away.  Certain something can be done for her, the man steals her body and bribes a doctor to work on her (“Although the girl was not accompanied by a medical history, the doctor could see perfectly well that she was dead.”).  It becomes very strange when the father keeps lapsing into dreams.  I definitely didn’t understand this tale, but I did enjoy it.

September 7 – Orhan Pamuk: “Distant Relations” (tr. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely) — From the first few paragraphs, I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did.  It’s an interesting construct: a man is about to become engaged to his innocent love.  She likes a purse they see in a window.  The man goes to buy it for her, finds a distant relation at the store, and sinks into a deep lust.  Very nicely drawn out.

September 14Paul Theroux: “The Lower River” — This one surprised me.  I haven’t been much for short stories written in slow prose this year.  The prose has felt weightier than the story itself.  However, this nicely paced story — about an elderly missionary returning to a village in Africa where he’d spent some youthful years — was vivid and textured.  Finally the weighty story felt substantiated by the prose itself.

September 21 – Sam Shepard: “Land of the Living” — I’m not sure I understood this one, and I don’t feel like going back to read it again.  I enjoyed the beginning, where a man and his family are about to board a plane for a vacation.  The man is in a very good mood.  But then his wife asks, in front of the children, whether he’s having an affair.  The tense vacation is great, but, like I said, in the end the pieces didn’t add up for me.  Though I’m sure their is a sound equation that I failed to formulate.

September 29, 2009 – Marisa Silver: “Temporary” — I don’t have much to say about this piece because it didn’t interest me.  It took me all week to get through it, in fact.  The story is set up in the kind of down-and-out realism that I’m finding harder and harder to take, especially when in the end I don’t feel it offered much that is new.  This one is about a woman who finds temporary work at an adoption agency.  I did like her conversations and imaginings about a potential adopting family, but I’m afraid this one faded the moment I finished it. 

October 5, 2009George Saunders: “Victory Lap” — George Saunders’ second piece of fiction to be published this year.  When I started this bizarre piece, I thought I wouldn’t like it.  We get inside the head of a Alison, a teenage girl, probably fourteen or fifteen, as she imagines descending a staircase to her suitors.  She is interrupted by a knock at her door.  Then we get insidethe head of a teenage boy, her neighbor and also probably around fourteen or fifteen, as he arrives home and imagines his parents scolding him for the rules he’s breaking while they’re away.  He is interrupted when he goes outside and sees Alison open her door.  All of this was interesting, but the highly stylized writing was getting grating.  But then we realize that the man who knocked on the teenage girl’s door means to kidnap and rape her.  The story then veers into the criminal’s head, then back to the boy’s, and finally to Alison’s.  In the end it was a powerful trip, and the style augmented the irrationality of it all.

October 12, 2009 – Tessa Hadley: “The Godchildren” — After doubling up on George Saunders last week, this week The New Yorkergave a second spot to Tessa Hadley.  I really liked where I thought this one was going.  Three godchildren of the deceased have showed up at the house where they spent some days in their childhood.  For two of them, the memories are either faded or perhaps repressed.  But for the other, this is a big big deal.  I’m afraid it lost some steam with me, though, towards the end.

October 19, 2009 – Julian Barnes: “Complicity” — It’s like I’m reading the same authors as I was in the first few months of 2009.  However, Julian Barnes is one I love seeing in The New Yorker.  Sadly, this story didn’t really work for me.  A divorcee begins courting a doctor, and I like the various ways Barnes works around the word “complicity,” but I remain fairly indifferent about this one.

October 26, 2009 – Jonathan Lethem: “Procedure in Plain Air” — What a nicely strange story!  For some reason, this year, the strange stories have been my favorites.  They’ve been fresh and incredibly well written.  Here Lethem describes a mundane day where an unemployed man, just getting over his severance pay, watches two workers excavate a hole in the pavement and then “install” a captive man into the hole.  In a matter-of-fact way, they give the man an umbrella to stand over the hole when it starts to rain.  It’s a very short piece, and well worth the read.

November 2, 2009Javier Marias: “While the Women Are Sleeping” (tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) — As is the case with his novels, his short fiction also starts with a blessed tease: “For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them.  I’ll probably never see them again — at least, not her.  Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.”  This story begins on a Spanish beach.  The narrator and his wife people watch and are very intrigued by a large man who uses a videocamera to record his beautiful companion every day.  One night, the narrator cannot sleep and, after he sees from his window the fat man sitting by the pool outside, he goes to chat.  There’s a good reason this one was printed in the Halloween issue.  It’s disturbing but very sophisticated.

November 9, 2009 – Stephen King: “Premium Harmony” — Stephen King, publishing in The New Yorker.  If you’re surprised, as I was, it might surprise you further to know that this is the sixth piece of short fiction he’s published there.  And I’d be unfair to say that it is just for sales — Stephen King has produced some pretty exceptional bits of writing in the mounds and mounds to choose from.  Here we have an unhappy, poor couple.  Each has a vice: Ray smokes and Mary eats hostess foods.  On their way to Wal-Mart, Mary asks Ray to stop at a Quick-Pik so that Mary can go in and buy a 99 cent kickball as a birthday present for their niece.  Ray knows it would be 20 cents cheaper at Wal-Mart, but Mary wants the purple one at Quick-Pik.  As she’s going in, he asks her to buy him some cigarettes.  The tension builds as Ray waits for Mary in the car, and we wonder if she’s going to come out with cigarettes or hostess cakes.  But the tension really builds when Mary doesn’t come out at all.  This has some of King’s usual cliches and you can sometimes see where it’s writing by numbers, and both of these have the tendency to subvert the parts where King is genuinely good — but I was surprised to find the story at times touching.  Not a great success, though.

November 16, 2009Yiyun Li: “Alone” — This short story took me forever to read.  I just wasn’t snagged in the first few pages, and for some reason, I really needed that snag in this case.  However, when the story picked up — when the Chinese woman starts to tell her story about a fatal boating accident to the older man she’s just met at a ski resort — the story becomes quietly affecting and remained on my mind long after I finished.  It remains one of my favorites of the year.

November 23, 2009 – Sam Shepard: “Indianapolis (Highway 74)” — I liked this story much more than Shepard’s last one.  Here we still have the male narrator travelling, but this time he’s at a Holiday Inn near Indianapolis where he encounters a woman he had lived with forty years before.  This is a great “road” story, even though most of it takes place in a lobby.

November 30, 2009 – Don DeLillo: “Midnight in Dostoevksy” — Despite the catchy title, this story confirmed my belief that I shouldn’t rush to buy DeLillo’s Point Omegawhen it is released.  Here we have a couple of college students, kicking around town, arguing about the details of the life of a man they sometimes encounter.  It starts with simple questions: What kind of coat is he wearing?  Filled with his clippy dialogue, the story goes in and out of various discussions about the man and a class the students are taking.  I’m sure there is a lot of brilliance hidden from my view in these lines, but I didn’t have the patience to seek it out.

December 7, 2009 – Ian McEwan: “The Use of Poetry” — McEwan used to be a writer I read voraciously.  That has changed, and I actually wasn’t keen on reading this story when it appeared.  As usual, however, I immediately fell into the rhythm of his sentences as he recounted, briefly, the youth of Henry Beard, a physicist who will one day win the Nobel Prize.  The story slows down some when he meets Maisie Farmer at Oxford and they venture into the world of marriage, almost on a youthful whim to do just exactly what their sixties culture told them not to do — now there’s some conscientious rebellion.  The story moves quickly and is told mostly in the tone of biographical summary.  And, frankly, I’m not sure I caught the thread at the end that tied it all together.  In the end I feel like his sentences are more impressive than his ideas.  Which is not saying much with this piece.

December 14, 2009 – David Foster Wallace: “And All That” — I loved “Wiggle Room,” the first short story by David Foster Wallace to appear in this year’s The New Yorker.  I loved it so much, in fact, that when I saw this issue featured another of his stories I lapped it up quickly.  Not as good as “Wiggle Room” but still highly original.  Our narrator tells us of a Christmas present he received as a child: a wooden cement mixer he could pull around on a string.  His parents, in the way parents do, tell him that the mixer is magic, that it turns only when he is pulling it and only when he is not looking at the mixer.  So the boy spends his time trying to come up with increasingly elaborate ways to try to catch the mixer rotating.  It never crosses his mind that it was a joke.  Later in life, he’s very religious and in a seminary.  His parents are devout atheists but supportive.

December 21 & 28, 2009Helen Simpson: “Diary of an Interesting Year” — We close the year with this bleak The Road-like tale derived from a diary written in the year 2040, when the woman narrating it was thirty years old.  The world is not right, and she and G., her boyfriend/husband, decide to go North towards Scotland to try to get to Russia, the land of milk and honey.  In the chopped diary entries we rarely get a glimpse of what is actually happening except by intimation and by the author’s tone.  This is a short piece, and great food for thought as we begin a new year, the year this narrator is to be born.

And that’s a wrap, folks.  This was such a great project that I’m going to do it again in 2010.  I can’t recommend enough that some of you join me in 2010.

13 thoughts on “Year in Review: The New Yorker Short Fiction of 2009”

  1. What a great posting project, Trevor — I won’t say “reading” since you were going to read the stories anyway, but I certainly appreciate the effort involved in producing the summaries.

    I am a devoted New Yorker reader as well (although I usually am a few weeks behind), so for me this was a very handy reminder of stories appreciated (and a few, like Eggers, that weren’t). Seen in a list like this it is also a reminder that the New Yorker selection is not nearly as predictable as some think — a mix of styles and a mix of established and not so established authors. My like/dislike response would not be that different from your own.

    Just a few notes of addition. The July 7-13 Lorrie Moore is an excerpt from her novel, A Gate at the Stairs — for those wondering about that novel, it is a reasonable introduction to both style and content. Ditto the Sept. 7 Orhan Pamuk which is from the early pages of his A Museum of Innocence — this is the incident that sets his obsession in motion. While Ian MacEwan’s new novel (Sonar) isn’t out yet, his December story also would seem to be an excerpt and I wonder if the same will prove true of the Delillo.

    I’ll be enjoying the 2010 New Yorker short stories even more knowing that this helpful summary will be coming at year end.

  2. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I didn’t know you were doing this yet, but I would like to say that of the ones I read (which were admittedly few), I absolutely adored “A Tiny Feast.” I loved the conflict between emotion and reason Titania faces with being a mother.
    Also, I’m glad you didn’t like King. I’m just petty enough to get pleasure when arrogance is checked by reality (even if only by others).

  3. Tony S. says:

    Excellent idea for a post. I follow the stories that are printed in the New Yorker, but unfortunately don’t read them. For some reason, I only read stories in collections. Perhaps it is because that way I can give myself credit for reading them as a book. Perhaps it is because I need to read several stories by an author before I can appreciate the style of that author. I know that the New Yorker publishes very good writers.

  4. Trevor says:

    Finally a light break from work to respond to these comments!

    Kevin, I do think the Delillo piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, but I couldn’t really take this in short-story form, so I’ll leave it to others to judge Point Omega. I also have heard that both David Foster Wallace pieces are excepts from The Pale King. I have no idea how they go together in the same book, but from David Foster Wallace such things don’t seem to matter. And I was so majorly disappointed in the Wild Things excerpt published here that I refused to see the movie when it came out and I can’t help but think those who loved it are wrong. I’m aware that I can’t judge what I haven’t seen, but the bit here was just awful.

    Yep, Sherry, I’ve been writing these summaries every week when I finish the article. You can probably go through them and see my busy weeks versus my not-so-busy weeks by their content. And I second your back-up about “A Tiny Feast.” I loved that story. Could have been my favorite this year — but that’s like picking a favorite book. I can get the list narrowed down to a handful, but then it’s impossible.

    Tony, I think we have the opposite problems with short stories. I love ‘em, but I rarely work my way through an entire collection in any timely manner. Though this doesn’t always happen, I often kind of get bogged down by all of the new beginnings by the same author. I finish a story and want to move on to someone completely different, making this type of venue perfect for my fickle moods :) .

  5. I’m with you, Trevor — the New Yorker stories pique my curiosity (and sometimes satisfy it — Bolano’s story is a good example of that). I think your project shows that the fiction selection is much broader than most people assume and a reliable test. I do read books of stories (just order Meloy’s) but it requires a kind of discipline that I don’t normally possess.

  6. Sorry, an extraneous post. Can you set up a thread where those of us who do read the magazine (Mrs. Berrett might qualify as well) could drop in a comment or two to be added to your end-of-year post?

  7. Trevor says:

    I think the idea of a thread is perfect, Kevin. Often through the year, because of this posting project, I wanted to see what others thought of the story. I was only satisfied once when John Self was reading the McEwan piece and posting his thoughts on Twitter while he read it. He hated it, by the way. I’m not sure how many people will join the conversations about the pieces, but there’s a good way to find out. Also, I definitely would have wanted to see what people thought about the article on Willingham’s execution. I’m still blown away by the skill with which that important article was written — better than most detective novels, in my book.

    Now, how to set up a thread that allows us to post in an organized fashion about multiple articles throughout the year . . . Time to put WordPress to the test.

  8. Trevor says:

    Thanks Charles. I have to say, though, despite the lack of links from your comment, it looks an awful lot like the spam comments that get filtered out. Are you really a person Charles? Please let me know, or I might have to block this comment for fear it might allow spam to start leaking into my site.

  9. I’m thinking that WordPress is having some problems with its spam filter — or that someone has found a way around it. I too am getting a bunch of irrelvant hits.

  10. Trevor says:

    I’m just not sure what these spam comments that contain no links do. Is it an attempt to get me to approve an author and then deluge me with spam? So far, not the case.

    However, Charles, I am going to delete you comment. If you come back, comment again!

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