"The Pilot"
by Joshua Ferris

"Here We Aren't, So Quickly"
by Jonathan Safran Foer

"What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone"
by Philipp Meyer

"The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire"
by Rivka Galchen

"Lenny Hearts Eunice"
by Gary Shteyngart

by ZZ Packer

"The Kid"
by Salvatore Scibona

by C.E. Morgan

Originally published in the June 14 & 21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

This special and much talked about issue features eight of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40,” that elite group considered by the editors of The New Yorker to be the twenty most promising young authors writing today. I think it’s a good idea to go to the issue’s table of contents to see all of the “web only” material available for your perusal.  Not sure how long this link will remain active, but here it is for a bit anyway.

One problem with this week’s offering — several of the stories are only available to subscribers. I’ve linked to them all below (and as I read them I’ll place my comments below the links), but if you haven’ t subscribed, you won’t be able to read the ones with * next to them (which is five of the eight). I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before here, but even though most of the fiction and many of the articles are available online for free, I highly recommend subscribing to The New Yorker. It is not that expensive, first of all, at only $40 for the full year of 48 issues. Second, often their best stuff is behind a paywall (though I personally feel they are overly generous). And third and perhaps most importantly, with the subscription you get unfettered access to high quality pdfs of each and every New Yorker published from the beginning. Seems like that alone should cost much more per year (though don’t tell them I said that — I like things the way they are).

* Joshua Ferris: “The Pilot

I don’t know what to say. This was lame. I don’t use that word often. Possibly because I almost never finish and therefore never write about something I feel this way about. Ferris is highly respected by others, and I really liked his story “The Valetudinarian” that was published in The New Yorker last year. But this story was completely uninteresting. While there were no stumbling blocks in the writing, nor did it ever seem inspired.

This is a very boring story about a man failing to write a television pilot. He has received an email invitation to a party hosted by one of television’s biggest successes, Kate Lotvelt, the highly respected creator / writer / actress in “Death in the Family,” which has just wrapped its third season.  Most of the first part of the story is about our Lawrence vacillating about every decision, even whether Kate herself intended to invite him. This is no Hamlet; Lawrence’s mind is not interesting. Watching his struggle is boring. I found nothing new here, and even the old elements were not done well.

* Jonathan Safran Foer: “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly

I wasn’t expecting much from this story, so I read it first (plus, it’s just two pages long, a nice piece to get this issue under way). I’ve a prejudice against Safran Foer, have always considered Safran Foer to be gimmicky and showy. It’s not that his pieces lack substance (as much does), but that seemed to be secondary to cleverness. When I began this piece, I thought I was reading a piece with the same affliction. Here is the first paragraph:

I was not good at drawing faces. I was just joking most of the time. I was not decisive in changing rooms or anywhere. I was so late because I was looking for flowers. I was just going through a tunnel whenever my mother called. I was not able to make toast without the radio. I was not able to tell if compliments were backhanded. I was not as tired as I said.

This sets up the flow of this piece. The next paragraph follows a similiar structure of similar summaries of character, only they begin with “You.” As I said, I thought, great, this gimmickry again. But before I knew it, the piece subdued me, this quick summary of two lives by their minutia. Soon we add a child:

You loved tiny socks. You were not depressed, but you were unhappy. Your unhappiness didn’t make me defensive; I just hated it. He was never happy unless held.  I loved hammering things into walls. You hated having no inner life.

There’s sadness in the descriptions, and the descriptions seem to catch it all so well: “We couldn’t wait for the beginnings and ends of vacations.” The pace quickens: “He suddenly drew, suddenly spoke, suddenly wrote, suddenly reasoned. One night I couldn’t help him with his math.  He got married.”

Soon, all of this is displaced, and Safran Foer begins speaking in the negative (which really works): “And here we aren’t, so quickly: I’m not twenty-six and you’re not sixty. I’m not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into the sea.” This goes on, and I really found it perfect. It’s like a revision of “The Swimmer.” I have to revise my prejudice against Jonathan Safran Foer.

* Philipp Meyer: “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone

A true winner. Here’s how it begins:

Max had a name for what had happened to his son: the Accident, he called it. He wondered if his wife had her own name for it, though it wouldn’t be the same, because she didn’t think of it as an accident.

We meet Max a little bit after the accident. His wife Lilli has left witout leaving a note. The first part of the story is a brilliant look at a man wandering around the house, worried about his son, about what happened to his son, worrying about his relationship with his wife, which is only going down hill, though they’ve made love more since the accident than they had in the last year.

Lilli stayed out with the Stocktons all day, and Max turned in early. He was barely aware of her coming to bed. Later that night a noise woke him, and he thought, It’s just Harley coming in, and then he heard another noise and woke up all the way.

Lilli was lying on her side with her back to him, and he reached and touched her hip lightly. She was small and delicate; she looked like a pixie, like something from the movies. Even now, at forty-two, she seemed to glow in the dim light. She didn’t pull away from him, and he stayed there with his hand like that, looking at the curve from her shoulder to her small waist and up to her hip, aware of the feeling of her not pulling away.

This is a great story. I particularly liked how it presented Max’s needs, often contradictory, and how Max wanders around in the days following the accident. The writing is subtle and unobtrusive, leaving the reader to the story.

Rivka Galchen: “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire

So I read this story on Friday. Now, Sunday, I am struggling to remember anything about it. I didn’t like it when I read it; I know that much.  Since it is short, though, I am able to reread it and find the passages I marked. Here is how it begins, and I thought it was promising:

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they’re not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I’ve received — also the only reader letters I’ve received — have come from prisoners.

I liked that. I started to get wary of where this was going when I read the next few lines:

Maybe we’re all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That’s not nice, my saying that. Maybe it’s an evil, to co-opt the misery of others.

Far from bringing me into the story, this step back to generalizing threw me out, and with what came next I never really got back in. We find out that the narrator, Trish, has been left by her husband, some time in the past, and that he left her while she was pregnant. The story, however, focuses on the mundane, which I was inclined to like. For example, we learn that her husband, when he left, had packed up a really excellent Parmesan cheese grater:

I searched online for a replacement for that Parmesan grater, because I had really liked that Parmesan grater. It was the kind that works like a mill, not the kind you just scrape against; it had a handle that was fun to turn. There were a number of similar graters available, but with unappealing “comfort” grips. Finally I found the same model. Was it premature to repurchase? Two days passed basically like that. 

I liked that, but eventually the narrators blasé tone was in itself grating. And then there’s the rather ineffective segment where Trish and her friend David are talking past each other, bringing to mind some existential performance. I may have been predisposed to dislike this story by that time (I really didn’t like the first half), so I may have really missed something here. That happens, certainly, but I didn’t ever care if I was missing stuff in this story.

Gary Shteyngart: “Lenny Hearts Eunice

Hmmm. I’ve never read Absurdistan, and I’m afraid this offering did little to convince me I would find it to my liking. Does Absurdistan come off as glib? I certainly hope not.

In “Lenny Hearts Eunice” we go into the future a bit, and I’m sad to say that the future looks very similar to the futrue dreamed up by many other authors extenuating the worst of our time to the nth degree. I’m thinking particularly of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. In this short story we have such conglomerates as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit, and UnitedContinentalDeltAmerican. The human race — well, maybe not entirely human since there is the Post-Human Service Division — is very absorbed in their skin.

Still, Shteyngart’s piece has the benefit of not taking these elements entirely seriously. They are added for fun, something for the reader to chuckle about while reading about the grotesque Lenny and his crush on the young Asian Eunice. In his interview with The New Yorker, Shteyngart says that the inspiration behind this story is the “never-ending feelings of Soviet Jewish worry about the future.” These bits are tongue-in-cheek. But they were too distracting for me to get into the heart of the story, and I lost all interest in these lost individuals.

* ZZ Packer: “Dayward

I hadn’t read anything about this story before picking it up, and perhaps that’s a good way to approach it. I’m going to talk about it briefly here, but I’ll state my recommendation up-front: not as good as the Meyer but very good and recommended.

Now, for those sticking around, the story starts with a bit of disorientation. All we know is that a young man and his younger deaf sister are being chased through trees by vicious dogs:

Early yet, the morning clouds the color of silver fox, and Lazarus was running. His sister, Mary Celeste, hadn’t heard the dogs chasing after them — nor could hear them, being deaf — and, despite his signing to her what the plan was and for her to keep up as best she could, she’d nevertheless been treed, and soon so would he, if he was lucky and could make it to a likely pine in time.

This dog-chase is a great introduction to the story (actually, it might be a bit more than an introduction, taking up almost one-third of the piece); we learn little by little why the two children are running and Packer’s writing is both urgent and, to pleasing effect, matter-of-fact.

We learn early that Lazarus and Mary Celeste, fifteen (or fourteen) and nine, respectively, are emancipated slaves on their way to New Orleans. Upon telling their former mistress of their plans to leave with their newly granted freedom, she becomes bitter, reminding them they’d always been fed and clothed. After a few days,

Miss Thalia had knocked on their door to announce that she’d decided to have them sicced by Kittredge’s dogs and in all probability hanged, but that she was giving them a half day’s head start.

Once freed from the dogs, Lazarus and Mary Celeste wander onward to New Orleans, hoping to find there their Aunt Millie. I found the writing solid and the story an original, though conventional, narrative of post-emancipation slavery. Packer has some beautiful lines, like this one where Mary Celeste tells her brother what it felt like to go slowly deaf:

She said the voices sounded as though people were being suffocated, desperately trying to speak but hampered by pillow down, or straw ticking, or pond water.

Salvatore Scibona: “The Kid

Apparently based on a personal story, where Scibona was one of the ones trying to help, this short story begins when a young boy is lost in a German airport.  People surround him, trying to ask him where he came from, where his parents are, how they can help, but the boy is generally unresponsive; when he speaks it is a foreign language no one understands.

It seemed, somehow, Polish. The hodge-podge dialect of a town that ten different empires had captured on their way to someplace else.

In Scibona’s own story, eventually some of the airport personnel took the young boy, and Scibona has no idea what eventually happened. In this story, he imagines.

The lost child serves as a springboard to the past.  Elroy Heflin is a young man in the Army, deployed around the world.  While in Latvia he meets Evija, who gets pregnant. Theirs is the child whom no one can understand in the airport, and it’s a sad story all around, with scared people populating its pages.  Scibona goes just far enough to give us some context, but he allows the reader to interpret the events and the motives.

I didn’t like the story of Elroy and Evija nearly as much, however, as I liked the scenes in the airport. This was a good story, but I have the feeling that, other than that poor intelligible boy, the story will soon drift away.

* C.E. Morgan: “Twins

This is the last story I read, and I’m glad — the issue ended on a high note for me. I had never read anything by C.E. Morgan, which is no real surprise since her debut novel came out only last year. However, this piece shows that C.E. Morgan has already developed a style that would have led me to believe she wasn’t part of this generation of writers. It’s a bit slower and, I think, a bit more complex, possibly one of the best in this bunch. Here, for example, is the second paragraph of the story; we’ve just been introduced to Marie and her twin sons who live in Northside:

But again, the valley: They lived in the valley, four miles from the river, and whenever the waters rose, as they had in 1884 and again in 1937, the gray river coursed along the low arteries of the city and swamped the heart of Northside. The wealthy lived on Cincinnati’s seven hills, and when the flooding came they gazed down from their hills, troubled.

Marie is the first of her family to get a high-school diploma, and she also has an Associates Degree. She would like to become a teacher, “to teach children just like her own,” but that dream has been deferred due to some sickness.  So she and her two five-year-olds live near the Harrogate factory which produces a wondrous amount of smog.

Some days the sun fractured the filth in the air and made a hundred thousand rainbows of it. Sherbet, roses, and cantaloupe orange, wedding pink, white. The first thing Allmon would think of his tiny purchase of sky: I want to eat it.

We do meet early on the boys’ father, but after a period he’s essentially absent from their life. They both miss him and Marie always wants them to be on their best behavior so he might stay. The father is white; Marie is black. Allmon is black; Mickey is white. This dynamic is interesting, but it isn’t fully developed in this short story, which happens to be part of the novel Morgan is working on. Instead, the novel comes to its climax in the form of a visit from the father, who has promised to take them to a carnival.

My final thoughts here, then, are that Morgan is a magnificent writer, and I’m anxious to get to know her better. It doesn’t feel like the short story is the right vehicle, though, at least not for all she’s dealing with here. It’s not that the elements aren’t contained; it’s that they are developed and then kind of left aside. However, I have full confidence that this novel and whatever else Morgan writes is worth checking out.

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  1. KevinfromCanada June 7, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I’ll be waiting for my hard copy to arrive. And I am looking forward to it.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I’m looking forward to it, too, Kevin, though these eight authors are not the ones on the list that I’m most interested in. I’m anxious to read more from Chris Adrian, Wells Tower, and Yiyun Lee. But I haven’t read much of anything from any of these young authors, so I’m hoping this is a treat.

  3. Trevor Berrett June 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    By the way, for those of you unsure of The New Yorker, you can get a temporary free subscription for their online content (I think it’s four weeks). Now might be a good time.

  4. Trevor Berrett June 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Wow! I was just reading the Note from the Editors about how they selected this list. They say that Chris Adrian is studying to be a pediatric oncologist. His strange story last year, “A Tiny Feast” features Titania and Oberon adopting — well, stealing — a young child to raise only to find out it has leukemia and must undergo chemotherapy. It was one of my favorites I’ve ever read in The New Yorker.

  5. Joe June 11, 2010 at 12:29 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this issue for a long time and finally got around to reading a few of the stories. Here’s a quick rundown of the one’s I’ve read so far, in the order that I read them.

    Jonathan Safran Foer
    I really enjoyed “Everything is Illuminated” and was expecting much more from this story. Unfortunately, this is one of those gimmicky pieces of which the NYer seems so fond these days. I didn’t like this one at all.

    Gary Shteyngart
    Parts of this story are very funny (and bonus points because it is set in the NY neighborhood where I grew up), but it seemed overstuffed. There were a lot of interesting ideas, but I found it difficult to wade through the jumble. Also, I felt like I’d read similar pieces by George Saunders that worked much better.

    ZZ Packer
    Although this seems to be part of a novel, it’s the only one of these first three stories that felt satisfying. I’d be very interested to read the longer work that this comes from. I liked the language, historical details, suspense, and — at last! — good ol’ storytelling.

  6. Lee Monks June 11, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Wells Tower is really good, really enjoyed that collection. Shteyngart is exceptionally talented on the basis of Absurdistan. I’ve got The Children’s Hospital and Atmospheric Disturbances somewhere, not sure on Adrian or Galchen yet. But, of the other writers in the list of 20 I’ve read (Li, Safran Foer, Packer, Ferris and Krauss), I’d have to say Yiyun Li looks like the writer that, in 20 years, will have produced the most impressive work.

  7. Trevor Berrett June 12, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I posted my thoughts on the Safran Foer piece. My opinion differs from Joe’s: I liked it, quite a bit. Perhaps because my expectations were low and his were higher.

    I have also read the Galchen (which I didn’t like at all), but it’s time to go play with the children. Saving that update, then, for a bit later.

  8. Joe June 12, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    The next batch of three that I read:

    Rivka Galchen and Joshua Ferris
    Yipes! I didn’t like either of these at all. Both seemed amateurish, shallow, and sketchy. In the Ferris story, it seemed like even the author didn’t like any of his characters and I was certainly not interested in all that nonsense about the email invitation. That was bad enough, but this story also went on way past its welcome. The Galchen had a lot of the same problems for me, but at least it was short!

    C. E. Morgan
    With two unread stories remaining in this issue, this is so far my favorite by a big margin. I wasn’t familiar with C.E. Morgan’s writing before this, but this story felt just right. I like how it slowly revealed itself: we see the twins gradually becoming more independent as they interact with the outside world (the garage sale lady, the jump rope girls, the sad neighborhood carnaval). I found it quite moving. This is one of my favorite New Yorker stories of the year.

  9. Joe June 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Thoughts on the last two stories…

    Philipp Meyer
    What a beautiful and sad story about the decisions we make and the way wisdom can come upon us unexpectely. Althought its long, I wanted to reread it as soon as I was done. On the New Yorker web site, there is an interview with C.E. Morgan in which she says that what makes a piece of fiction work is “a combination of intellectual rigor, emotional intelligence, formal ingenuity, and interesting aesthetics…” I think that description applies to her story as well as this one. Speaking of the interviews on the New Yorker site, Meyer says “both style and linguistic acrobatics get erased by translation and go stale with the passage of time. So I think in the end the ideas have to hold up.” Yes! Bravo!

    Salvatore Scibona
    Good but not great. I thought the beginning was built on a strong premise (a lost child at an airport who speaks a language no one can identify), but felt that the story lost a bit of energy toward the middle and end.

    Overall tally for this issue…
    3 thumbs way up: Meyer, Morgan, Packer
    1 thumb moderately up: Scibona
    4 thumbs down: Ferris, Foer, Galchen, Shteyngart

  10. Trevor Berrett June 13, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Well, Joe, I finally got some thoughts out above about the Ferris and the Galchen. I completely agree with you there. Galchen was at best uninteresting and seemed to be a lot of tricks with no substance. Ferris I just thought awful. No way would I have made it past page three had I not been committed to reading these stories through. All of the subsequent pages simply reconfirmed my first urges to jus give up. Why was it so long? Why does any of that matter? Why did the writing come off as so uninterested? It’s hard to read a story when the author doesn’t seem to care about his subject.

  11. Trevor Berrett June 13, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Joe, I’m completely with you on the Meyer. That is an incredible story, very well written, very sad but without manipulating the reader — it just is sad. My thoughts above.

  12. Tim June 14, 2010 at 12:28 am

    I haven’t read the story by Meyer yet, but loved Morgan’s story. It really felt the most complete. While Ferris and Galchen may be a bit sparse, or struggle at times, I enjoyed their sense of humor. You can read some of my thoughts on the stories through this link [link broken].

  13. Trevor Berrett June 15, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    My most recent thoughts posted above, this time about Shteyngart’s contribution, which I found glib and unoriginal.

    Joe, I see you felt similarly. So far, the only piece we disagree about is the Safran Foer, which I liked. I notice that you ranked two of the three I have left very highly, and the third you gave a so-so. I see, Tim, that you also rates the Morgan highly! That’s all good news for me!

    So far, the only two pieces I’ve liked are the Meyer and the Safran Foer.

  14. Trevor Berrett June 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    My thoughts up on ZZ Packer’s great piece.

  15. Trevor Berrett June 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    One story left. Just finished posting my thoughts on the good but I think ultimately forgettable Scibona story.

  16. Lee Monks June 16, 2010 at 11:06 am

    The Safran Foer piece (from that extract) looks like the work of a man smirkingly lost amidst his own hubris. Insufferable in other words. Do you plan on looking at the Hemon edited ‘Best European Fiction 2010? compilation?

  17. Trevor Berrett June 16, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Regarding the Safran Foer piece, I was thinking the same thing until it started flowing for me. I got beyond the language and structure and into what the piece was saying — the form fell away and the repetition became somewhat poetic. If you see Joe’s comments above, you’ll see it never worked for him — he didn’t like it at all. It is still in my “very good” category for this issue. I imagine I’ll be in the minority, though.

    As for the BEF 2010, I haven’t got a copy of it, and I’ve been so swamped with other books and the like that I haven’t taken the initiative to get one. I’d like to, though. I hear only good things about it.

  18. Trevor Berrett June 16, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Okay, finished with this issue (thoughts on C.E. Morgan above), and now with 8 of the 20 featured writers. I’m very excited about the upcoming 12 issues, and heartened by the authors I’ve been introducted to (and somewhat disheartened by the ones I already had read and disliked).

    I think my thoughts echo Joe’s above, except I’d put Safran Foer in my top tier where he has it in the bottom (I wasn’t bothered by the formal play, though I can understand where those who are are coming from). That means:

    Top: Meyer, Morgan, Packer, Safran Foer
    Middle: Scibona
    Bottom: Ferris, Galchen, Shteyngart

    The ones in the bottom I really didn’t like at all. They felt more showy than substantial, and, honestly, I wasn’t even impressed with the showy. I didn’t find them “too clever”; to me they weren’t clever or interesting. Okay, I’d put the Shteyngart and Galchen several leaps over Ferris. I thought his story was just plain awful, whereas I just found the Galchen and Shteyngart uninteresting and un-new.

    As for my top tier, though: I’m very excited to read more Meyer, Morgan, and Packer. I’m not as interested in Safran Foer, for whom I still have a baseless prejudice.

    My favorite? Philipp Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone.”

  19. KevinfromCanada June 16, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    My copy finally arrived yesterday and I have been able to start reading these stories. I’m going to try to space them out. So far:

    1. Ferris — I liked his first novel, but I have to agree with the sentiments that this story is lame. The premise isn’t that bad, but it goes absolutely nowhere quickly — I too would have abandoned it were it not part of the “special” issue. Unfortunately, the story ended up reminding me about everything that did not work in the novel (and very little of what did).

    2. Safran Foer — I find it hard to say that a two-page story left me hankering for the ending, but this one did. Some of the images that were created were okay, but it seemed like a list that didn’t come together. And I can’t say I liked the style very much.

  20. Joe June 17, 2010 at 12:19 am

    Kevin, I’m glad I didn’t read the stories in the order they are presented in the magazine. Had I started with those two I might have given up and used the issue for kindling.

  21. Trevor Berrett June 17, 2010 at 10:41 am

    I guess I really am alone in my opinion on the Safran Foer piece. Well, I hope that you at least like the other pieces Joe and Tim and I enjoyed, Kevin.

  22. Trevor Berrett June 17, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    I see that the next issue will feature the story by Nicole Krauss. I haven’t read anything by her. My wife read and liked History of Love, but I never got the impression from her that she’d recommend it. Perhaps I should stop going by impressions and just ask.

  23. Trevor Berrett June 25, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Dzanc Books has created an alternate list of 20 Writers to Watch. They solicited votes from independent publishers, agents, bloggers and reviewers.

    There is obviously much to praise about the work that is published by New York houses, and in The New Yorker, as well as the authors on the New Yorker list. Nonetheless, we feel it is the independent presses who best represent the heart and soul of understanding what is going on in literary fiction today, and the writers included here have all struck a chord with that community. Each of these writers deserves to have his or her work championed and read by anyone who values great writing.

    Their list, which has twenty authors I need to check out, is available here.

  24. KevinfromCanada June 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    I finally got back to the issue and have now read three more:

    1. Meyer — The best so far, although I wasn’t quite as impressed as Trevor. I do think the author creates a successful, interesting central character and places him in a compelling “crisis”, on many fronts. Perhaps too many as my only objection to the story would be that some of those elements were perhaps just a bit too tidy for my taste. Still, a very successful story.

    2. Galchen — I quite liked parts of this story but will admit that the overall muddled effect finally predominated. I suspect one more rewrite could have produced a very successful story.

    3. Shteyngart — I did try to read Absurdistan and abandoned it in frustration. And I am afraid this rather long story served mainly to remind me of how frustrating I found that novel. I can’t help but feel that Shteyngart keeps introducing new, pointless distractions because he is not really sure what it is that he is trying to say. I do have friends who quite like his writing — my only explanation is that I expect a little more focus, less scatter gun, in my reading.

  25. Trevor Berrett June 27, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    I just read Colum McCann’s story in the summer issue of The Paris Review. It reminded me of the Safran Foer because it repeats a structure throughout, only I didn’t like the McCann at all. It really wore me down. I’m not sure why I liked the Safran Foer — must have just been in the mood :) .

  26. Trevor Berrett July 9, 2010 at 11:48 am

    So while I didn’t like the excerpt printed in this issue of The New Yorker, this book trailer is pretty funny. Click here. Great quote from Jeffrey Eugenides:

    Gary has managed to escape the anxiety of influence by the sheer fact that he has never read a word. I really admire that state of pure, of pure ignorance.

    Still, I think I can take this kind of thing in the form of a five-minute book trailer.

  27. Trevor Berrett July 19, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    I am liking Gary Shteyngart’s sense of humor, his book (not surprising, given the excerpt in this issue) just doesn’t sound like one I’d get on with. (Click here)

  28. Ken July 21, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Am I the only one who found the Meyer story a compendium of cliches-suburbia is suffocating, the horny divorcee, the midlife crisis-and often very obvious and heavy-handed about telling us exactly what the character was feeling? I thought the best of the 6 I’ve read was the seemingly hated piece by Ferris which was a stylistic tour-de-force and nicely balanced satire and empathy.

  29. Trevor Berrett July 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Ken, I think from the comments here the answer to your question is yes. But though you and I sit on the extreme opposite of each other, surely there are others closer to the middle.

    I’m actually glad someone liked the Ferris story. I was left thinking it must have been rushed just to get in the issue.

  30. Ken July 22, 2010 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for the response. I think a difference may be that I am pretty much tired of realist fiction (with exceptions such as the ZZ Packer story which I liked a lot partly as it was extremely intense and engrossing and dealt with something a bit more important than a mechanic’s midlife crisis)and prefer more “stylish” work (Shyteyngart, Ferris, Galchen are all people I like)and maybe you’re not so tired of it? Just read the Scibona piece, yawn….not a single distinguishing element to the story.

  31. Trevor Berrett July 22, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I just read Gary Shteyngart’s essay in the New York Times Book Review. What a nice piece. If his new book is more like this, clever and emotional and longing, and less like the short piece published in The New Yorker, I might have to read it after all.

  32. Trevor Berrett July 22, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Thanks for coming back, Ken. I like where this conversation is going. It’s always valuable for me to rethink my feelings in this regard and force myself to articulate them in some sense.

    I wouldn’t call what I like “realism,” at least how I understand that word. Besides, I really like some of the more fantastic writers on this list, like Chris Adrian and Karen Russell, and one of my favorite books of the year is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goons Squad. Also, I’ve been convinced the term “realism” is a confused misnomer. I particularly like Kevin Neilson’s look at a couple of sentences in Flaubert as he ties it to Georgia O’Keefe’s statement that nothing is less real than realism (click here). I think the sentence he looks at is perfectly straightforward and very difficult to create. Other authors I love but who are far from the realism tag are César Aira, Roberto Bolaño, Steven Milhauser, and Adolfo Bioy Casares.

    What these writers, in my opinion, have in common with Meyer and the like is that their writing is direct and unshowy, whether in the vein of “realism” or not, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t stylized. In fact, looking at the sentences closely, one can see just how much craft went in there to make the sentence convey so much information in the simplest of terms. I consider this a very difficult task: to get out of the way of your own writing, to let voice not trump content but rather enhance the content, to choose simple details that reveal passion and heartache. Just the other day while reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America I came across this line about someone writing “until all the tumult of my heart was hidden in its plain design.” That’s the kind of writing I find so delightful, and a few prime examples that come to mind are William Maxwell, John Williams, and Maile Meloy. In these cases, the stripped down writing is not in the Hemingway tradition. Rather, it is stripped of anything that calls attention to itself in order to ensure the substance, the heart of the story, is the focus.

    With Shytengart and Ferris I frequently felt like the author was patting himself on the head, allowing a clever line to sit just because it was clever — indeed, allowing a story to be published because it had some accumulation of clever lines. I found myself frequently thrown out of the story. When I came to the story, I often felt like there was nothing there, that the style was smoke and mirrors distorting an absence of content.

    However, again, those are my impressions, and I’m glad they are being challenged. Your good opinion tells me I’m probably missing something, that my own prejudices are distorting my readings. I’m afraid these prejudices are pretty well entrenched at this point, though, after years of reading the next best novel and finding it to be all voice, all creative writing, and no content. I hope I’m wrong.

  33. Ken July 22, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    I appreciate your response and I actually agree with everything you say. I agree that seemingly transparent writing can often be very well-crafted and carefully constructed (sort of like listening to Frank Sinatra at his best where he sounds effortless)and I also dislike cleverness for its own sake and over-celebrated writers who you constantly must read about (one of my particular unfavorite writers is Martin Amis and his hateful novel “London Fields”) and agree that style should convey content/narrative in a manner appropriate to whatever that content may be. And, of course, the word “realist” is a minefield! But…I’d also say that some stories are ABOUT their style and that the possibly incongruous relation of their style and content can itself by quite interesting and innovative. That said, I didn’t think either Ferris or Shytengart or Galchen got in the way of the content/emotion of their stories (Ferris’ neurotic insecure character expressed himself in a manner consistent with someone who keeps ruminating on and rethinking their words/thoughts while Galchen’s character’s denial is expressed in the use of non sequitur)whereas I found Meyer’s story uninteresting both stylistically and in terms of its narrative. I’d call a story realist if a. It’s style is basically clear and transparent and b. It’s narrative deals with events which are possible within the “real world.” I printed out the piece by Kevin Nielsen and will read it later, thanks.

  34. Trevor Berrett July 23, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Hi Ken, I see I talked past you. Sorry for the pedantry!

    We also agree that a story that is about its style can be interesting. For that, I loved Janet Frame’s “Gavin Highly.” As for Martin Amis, I have read only a couple of his books. I enjoyed them enough, but I haven’t wanted to read anything longer. I did just buy the new Penguin Ink edition of Money, and I’m anxious to read that, if for nothing else then to find out who John Self based his internet name on.

    We must just have different tastes when it comes to Ferris and Shteyngart. I think I can almost come across on Galchen. I noticed the connection between the style and the story, but it completely lost me in the second half of the very short story. Since it is short, perhaps I’ll go back to it to see if it was just my reading or really is just not my taste.

    Thanks for coming back, by the way. I’m very intrigued because we landed so far apart on these stories, yet we both have thought enough about what we like and don’t like, and how that relates to style and presentation, that I don’t think it can simply be said that one of us just doesn’t get it. I’m fascinated by the disconnect.

  35. Ken July 24, 2010 at 6:09 am

    I really liked that Janet Frame story also, so we do agree on something. I just read the story by C.E. Morgan and thought it pretty good but wasn’t as wowed as you. One problem is when something’s excerpted from a book and this is increasingly the case in the New Yorker these days. I really wish they’d stick to stories which are conceived as short stories. Her story, for instance, has all this detail about Cincinnati which is fine and well-written but takes up a lot of space in the context of a short story whereas as introductory material to a novel it’d be fine. I think the disconnect has to do with general taste and preference and I do think it can partially be a realist/formalist divide but that’s not all of it. People can certainly disagree and yet both be thoughtful, right? Thanks for keeping this up. It’s been enjoyable.

  36. KevinfromCanada July 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I’ve been following this exchange with interest and thought I would drop in with a couple of observations.

    First, I wholeheartedly second Ken’s observation about the New Yorker’s increasing use of “excerpts” as short stories (and am a little annoyed they don’t say up front that that is what they are doing). I know from experience in the newspaper business that the book marketers love to sell excerpts for the very good reason that it promotes sales. I’d far rather read a short story that was conceived as a short story, not an incident from a novel that got rewritten a bit. Then again, even worse (in most cases) is the short story that gets expanded into an unsuccessful novel, but let’s not go there right now. My last point is that the New Yorker is the last major publication still doing short stories — I find a personal sadness that even this venue is now shrinking because of novel excerpts.

    On the more substantive front, I am probably even further on the “realist” side of the taste argument than Trevor is. I do think a lot of the diversion of opinion has to do simply with personal thinking styles. One of the reasons that I became a journalist rather than a creative writer was probably because I tended to be more of a vertical than a lateral thinker (i.e. I am more comfortable with context and a story line more than a perceptive look around the environment). So it is probably no surprise that I tend towards fiction that follows that kind of model.

    I do have a very good friend (one of Canada’s outstanding playwrights) who is very much on the other end of the spectrum (he was the one who recommended Absurdistan to me). In both his writing and his reading, he is firmly committed to a complete exploration of the existing environment before “moving forward”. (He likes to say that in his best plays, nothing actually happens until well into Act Two because he needs to fully set the stage for it.) I do think there are readers (and writers for that matter) who are much more comfortable with a collection of images, incidents or whatever being built established before anything “happens” (in the sense that I want something to “happen”). Their response to me, of course, would be “why does anything have to happen?”.

    Which does loop back to the Meyer, a story that was on the positive side of neutral for me but I can understand why Ken found it wanting. Not much happens in the story — but the character’s observations are consistent with my notion of current reality assessment. I can understand why someone whose notion of that assessment is much broader than my vertical thinking would find the elements of the story basically boring.

  37. Lee Monks November 5, 2010 at 7:42 am

    I’ve had a look at a few of these writers recently – I needn’t reiterate my comments on Shteyngart, who I’m inclined to like despite his, at times, exhaustively zesty-flourishes – and I have to say that Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Mengetsu’s Children Of The Revolution stood out as works of potentially great writers.

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