There were some great stories in The New Yorker this year.
Of the stories about childhood, I thought Brad Watson and Thomas McGuane both hit it out of the park (with “Eykelboom” and “Hubcaps,” respectively). Both stories deal with adults who ignore their responsibilities to children, and how in that vacuum, children are cruel to other children, and how in that vacuum, children are left to deal or not deal with the guilt. I thought both of these stories were brilliant, and to a degree it felt to me as if Watson was in conversation with McGuane, although perhaps that was just The New Yorker placing writers in conversation.
Watson’s story mirrors McGuane’s: in both, time is a character; in both, there is an animal that speaks to the boys; in both, the parents are pre-occupied; in both there is the question of how a child deals with guilt; and in both there is a damaged boy, a boy whose damage is so profound that he cannot survive without the intervention and love of another person.
McGuane’s story, with the parents’ drinking and the boy with something like Down syndrome or autism, speaks to me and it will always be with me. But then, Watson’s speaks to me as well, with the damaged boy as outright scapegoat. The latter story is so very dark, though, that it’s hard to revisit. In McGuane, perhaps because he is of an age (over 70), there is light here and there, and I can bear the darkness.
Of stories from abroad, which I always enjoy, I found both Etgar Keret’s “One Gram Short” and Haruki Murakami‘s “Scheherazade” surprising. Keret uses humor to talk about the Israeli-Arab divide, but the reader is uneasy, as she is never far from the politics and history of the situation. In contrast, having chosen a much lighter subject matter (communication between men and women, rather than between sworn enemies), Murakami is able to provide drop-dead entertainment. I loved the twisty-twisty mystery of “Scheherazade”and loved as well its inquiry into men’s compulsion to withdraw and women’s equal compulsion to pursue.
Of stories about living with very repressive governments, Llyudmila Ulitskayas’s “The Fugitive” and Alejandro Zambra’s “Camilo” are both powerful, but I find “Camilo” is the one that stuck, partially because Chile is a fact in my life, and also because “Camilo” is about living with terror after it’s over: the years of lies that follow, as well as divisive silences, suspicion, mistrust and hatred.
Of the stories about the mental incapacitation of adults, I thought Donald Antrim and Danielle McLaughlin were both great. McLaughlin’s “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” spoke powerfully about how age could cause a man to withdraw into himself to the degree that both he and his marriage are a shipwreck; at the same time the story explores how habit could persuade a wife she ought to stay with him. Antrim’s “The Emerald Light in the Air,” for me, captured the terror and yearning of the psychotic. I thought the author treated the psychotic man with empathy, showing the man’s fears and yearnings and the way his damaged mind amplified both, and showing as well the ineffectiveness of the available treatment.
For topicality, I thought Victor Lodato’s “Jack, July” was a meth trip from the other side of the television powerhouse of Breaking Bad, but for the sheer ordinariness of the way drugs call to us Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” spoke to me. These two were the American drug culture from either end of the class spectrum. For topicality, however, nothing could beat Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Ordinary Sins,” about a broken priest and an unmarried girl pregnant with twins.
Of stories that were short, clever, arch and funny, I loved Robert Coover’s “Frog Prince” and also his “The Waitress.”
Of stories that had titles that didn’t work, I would cite David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” and Kevin Canty’s “Story, with Bird.” Too arch, really, too clever. Too bad, too, because I liked the stories.
While I did not love the story, Shirley Jackson’s “new” story was of great interest, simply because Shirley Jackson is of great interest. The same is true of Louise Erdrich. I enjoyed the cool artistry of Maile Meloy in “Madame Lazarus,” and the weirdness of Rebecca Curtis’s “The Pink House,” and the spot-on observation of Allegra Goodman’s “Apple Cake.” But why do these all feel like lesser stories? I wondered, for instance, if I could trust Maile Meloy in that her main character was French, a gay man, and elderly, none of which she probably is. I did take it as a great story by a woman who was telling me about how she perceives such a man. The fact that Nuruddin Farah’s “The Start of the Affair” was a similar story but written from a male point of view (as Lily pointed out) brought Meloy’s story into perspective. Farah’s story benefitted, I thought, from the added elements of class and colonialism. The main character was no deeper, but the situation involved far starker gulfs of money and privilege.
In several of these paired stories, I felt the emphasis on the ways writers often revisit the same situations. Even so, none of these stories felt like a crude copy-book exercise done for class.
Antonya Nelson’s “Primum Non Nocere” required the reader to read between the lines. You had to hear the teenager talking about her mother, father, brother and patient with an adult ear. Kirsten Valdez Quade’s “Ordinary Sins” worked in much the same way and derived much of its pleasure from the reader teasing out what was really being said. Both stories had an innocent, naïve main character, both with similarly idealized names: Jewel and Crystal.
Of stories with outsize ambition, Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is the stand-out. A man seems to be at a point where he is realizing the tremendous distance he puts between himself and other people. This story one rewards patience — its fragmented structure is extraordinarily complicated, it covers a very big time-span, it has an off-putting main character, and it is inconclusive. This is a great, great story of extraordinary richness. One of the story’s facets is the way it explores the role of art in life. Another is its interest in the human need for empathy, the need for instruction in empathy, and the half-way accommodation we make to meet both those needs.
Of whether The New Yorker published the best fiction (a frequent topic in our pages), one only need look at Best American Stories of 2014 to see there are other publishers doing great work: Granta, McSweeneys, The Paris Review, and Zoetrope, from the names I know. The Virginia Quarterly Review and The Iowa Review are familiar University presses, and The Idaho Review from Boise State is a welcome surprise from the state college level. Five Points, Image, Conjunctions, and Glimmer Train all warrant looking into. Obviously, there are other great small presses. A good place to get that list is the index of submissions to the Best American Short Stories. Granta looks like a good place to begin, but maybe a better idea would be to locate one of these presses a month. And if that resolution fails, there is always Best American Short Stories of 2015.
So these are my picks, with no regard for variety, for the four best New Yorker stories of the year (links to the original post):
- “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” by Denis Johnson
- “Hubcaps,” by Thomas McGuane
- “Ordinary Sins,” by Kirsten Valdez Quade
- “Eykelboom,” by Brad Watson
And the next four:
- “The Emerald Light in the Air,” by Donald Antrim
- “The Dinosaurs from Other Planets,” by Danielle McLaughlin
- “Scheherazade,” by Haruki Murakami
- “Primum Non Nocere,” by Antonya Nelson
Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was probably the most ambitious, but “Hubcaps”, by Thomas McGuane, is the one I will never forget.