Upon being asked to contribute to this series, I gave some solemn thought to what I was going to write about. I’ve become a serial abandoner of novels, so I could’ve written about one of the many unfinished books that I occasionally lie about having read all the way through. I could even actually have read one all the way through.
In fact I did, in a sense. I committed. I recently finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People, regarding which there’s plenty to say. But I feel like I cheated with that one, because I listened to it as an audiobook—this is a ‘what I’m reading’ series, after all. Plus, if I were to draw quotes from the text, I’d have no idea where to find them. On what page did that altercation by the banister take place again?
Still, I’d argue that it was more than indolence that brought me to my choice of subject matter, which is no less lengthy than a novel. I love short stories, and each year I make it my business to read the O. Henry Prize Stories—an annual collection of ‘the best’ stories published in US literary journals. Even if you dispute the editor’s choices, the anthology is usually an interesting read. It operates as a kind of survey of American short fiction and often points in the direction of where short stories (and, more broadly, US arts culture) might be heading.
I’m going to focus briefly on three stories from the 2018 anthology. But lest anyone think those are the only ones I read—an accusation for which I set myself up—I might mention as preamble that Viet Dinh’s Lucky Dragon, with its humanised kaiju narrative, is clever and affecting; Youmna Chlala’s Nayla contains some sensual prose and subtext; Jamil Jan Kochai’s Nights in Logar has a strong sense of displacement and danger; and Stephanie A. Vega’s We Keep Them Anyway has a rather haunting conceit.
Now, with my defence firmly in place, please indulge me as I put on my serious face for a while.
The Tomb of Wrestling
The first story in the collection, The Tomb of Wrestling by Jo Ann Beard, is cited as the favourite of two of the anthology’s jurors, and you can see why. Much of the prose is exceptional, and the story exists on a high-wire suspended in the space between two violent moments. It begins beguilingly, establishing its fraught scenario and generating sympathy for the protagonist, Joan:
She struck her attacker in the head with a shovel, a small one that she normally kept in the trunk of her car for moving things off the highway… this was the shovel she had purchased to move the snappers to the ditches.
After cold-cocking her attacker, aka ‘the stranger’, Joan must decide what her next move should be in this life or death struggle. Call the police, perhaps? No, she’s too discombobulated, or temporally dislocated, as is the stranger—and so the story moves into a selective ‘life review’ mode that takes in their POVs (plus, fleetingly, two dogs’). There are some exquisitely written scenes here, laden with subtext, such as one in which Joan is pinned by her ex-husband after a bout of play-wrestling and another describing her childhood discovery of her grandfather’s butchery:
She glimpsed…a lamb on its side in the dirt, woolly legs bound together. The lamb had lifted its head and stared at Joan as she walked toward it, but right at that moment her grandmother began calling her, urgently, in a false lilting voice, the way you might call a puppy away from a busy road.
For the stranger, a beautifully disturbing scene captures his thrill at seeing a teacher lift a skull with a pencil:
He had felt an illicit jolt right at the moment the pencil disappeared into the eyehole; the deep, almost shuddering pleasure of it. In Voluptate Mors. Maybe three or four times it had happened over the years, his disreputable life appearing unexpectedly in the middle of his reputable one, like a harlot coming forward to slip her arm through the parson’s.
Indeed, the general loveliness of the prose almost obscures the fact that, unlike Joan, the stranger is not a character of much psychological depth. For example, he has an affinity with a comedian described, in broad strokes, as ‘squawking with helpless rage about the stupidity of women’ and yelling out ‘bitch’ and ‘cuuuuunt’; and when the stranger was a child, his grandfather accidentally lopped off the fingers of another boy and remarked ‘mincingly’, ‘I thought he was a bawling like that cuz he dropped his posies’.
Nonetheless, the stranger’s yearning for his deceased cousin Kyle—who once halted a discussion of cars by saying he’d name his daughter ‘Chassis, because it was pretty’—remains a point of interest, as does the story’s grisly, doggedly vengeful finale. (I did say it was suspended between two violent moments.)
A couple of other aspects of the story bear remarking upon. The title is derived from Magritte’s painting of an enormous red rose that fills an entire room—there are references to it, and Magritte’s other works, throughout—and the protagonist’s name (Joan) is a contraction of the author’s (Jo Ann).
An Amount of Discretion
The second half of the anthology is lifted by Lauren Alwan’s subtle story, An Amount of Discretion. The title could well describe the author’s approach to the main character, Seline, a dissembling, bourgeois artist whose equilibrium is disturbed by the visit of her adult stepson Finn, his partner Anna and her young daughter Chloe. Seline is the executor of the estate of her late husband Jonathan, a fellow artist who bequeathed his works to an art institute. She’s only keeping one meaningful painting for herself while giving her husband’s notebooks as a surprise gift to his son:
[Finn] was Jonathan’s only child and he’d spent countless weekends hiking the foothills with his father… In those first months without Jonathan, Seline had wanted to reach out, but felt she had nothing to offer, and her wish to do so didn’t seem like enough.
The story never provides easy answers to the questions it poses, such as why, precisely, Seline means to give the notebooks to Finn. Aside from what’s suggested above, it might be that she feels that they belong to him, as he may have belonged—and may yet belong—to her, or it could be that she’ll be less selfish in his eyes if she does this. Upon understanding Finn’s connection with the painting she intends to keep, she first bluffs about keeping it and then contemplates giving it to him as well:
What, she wondered, would happen if she told Finn the painting could be his? Couldn’t he as easily be its provisional guardian? Might Finn see her differently then?
Might she see herself differently then? Can she see herself clearly at all? She does see her selfishness echoed in Chloe, Anna’s whirlwind child, who shoves a doll with ‘a heartlessness…both unnerving and electric’. The story sparks when Chloe damages Seline’s artworks and Seline restrains the girl’s wrist—in the process straining the relationship between herself, Finn and Anna. It’s then that her sentiment collapses, and she decides to give Finn neither the painting nor the notebooks.
There’s idealism in this decision—Jonathan’s art belongs to the people—but there’s also haughtiness, class judgement and jealousy, since it’s difficult to separate the decision from the fact of Finn’s belonging to Anna and Chloe. Seline already seems dismayed that Anna is pregnant with his child. And when Anna chides Seline for grabbing Chloe’s wrist, the altercation culminates with this revealing moment:
‘Fine then, I’ll say it. It’s wrong that Finn’s father didn’t leave him any of his paintings. Why give them all to strangers and not his own son?’
‘The situation, it’s complicated.’ Seline felt compelled to say more, but there was no explaining the situation to someone like Anna, a person who knew nothing about the obligations and duties an artist had to his work.
I could criticise the story for, among other things, not further interrogating the dynamic of Seline and Jonathan’s relationship (she was his student when they got together). But there’s so much depth and subtlety here that certain elements could be read as shedding light on even this aspect of the story. For example, Seline has a bracelet she bought, pre-Jonathan, as ‘a stand-in for the genuine jewelry she couldn’t afford’. She cannot do the clasp alone—Jonathan used to help—yet she doesn’t quite feel herself when she’s not wearing it.
Intriguingly, she realises that Chloe has stolen the bracelet but feels unable to confront mother or child. Instead she farewells them and imagines that:
The child must have marveled at her luck, that she had found something she could pretend belonged to her.
It’s a sumptuous closing line, and it’s near-perfect given what’s preceded it.
How We Eat
How We Eat by Mark Jude Poirier is another story with strong awareness of class, and it has an authentic autobiographical feel to it. The first-person narrator is a boy named Trent, or rather—in spite of the fact that the story’s written in present tense—it’s the adult Trent casting a backwards glance over his childhood. At one stage the narrator notes, a little awkwardly:
I’m twelve, so it’s 1992. Lizzie is ten but she’s only in third grade because they held her back. For social reasons. She bit a kid and broke the skin.
The story focuses on a dysfunctional single-parent family and what they do to get by. In this case, manipulative mother Brenda forces her children Trent and Lizzie to rummage through the pockets of clothes in thrift stores. Not the best of plans, we know, but Brenda seems hardly in a position to make the best of decisions. There’s no trust in the adult-child relationships, either, and Trent admits that he squirrels money away under the toilet lid like ‘addicts hide their heroin and needles’. After a trip to a thrift store, Brenda searches Lizzie and Trent’s pockets:
Her hands are like wild animals, quick and unpredictable, and when she feels around my waist, she nearly touches my dick. She smirks and says, ‘Still nothing,’ referring to my lack of pubic hair, which is none of her business even if she is my mother.
Brenda’s a spiky, abusive character, a barely surviving grifter, and she’s doing damage to her children. It’s likely she apportions blame to them for her predicament; she often blames them for things they didn’t do. And she treats their relationship as one of transaction, belittling Trent and calling him ‘an asshole’ for his supposed ungratefulness. Now the boy’s mind runs off on macabre tangents—involving dead bodies and kidnappers—and there’s an insightful flashback scene in which
What choices might the future hold for these characters? How the family eats tells us not only what they do to survive, but clues us in about the tender relationship between the children. Trent has taken on the role of mother to Lizzie, and to a lesser extent vice versa. He proudly helps her with homework—redundantly, since Brenda keeps them away from school—and, after they get drive-through, he relates a playful, poignant memory:
When we were younger, [Lizzie and I would] play mother bird and baby bird, and I’d spit the chewed McDonald’s into Lizzie’s mouth. Then she’d take a bite of her McDonald’s and do the same for me.
It’s beautifully accomplished. The children have to fend for each other, yet they remain merely children. Lizzie delights at a malfunctioning machine that dispenses free gumballs, while Trent disassociates and wets himself when his mother whomps another woman with an old phone:
Its frayed black cord swings in an arc as Brenda clobbers the woman with it. The woman’s hair is soon drenched with blood.
Note that the object swings; the hair gets drenched. Prior to that, the identities of Brenda and her adversary morph as they cuss and fight. What choices did the characters make here? Given this story’s class consciousness, one might intuit an argument for a sort of socio-economic determinism at play.
Like The Tomb of Wrestling, though, this is another work that reflects the enduring American belief that dropping the c-bomb is edgy. The conclusion is somewhat predictable, too. But there’s a fine filmic image late on, when Trent is morbidly imagining a kidnapper about to do something unspeakable to his sister:
…when Lizzie realizes what’s transpiring, she’ll drop the balls, and they’ll bounce and bloom outwards and look like a big, happy firework before they roll off the edges and disappear.
That image might symbolise this anthology—which, for the record, is worth not abandoning. On that point, for any of the writers I tutor who might be perusing this column, I was only joking about abandoning novels. Like I said that one time in class, I’ve definitely read Don DeLillo’s Underworld all the way through.