Story Time

For a few weeks at the start of 2013, George Saunders was the gently puzzled face of American letters. You could see him being interviewed by Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, or George Stephanopoulos ...

For a few weeks at the start of 2013, George Saunders was the gently puzzled face of American letters. You could see him being interviewed by Stephen Colbert, Charlie Rose, or George Stephanopoulos, talking about empathy and capitalism while demonstrating the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. You could read the New York Times Magazine calling him, following a tortuous series of qualifiers, “the writer for our time.” You could also buy his book Tenth of December; and remarkably, very many did. This was no doubt phantasmagoric for Saunders himself, but much of what made it so strange for others was that Saunders is a writer of short stories. Was the form itself having a moment? Had something about it changed to make this moment possible?

The genre issue isn’t as innocuous as it might seem. It turns out that there are touchy feelings, and serious considerations about the fiction writer’s mission, wrapped up in the question of the short story’s correct place in our aesthetic regime. Poets still have their ceremonial, vaguely oracular place, with cultural game preserves devoted to their sustenance. Novelists, meanwhile, we might still think of—barely, maybe even nostalgically, but still—as significant cultural players. A fortunate few get invited to give commencement speeches, deliver their opinions on Supreme Court cases, lovingly or disparagingly describe their newly purchased brownstones. For the lottery prizes handed out by the economy of cultural prestige (Nobels, Bookers, famous agents), novelists are the main competitors.

But what do we do with the writer of 8,000-word explorations of contemporary life? Do we treat the form as apprentice work? Do we continue to associate it with the preciousness of being a writer’s writer, the limited horizon of craft labor? Do we see a writer’s devotion to it as a failure of nerve, of ambition, or of stamina? (Gawker’s Adrian Chen managed to invoke all three in an irritated post titled “‘Writer of Our Time’ George Saunders Needs to Write a Goddamn Novel Already,” which opened the floodgates of online reconsiderations of the short story genre.)

Asking these questions means that the answer is no longer obvious. Tenth of December was an extreme but not isolated instance. Surrounding it by a few months on either side were acclaimed story collections by writers who may have started as story writers but whose reputations were cemented, and some measure of fame achieved, with novels: Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Sam Lipsyte (Home Land and The Ask), and Karen Russell (Swamplandia!). Having written successful novels, all three authors made what were obviously decisions, and more strikingly, not isolated ones: to refuse the narrative of the story as the apprentice form, the thing produced by and for workshops, the niche artifact of a mandarin MFA culture. These recent collections register more like acts of faith, gestures by figures who had made it and who didn’t need to genuflect to the story unless they believed in its possibilities—who thought, in other words, that it had a future, even if only a future for them. Nobody ever demands of an established novelist that she write a goddamn book of stories already; to write one nonetheless argues for some new twist in the long history of the form.

What we might have here, then, is the loosening up of a category; and that’s where things get interesting.

Take some of the more famous stories from the last quarter century, and a chasm appears between the minimalist severity, or quiet elegance, of the story in either its Cheeveresque or Carver Country milieux, and the elevator-pitch weirdness and intensity of these newer attempts. The laconic, minor-key, interstitial silences of Stuart Dybek’s Chicago, or Alice Munro’s Ontario, or Amy Hempel’s California, with their almost throttled tone—white space turned into an art of its own—that goes back, via Gordon Lish, to Updike, Porter, Mansfield, Hemingway, or Chekhov, yield to a hybrid tradition of outlandish premises and vividly performative voices that owes something to genre fiction (Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein), the American Gothic (Welty, O’Connor, Jackson), or to the more distant examples of Gogol, Poe, Kafka.

Not so much well-mannered as mannered, modernist severity and junk-food excess recombine in these stories to the point of being indistinguishable.

Around 1990, say, the manner of circulation of the short story began to change: particular stories began to gain even greater fame than their authors, for the dark oddity or hilarity of their hooks, or premises, or données—pick your vocabulary. Think less quiet craft, more punk provocation. There’s A. M. Homes’s well-known “A Real Doll” (1990), about a teen’s sexual relationship with his sister’s Barbie doll; or Ken Kalfus’s apocalyptic “Pu-239” (1996), about a Russian power-plant worker trying to sell plutonium on the black market; Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” (1997), about childhood cancer and the process of writing about it (as it famously ends: “These are the notes. Now where is the money?”); or Lydia Davis’s “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders” (2007), which is, well, what it says. Not so much well-mannered as mannered, modernist severity and junk-food excess recombine in these stories to the point of being indistinguishable. Mark McGurl’s persuasive argument in The Program Era that Carver’s dignified minimalism was a form of shame-management, an aesthetic solution for lower-middle-class precarity, seems not to apply to the brashly self-advertising qualities of the story writers of our recent fin de siècle. Those stories do their work quickly and loudly. If they were pop songs, they’d leave you humming.

As an aesthetic shift this was curious; technologically speaking, though, it was opportune. It coincided with a shift in the way stories were consumed and shared: less now in small magazines than online, via the cult hype of blogs, thanks to the rapid transit of their hooky pleasures. (“Have you read the one about the Barbie doll?”) If literary culture—like all aesthetic cultures—had noticeably diminished into one minority taste among others, the short story was uniquely poised to take advantage of that retreat. Like indie music before its demise, it was becoming a form for a small but enthusiastic fan culture, an open culture of sharers: obsessives, collectors, list-makers, seekers of curiosities.

The short story also managed, thanks to scores of online venues such as Fictionnaut, Five Chapters, or 365 Tomorrows, to detach itself slightly from other genres, to stand out a bit more: a shorter form for smaller and smaller screens, one might say. No longer quite so dependent on the upper-middlebrow weekly—no longer, that is, just a mustardy fillip between the meatier tastes of investigative journalism and political opinion—it didn’t have to know its place quite so acutely. Modest elegance could yield to the garrulous, the bizarre, the embarrassing.

The market being the ironic place it always is, the last year demonstrated a familiar dialectical twist: the online short story filtering back to hardcovers; the ascendancy of the book of stories, no longer just as an entry-level calling card in a career meant to develop toward The Novel but as a cultishly significant artifact in its own right, seizing attention for itself. Except the book of stories can be consumed, more or less, like a novel, straight through, several stories at a gulp—mimicking the novel in one sense, while offering a wholly distinct set of pleasures and enticements; hence, perhaps, the status anxiety set off by the success of Tenth of December. The short story had become upwardly mobile, and was moving into a different, older neighborhood.

The worlds of these successful books of stories are not nearly as upwardly trending as the books themselves; they tend to gravitate around the dying star of American exurbia.

With upward mobility comes greater freedom. Unshackled from the need to demonstrate aesthetic purity—the ascetic craft of poignant silences; the perfection of a form that should have no fat—the story remains exempt from the responsibilities novels must shoulder: to be the history of the present, to teach empathy, to save culture (or, as some have it, our brains) by functioning as the antidote to our smartphones or SSRIs. But as always with upward mobility, there are frequent glances back down the ladder. The worlds of these successful books of stories are not nearly as upwardly trending as the books themselves; Saunders’s and Lipsyte’s books, for instance, tend to gravitate around the dying star of American exurbia. The landscapes are crummy and impersonally hostile: limited-access highways, rubber-padded playgrounds that look like open-air madhouses, Reagan-era strip malls calcified into military recruitment centers; what one of Karen Russell’s narrators, illustrating the author’s recent immersion in this milieu, itemizes as “turquoise Port-o-Pottys and neon alleys, construction pits, dogs in purses, homeless women with powerful smells and opinions, garbage dumps haunted by white pigeons.” The freedom of these books is opportunistic in the best sense: refusing to remain tethered to old assumptions, taking advantage of what’s possible, adapting to contemporary conditions. It’s also the freedom that comes with diminished expectations and a diminished world. Something in that combination, between creativity and hopelessness, seems crucial to the appeal that the short story seems now to hold.

The art of the contemporary short story starts, then, with a hook: an absurd and memorable situation, anecdotal in its portability. The hook is not necessarily fantastic; as with Moore’s story about pediatric oncology, it can be a way of registering the traumas into which ordinary life falls. But even at its most realistic, the story needs to stage an initial estrangement of a kind familiar from science fiction: what are the rules of the world we’ve landed in? How did we wind up here? The reassuring furniture of realist fiction, where “setting” is largely limited to the Newtonian dyad of time and place, yields to nightmarish boxes of claustrophobic intensity. Unlike the detailed ontologies of science fiction, however, the hook has to be easily summarizable and yet—more difficult still—familiar, as if we’ve done, or heard, it before.

Take the opening story (“Pilot, Copilot, Writer”) of a fine debut collection by Manuel Gonzales, The Miniature Wife, with its ingeniously succinct premise: a hijacked plane is circling Dallas/Fort Worth, unable to land, for twenty years. A horrifying image of helpless stasis, the premise hits its mark brilliantly; it summons up the mundane physical details of air travel—the plane’s unidirectional circling (to the left only), its bouncing around when bad weather hits—and transforms them into an allegory just slightly beyond explicitness. A vision of neoliberal America, aloft but going nowhere? A parody of a posthuman future? An inverted Inferno, one without a center or a goal? As a hook it’s both weighty and light, like some new composite material. It solves one of the short story’s primary challenges, which is to avoid too much narrative. After all, the plane is doomed to circle; there is no development to the story, only aging, only the imagination of some future crash that yet seems far off.

In the contemporary story, we are all caught on hooks.

But Gonzales’s premise involves him in technical difficulties of his own, endemic to the ontology of the absurd. A science-fiction set-up demands accounting, and Gonzales is forced to provide some: the special pills that stand in for food for the plane’s passengers; a rumor of a kind of perpetual fuel that enables the continual flight; the exercise regimen that keeps bodies in some working order. But without the amplitude of a longer form, these details seem both not enough and too much, concessions to a desire for a more densely furnished fictional world that are doomed to be unsatisfying. Such details gesture toward the novelistic ongoingness that the story form is more usually poised against.

The hook, that is, isn’t just a technical device to catch readerly attention. It’s also a temporal schema: a world without development, escape, or transformation. It is time compressed to a kind of bad infinity, the thing on which we are snagged. In the contemporary story, we are all caught on hooks. Saunders, at least, seems highly aware of how stories avoid the implicit optimism of novelistic time, the hope in sustainability suggested by the long view. “Escape from Spiderhead” is one of his familiarly dystopic pharmanarratives, about subjects undergoing a drug testing regimen for new products that can induce love, euphoria, anomie, suicidal despair; it is an occasion for virtuosic, and self-consciously pointless, descriptions of extreme emotional states, and it ends with the suicide of the teller. Saunders has revealed that he initially conceived the story as his first novel—in which Jeff, the protagonist, escapes the testing facility and hides in a nearby town; but, Saunders admitted, “it didn’t really have much life in it.”1

Not much life, or too much: few offhand statements are as revealing of the ethic of the contemporary story form, in which survival, or hope, seems dead, while death seems alive. (Walter Benjamin, famously: “Death is the sanction for everything that the storyteller can tell.”) Saunders tactfully and wisely preferred to stick to his premise at the expense of narrative, which means at the expense of “escape.” His stories don’t flee or meander into a wider world, into that unnamed, ongoing town outside the testing facility—they’re caught inside their boxes.

At some point in a Saunders story, an alarm goes off. A recurrent, signature shape of his stories is a moment of choice: an observer happening to notice a disaster unfolding, forced to decide whether or not to intervene. A scared, sheltered suburban teen saves his neighbor from an abduction (“Victory Lap”), a terminally ill man rescues a child who has fallen through ice (“Tenth of December”), and a young girl frees the immigrant slaves her socially ambitious family employs as garden ornaments (“The Semplica Girl Diaries”)—these stories, like earlier efforts such as Pastoralia’s “The Falls” (death by water threatens again), all stage a sudden moral crisis. They are parables for what Elaine Scarry has called “thinking in an emergency,” and evoking the time of “emergency” is what Saunders is after: the cramped, options-narrowed, no-way-out urgency of decision. Consequences don’t proliferate or branch out with novelistic luxury; they become starkly binary. The novel’s promise of ongoingness—if I don’t do this, life will still go on, things might still be different later—is revealed by the short story’s brevity to be an evasion. Saunders’s heroes leap out of their skins, working against their background, training, and capacities: a cancer-ridden man jumps into freezing water; a skinny teen attacks his neighbor’s would-be abductor. This is as close as the contemporary short story comes to something like redemption, but it’s a compelled ek-stasis, forced upon the barely ready or barely willing; it’s another way of being caught.

The hook is one side of the contemporary short story’s art. Voice is the other. The peculiarity of a story’s premise is often matched by the vividness of its first-person voice. Situations may recur from one Saunders to another, but each has an indelibly distinct narrative voice. “Victory Lap” includes a number of show-stopping pieces of free indirect discourse; here is the voice of a 14-year-old girl alone in her house:

Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn’t know. In the history of the world, many had been more special than her. Helen Keller had been awesome; Mother Teresa was amazing; Mrs. Roosevelt was quite chipper in spite of her husband, who was handicapped, which, in addition, she had been gay, with those big old teeth, long before such time as being gay and First Lady was even conceptual. She, Alison, could not hope to compete in the category of those ladies. Not yet, anyway!

Think of them as arias, or pop songs before melisma and Auto-Tune: the oddity of the voice’s unique rhythms is what seduces. This, from Sam Lipsyte’s “The Climber Room,” as a 36-year-old sometime poet, part-time preschool teacher, and occasional babysitter dreams listlessly of seducing and marrying the father of her charge:

Plenty more so-called luxury problems might rear their plush heads. You had to hire the right people, make certain that the nanny wasn’t teaching the baby Cantonese by mistake, or the cook wasn’t drizzling the wrong oils on Tovah’s salads, not to mention the guaranteed Stukka dives of bitchery from the ditched blond wife.

You can get lost in the sonic pleasures of the sentence: the rhythmically perfect alliteration of “plenty” and “plush,” the jazzy phonemic riff of “dives of bitchery from the ditched blond,” the unexpected Tovah/Stukka near-rhyme. It’s a kind of solo indulgence one might tire of in a novel, but that in the shorter form can provide blips of joy; it’s a freedom from what Lipsyte has called the “wooden, fake” quality of novelistic third-person omniscience.2 It also presents a new set of difficulties: how to vary voices across a collection, which is Saunders’s strong suit, or how to produce a single voice flexible and compelling enough to survive the potential boredom of its repetition, which is Junot Díaz’s dilemma.

Díaz’s gambit is to mimic the sound of impersonal intimacy, like the breathy confidences of the microphone, as when he sets a scene in “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”:

If this was another kind of story, I’d tell you about the sea. What it looks like after it’s been forced into the sky through a blowhole. How when I’m driving in from the airport and see it like this, like shredded silver, I know I’m back for real. I’d tell you how many poor motherfuckers there are. More albinos, more cross-eyed niggers, more tígueres than you’ll ever see. And I’d tell you about the traffic: the entire history of late-twentieth-century automobiles swarming across every flat stretch of ground, a cosmology of battered cars, battered motorcycles, battered trucks, and battered buses, and an equal number of repair shops, run by any fool with a wrench.… But that would make it another kind of story, and I’m having trouble with this one as it is. You’ll have to take my word for it. Santo Domingo is Santo Domingo. Let’s pretend we all know what goes on there.

You like the singer, you’ll like the song. If Gordon Lish’s effect on a generation-plus of writers was to enforce the severities of good technique (correct breathing, no belting), the story now seems to have embraced a pop faith: doesn’t matter how weird the voice, as long as it has style, even a strained, or peculiar, or mimicked style.

And if pop music has moved toward disintegration—from the album to the song—these books seem to gesture back to the LP: they front-load their catchy hits (both “Victory Lap” and “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” are the strongest stories in their collections), they embed meatier, more complicated pleasures in the middle (“The Semplica Girl Diaries,” Lipsyte’s “The Republic of Empathy,” Russell’s “Proving Up”), and they flirt with the dangers of repetition. Reading one of them straight through lays bare their author’s characteristic moves with unsettling clarity; in a concept album like Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, with its variations-on-a-theme structure, the few hits stand out starkly against the more rote duds. Fatigue is an ever-present danger; some hooks, and some voices, catch their prey better than others, and too many peculiar little premises lessen the impact of any one. The sci-fi/gothic gestures of these collections—the inevitable zombie story; must we have vampires?—often seem dutifully of their moment. But within these perils is the freedom of idiosyncratic choice, the fan’s privilege of choosing favorites. Literary fiction could probably stand more weird fandom and less obligation.

Small sample size disclaimer, but in both the Díaz and Russell collections a character is lowered into a pit in pursuit of revelation. The allusion is surprisingly ur-novelistic: Don Quixote rappelling by rope into the Cave of Montesinos, where he sleeps for an hour—but insists, upon being raised back up, that he has passed three days in the crystal palace of the enchanted hostage Montesinos, learning of a bewitched, but uncannily familiar, world. The episode is a touchstone for any consideration of the Janus face of epiphany: baptism or descent, revelation or madness?

The fortuitous duplication of Quixotic cave scenes might not only mirror the contemporary short story’s technique but also be a clue to something like its self-doubt, as a closer look at both moments reveals. Díaz’s Yunior, in “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” near the end of a disastrous Santo Domingo vacation intended to save a dissolving relationship, goes joyriding with a corrupt government official and his bodyguard. A cognac-fueled nighttime drive takes them to a remote location where they come upon a dark bauxite pit, which the official proclaims the “Cave of the Jagua,” the mythological origin-place of the Taíno people. Invited to take a look, Yunior is held by his ankles and lowered in, coins spilling out of his pocket, light sources vanishing. “This is the perfect place for insight, for a person to become somebody better,” he explains. He imagines the government official would see visions of his future self—“bulldozing the poor out of their shanties”—and the bodyguard would imagine the benefits of his pay, “buying a concrete house for his mother, showing her how to work the air-conditioner.” As for Yunior, “all I can manage is a memory of the first time me and Magda talked.” This is insight of a sort: “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.” But that briefly inverted world isn’t really epiphanic, and certainly not enchanted. The short dip into the darkness produces only a sobering realism of the obvious: politicians screw the poor; my job will help me pay for things; my relationship is a failure. The modernist short story always hinged on its epiphanic power, whether discreet and muted or violent and melodramatic—or, as in a canonical example like Joyce’s “The Dead,” somehow both at once. These stories tend instead to have a Sancho-like doubt: curious about what happens down there in the pit, skeptical about what such brief immersion might do.

Does the short story form, even at its most ambitious, have the power to do anything more than bring us into its cave for a time, its casket of oddity?

The other example is the unsettlingly brilliant final story of Karen Russell’s collection, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis.” Almost novella-like in length and in its resistance to easy summary, the story achieves a more perfect mixture of exurban realist grit and postrealist uncanniness than perhaps any other in these books. The story’s narrator, Larry Rubio, is a violent 14-year-old bully—one of a ruling gang of bullies, who have in the past fixed their attentions on the helpless, obtuse, serenely unresentful Eric Mutis (or “Mutant”). After Mutis vanishes from town, a scarecrow appears in a decrepit local park, dressed carefully in Mutis’s clothes. No clue explains who might be responsible for the effigy, and over the following weeks bits of it start to vanish. The boys dump its remains into “the Cone,” a limestone ravine that functions as “an open casket of our trash,” a pit of condoms, needles, potato-chip bags, and beer bottles, where the scarecrow continues to disintegrate with a precision that suggests some hidden human agency. The occult spectacle of Eric Mutis’s vanishing second body brings Larry to nausea, and a compulsive recollection of his earlier abuse of the Mutant gradually reveals, in a series of linked flashbacks, its intimate extent. These retrospections climax in a moment of unmotivated betrayal and ingratitude: when Mutis helps Larry recover from being hit by a car, Larry reciprocates by exposing Mutis’s secret theft of another child’s pet rabbit, thereby robbing Mutis of his only daily solace.

Finally Larry stages a ceremony of absolution. One of his friends lowers him with a rope into the Cone, and here Larry releases a substitute rabbit, which begins to feast on the doll’s straw torso, while Larry, still submerged, hovers with a knife to protect the rabbit from birds of prey. The rabbit burrows inside the torso, which gives the headless and limbless object a strange heartbeat. That gesture is both perfect and yet insufficient, grotesque and ephemeral, and if it lingers, its futility does as well: “Somewhere,” the story’s final sentence runs, “I think I must still be standing, just like that.”

Russell leads us to a revelation—not coincidentally the end of her collection—cobbled together with proxies and imperfectly understood symbols, refuse and desperation, and the story ends in the pit, stuck there in the open-armed, futile stasis of the scarecrow itself. Does the short story form, even at its most ambitious, have the power to do anything more than bring us into its cave for a time, its casket of oddity? Does its refusal of amplitude disable it from producing the kind of empathy it seeks? Or do we have here, and in all these stories, one of upward mobility’s surest signs: you start to wonder, once you’ve made it, what exactly it is you’ve made. icon

  1. Deborah Treisman, “George Saunders’s Wild Ride,” Page-Turner (blog), New Yorker, December 13, 2010.
  2. “Sam Lipsyte Pans Out,” Interview by Gary Shteyngart, Loggernaut (Fall 2005).
George Saunders on the This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Source: ABC News