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New Pioneers of the
American Short Story

Tom Bissell

When the Messenger Is Hot
Elizabeth Crane
Little, Brown & Co., $21.95 (cloth)

Trouble with Girls
Marshall Boswell
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95 (cloth)

8One of the mysteries of literary physics is how the short story—something we are repeatedly told no one any longer wishes to publish or read—manages to maintain its significance. From Stuart Dybek to Nathan Englander, the story has provided a launch pad to some starlit new talents, and every year one or two collections bust through the firewall to become, however briefly, Events. Perhaps this is because the short story has often registered the faint, initial tremors of American literary change. Minimalism saw its earliest and best fulfillment in the short story, for instance, even though its most cunning practitioner, Raymond Carver, never managed to finish a novel.

A chronological walking tour of the American short story might look a little like this: Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Melville’s “Billy Budd,” Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” and Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” Melville and O’Connor thought life’s metaphysics could be unpacked within a single short story, while Hemingway believed the story capable of withstanding a head-on collision with death itself. To look at the Library of Congress data on a short-story collection published today will inevitably turn up some mild-sounding encapsulation such as this: “1. United States—Social life and customs—20th Century—Fiction.” Whether this winnowed subject matter and decimated ambition can be blamed upon the publishing industry (so covetous of a theme—any theme—around which to wrap a set of stories), our Masters of Fine Arts programs, or the exhausted nature of the form itself, who can know? All we can know is that writers will keep writing short stories, and they will keep getting published, if only by smaller and smaller houses and magazines (which by and large is already the case), because for a small but determined number of people the short story means something more than a suggestion of what a writer might later be capable of.

“The Archetype’s Girlfriend,” the first story of Elizabeth Crane’s collection When The Messenger Is Hot, begins: “Sarah or Anya or Max is five foot ten, five foot nine or five foot eight, but never shorter, and she’s naturally thin. She’s thirty or she’s twenty, or she’s almost forty and looks ten years younger even when she rolls out of bed in the morning.” And so the story goes, on and on, a catalogue of mutually exclusive and contradictory topic sentences about a pseudo-mythical girlfriend. How Crane manages to tell a story without stability of character or anything resembling a plot is jaw-dropping. She takes every imaginable scenario (“You meet when she slam-dances into you at the Mudd Club, or at a gas station where she’s shoving and cursing at a guy twice her size” and combusts and spectralizes it; the story becomes a prose poem about the endless possibilities of love foiled.

Crane, one gathers immediately, is a shrewd and willfully self-destructive writer in the Malcolm Lowry or Sylvia Plath tradition. For every moment of thoughtfulness there is tedium to match it. Each winning passage is soon followed by something infuriating, and a troublingly insightful sentence will drag behind it something trite or shallow. But this is, one suspects, the point. Crane’s language is smart but inelegant, affected but inarticulate. Most of her main characters are “arty” women of uncertain employment, Manhattan-born (though they have usually left it behind), and have histories of alcohol abuse, own small dogs, and display the neuroses of the arguably mentally ill (talk of suicide has a tendency to surface in these stories as though it were just another life option). One story finds a hapless young woman moving into a wealthy friend’s solarium on the Upper East Side and, strangely enough, making what remains of her life there. There is something very winning (if slightly Rumsfeldian) about an author able to proceed from a logical premise, continue on into a completely illogical complication, and maintain throughout the same spotlessly logical tone.

“Something Shiny” begins this way: “So get this: they’re going to make a movie of my life.” The story gives us Wendy, a newly feted memoir celebrity who allows an actress named Apple to move in with her to “experience” her life. (“Maybe,” Wendy wonders, “she knows George Clooney’s e-mail address.”) Apple quickly begins to impersonate Wendy to her friends and family: “And then, as if it isn’t enough that she’s stolen my name and my difficulties, some of my friends go up to her after the [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting and . . . ask her to go get coffee at Utopia as though she’s me.” The thing is, she is. Apple has successfully become Wendy, and soon Wendy is literally invisible. Whether Crane’s narrator has gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs or the story is a kind of urban magical realism is left up to the reader.

In this mode, of course, Crane is not alone. Some of the best stories being published today seem allergic to straight vanilla realism. Indeed, one of the most interesting movements in contemporary American fiction is this absurdo-realism practiced by writers such as David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Absurdo-realism has come to us almost exclusively through the conduit of the short story, something for which we should be thankful, especially when so much contemporary short fiction comes off as free throws dutifully shot in anticipation of the five-on-five intensity required to write longer work. Speaking of Wallace, is it now safe to say that, among writers of a certain age and inclination, he is the single most influential writer currently working? With the 1,000-page shadow of Infinite Jest looming over his career, it is sometimes forgotten that nearly half of his books are short-story collections (including his upcoming volume). The self-consciousness, the footnotes (which Wallace might now choose to leave to his disciples), the staggeringly sharp eye and the remarkable ability to write for pages and pages only of detail—all are part of the way many of us write and think about writing now. One can see this in the journal McSweeney’s (which shares Wallace’s spirit but not always the relentlessness of his moral engagement) and in the work of younger novelists such as Chris Batcheldor and Mark Danielewski. And one can see it in Elizabeth Crane. “The Super Fantastic New Zealand Triangle” (the title alone is Wallaceian!) tells a story whose particulars are provided, mainly, in nineteen footnotes. Sadly, it is the collection’s low point, forced and unfunny, a waxen version of something that only Wallace could have made come alive. “Josie and Hyman Differ in Their Use of the Word Fuck” is, on the other hand, one of the collection’s most devastating pieces, so deadly in its vision of men and women that, despite its title, it should see a steady future of anthologization. Josie meets two men: Hayes, a boring banker (the khakied tribes take an anthropological drubbing in Crane’s world); and Hyman, a composer; she begins to date both of them. The discomforts and shibboleths of modern courtship are brutally well revealed. Here, Hyman and Josie have dinner in a Thai restaurant:

She has never had Thai food before . . . and Hyman orders a variety of dishes for them to share, happy to educate. Josie has had just about all the education she feels she needs . . . but overall she is highly impressed that Hyman is so intelligent and especially how that reflects on her.

As for what can only be called the Cancer Stories—there are at least three—“Year-at-a-Glance” is the most successful: “And when my mother comes home as beautiful and put together as ever but still attached to the oxygen tank and has to sit down on the second stair from the exhaustion, I retain the assumption that she’s still cured but just tired and following the precautionary miracle cure maintenance of using the oxygen and not overexerting herself.” Aside from poems, short stories are probably the most obstinately autobiographical literary form, and it comes as no surprise when one turns back to Crane’s dedication page to find: “For Mom, in memory.” Perhaps, in stories such as “Year-at-a-Glance,” rather like Lorrie Moore’s justly famous “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” we are learning that the short story is no longer capable of taking on death, at least not in the manner of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The world of the story is no longer so terse and manly (“The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” Hemingway’s Harry says chipperly of death); indeed, perhaps we have had far too much manliness about death. Perhaps Crane’s approach of sad impotence is more honest. As one of her characters narrates: “This is followed by me explaining to the nurse practitioner that . . . sixty-three is an unacceptable age for my mother to die.”

“Return from the Depot!”—about a woman whose deceased mother returns, apparently from the dead, to get her own television show before disappearing again—takes away from some of the power of “Year-at-a-Glance.” In the story Crane metarefers to its plot as “this whole mom-coming-back thing,” sentiment with which the reader swiftly agrees. In Crane’s mother stories there is too much pain and not enough art. As a person, one wishes to reach out to their author, but as a reader one recoils. Art should ideally demonstrate what one has learned from trauma, not that one has suffered it. One senses that Crane explicitly understands this in the novella-length story “An Intervention.” Its plot is pretzelly, its subject matter (movie stars, Alcoholics Anonymous, and dating) a Cranian admixture of the banal and fantastic, and its telling is close to insane. The narrator, speaking of one of her boyfriends, notes, “Plus a lot of the time he’d say stuff that just didn’t make sense, but you knew he really thought it did, and that he was sharing some big life truth with you that was the equivalent of ‘New York City is essentially run by a big blue horse.” “An Intervention” is also something approaching a tragicomic masterpiece, and the reason to own this book.

When she is at her best, one feels that Crane has struggled and succeeded to communicate something she has learned through much toil. At her infrequent worst, one feels simply unloaded upon: Here’s a bunch of stuff I’ve been thinking about—don’t ask me what it means. But one reads anyway, goaded by Crane’s intensely personal vision, and there is no higher praise than that. Something is happening to the short story in these piqued and spiky pages, something not yet successful enough to praise unreservedly, but something compelling enough to make one eagerly await Crane’s next book.

*  *  *

As his title makes plain, Marshall Boswell’s breezy, sharp Trouble with Girls organizes itself along gender-schism principles with which Elizabeth Crane would likely have sympathy, even if their worlds could not be more distant. Crane is cynical, urban, and eastern, while Boswell is sunny, suburban, and southern: people in his stories state without shame the sororities and fraternities to which they belonged. Boswell’s breeziness is deceptive, however, and many of his stories deliver punishing body blows to male vanity and its transubstantiation in the usual small debauches (one-night stands and masturbation being the most depressingly prominent). Not surprisingly, these stories will offer female readers looking for clues into male psychology very little reassurance.

Boswell, the author of a fine scholarly book on John Updike and a forthcoming book on the work of (who else?) David Foster Wallace, takes the leagues of deep reading he has done of these two masters and managed, inventively, a middle ground. Boswell wields a perversely sensuous Updikean eye (“the wide warm animal fat of her buttocks”) and broils within a hilariously paralyzing Wallaceian self-consciousness (“You are twelve—thirteen, whatever—essentially nondescript: a confusion of hormones and dread.”) The collection’s first story, “Ready Position,” is the disassociated stream-of-consciousness mind-spelunking of a boy named Parker standing in right field, daydreaming and sporting an invincibly mortifying erection. The story somewhat resembles Wallace’s brilliant “Forever Overhead,” in which a boy stands atop a diving board and simply thinks; both stories turn on the horrified realization that life will not much improve beyond the frontiers of age thirteen. Here too we encounter Boswell’s gemologist-like talent for finding and bringing out fine detail: Parker feels only “allegedly involved” in the game before seeing “that Little League rarity: a perfect pop fly.” And, as Parker feels the astonishment of the ball smacking into his mitt, his “penis softly melts” in his pants.

Although all of these stories are about Parker—Boswell’s authorial intimacy makes him seem Rothishly close to an old-fashioned alter ego—they shift between second-, first-, and third-person narratives. The third-person Parker stories seem the most successful, even though Boswell’s channeling of the teenage-boy voice is splendidly mordant, if not always believable. Of his torture-dispensing older brother Parker notes, “For him, agony was both an essence and a palpable reality. One of his favorite forms of torture was positively Platonic . . .”

Stories such as “Born Again” (about a Christian Bible retreat for kids where everything is predictably drenched in hormones) and “New Wave” (about Parker’s miserable attempt to go suburban punk) are merely entertaining. Boswell probably could not write a bad story if he tried, but one wearies slightly of the younger Parker and the occasionally slangy writing, which often brings to mind Updike’s “A&P,” that weirdly over-anthologized bit of treacle from an oeuvre abounding in jewels. But even the lesser stories show what Boswell is able to do with the minutiae of observation, as when he describes “the thrilling slide of the thumbnail” down the left side of a brand new record album. As Parker gets older the stories grow stronger. “Stir Crazy” details Parker’s relationship with a stripper (“nocturnal secretaries,” Boswell nicely calls them) and manages to test Parker’s cheer as life’s darker particulars (when, for instance, the girlfriend describes for him “fucking” the stripper’s pole) encroach upon him.

These later stories find Parker’s trouble with girls becoming truly troublous, and it is to Boswell’s credit that the girls in question are always sharply if not always fairly drawn. In “Karma Wheel” we meet Trina, of the Trina Vortex, “the term he [Parker] had devised years ago to describe the strange emotional experience of arguing with Trina. The thing about her emotional logic . . . was that it had an uncanny knack of achieving a kind of self-referential clarity.” Such as when she steals her scary ex-boyfriend’s gun collection. She has done so, she explains, because her mother wants to commit her to a mental institution.

The unfortunately titled “Venus/Mars” is actually one of the collection’s best stories. Parker’s best friend’s fiancée, Pamela, decides to escort Parker into the pheromonal morass of the New South’s singles scene. She does this first to sexlessly amuse herself out of her relationship drudgery and second because of her theory that women respond to women, not men. “Any guy,” Pamela tells Parker, “who’s with a beautiful girl must have something. . . . The guy with the beautiful girl becomes the target.” Basically, she seeks to get Parker laid. Boswell, God help him, writes awfully well about the slight but alluring pleasures of unattached nightlife: “Talking to a strange woman in a bar is like trying to sustain a Ping-Pong ball in midair by leaning your head back and blowing; if you stop to breathe, the ball falls.” Of course, Pamela’s theory plays out marvelously—until she and Parker fall in love. The cruel twist the story enjoys at its conclusion reveals the shrewder, emotionally harder writer one senses lurking behind the brighter curtains of Boswell’s other stories.

As with Crane, Boswell has stashed his collection’s triumphs at the end. “Between Things,” which finds Parker in a post–grad school drift and attempting to tomcat his way out of love with a “petite, elfish sprite” named Rachel, begins this way:

In between things, Parker slept with Rachel. He kept telling himself he wouldn’t do it, even insisted, sometimes out loud, that the mere thought of doing it was completely out of the question. Yet for one reason or another, reasons he did not always care to examine, he just kept doing it. Over and over again. Even after he said he wouldn’t. And he said it all the time.

The story gives us one killingly funny observation after another: “Parker and his graduate student colleagues liked to theorize about the real world. Many of them wrote papers about the real world.” ‘Oh God’—dropping back onto the pillow, her [Rachel’s] hands in her hair—‘now we sound like Cheever characters.‘Marketing? Isn’t that where they create all these false expectations and phony desires . . . ? Or am I getting that confused with pornography?” A story as wry as “Between Things”—which like “Venus/Mars” skips along before stabbing its reader through the heart with a candy cane—is enough to make one wonder if David Lodge might not finally have his American inheritor. The last story, “Spanish Omens,” which (unexpectedly) gives us Parker and Rachel on honeymoon in Spain, is a terse, almost bitter story about the inevitable disappointments of marriage, and could have been written by the placidly illusionless Updike of Too Far to Go.

*  *  *

Marshall Boswell is bravely upholding the traditional short story, using David Foster Wallace as a partial guide; Elizabeth Crane is interestingly deviating from the traditional short story, using David Foster Wallace as a partial guide. Their books join a panoply of startingly strong first short-story collections published recently, among them Robert Anderson’s Ice Age, Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies, Tom Paine’s Scar Vegas, Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector, and Erika Krouse’s Come Up and See Me Sometime. Where Boswell and Crane seek next to take the form is up to them, but one hopes that they will not abandon it. The American short story needs them both, if only to figure out what on earth it is going to be next. <

Tom Bissell has published work in Harper’s, Men’s Journal, and other publications.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review

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