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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Atlantic Monthly Summer Fiction 2008 Part 1

I've been reading my way through Atlantic Monthly's summer fiction issue, a treat that I look forward to as I do the New Yorker summer fiction issue, which currently sits on my desk completely untouched.

I'll get to that but right now I've read about half the AM; it's time for responses.

Overall the writing is fairly traditional fare. It's the sort of writing Richard Ford says he likes in the introduction to the Granta Book of the American Short Story. "I've always liked stories that make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language...." he writes. He likes stories that strive to be "literature." Maybe I should capitalize that? These authors fit the bill; they work hard at writing a literary story full of,f or lack of a better word, stuff. My tastes are a bit broader I guess, and I would prefer to read a wider stylistic range as well as more experimentation. After a while the reliance on details seems to blur into overwriting. Many times I wished I could have a break from the template and I recalled wonderful stories by Donald Barthelme or Patricia Young and I missed how fresh they seemed against all of this striving. Maybe this is a sad condition of today's movies where the cliche of thumping soundtrack and action at every moment has ruined hollywood output. Or, maybe it was the editor.

I didn't look at who exactly chose these stories, but a bunch of what I've read so far have a missing parent and they are about kids. I believe that we respond to works that fit our norm, so certainly I wonder if the editor making this decision has kids or issues with lost parents.

First the good.

Ann Patchett writes on traveling to do readings. Heartening to most writers is the fact she showed up for readings where five or fewer people were in attendance. I recall seeing Richard Ford, of all people, in Calgary, there must have been twenty people in the audience? Pathetic.
This sort of Jane Smiley reflection on the art of writing and all that surrounds it is in vogue right now. Well, I like it so keep it coming.

Aryn Kyle sticks with her forte, viewing the world through a child's eyes in a story titled Nine. The girl's mother has left, and she struggles with her father's dating, schooling, and an impending birthday. It's light but well written. What hit me hardest was just how much this recalled the style of Joy Williams in her story Train. In that one two girls on a train grapple with life and the goings on of adults. One is quick witted and verbose, the the other insightful. The insightful one cries the same as Tess in Kyle's cries, as an outlet against the frustrations of the uncontrollable and the loss. And like Williams, Kyle fills her writing with descriptions and nouns until the page is bursting. Well, Kyle did admit in the book club Q&A at the end of The God of Animals that she absolutely admired Joy Williams' writing. I could mention a couple of confusing paragraphs, a juxtaposition of lying against Honest Abe that goes nowhere, or the perhaps what I find to be a mistitled title, but I won't. This writing is fun and hot. Oh yeah, by the way it's not "chorus dancer" it's a member of the corps de ballet. Finally, just what was on the note Mrs. Muirhead passed to her husband?

Patient, Female is a story by Julie Schumacher about a woman, whose mother had died, whose father is close to death, and who works as the exam patient for those studying OBGYN. Hey, kudos for the idea although I should mention that every woman I've told the plot to said right off the bat, "oh that must have been a man who wrote it, some fantasy." I didn't get that from the work and I tried to imagine the woman being a guy who volunteers for proctology exams but I still don't feel that punch in the abdomen they seem to feel. Her's a wonderful example of her writing when the woman is at her father's house watching tv:

"Idiot," I say, my mouth full of rice. "She left the front door open." The camera lingers on the woman's breasts. I point toward the TV with my chopsticks. "She's standing there waiting to be strangled."
"It might not be strangling," my father says.

Whoop-dee-doo repartee like this makes the reading lots of fun and the story blows forward with a terrific impetus. It reminds me of Amy Hempel's work and there's even the characteristic Hempel joke, albeit a really old and dull one. Let it go. The mixing of the main character's reality and projections, of in-the-body and in-the-mind really works well for all but the end section. Her it suddenly seemed too contrived as the author tried to give a distant, wide angle view to all that occurred. I will reread and reconsider because I trust so much of the rest of the story. Or it could be that the author didn't quite know what to end with. That happens.

Those were the high notes so far and if you want to go about your day on a high, singing note, well, click out now. If you want the less than successful stories scroll onward. I'll try to keep the following if not sweet at least short.

Carmen Elcira: A (Love) Life by Cristina Henriquez is so much like a story by Roberto Bolano that appeared in The New Yorker I nearly choked. If I had to bet on who I believe influenced her.... We span years following the girl/woman's love interests. Would you predict both good and bad? How'd you guess? Do you think it might get somewhat reflective and melancholy at the end when she's older? Wow, do you have ESP? Still I can find sometimes make a silk purse from a sow's ear just as I can find the blemish on a pearl. A great little line: "...there are tender spots in every human heart that never disappear, no matter if the tenderness is caused by bruising or by love..." I'm not focusing on the writing, just the idea. Good one.

The Second Coming of Gray Badger by Carter Simms Benton is what happens when a young author tries very hard to write adult stories. It fits the conventions but the story is plodding, lacking energy and drive, predictable, introducing characters half way that sort of become the main protagonist or antagonist. Well I won't wail on it too much. Go to college, get a writing degree or skip the writing degree, at least write hard and read hard for quite a few years then we'll talk. And by the way, what the heck does "Edith grinned her little cherry-faced smile" mean? She grinned her smile? I bet his mother liked the story though, which is really all you want when you're young.

And Finally --

PREVIEW: next up is We Are All Businessmen with language so inconsistent you believe the story's full of grammatical errors and typos.

LAST THOUGHT: The visual art in the issue is an absolute embarrassment.