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Monday, September 01, 2008

The Journey Prize Stories

The Journey Prize Stories selected by Adderson, Bezmozgis, and Brand leave something to be desired. We may be looking at the most prestigious Canadian short story award (I sure wouldn't mind getting one) but in a way you'd be hard put to understand why these and not others are included. Caroline Adderson said she wouldn't mind giving medals to every writer who's work was submitted, "for actually caring about literature." I like that statement and give her a medal in return for her promotion of the hard work it takes to craft a decent short story. David Bezmozgis says these are "truly among the best I'd read in recent memory." Maybe he's not been reading that many short stories lately? Yes I know, it's called hyperbole for publicity. Still, I tend to agree with his choices more than I do Dionne Brand who selects as best the one's I'd cut first. Nonetheless, I agree with Brand's short introduction in part. She writes that "A short story today...has to summon the unused and ignored capacities for thought and emotion which mass media finds insufficient. To use an idea from the French philosopher Baudrillard, the short story must disrupt the circuitry of the hyperreal." Yeah, we can discuss the violence of the narrative, there's a real point here that unfortunately the stories don't embrace.

I've been, as I mentioned in the Atlantic reviews earlier in my blog, trying to accurately describe the generic style that is infecting so many stories these days. They strike me as influenced by Joy Williams, but without her overabundance of detail. The writers add information for who knows what reason, probably to suggest place, which becomes filigree on plots that sort of ramble all over the place until finally there is a bit of emotional reflection at the end. This, evidently, is supposed to somehow give us that twinkle of insight so common to New Yorker Stories. After a while doesn't it all become generic redundancy? They can do it too, well so what. Every artist can draw perfectly from photographs, and the first question we ask them in college is, 'now what?'

Do you remember Barthes, and bp nichols, and Leonard Michaels, and Amy Hempel, and even some of Atwood, or Hemingway or Trevor or so many others whobegan to redefine what literature and the short story could be? Have we forgotten or ignored these writers? Have the lessons of Barthelme really been lost?

I think we have a duty to push the art of the short story ahead into new territory. We should be taking risks with form, plot, characterization, language, and everything else you can think of. Who says we need a twist at the end, what rule requires us to textually speed up the last couple paragraphs to signal an ending? I like artist Sol Lewitt's quote: Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.

Yeah, we could easily get stuck.

Certainly anthologies as are found in this book reflect this conservative taste, or worse all the works submitted were even safer and these are the best available.

Ok briefly noted: Swimming in Zanzibar, Krista Foss: Her first piece of published fiction. Example: "They passed men in white cotton shirts walking alongside the road who let the downpour soak through to their skin, splash their cheeks and eyes as if it was air, as if it was not tangible." See my point...details that don't mean much, predictable words and images let alone our debate on the present infinitive.
Twelve Versions of Lech, Andrew Borkowski: One of the better stories although it seems his idea of the anti-velocitarians is based on Bolano's Visceral Realists. A boy admires an artist who is of a different generation and era. Memorable sentence "When you get down to nothing, that's when you got something." OZY, Craig Boyko: The other good story here. Three letter winner initials on a video game prompt discussion into identity. The best in the book, I think.

When I say better or good in reference to this collection, I mean potential. There's nothing here I'd hand out to classes as examples.

How Eunice Got Her Baby, Nicholas Ruddock: straightshooting, straightforward. The plot is interesting here. Probably third in the ranking. Respite, Pasha Malla: Struggles with a lot, doesn't quite nail it. Trying very very hard to make us feel. The main character is a writer is named Womack who lives with his girlfriend/partner. Check out this sentence. "The writer Womak used to live with a woman named Adriane whom he had that autumn begun to introduce to people as his partner..." Ooch. Begins to sound like the writer Womak used to live with was a woman... So we back track and read again and again until we get the point (we already know he's a writer so why repeat?) Then we move on to the even more convoluted. Stardust, Jean Van Loon: Is this a joke? A play on Carver? Man, wife, kids fishing find foot in river. Man and wife fight. "So Much Water so Close to Home" and so close to our memory. Ok, Altman's movie wasn't brilliant, but it was pretty darn good. Worst twist in the story, man gets blown up and the way it's done is how he cannot see the tank and he doesn't know that he'll soon be blown up. Yep, all future. Chilly Girl, Rebecca Rosenblum: I really wanted to like this best of all. Angela Carter wannabe. It typifies the problem of not pushing the idea far enough. It's soooo safe it's depressing. I wanted to see the cold girl cry crystal tears to eat ice cubes to warm up. No nothing so daring, and even this isn't very daring. The start is good, but then it all melts. I don't think this is a knocker of an end line, "She sat down and waited to see what would happen next." My Hungarian Sister, Patricia Robertson: Another try real hard story. Girl makes up imaginary pal. I think there is an award in Canada for literature that focuses on Hungarian history or Ukrainian history. This, with the bits of information, seems like it's in fulfillment of a project, or the award. Alice Petersen, After Summer: writer still in school working with Birdsell, evidently. Less a story, more of a ramble. Some nice word crunches at times. Yep potential. Nicole Dixon, High-Water Mark: Grrr, I hate it when something really quite unnecessary to the story at the end takes on mamouth significance for no reason except the author feels something was supposed perform that function. Here, the hat came back, the hat came back. The writing is a struggle to meld the realistic with metaphorical. For example, "Lauren's there, instead of Mom. 'She went in a helicopter.' I am made of rain. I got to my room to change." I like the idea but when combined with what people wouldn't say 'helicopter??' then it becomes too much like the idea taking over. The Curve of theEarth, Grand Buday: I've read this before, didn't find it thrilling then, don't find it thrilling now. It's so tell us everything, especially how everyone felt. There's so much told, I felt I didn't have to really read it because there was nothing I could offer. If it's explained that much what's the purpose of the reader?