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The Best American Short Stories 2012 Hardcover – October 2, 2012
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Guest editor and acclaimed author Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers, 2011) has selected winning and wildly entertaining stories for this annual anthology series. Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace are the totems of Perrotta’s literary aesthetic. Embracing both, he remarkably moves past the now-tired debate of minimalism versus maximalism, and unsurprisingly (and correctly) arrives at Alice Munro as the “acknowledged master” of the form. Munro’s superb “Axis” is a sparkling example of Perrotta’s platonic ideal of combining “amplitude and compression” in a “handful of tightly focused scenes.” The best stories here succeed in doing so, notably Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank.” A seductive and bemused peek into the backrooms of American Jewish anxiety (marital and otherwise), this gem deserves all the praise it is receiving. Among the many winners in the collection, Eric Puchner’s chilling and humane sci-fi tale “Beautiful Monsters” and newcomer Roxanne Gay’s “North Country,” a humorous, sexy, and melancholy take on the pain and absurdity of loss and isolation, stand out. Both shine as examples of Perrotta’s preference for “plain, artful language about ordinary people.” The Contributors’ Notes provide intimate first-person insights into the backgrounds and thoughts of the authors, enhancing the reading experience. --Jonathan Schwartz --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
I can't stand reading stories about white, upper-class, educated authors or entitled elitists. Please, no more. And enough of the "What We Talk About When We Talk About..." So overdone.
Carol Anshaw, "The Last Speaker of the Language" was dark, funny and overall, a story that stays with you.
Mary Gaitskill, "The Other Place" is just an amazing story about the darkness that lurks in us all. Loved it, I was not disappointed.
Roxane Gay, "North Country" is possibly my favorite story in here. I first read this story in Hobart, and I'm a big fan of her work, but re-reading it here I was just floored by the raw emotion and honesty.
Mike Meginnins, "Navigators," from the same issue of Hobart, really surprised me, wow. The gaming storyline was fascinating, but what really broke through was the father/son relationship. So good.
Steven Millhauser, "Magic Polish" is a great bit of literary sf/fantasy, contemporary Bradbury, sweet, and sad. Surprising.
Eric Puchner, "Beautiful Monsters" is such a touching bit of near future fable and myth, loved, again, caught me off-guard. Touching.
The story that best expresses Carver’s philosophy is Carol Anshaw’s “The Last Speaker of the Language.” Coming as close to “K-Mart Realism” as possible (the protagonist works at Home Depot), the story features Darlyn, a single mother stuck in a dead-end job while living with an alcoholic and gambling-addicted mother, an out-of-work, dependent brother, and a pretentious daughter. When Darlyn’s married, lesbian lover says she’ll leave her husband for her, Darlyn is finally able to savor a moment of happiness, even though she knows it won’t last.
While Perrotta admits that he can’t escape his biases as a middle-aged, straight white male (something he borderline apologizes for in his introduction), at least five of his selections can be categorized as “stories of women finding themselves.” If this was his idea of compensation for historical injustices, he didn’t do his readers any favors with his choice of stories, save one.
“Volcano,” by Lawrence Osborne, goes on retreat with a newly single woman seeking meaning in life (like nearly every movie starring Julia Roberts). The tedious plot is pushed forward by with overwrought prose (“The sea was immense, like a visual drug that could calm the most turbulent heart”) and nagged by an author’s voice that could not decide whether it was part of the story or not (“Eager, was she that? In a way, she was.”)
Another “woman at a crossroads” story, “M&M World” by Kate Walbert, is the apparent result of the author cleaning out her ideas box all at once (and the author’s note confirms this). The narrator misplaces a child in downtown Manhattan. This is inexplicably segmented with flashbacks to a whale-sighting cruise and divorce discussions with her husband. The ponderous narrative style does not help: “From the moment they were born, they looked like her or they looked like their father, or sometimes they looked like a combination of both.” I spotted a whale of a sentence.
A bright spot among these lost female stories is “Paramour” by Jennifer Haigh. The protagonist, Christine, attends a former professor/crush’s career celebration dinner. She believed she had a special relationship, having posed naked for him when she was an undergrad. But then her view of what the relationship meant to him is unraveled. The story’s interiority deftly charts the collapse of Christine’s emotional bond to the professor.
No contemporary anthology can get away without a few fast-paced, first-person ensemble pieces about twenty-something hipsters. Both the quota-fillers in this volume are bad misses.
The worst of the two is “Pilgrim Life” by Taylor Antrim. In an attempt to capture the Bay area’s dot-com culture, he employs a frantic segmentation that becomes mystery genre pulp ornamented with every milieu-related buzzword imaginable.
A little better is “What’s Important is Feeling” by Adam Wilson. Like Antrim, Wilson tries to demonstrate how smart he is by dropping enough inside-Hollywood lingo to make Robert Evans blush. The story is entertaining as a series of vignettes about working on a film set, but it doesn’t come together at the end, even though Wilson tries to convey the simplistic notion that the narrator’s experience in making the film was much more intriguing and lively than the film itself.
As a Carver devotee, Perrotta could not resist including “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander. The most accessible story in England’s eponymous collection, it is, at heart, an amusing and yet distressing exploration of whether the Jewish identity is defined by the trappings of ancient customs or by loyalty to each other.
While Perrotta holds most of the stories to his anti-experimental standard, several deviate with unusual plotting, subject matter, style and narrative voice. They are the strongest stories in the collection.
Nobel Prize winner Alice Monro plays with focus and time in “Axis.” It begins in the nineteen-sixties with two girls exploring sex and love, then shifts perspective when a less-than-honorable boyfriends decides to abandon the girl he may have just impregnated in order to re-invent himself. The story then jumps forward fifty years to a chance encounter with the friend of the girl he deserted.
“Anything Helps” by Jess Walter is another experimental story. Walter uses unmarked, untagged dialogue in this first person narrative about a homeless man trying to reach his son. The conclusion teeters towards sentimentality but not in a way that is out of sync with the rest of this heartfelt story.
Three other stories successfully delve into magical realism. A father and son, abandoned by their wife and mother, search for answers in a video game that takes over their lives in “Navigators” by Mike Meginnis. Steven Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” is about a polished mirrors that changes the way those who gaze into the them perceive themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place” is a frightening tale of a man’s evil duality and his concern that he has passed it onto his son. Through their unusual subject matter and characters, each of these stories break the boundaries of conventional story telling.
The prize jewel of this collection is “Tenth of December” by legendary short-fiction writer George Saunders. The story’s close third narration alternates between a young boy and an old, sick man. The colorful honesty of the boy’s interiority alone would have made this story a success, and the intersection of these two characters evokes a rare theme in modern literature: hope.
The irony of this collection is that it is at its best when Perrotta set aside his personal criteria of “plainness” and selected stories that exist beyond ordinary.
Mike Meginnis's "Navigators" is about a father and son trying to make it after they lost the boy's mother, and it's very heartbreaking. Steven Millhauser's "Miracle Polish" is about a man who starts to love himself and his girlfriend after he gets a new miracle polish that makes him and his girlfriend appear beautiful and somehow more excellent as human beings when they look in a mirror cleaned with the polish. Lawrence Osborne's "Volcano" is very touching, a real tear-jerker, and it's about a woman who visits Hawaii to rediscover herself and attend a lucid dreaming seminar.
I highly recommend the above stories because they're examples of really good fiction. These really were great stories produced in the 2012 year. I hope you like them.