hatever happened to the love fairy? Gone, lamented, but not forgotten, at least not in “The Best American Short Stories, 2011″(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York). In the midst of our 3rd mil of terror and tragedy, it’s a surprise to find that the majority of these Best. Am. writers are — not too happily — in desire’s thrall, though it’s rarely sexual or even romantic. Their yearnings are imagined, remembered, usually unfulfilled.
It’s “that funny word called ‘love'” at its most ephemeral and bizarre.
A mirror of America? You decide. The bunch is certainly well worth the read. All the narratives are craft-perfect. They also ring with serious author concern.
In her collection-opener, “Ceiling,” Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie astutely traces the rapid social change in her native country. The swift rise in new riches produces disorienting confusion. Wealth and happiness collide. But if “Ceiling”‘s love-unfulfilled lament echoes the volume’s overall tune, Adichie’s narrative is among the too-rare stories with identifiably contemporary scenario.
A poor Lagos youth marries a beautiful girl, who guarantees wealth, albeit shadily. He spirals into an “airless,” coded life. A decade on, a brief email leads to his fantasy of reviving an old love affair and, with it, “the man he had once been.” It’s a precise and credible New Africa twist on the evergreen American tale of marital disaffection.
Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s poignant and prose-proud “Housewifely Arts” sees her protagonist preparing to leave behind her native Carolina roots. She sees it as her last and best chance to hear the “voice” of her glacially stern, dead mother. She drives nine hours on I-95 to a small, dilapidated roadside zoo. Where her mother’s 36-year old parrot is living out its last days. And where she can hear the parrot mimic her mother’s once-despised voice for the last time. “What maniacs we are-sick with love, all of us.”
Joyce Carol Oates’ “ID” is a technically perfect continuation of her trademark themes: love stained with sex/gory violence. Set in small town; no dateline.
Previous “best” collections often produced a vaunted range of settings. Here, only a few tales stray from American turf. “Global thrust” is absent. Many of the small town scenarios could easily reflect the 1950s, or even 1940s. Freedom from “sell-by” date is one trick to universalize a tale. But so many like narratives makes you wonder if the trend isn’t part of the latest craft-school herding.
Guest editor, the novelist Geraldine Brooks, was also puzzled by some of the voids her “final 20” selection. “There’s a war on!” she notes, saying “stories set in bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens reflect a hive mind,” where “the air becomes stale.”
To this carping let us quickly add… more. Where are the population centers throttled by mortgage foreclosures? Where are the crack houses, the sprawling mantra malls, the reeling effects of global finance and consumption, or the skyline view from corporate boardrooms? Where are the ever-moving tent cities, which a fourth of America’s children now call “home?”
Sam Lipsyte’s “Dungeon Master” is a notable exception to these near-yesteryear stories. Dungeon is a probing weave of computer-gamed days linked to adolescent desires to define self and to “belong.” Here, third mil talk and searing narrative arc both take off. In the other anointed stories, characters don’t even mention “computers.” Whatever says “today” just isn’t there.
Certainly this generalized insistence on no-calendar reporting makes for a stark contrast to the two stunning fantasies in the collection. Both underline how effective the “timeless” can be when naturalistic writing combines with fable.
Moving at 180° from the majority crop, Caitlin Horrocks’ “The Sleep” views a citizenry in its desperate flight from desiring anything at all. Located somewhere in America’s northern territories, the town of Bounty is falling apart. No blame to the bank mafia or technological obsolescence. Instead, “the end” is more darkly allied to our nation’s historical patterns, in which once-vital communities miss the future-boat and fade to ghost towns. Tracked by Horrocks in eerily convincing psychological detail, the families of Bounty do not move on. They respond through hibernation. Forever longer calendar periods, as years pass.
Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms” leaks the unreal into routine. A coolly analytical narrator explains that since mid-1600s his entire town been obsessed by complex psycho-phenomenal questions. Phantasms, dressed in each decade’s everyday, appear to suddenly to observers, all of who are single — whether children or adults, whether chatting in a seated group, or to a lone figure gazing into a stream. “When they see us, they severely turn away and disappear.” “We have always asked ourselves”: Is it possible to make contact with these ineffable presences? The phantasms arouse unease and intense longing.
This is an intriguing collection. A few of the writers are already well above radar, while so many others await reader discovery.