Literary anthologies often have brief capsule biographies of the contributing writers all the way at the end of the book. These short blurbs are meant to help orient the reader, and to give them a sense of the minds and personalities behind the stories they have just read. If you flip to the last few pages of 20 Under 40, an anthology billed by the New Yorker as representing “the future of American fiction”, you’ll get a sense of how this emerging wave of young writers see themselves, and how they wish to be seen.
You’ll discover that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; that ZZ Packer and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum were both finalists for PEN/Faulkner Awards for Fiction; that David Bezmozgis has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacDowell Fellow, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman fellow; and that Gary Shteyngart’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages.
In short, these are some heavily lauded writers, and their laurels are on display. As editor Deborah Treisman writes in the anthology’s introduction, “Talent rises, and agents, editors, publishing houses, magazines—and readers—chase after it.” 20 Under 40, then, is a distillation of conventional literary wisdom. These are the writers who have captured the attention of the distinguished institutions who can validate a writer’s work and make them worthy of inclusion in such an anthology.
With that in mind, it becomes clear that these capsule biographies are, in fact, not intended to give any true insight into the background of the writers, but rather to justify their appearance in this book. The incessant listing of accolades is meant to convey their worth and impress upon readers that these are writers worth watching. And that’s not to say that they aren’t. But for most readers, hearing that a writer has been a MacDowell Fellow means very little. It is a factoid that conveys absolutely no pertinent information.
In contrast, contributor Philipp Meyer’s biography is practically a short story unto itself. It’s not merely a resume; it’s a crisply told narrative detailing his life as a high-school dropout turned Ivy League success, with a disillusioning detour through derivatives trading before he pursues writing his novel, American Rust, while moonlighting as an EMT and a construction worker. Meyer’s accolades flow naturally from his story, they aren’t blurted out disconnectedly.
It’s no surprise, then, that Meyer’s contribution to 20 Under 40, “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone”, is far and away the strongest story in the book. He manages to make fairly well-worn tropes like suburban ennui, marital estrangement, and father-son tensions feel fresh and meaningful. The key is that he doesn’t rely on those tropes to drive his story. They are merely the setting, the backdrop over which his characters can express themselves. It’s a poignant story, tinged with sadness but never exploitative or cloying. He creates a fully-formed neighborhood and a believable family by paying attention to the small details that add life and shading to characters, without letting those minute elements overwhelm the story’s primary purpose.
Nell Fruedenberger’s “An Arranged Marriage” follows a young Indian woman who uses an online matchmaking site to find an American husband. Fruedenberger deftly avoids making judgments and turns what could have been a disheartening story into a sweet and lovely rumination on love and aspiration. Though the union between Amina and George is peculiar, and potentially headed for disappointment, Fruedenberger does not attempt to telegraph their future to the reader. We’re simply allowed to experience the story through Amina’s eyes and feel her anxieties and hopes along with her. It’s a refreshingly well-plotted tale with a beautiful ending.
Unfortunately, many of the stories in 20 Under 40 are either about exotic people doing banal things, or banal people doing nothing at all. In “Birdsong”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shows that having an affair in Lagos can be just as trite as having one anywhere else. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” appears to be a catalog of first-world problems. In “Lenny Hearts Eunice”, Gary Shteyngart does that thing that Gary Shteyngart does, if that’s what you’re into.
Ultimately, calling the writers in 20 Under 40 “the future of American fiction” seems really weird. These writers are clearly the present of American fiction. How many more awards do these people have to win? How many more novels do they have to write? Some of these writers, like Foer and Shteyngart are, at this very moment, very successful novelists. What more do they have to do? Why does the New Yorker insist that their moment hasn’t yet arrived?