A Crash Course in 20 Stories: The Paris Review’s ‘Object Lessons’

Short story anthologies are notoriously hit-or-miss, usually for being too one-note, often because of either the theme or the editor. In Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, however, the editors seem to have perfected the formula, culling the stories from their vast and disparate archives and having a famous writer introduce each one.

At times, the introductions to the stories are as finely crafted as the stories themselves. In Dave Eggers’ introduction to James Salter’s “Bangkok”, for example, Eggers introduces the story with the mastery of a seasoned professor, breaking it down into a list of its strengths. Among them: “Some of the best dialogue occurs when at least one of the two people talking doesn’t want to be there.” (Such a comment is an understatement for the palpable angst that permeates Salter’s story.)

Then there are the stories themselves. Their narrators are unhappy wives, architects who receive phone calls from aging fathers, drug-addled, mentally ill hitchhikers, modern dancers, naked men exiled from their lovers’ apartments… Some of them are more approachable and sympathetic than others. At 20 stories, it would be impossible to highlight the strengths of each, so let us touch on a few with the understanding that many more treasures lie within this volume than the ones described here.

In “Pelican Song”, Mary-Beth Hughes proves that it’s possible to write well about domestic violence. Her story is smart, well-rounded, and avoids sentimentality at every turn. The narrator maintains a relationship with a college freshman (“His beard had developed only under his mouth and nose so far, and though born at New York Hospital, he spoke with an English accent.”) who spells her name out in rose petals for Valentine’s Day and lies down naked amongst them in the February chill. Meanwhile, the narrator’s mother is being battered by her writer-husband, whose tantrums she writes off as mere frustrations of the writing business. As Mary Gaitskill says in the introduction, “That the heroine wants to believe in love and goodness even as she walks through these horrors is more than convincing. It is heartbreaking.”

Denis Johnson, on the other hand, manages to create a completely unsympathetic, yet thoroughly compelling narrator in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”. His story, that of a hitchhiker, high on pot and amphetamines given to him by various drivers, who gets involved in the titular car crash with a family, has staying power despite the unlikeable nature of the narrator: “By his manner he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved and tearful. I’d though something was required of me, but I hadn’t wanted to find out what it was.”

Frustratingly, some of the least accessible stories come from some of the writers who one would expect to be the strongest. The stories by Joy Williams (“Dinner”) and Mary Robison (“Likely Lake”) are two of the most abstract and slowest in the collection. Knowing the greatness these two writers can reach in short fiction just makes it sad that these were the stories of theirs selected for this volume. “Dinner” is full of Williams’s exquisitely drawn characters, but each section inexplicably begins with a fragment of text that seems taken from a reference book. Such an experimental move could heighten a story’s power; here, it perplexes more than illuminates. “Likely Lake” is slow-moving, and there’s less at stake in this story than in much of Robison’s earlier work (such as the stories contained in An Amateur’s Guide to the Night).

Another questionable inclusion is that of Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” This story is, of course, a classic, one that helped reinvent the short story, along with Carver’s bare-bones, yet prolific, body of work. However, it has been anthologized more times than can be counted. While it’s fine and dandy to know that The Paris Review has bragging rights over being the first to publish it, does that information justify taking up all the space taken up by Carver’s story that could be used by another that might not be so easily found elsewhere? While it was unfortunate that the editors chose to include this “Why Don’t You Dance?” over something less anthologized, the story indeed lives on and is as powerful as when it first debuted.

Aside from these minor blunders, Object Lessons manages to thrive where many other anthologies fail, blending together a wealth of writing styles and writer’s backgrounds. This is an anthology for readers and writers alike, as well for anyone who wishes to join either category.

RATING 8 / 10