Economy and power. Two elements which, according to The Best American Short Stories 2016 (BASS) guest editor Junot Díaz, make short stories one of the most impactful literary forms out there. Even in the era of tweet-happy presidents and millimeter-thin phones, the short story genre remains maligned for its seeming incompleteness, its hastiness, its unforgivingness. Those who attempt to write short stories know the difficulty of crafting a plot that begins in one’s mind as an intricately carved miniature dollhouse and all too often ends up as a sloppy popsicle-stick bungalow: clumsy, rushed, derivative. Clearly, we do not extend to the short story our tolerance for tweets displaying these same characteristics.
Nor do we extend to the short story the same tolerance we show to the novel. For so long short stories have existed under the shadow of novels, as though the novel were the mansion to the short story’s dollhouse. But as a dedicated reader will tell you, there’s nothing miniature or dollhouse-like about a masterful short story’s effect. The power imbalance between the big and the little is ineluctable. Amid the contemporary references to Game of Thrones, even Díaz embeds his defense of the form in terms of big versus small:
If the novel is our culture’s favorite literary form, upon which we heap all our desiccated literary laurels, if the novel is, say, our Jaime Lannister, then the short story is our very own Tyrion: the disdained little brother, the perennial underdog. But what an underdog. … And in the right hands there’s more oomph in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form.
Big/little dynamics aside, it seems to Díaz (and to me) that critics should ask not how short stories bewitch readers despite their size, but how they bewitch readers precisely because of it.
Variants of this vindication of the short story have no doubt peppered the introductions of all the preceding BASS books in all sorts of pithy and eloquent wordings. It’s up to the reader to believe the words of the guest editor. Díaz does a fine job as a literary hype man in his introduction, but what really confirms his conviction that the short story form remains a formidable player in the literary game is his selection of stories. As a newcomer to the BASS series and a first-time reader of short stories in general, I was unprepared for what came ahead. The stories in the 2016 edition of the BASS series haunted and dazed me and left my mind reeling. After finishing the compilation, I knew I preferred the puncture wounds of a lethal short story to the blunt force trauma of a novel.
I read these stories wide-eyed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They did not induce the usual droopy eyes and heavy neck that reading in general unfortunately tends to cause me. After reading them, which took at most 20 minutes but sometimes less than ten per story, I went about my day with a story kicking around my head, to borrow Díaz’s words. I felt the urgency of their prose, the tug of their messages, and the weight of their microcosms, which lay heavier on my mind than those of any Russian novel. My personal favorite stories include Louise Erdrich’s “The Flower”, Meron Hadero’s “The Suitcase”, Ben Marcus’ “Cold Little Bird”, Caille Millner’s “The Politics of the Quotidian”, and Sharon Solwitz’s “Gifted”. All of these stories carry within them a compact meditation on what it is like to suffer injustice and what it is like to be vulnerable.
In Erdrich’s “The Flower”, a young Ojibwe girl resists the brutality all around her: the plagues of alcoholism and slavery introduced by fur traders and white settlers; the ruthless hibernal environment; the death of her mother. She survives all this, and ends up in a safe yet sterilized life where “[n]obody got drunk. Nobody slashed her mother’s face and nose, ruining her. Nobody took a knife and stabbed an uncle who held her foot and died as the blood gushed from his mouth.” At the same time, she is taught to accept itchy woolen dresses, pinching corsets, salt pork, and cabbage, as well as measles and scarlet fever, diseases that had no name in her native language. The fact of her survival seems marred by how violently her culture and her identity were stripped away from her in the end. Erdrich’s taut and objective prose needs no histrionics or hyperboles to illustrate the sadness and the loss that results from acculturation.
In an entirely different universe, Meron Hadero explores the consequences that result from clashing cultures through a less tragic yet equally poignant lens in “The Suitcase”. The story’s protagonist, Saba, had dreamed of a “romantic, monumental reunion with her home country”, Ethiopia. Instead, she finds herself desperately out of place. On her last day, her mind fraught with the stresses of travel (both in terms of crossing Addis Ababa’s chaotic roads and of catching her flight back to America), she faces the task of packing her suitcase and accepting the mounds of gifts and keepsakes that her extended family wants her to take back with her, gifts which would have no way of reaching the US otherwise. Hadero concludes the story with an uplifting scene of human connection, a scene punctuated by the suitcase’s role as the symbol of the contrast between life in Seattle and life in Addis Ababa.
Continuing with the topic of stark contrasts and power imbalances, Caille Millner explores the eternal loneliness of being a woman — specifically a woman of color — in academia in her story, “The Politics of the Quotidian”. In it, the unnamed protagonist slogs through the hubris of students, fellow professors, and department heads, all who happen to be male. She reflects on a history of less than stellar underperformance — a magna cum laude instead of a summa cum laude; a middle tier graduate school; a career spent in search for an elusive tenure track position. But it is Millner’s comically accurate representation of an academic bureaucrat who verbalizes the truth of the young professor’s situation: try as she might, she doesn’t belong there. Even more painful is the implication that she doesn’t seem to be particularly welcome there, either.
But not all the stories scrutinize social and cultural inequalities. Ben Marcus and Sharon Solwitz each tell a tale of childhood twisted by unnerving forces and fateful diagnoses. But the beauty of their stories lies in the electricity they manage to extract from mundane parent-child interactions, and in the heartbreaking tenderness of their writing when portraying the fragility of family relationships. Marcus’ “Cold Little Bird” astonishes readers with the story of a young boy named Jonah, whose lovableness morphs silently into cold apathy. His parents struggle to identify where this new attitude came from and whether it even constitutes a problem, even if it hurts them. Meanwhile, the parents of Nate in Solwitz’s “Gifted” face a more notorious demon: a cancer diagnosis. More than simply galvanizing the family, however, Nate’s battle with the disease ends up leading his mother to some startling revelations about herself.
But there was one story that burned like an open flame for weeks after I had read it: Tahmima Anam’s “Garments”. Anam’s narration bestows power and agency upon characters who toil both physically and spiritually to transcend their lot in life. Jesmin works in a garment factory in Bangladesh, and one day a fellow factory worker asks her if she wants to become her boyfriend’s second wife. Jesmin ponders the possibility, and in the span of a mere ten pages, the consequences of her decision whisks the reader through the obscene exploitation of factory workers, the cruel abuse of women, and the bottomless resilience of girls who suffer through injustice together.
I consider myself a practical yet impressionable reader, a lover of academic manuals and historical tomes, someone who remembers colorful turns of phrase and segments of tight prose. Fiction rarely calls my name, although I have tried to like it. I have chugged through hefty novels of various persuasions, from the Lord of the Rings series to WIlliam Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. They all functioned as instant and wholesome thoroughfares to sleep. If it means anything, the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories was the first book in a while to prevent my sleep instead of beckoning it, which is an honor very few novels can boast. And not only did it keep me awake, it sparked in me a desire to interrupt my daily errands just to read. Not once was I disappointed: the stories were sleek, almost harsh in the way they never dallied around, and yet at the same time they glimmered with lyricism, suspense, and originality.
Díaz’s observation rings true in my view: there is more oomph in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form. The wealth of skill and the richness of the storytelling in this collection resound throughout every page and sentence, amplified by the inherently short word limit of the genre. The Best American Short Stories 2016 is an extra concentrated dose of beautiful writing, and one of the most important mementos of a year that desperately needed the redeeming capacity of powerful and economic literature.