The literary anthologies of 2017 will be remembered for most of the usual reasons. Fiction, essays, journalistic reportage, drama, and comics always swirl around each other not necessarily begging for attention so much as trying to claim a piece of the reading public’s eye. They are vital, enlightening, disturbing and informative. The best work always rises to the top, and readers of any anthology worth our consideration understand that they’re not always going to be consistent.
The common thread that runs through The Best American Short Stories 2017 is division. We are a more divided, angry people than we have been in many years, not just in our external politics but also our internal operations. We are scared of the “other” across the sea and inside our houses, and the stories in this volume effectively reflect this division. The Best American Short Stories 2017 features stories four stories from The New Yorker, two from Granta, and the remainder from various other venues.
In her foreword Series Editor Heidi Pitlor explains the difficulty she and guest editor Meg Wolitzer felt as they put together this collection: “We strove for a mix of content and style, a collection of stories that gave voice to something urgent and meaningful.” The understandable problem Pitlor and Wolitzer faced while they were compiling this collection during and after the 2016 US Presidential election results and Inauguration is that the avalanche of impulsive, divisive, derisive tweets and other text coming from Donald Trump and his people had more perverse consequences than any fiction could produce. How could any American fiction match what was happening in reality?
In her Introduction, Wolitzer offers some concise ideas about the state of fiction. For her, it started with the ending. In her reflection about the O. Henry story “The Last Leaf”, Wolitzer notes that the gift of a great story, perhaps even its obligation, is the variations in the plot twist. “The macro-surprise and the micro-surprise work together to form something… that exists outside the world of the ordinary.” Wolitzer received half these stories before the November 2016 election results, and half afterward.
“And while the election had made me feel that there was nothing on earth powerful enough to drown out this particular bad surprise, that turned out not to be true…Life kept getting lived…”
Wolitzer effectively connects the civic obligation of voting with the reader’s commitment to a short story. “You need to have faith in the reading experience of the past to allow you to read now, in the present, and to keep reading into the future…” It’s the surprise of the genetically modified animal hybrid future in T.C. Boyle’s “Are We Not Men?” It’s the consistency of vision in Kevin Canty’s “God’s Work”, a sweet story about the commitments of faith clashing with desires of the flesh. It’s also about Kyle McCarthy’s “Ancient Rome”, in which a college tutor for an upper-class 16-year-old girl sees adulthood dangerously colliding with this younger generation.
Chad B. Anderson’s “Maidencane” is a tightly controlled narrative about a pivotal point in the narrator’s life. “You are the trees that day,” the first person voice tells us. “You are your brother’s sneakers… you are the girl on the dock and the snagged hook in your finger…” The words flow beautifully because the concentration is so tight. T.C. Boyle’s “Are We Not Men?” changes the style somewhat as it slides into speculative fiction, but the intensity is the same, the concentration equally strong. Kevin Canty’s “God’s Work” follows, and its simplicity probably makes it seem routine and ordinary. A young boy is doing door-to-door missionary work with his mother. A girl slides into the narrative, like a wispy figure of natural temptation, and then she slips away.
Jai Chakrabarti’s “A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness” takes us to India, where two men in a romantic relationship desire to have a baby, somehow and someway. It’s a story of sensations and reactions. Emma Cline’s “Arcadia” is a story rooted in setting, a farm that houses itinerant workers. It’s about sibling commitment, romantic love, and opportunities dashed. These stories are strong because the structure is solid. They work pulled outside of the context of this anthology and also as a singular unit.
Other stories take us to other lands. Patricia Engel’s “Campoamor” is set in an approximately modern-day Cuba, where adjustments are still happening and better days are apparently ahead. Maria Reva’s “Novostroika” takes us to the old Soviet Union, where “The statue of Grandfather Lenin towered over the building, squinting into the smoggy distance.” In the lands and political structures of both stories, people can easily be rendered non-existent, and the narrative structures surrounding them nicely support such bureaucratic ideologies.
Leopoldine Core’s “Hog for Sorrow” is a stunning centerpiece in this anthology. Lucy and Kit are two young women working at an escort service. They hate Sheila, the receptionist. The mundane style in the beginning matches what seems to be the atmosphere of the workplace. They’re waiting for clients, waiting for an explosion in the midst of all the boredom. The women had studied at Bennington and Sarah Lawrence. They listen to Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner”. All the energy’s been drained and they see Ned 0- a client they take singularly and as a duo — as a “hog for sorrow”. Ned’s daughter is dying, and Kit wonders about her. Is she dead? She connects the daughter’s status to her own, and the picture isn’t pretty:
“I am the receptacle, she thought. His daughter is a deity.”
Several of these stories take on the complications and consequences of one night stands. Danielle Evans’s “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” takes us to a wedding. We think it’s going to be routine, as Rena (the bridesmaid) deals with her romance (or not?) with the bridegroom. The twist comes when we learn Rena’s sister had been shot in the head by her husband. She lived, but in an obviously different condition. Rena went through issues of rage, but things had seemed to settle:
“Men seemed more fragile to her now, and because it was impossible to entirely hate something for being broken, she forgave even those men who’d left her teary-eyed and begging for damage.”
In Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies”, a female Professor (of Gender Studies) believes she’s lost her license in the shuttle driver’s van. They connect, Eleanor the Professor and Luke the Trump-loving shuttle van driver, only physically. For our heroine, “…it’s like an anthropological experience.” Things pass, the objectives of this brief assignation are reached, and Eleanor realizes this is just going to be another learning experience.
“Famous Actor”, by Jess Walter, is a knowing, sarcastic, touching account told by one woman after she’s encountered (and had an assignation with) a Disney TV star, one of the countless disposable faces that inexplicably manage to make it big as romantic leads. It’s Bend, Oregon. She’s a barista, he’s an actor accustomed to physical encounters with willing women, and the story benefits from her voice:
“First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon. There was one point where he was over me, his eyes closed, head back, weight on his arms like he was doing a pushup, and it was kind of weird…”
Like the maid of honor in the Danielle Evans story, the female lead in “Famous Actor” has experienced loss. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk for many of these stories, and too often weighing down your lead character with loss can be cloying and manipulative. It’s what you do with the loss that separates a good story from a great one. Evans and Walter are two writers who understand that the power of a great story rests in demonstrating unique variations in the way their characters deal with hardships. Accommodation is surrender. True power and humanity come in learning how to adapt.
The Best American Short Stories 2017 offers a mixture of the veterans, the names (Boyle, Engel, Hempel) with newer (or less familiar) names. Mary Gordon’s “Ugly” is a long, beautiful story about a sophisticated Human Resources urbanite who finds herself in a different part of the country dealing with people she’d most likely have dismissed in her regular life. “I certainly knew she [Lois] was odd,” our heroine says. Lois becomes her patron, her caregiver for six weeks while she’s in the area from the big city making sure her mission (cutting the company workforce) is completed. Gordon makes us understand that the idea of ugly takes many forms.
There’s never a sense in these stories that anything came easy. Everything’s been fabricated, but nothing seems manufactured. In Sonya Larson’s “Gabe Dove”, an Asian woman comes to terms with possibly inherent racist reasons she might not have ever dated an Asian man. “I met Gabe Dove when I was sad and attracting men who liked me sad,” the story opens, and Larson has immediately grabbed our attention. This character wants to be hurt, and when it happens she’s devastated. Again, this is a tight, intense story that shatters the reader in its final scenes simply by its strength of purpose, its uncompromising mission towards truth. “Something is wrong with me and I don’t know what it is,” she tells him near the end, after she’d managed to sabotage her seemingly ideal connection, and the pain resonates.
Fiona Maazel’s “Let’s Go to the Videotape” works on several levels. At first, it’s a comic account of a man and his son shooting a slapstick videotape that manages to win the grand prize on America’s Funniest Home Videos. The boy is pedaling away on his bicycle, “…newly aware of his autonomy, which contravened everything Nick had taught him by force of grief, the bond between them fortified by the loss of Nick’s wife — Gus’s mom — three years ago in a car accident that was still being litigated today.” Maazel carefully sets that foundation of grief beneath a story of recovery, and it’s a slice of beauty that makes the reader want more. That’s really the bottom line in The Best American Short Stories 2017. These stories might be about political dividing lines, fissures that are permanently open, but at their core, the majority of them are slices of beauty that simultaneously leave the reader fulfilled and wanting more.