Tag Archives: short fiction

American Short Fiction Vol. 14, Issue 51 Spring 2011

This short volume of new fiction is probably the best compilation of stories I have yet to read. While it only has five stories, each is so masterfully crafted that it’s worth the $10 cover price. Originally published by the University of Texas Press, American Short Fiction is now published by Badgerdog Literary Publishing in Austin, Texas.

Mathew Baker’s “The Wrong Chemicals” was by far the most unique in the collection. At first it seems like a weird narrative with a science fiction philosophy running throughout, but it quickly becomes much more than that. It begins with the “birth” of a man in a basement. Then it goes backwards, as the world in this story goes in reverse. Bombs give life, people are born in cemeteries, and garbage is pulled from the landfills to create cities. Baker does some really interesting things with this premise, adding a dash of social commentary on America (the narrator’s mother tells: “We’ve been sending soldiers overseas for centuries, bringing Libyans to life, Iraqis, Afghanis, pulling bullets from their bodies.” )

The story itself is a rather simple one, a man is unemployed and depressed, but this device Baker uses makes the story into a mystery with a surprising ending.

“Marie Tells All” by Anne Claycomb is a fun (yet troubling) romp through the eyes of a girl who was on a fictional Real World type show called Rock’n Romance. Marie and Teena are twins whose father recently died and decide to go on the show to win the heart of a rockstar they used to have crushes on as teenagers. Marie tells us about what it was “really” like on the show and what wasn’t aired on the episode she presumes we saw.

Michael Fauver’s “Fancier” is about two men who own theaters across the street from each other. Once rivals, now they are just awkward acquaintances with closed businesses. The story isn’t about the theaters so much as it is about the strange relationship between the two men. This was a good story, as they all were, but probably my least favorite. It was also the shortest, merely giving us a snapshot of the men, their relationship, and their lives in those few days.

“Time Apart Together” by Anthony Varallo is another strange story about a college drop out who works as a phone salesman for Great Bank America and has a girlfriend named Ursula he can’t shake. What is interesting is that the narrator makes it clear that he doesn’t care about Ursula and just wants to break up with her, yet he defines everything in his life by her as if she is a point in time he can base everything by. For example: “My parents separated the year I started dating Ursula…”, “I dropped out of college a few months after I started dating Ursula.”

What gives this otherwise humdrum story a lift is that Ursula became interested in him because he looked identical to her ex-boyfriend, Kevin, who she in turn bases her life around.

“The Steam Room” by Shannon Cain is about the Mayor of New York’s wife, Helen, and what happens when she is found masturbating in a public steam room by two teenage girls that go to school with her daughter. In the aftermath of the scandal, Helen is ostracized by parts of her community, embraced by others, and has some enlightening conversations with her children. It’s a great story with quite a few elements, the most important of which is how she relates to her teenage daughter.

Ann Beattie: Now and Then

In college I read a short story by Ann Beattie in one of those short fiction compilation books assigned in fiction classes. It was called “Janus” and I didn’t care for it.

I had no contact with Beattie’s writing until recently, when I read an interview with her in the spring issue of The Paris Review. She mentioned that “Janus” was not one of her favorite stories, which made me want to give her another chance. The interviewer and Beattie talked mostly about her older stories from the 1970′s, so I took a little walk to my local used book store and picked up a copy of Distortions, a book of her short stories published in that time.

They were…different, to say the least. Beattie uses the same recurring names in most of her stories from this time, which caused me some confusion at first thinking that these stories may be connected (they weren’t, after further reading). She used the names David and Sam the most, and in fact this book was dedicated to a David. I like to think that maybe Beattie, like myself, hates naming her characters and that’s why she reuses the same names as often as possible.

Her stories, aside from featuring similarly named characters, are all very slice-of-life pieces about normal people behaving rather oddly. Many of her characters speak very bluntly to each other of their desires and random thoughts. In “The Lifeguard” a wife tells her husband she is attracted to a lifeguard, though she doesn’t do anything about it.

Strange things like alien visitations occur (“It’s Just Another Day in Big Bear City, California”), a young man shacks up with an overweight housekeeper just so he has someone to go to the Grand Canyon with (“Hale Hardy and the Amazing Animal Woman”), and a woman has an affair while her husband keeps busy looking for fancy cooking ingredients (“The Parking Lot”). Mostly, lots of people get bored with their lives and a little crazy.

One of my favorite stories was “Wanda”, a story about a young girl whose father runs off and whose mother runs after him, to bring him back, leaving the girl with her Aunt Wanda. Her Aunt Wanda and the upstairs neighbor Mrs. Wong lecture her about men while both are very much man-less. Then her father returns and in a drunken haze kidnaps her for a “fun” weekend of partying at his girlfriend’s house.

Beattie’s stories all have similar elements and themes, showing an array of average people in strange circumstances. While some of the stories are sad, others she laces through with a subtle humor. One of my favorite passages in this collection of stories was in a story called “Vermont”, and it shows the intimate ways a couple interacts with each other:

Tonight, as I do most nights, I sleep with long johns under my nightgown. I roll over on top of Noel for more warmth and lie there, as he has said, like a dead man, like a man in the Wild West, gunned down in the dirt. Noel jokes about this. “Pow, pow,” he whispers sleepily as I lower myself on him. “Poor critter’s deader ‘n a doornail.” I lie there warming myself. What does he want with me?

“What do you want for your birthday?” I ask.

He recites a list of things he wants. He whispers: a bookcase, an aquarium, a blender to make milkshakes in.

“That sounds like what a ten-year-old would want,” I say.

He is quiet too long; I have hurt his feelings.

“Not the bookcase,” he says finally.

I love this passage because of how real it feels to me. It’s just two normal people in bed together having an unimportant conversation as they try to fall asleep that any couple could have. Beattie has such a great way with details, the way she lies on top of him for warmth and wears something as unflattering as long johns underneath her nightgown. And their short exchange struck me as hilarious, how the man decides against the bookcase of all things when she points out his wishes are childish.

I think one of the best things about Beattie’s writing is the details. She has an amazing way of writing in so many specific details that the people and places she writes about seem like they have to be real. It’s also amazing that I can read her stories now, in 2o11, that were written in the 1970s, and most of the time it felt like they could have been written recently.

I’ll admit that I’m usually one of those people who skips past the interviews in literary journals, but this Paris Review interview really caught my attention and held it. I suggest reading the interview with Beattie and if you aren’t already familiar with her work, checking out any of her short story collections or novels. She has a new compilation out now of the stories she had published in The New Yorker  aptly called The New Yorker Stories. 

“Gold Mine” by Claire Vaye Watkins

After reading The Paris Review‘s disappointing Winter 2010 issue, I must say “Gold Mine” by Claire Vaye Watkins was its sole saving grace.

It’s a gripping story with multiple facets that really brings the reader in hard and fast. It tells the story of three characters: Darla, a popular prostitute at the Cherry Patch Ranch, Manny, the manager of said ranch, and Michele, a foreign visitor who mistakenly visits the ranch. All three characters are multi-faceted and bulk at the stereotypes characters such as these would typically be written as. Darla isn’t necessarily the prostitute with a heart of gold, though neither is she so hardened as to have no heart at all. Manny isn’t brutal and cruel with his girls, and Michele, while innocent, has his own drama going on.

The story takes place in Nevada, where only such a story could take place, just outside of Las Vegas. Watkins really paints the landscape well and portrays the whore house as a business, not a hell hole. I found it an interesting book end (as it is the last story in the review, followed only by a short poem) to Alexandra Kleeman’s “Fairy Tale” (read my review of that story here). Both stories were written by relatively unknown young female writers, but it was Kleeman’s (inferior) story that got so much attention.

The Nevada Review did an interview with Watkins which discusses her background as a Nevadan and her experience at Ohio State University’s MFA program. I for one am very excited about her upcoming collection of stories. She’s definitely an author to keep an eye on.

Alexandra Kleeman is One Lucky Chick

I don’t typically write posts about individual authors, but an article I read online this week on thedailycamera.com caught my attention.

24-year-old previously unpublished Alexandra Kleeman recently had a short story, “Fairy Tale”, published in the winter 2010 issue of the prestigious Paris Review. For those of you unfamiliar with The Paris Review, it’s is a wonderful literary journal based out of New York City that publishes short fiction, essays, poetry, and interviews by some of the most respected writers around today.

Needless to say, it’s a pretty big deal for someone of Kleeman’s status to be published by it. Interested to see what was so amazing about her story to warrant publication, I picked up the Winter 2010 issue. Not only was her story there, as promised, but it is the first story you turn to.

“Fairy Tale” is a story about a young woman who “wakes up” at her dining room table with her parents and a young man she doesn’t recognize. She is told that she had just been announcing her engagement to said young man before she had stopped speaking. She is, of course, confused as to how she could be engaged to a man she doesn’t recognize. To add to her confusion, young men begin flooding into the house, all insisting that they are her boyfriends. One even brought flowers. Her parents tell her she must choose one, and she chooses the guy that had brought her flowers. In the kitchen, he kisses her and tells her he had come to kill her, then tries to kill her by throwing random articles at her.

The story reads like a dream someone had and then wrote down without much alteration. It’s not that the story was poorly written or terribly horrible, but it was definitely unremarkable and in my opinion, amateurish. It doesn’t hold up to what the media has been saying about it and definitely doesn’t hold up the The Paris Review’s usual standards.

According to the article on thedailycamera.com a professor of hers at Columbia was the one to send the story to The Paris Review. Knowing this, it’s hard not to believe that networking had a great deal to do with her story getting published as opposed to her having some great talent. It’s easy to imagine that same story lost in the stacks of submissions had she sent it in herself.

The Paris Review also has a short interview with Kleeman here.


The Awful Possibilities by Christian TeBordo

The only “awful possibility” is that you pick this book up and read it. Ok, now that’s out of the way, on to what I really think about this collection of short fiction.

It’s entirely  unremarkable. It reads a lot like the work of Chuck Palahniuk only where Palahniuk uses short, choppy sentence structure TeBordo uses long, rambling sentence structure. TeBordo’s yawn-worthy horror stories implement mediocre plot twists for cheap shock value. For instance, a rather egotistical man goes to an old friend’s house to demand he make a new wallet for him (with matching handbag for his wife) and by the end he’s snipping the skin off his good old friend’s back to make such items. In another story, a man smokes some cigarettes in his apartment building’s stairwell while he has his wife tied up in his apartment. In yet another, a little kid is taught how to “steal” people’s kidneys. Perhaps I have read too many horror stories, seen too many scary movies, or am simply a bit dark myself but these stories just didn’t do it for me. Anyone can write something grotesque in order to elicit a response. For example: the little girl walked down the street, her backpack bouncing against her body and she skipped over cracks. The extra bounce in her step was due to two things: the A she got on her essay about Abraham Lincoln, and the fact that she had her stepfather’s head in the pack slung over both small shoulders.

Ooooooh creepy, right? No. Simply writing “and then this gross thing happened” doesn’t make you a good horror writer. Another problem was that the voice of each male character was extremely similar, detached and very focused on the thing at hand. This made each character seem like carbon copies of each other.

In between the stories are pages that look like postcards, one side an image (all with an unexplained black goo dripping over them) on the other side some writing. The postcards are connected while the stories aren’t, though the postcards don’t really make much sense, either. They are supposed to be from someone writing to his (or her?) spouse while they are on vacation together detailing what happened that day or a bit of conversation they had. It’s an interesting idea, but isn’t executed very well. They don’t tell a complete story, so they seem to act as just a fun diversion from the typical short fiction format.

I will say that Featherproof Books did a wonderful job putting the book together. It’s small, compact size is handy for slipping into purses or even a large back pocket, and I do like the thing with the postcards. It’s just too bad the content wasn’t as strong as the design of the book.