As I write this, it is apparently both Fat Tuesday and Valentine’s Day eve. This is super apropos, since most of my valentines have ended in smoke and ash. I‘ll have many girlfriends ( and others) between the covers. Book covers. I’ll try not to get chocolate on the naughty bits.
A current home project is to clear shelf space. A way to do that is to read, or re-read, a bunch of things that have been on my list. Many of them can then be carted down to the bookstore for store credit. A never finished George Saunders collection; a Denis Johnson skyped from the advanced reading copies pile at work; another from the pile, a re-release of Fitzgerald’s bread-and-butter stories for Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines; my David Foster Wallace Reader, and of course, my teetering stack of McSweeney’s Quarterlies and a related 2017 Non Required Reading Anthology. I’m thus surveying about 100 years of short stories, after exploring the history of American essays. No short jokes here.
Along with my brief return to Hemingway in the late Fall, I’m moving from the buoyant though disillusioned charm of Fitzgerald’s O.Henry-influenced magazine pieces, filled with the sort of froth and banter soon to become a staple of radio and Hollywood movies which later supplanted them, past the vacated emotional landscapes of Hemingway, to the dark obsessive humor of Wallace, Saunders and Johnson, and the casual magic realism of the not-quite quarterlies to which the short story has retreated (McSweeney’s, in case you are wondering, adds a bit of balance to this mostly male list with favorites like Judy Budnitz, Rebecca Curtis and Kelly Link).
Long story “short”, there are practical considerations, for this. It’s actually a very busy time for me, with the Month of Printmaking Colorado fast approaching, and many shows and events to supply or organize. Short stories and essays provide absorbing escape without the novelistic distraction of keeping a narrative thread alive in my head. And there’s the underlying shame of a large stack of books collected ‘for later’ and not read. It’s sort of like mental housecleaning: read some stories, then check them off your list, then take them to the book shop and trade them in for more. A ‘peace’ of paper, so to speak.
A sidelight: always on the lookout for linkages, I’ve discovered that short fiction and short non-fiction have a semi secret meeting place: the ‘letters’ section of McSweeney’s, where odd bits and half-ideas ‘come through the letter box thick and fast’.
To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate: I’m dipping into this collection of essays on essays gradually, especially at times when my own writing is likely to happen. One I recently read is an opinion piece on why showing AND telling are important. Lopate is conversational and didactic, which makes a nice, if fairly conservative read on why students often indulge a current prejudice against objective explication (telling) in favor of narrative (showing) to their detriment. Examples given include George Elliot, who certainly uses the omniscient voice in The Mill on the Floss in effective and humorous way; and Virginia Woolf, whose essay on going to buy a pencil in LoPate’s excellent collection of great essays certainly leaves a very powerful impression.
In Our Time, Hemingway: Target of opportunity when I was looking for The Sun Also Rises at DPL. Against a background of Hemingway youth as presented in Everybody Behaves Badly, about the writing of this book and Sun; and Hemingway’s Boat, which has informative background on his Michigan summers, the stories have renewed intrigue, and still carry their lean intensity of feeling.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other of Jazz Age Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald: This obviously goes along with my Hemingway binge, and is certainly a target of opportunity, plucked from the advance reading pile, as it’s a newly issued compilation of two early Fitzgerald collections, rereleased to take advantage of a movie. Not sure I would have picked this up intentionally, but glad I did. I won’t read all of them, but I’ve read several, and they are clearly much more than ‘Lost Generation’ nostalgia. In fact, they seem to link the ironic innocence of O. Henry and Thurber with the offhand magic realism of the McSweeney’s ilk, making them pretty darn readable.
Tenth of December, George Saunders: I have not found anything yet to match the shattering, ‘funny-animal’ fantasia of “Fox 8”, but nor have I been disappointed by any of these.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson: Again, from the advance pile, but I’d already been hipped to it by critics. I told a young Johnson acolyte on the bus who saw me reading it, that he should check out Tom McGuane, and I do not so far regret the comparison, but there’s no doubt that the cool emotional reserve that McGuane inherited by way of Hemingway is now a distant echo in these tortured, obsessed, and very circular characters with their recidivist voices.
David Foster Wallace Reader: “My Appearance”, about a Late Night with Letterman Show gig, is the only actual short story I’ve read here, along with some chapters from Broom of the System, and of course a couple of the essays, including “Authority and American Usage”, my second time through this track-jumpingly uproarious grammar-Nazi screed-slash-footnote rondel. DFW transcends any Post Modernist labelling and is indispensable.
The Thinking Man’s Guide to the World Cup, edited by Sean Willsey : It’s from 2006, back when Americans were actually capable of thinking rationally about the World Cup, partially because there was no real expectation of competing for it. Now, the lack of progress toward that end, and the profusion of millennial fan boys who, being young, do not understand the simple, immutable, and somehow poetic truth that football IS life not despite, but BECAUSE of the fact that it is mostly about disappointment, makes me sometimes wish for the days when no one paid attention to it, though only a little bit.
This is a brilliant travelogue, in the form of essays about then-participating countries for people who DON’T think you get to call yourselves ‘World Champions’ when you haven’t actually played the World. At least Millennials, bless ‘em, are the first American generation that GETS that.
The one comics album that sticks out this time around is Anti-Gone, by Connor Willumsen: a brilliant bit of creepiness about a post-apocalyptic slacker and his disaffected girl friend, searching for ‘mindless pleasures’ in a world of casual fascism. It’s the sort of dystopian tale that would have seemed exotic before November 8, 2016.
I have some speculations on developing ideas in monotypes which I’ll post soon, in the spirit of Month of Printmaking, which actually runs a couple of months, through late April. So we lied. “Art is a lie that tells the truth,” said Picasso, and who am I to argue?