These days I come to short story collections cautiously.
I don’t blame the stories. It’s my own fault.
Six years ago, as I was working on my Ph.D., my advisor and I decided that in order to make myself more marketable to Departments of English in various schools I should specialize in something literature-based. This was an intimidating thought. My undergrad degree was in English Education, my Master’s degree was in Language, Literacy, and Composition, and even though I had ten years of teaching high school English under my belt, I didn’t feel I had anything worth saying. The three times I attempted graduate classes in literature were unqualified failures. The first (Literature of the Persecuted in Central America) and second (Irish Literature) ended in the class being canceled and my withdrawal, respectively. I managed to hang with the third (20th Century Literature) for the duration of a semester, if you consider “hanging with” to involve saying as little as possible and trying desperately to blend into the wallpaper. I sat in that class and listened to the true English graduate students offer their informed opinions on the texts we were reading and wondered what the hell I was doing, trying to pass myself off as one of them. I enjoyed what we were reading, but I clearly didn’t have the chops to engage in the kind of discussions they were having.
So the thought of specializing in a field of literature – to the point where I would write one of my qualifying exams on that field and then, horror of horrors, speak intelligently about it in job interviews – filled me with a vague sense of panic. In talking to my infinitely patient advisor, we came to the conclusion that I could specialize in the American short story. It’s ground less well-traveled than, say, Shakespeare (which increased the chance that I could actually make a contribution to the field), and the acknowledged masters of the form aren’t so numerous that their work would be insurmountable.
Even choosing only six authors on which to focus meant I would still read over a hundred short stories. In the space of two months I read the complete short fiction of Poe, Hemingway, Cheever, O’Connor, Carver, and Faulkner. I also read selected works from more contemporary authors like Boyle, Hempel, and Saunders, and scrounged up what little theory I could find on the short story as a genre. I was already a fan of Carver and Boyle, and many of Poe’s stories were branded on my memory from a very early age, but, six years on, I remember very little of the rest of it. The usual suspects stand out, of course – Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”; O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” – but my only substantial memory of that time is of poring through story after story in my advisor’s office, pausing only to jot down brief impressions of each upon completion, ostensibly so I would never forget them.
That worked out well.
Fast forward to 2014, and I find myself (perhaps understandably) reticent to read short story collections. In the times I’ve tried, I reach the end, flip back to the table of contents, and discover that I can’t attach a single plot to any of the titles. My attention span for short stories was ruined in 2008. It’s akin to someone who gets roaring, blackout drunk one night and can never drink that type of alcohol again.
I have a six-year-long short story hangover.
It’s good news, then, that the first short story collection in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is by Michael Chabon, one of my favorite authors, and a man who writes sentences so indelible that I can’t help but remember the stories from which they came. Werewolves in Their Youth is comprised of nine stories, many of which hinge on the tenuous threads that bind family members together. A few of my favorites:
“Werewolves in Their Youth.” Childhood friendships are odd. Frequently born of geography as much as by shared interest, it’s worth wondering how many of those early relationships would have happened without the benefit of being next-door neighbors. In my experience – and the experience of this story’s main character, 4th grader Paul – friends are just as often enemies, and the line separating the two is blurry at best. I fought with my next-door neighbor as frequently as we played, and as soon as we entered high school we ceased talking altogether. In this story, Paul – an elementary school oddball who spends his recess time in isolation, playing with ants – realizes that his next-door neighbor Timothy, the class outcast who he thinks is his enemy, is actually his only friend. It’s a bittersweet look at the nature of friendship and how trauma (in this case, Paul’s parents’ divorce) can strengthen our bond with others.
“Son of the Wolfman.” For better or worse, one of my main goals in life is to avoid conflict. I do what I need to do to get along, even as it gnaws at my gut. Like Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan, I don’t get angry; I grow a tumor. So it was with growing discomfort that I realized the degree to which I related to the character of Richard in this story. But first, Cara. Victim of a serial rapist, Cara is at first horrified to learn that she’s been impregnated by her attacker, even though she and Richard have tried for twelve years to have a child of their own. She eventually decides to carry the rapist’s baby to term. Richard, however, doesn’t act as we would expect. As their marriage crumbles around him, he maintains his equanimity, avoiding conflict and maintaining the position that whatever Cara wants is fine, regardless of the personal cost to him. It’s a story that challenges traditional gender roles, and it made me wonder at what point conflict avoidance does more harm than good.
“Green’s Book.” The squirmiest story of the bunch. In this one, Marty, father to four-year-old Jocelyn, is at a neighborhood party where he encounters Ruby, a girl in her early 20s who he – there’s no polite way to put it – nearly molested when he was thirteen and she was four. The residual guilt of this encounter, brought to the fore by Ruby’s presence at the party and her subsequent flirtation with him, has affected the way he interacts with his daughter, to the point where he’s reluctant even to bathe her. “Green’s Book” raises all kinds of problematic issues about the power of the past to influence our relationships in the present, and to what degree we remain responsible for actions in our early years.
The remainder of the stories are as good as we would expect from Chabon, profound and very, very funny, with a knack for crafting lines that cut right to the heart of the matter. Take this one, from “Mrs. Box,” on the demise of the protagonist’s marriage:
There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and are forced to eat their dogs.
The entertaining capper is the final story in the collection, “In the Black Mill.” Supposedly written by August Van Zorn (an author discovered by Grady Tripp, who is himself the protagonist of Chabon’s Wonder Boys), this story is pure genre pulp, a Lovecraftian horror story about an archeology grad student exploring the likelihood that the members of an ancient Native American tribe were actually cannibals. It’s an anomaly in a collection that otherwise deals with the profundity of minutiae, but it’s such a fun finale that it would be churlish to complain. I love every single one of Chabon’s novels, but his short fiction is so good that I’ll be more willing in the future to overlook my resistance to the genre.
Next up in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, Book #4, the monster under my bed, the cancer diagnosis waiting to happen, the unopened letter from the I.R.S., it’s Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.
The Aislers Set – The Last Match (2000)