Sunday, February 15, 2015

Meta-Anthology 2014

As I did in late 2013, to some positive response from people whose tastes I trust, here is my meta-anthology for the year 2014. It does not pretend to represent the best stories from that year--not least because the stories are mostly if not entirely from the previous calendar year--but as a kind of meta-analysis of the already anthologized, selecting out from the "best" those that are actually good. This year's meta-anthology is drawn from the Best American Short Stories 2014 (series editor Heidi Pitlor; volume editor Jennifer Egan); the Best American Mystery Stories 2014 (series editor Otto Penzler, volume editor Laura Lippman); the 2015 Pushcart Prize XXXIX (short fiction items only); and The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014 (edited by Rich Horton).

Megan Abbott, "My Heart Is Either Broken". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Dangerous Women

Though it has a bit of a "ripped from the headlines" quality, it is also a psychologically astute observation of the role healthy mistrust (of one's partner) can play in being a parent. Another thing I liked about it is that the narrative voice hews closely to the mind of the point-of-view character, who is a bit dense. So while there are no quotable flights of high lyricism, that is actually quite appropriate for the telling.

Daniel Alarcón, "Collectors". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in The New Yorker, July 29, 2013 Available online

Like the Alarcón story I shouted out in last year's meta-anthology, this is a spin-off of his novel At Night We Walk in Circles. There is more excellence in what he leaves on the cutting-room floor than most writers can cram into their most fully elaborated works.

Jodi Angel, "Snuff". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in One Story No. 179, republished in You Only Get Letters from Jail

An epiphany story with only tangential connections to the crime genre-space, but with much more blood than your usual Review-fare. The narration makes good use of both run-on sentences and fragments, evoking the blurred, racing consciousness of an adolescent. It did make me nauseous at points, though to worthy ends.

Russell Banks, "Blue". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. Previously published in The Yale Review and in A Permanent Member of the Family: Selected Stories by Russell Banks

A chilling story that encapsulates everything that is wrong with capitalism, the United States, and especially the state of Florida, focusing on a character subjected to dehumanization in triplicate.

Russell Banks, "Former Marine". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in A Permanent Member of the Family: Selected Stories by Russell Banks.

I think I have read this story three times already, and I still have not had enough of it. One of the more honest stories to emerge from the present, prolonged economic crisis. Set in a geography (the Adirondacks) that I know glancingly enough to find that it resonates.

James Lee Burke, "Going Across Jordan". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Southern Review 49:2

The prose verges on purple at points, but the strong characterization and interesting setting overcame my reservations on that score and kept me engaged with the story. You have to love something where an IWW organizer gets revenge on a Hollywood rapist and escapes by means of miraculous paths laid by our chthonic predecessors. Sorry, but the only way for this to get any clearer would be for you to read the story.

Peter Cameron, "After the Flood". From Best American Short Stories. First published in SubTropics No. 15

A minute archaeological excavation of the phenomenon of Midwestern niceness, which ends up, like many a successful expedition, uncovering a few skeletal fragments. Quietly devastating.

Nell Freudenberger, "Hover". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Paris Review No. 207

This story deftly incorporates an ambiguous bit of fantasy into what is otherwise a naturalistic depiction of contemporary middle-class American parenting practices, thus pushing the title into the realm of double-entendre. I enjoyed it, but it is not recommended for those who, unlike myself and the author, are not contemporary middle-class American parents.

Roxane Gay, "I Will Follow You". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in West Branch no. 72

Roxane Gay just keeps causing all kinds of trouble in my house. You see, my daughter is seven years old, but she reads well beyond her grade level, and shows a healthy level of curiosity about nearly anything she comes across. Not least of which would be, any book that I might happen to be reading when I am home with her. I do not usually mind that. But when what you are reading is Gay's novel An Untamed State, or the story "I Will Follow You," the former about a brutal kidnapping and gang rape, the latter about the abduction and sexual exploitation of two young girls, that results in the following sorts of scenes:

Reader/Father, noticing approaching child, rapidly shuts the book: "You are NOT going to read this story."
Child: "Why not?"
Reader/Father: "Because it is NOT for children."
Child: "Why?"
Reader/Father: "I would rather not have to explain to you, I just want to finish reading the story. If you can't respect my privacy, you will have to leave the room."

Some smart-ass may comment, why not just wait until after your kid is in bed? This is why: Because it is Roxane Gay. Because her mastery of language, psychology, dialogue, suspense, fear, plotting, everything, puts me immediately in thrall, from the first sentence to the last.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. Originally published in Asimov's.

With the U.S. having been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 13 years now, it is political cowardice for a writer not to address the realities of war and occupation in some fashion. To do so in the style of American Sniper, from the point of view of a murderer, is genocidal propaganda. To do it otherwise, the story must be told from the point of view of a victim. Within the limits of contemporary realism, there are two ways this is possible: for the writer to have fluent knowledge of the cultural settings of the victimized, or for the writer to begin after the soldier has returned from the war, working through his dual role as perpetrator and victim. (I have attempted the latter in two of my published pieces to date, "Moose Season" and "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," and one can see an example in another story in this meta-anthology, "Evie M.") In speculative fiction, however, it is possible to set the occupation in one's homeland, wherever that may be, which is what Alaya Dawn Johnson accomplishes superbly in this story. Along the way, there is also nuanced meditation on the role religion can play in social cohesion and the ways in which traditionally minded men can unwittingly serve the ends of a foreign enemy.

O. A. Lindsey, "Evie M." From Best American Short Stories. First published in Iowa Review, vol. 43, no. 1

A rare example in literary fiction of a story with a working-class protagonist, depicted in the workday grind, without an exotic job description to justify her depiction. (Though, natch, she is a lesbian veteran, both aspects of background being turned to good effect.)

You must adore digital cable. The search options have revolutionized me and everybody. Technology marches, no matter. You can be groped inside the hot metal gut of a troop carrier, or you can see things die and see pieces of dead things. I promise you it will not affect the remote control.
That's just one of several passages that the author should stuff and mount on a wall as trophies.

Ken Liu, "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel". From The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Imagine how the 20th century would have played out had the imperialist powers--the U.S., Britain, Japan and Germany--patched up their differences without a second World War, at the expense of the Soviet Union, the Communist movement, the working class, and the "lesser races." That is the speculative basis of this story, but told at Liu's characteristically human scale.

Brendan Mathews, "This Is Not a Love Song". From Best American Short Stories. First published in Virginia Quarterly Review 89/3

About a third of the way through this story I started feeling as though false memories had been implanted in my mind, that I had played a few of the protagonist's songs on my college radio station back in the mid-90s and had recently discovered her on Spotify. Perfectly captures the atmosphere of indie rock scene of the first two-thirds of that decade, before everything got disruptively innovated. I estimate that the author is 5-10 years my senior, so those younger than 35, older than 55, or attuned to different subcultures may not feel all the love.

"The Ice Committee" by David Means. From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Zoetrope: All Story.

In a literary landscape overloaded with faded mimeographs of the Joycean epiphany, this story stands out by actually reading like "The Dead," though the characters seem to have stumbled out of a piece by Beckett and the setting is Duluth, not Dublin. The perfection of the synthesis is captured in the final sentence: "It was a clean, open grace that appeared and disappeared with just enough regularity to keep them together, and it would end when the world ended, or perhaps it wouldn't."

Ottessa Moshfegh, "The Weirdos". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First appeared in The Paris Review

A story of love, meth, mysticism, and other psychological imbalances, told without the exoticization found too often when contemporary realist fiction speaks of the lives of those presumed not to be in such fiction's audience.

Matthew Neill Null, "Gauley Season". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in West Branch no. 73

First person plural is not for every story, but it works for this one, in which culpability is ambiguous and the crime seems almost intrinsic to the setting. Its many perfect sentences, fully realistic in context but almost science fictional when taken in isolation, capture the violence done by extractive capital to bodies, places and minds.

K. J. Parker, "The Dragonslayer of Merebarton". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Fearsome Journeys (Solaris)

A knights-and-dragons story as told by a narrator out of a John Cheever story. Deceptively conventional trappings hide an implicit burlesque of warlike masculinity.

Annie Proulx, "Rough Deeds". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in The New Yorker, June 10&17, 2013. Available online.

With its deep woods and harsh climate, Maine is an excellent setting for the crude violence of rough men. (Of my two published crime stories to date, both are set in Maine.) It was even more so 300 years ago, just after the Wabanaki peoples had put up their last successful resistance to conquest and the white settlers started pushing back. And who better to tell the tale than Proulx, whose prose has captured stark beauty in so many of this continent's less populated places? Just as Alarcón's shavings from At Night We Walk in Circles whet my appetite for the full novel, this selection by Proulx has me eager to read Bark-Skins. (By the way, when did she drop the "E." from her name?)

Karen Russell, "Madame Bovary's Greyhound". From Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Zoetrope: All-Story vol. 17, no. 2

This is the sort of thing that writers who are also avid readers (which should be most if not all writers) wish they could get away with publishing more often, an investigation into, "what was that minor character thinking? what ever happened to them?" In this case the minor character is a dog. It would fit in well at The Toast, but I suspect they wouldn't be able to pay well enough to get Russell. Were I a dog lover, I might adore this story more than I already do. (I suspect my mother would love it, if she remembers enough of Bovary to get the references.)

Scott Loring Sanders, "Pleasant Grove". From Best American Mystery Stories. First published in Floyd County Moonshine, Vol. 5, no. 2

At half the length, this would have been a perfectly satisfactory story with a classic ending. Instead it continued, found its way to an even more sinister conclusion, and became something wild.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, "The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Clockwork Phoenix 4, and available online

Collective, enhanced consciousness is an uncanny phenomenon, difficult to capture and recount through literary forms that emerged, historically, as part of the construction of individualized bourgeois subjectivity. Sriduangkaew puts language to the test to be able to accomplish this, and along the way calls into question such crude concepts as family and humanity.

Karin Tidbeck, "A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. Originally published in Lightspeed and available online.

A pleasantly twisted way to turn the fourth wall into a hall of mirrors.

Lavie Tidhar, "The Oracle". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Analog.

Someone smarter than me--I'm not sure who, but I suspect it was Samuel Delaney--said that science fiction is not about the future, but about the present, more particularly, about the hopes and anxieties of the present. Tidhar has an uncanny knack for encapsulating all those hopes and anxieties within a brief (in this case, 18 page) story, uncovering or poking holes in several of them at once with each paragraph.

Shawn Vestal, "Winter Elders". From Pushcart Prize XXXIX. First published in Ecotone

The hostile, potentially homicidal current that lies at the core of certain kinds of paternal love finds a fitting target in the form of an obnoxiously persistent missionary.

Howard Waldrop, "The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in Old Mars (ed. Martin & Dozois, Bantam, 2013)

Effectively extracts drama from archaeological uncertainty, with bonus points for appropriately sardonic footnotes.

Peter Watts, "Firebrand". From The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. First published in MIT Technology Review's Twelve Tomorrows.

Though it may result in scientifically illiterate people who are nervous about genetic engineering enriching their vocabularies with the word "plasmid," it also had the more beneficial result of convincing me to definitively trunk my own less well-conceived spontaneous combustion story.

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