Sunday, March 12, 2017

Meta-Anthology 2016

Here I go again. This features short stories that appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, Best American Mystery Stories 2016, 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. Because of the lag built into the editorial processes of those volumes, the stories in question were first published in the year 2015. I make no pretense of this comprising the best stories of that year. Just the stories that best exemplify what "anthologies" (from the Greek άνθος, "the blossom of a flower," or metaphorically, the highest or best; and λόγος, "word") ought to be about.

Megan Abbott, "The Little Men," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Bibliomysteries.

To be quite honest I am not entirely sure what happened in this story. The narrative so effectively evoked the main character's increasing paranoia that it collapses the line between the real and the imagined, leaving the reader with the unmistakable smell of gas and the indisputable fact of death.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Apollo," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, April 13, 2015.

There is more going on beneath the surface of this eleven page story than on the surface of most novels. Bonus points for any reader who can pinpoint the ways the narrator of this story subtly undermines his own contentions and beliefs.

Steve Almond, "Okay, Now Do You Surrender?" from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Cincinnati Review, vol. 11, no. 2.

When my meds are out of whack I bear a bit too much resemblance to the protagonist of this story. The daughter seems a bit too young to support the twist, but it was otherwise entertaining enough that I decided to suspend disbelief.

Tahmima Anam, "Garments," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Freeman's, October 2015.

The challenge of writing a good sweatshop story is that it is hard to convey exhaustion if one has not lived it, and hard to find the time to write if one is living through that exhaustion. While there may be some sweatshop poets in Bengali, few if any of them have been translated. Anglophone residents of the republic of letters have to trust that Anam has bridged this gap well enough to tell us about life at the other end of the supply chain.

Charlie Jane Anders, "Rat Catcher's Yellows" from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Press Start to Play.

I read this story when it first came out in a themed anthology, and already considered it to be one of the better pieces from 2015. A compelling portrayal of how love manages to survive the circumstances, and even the minds, which first gave rise to it, it holds up well on a second reading.

Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House

This is a very bookish story--literally--but I am a very bookish person. A kind of 19th Century "Missed Connection" unfolds in the margins of some popularized natural history.

Charles Baxter, "Avarice," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

This is either the most anti-capitalist Jesus story of the year, or the most Jesus-y anti-capitalist story. And so much more besides.

Matt Bell, "Toward the Company of Others," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 65.

A novel excerpt that works on its own as a short story, and thus makes me want to seek out and read Scrapper, whence it came. The world needs as many Detroit stories as possible.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Glimmer Train, Spring/Summer 2015.

More than a hundred years later, our writers and our neuroscientists are still catching up with William James's early psychological insights. Along the way Bynum refashions the Goldilocks story into an allegory of the clueless disconnection of contemporary life.

Ted Chiang, "The Great Silence," from Best American Short Stories 2016 and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in e-flux.

This may be the best story of 2015, though I did not have occasion to read it until it was reprinted in the May/June 2016 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the same issue in which my story "Caribou: Documentary Fragments" appeared). My message to Ted Chiang: "You be good. I love you."

Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American.

What passes for country music these days isn't really country music any more. This story is like an old-time country song in prose form, complete with war, tragedy, sex, liquor, and the love of a dog.

Louise Erdrich, "The Flower," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 29, 2015.

I loved this story when it was first published. In a different layout, I found more to love--it's odd, but certain sentences stand out better when stretching across a full page than when in a third-of-a-page column, and vice versa. Such as, for example, Anishinaabe practices in the naming of girls.

Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Colorado Review, vol. 42, no. 2.

Reminds me, peculiarly, of N. K. Jemisin's novel The Fifth Season, insofar as, when geological time and human time intersect, pliable organic matter usually ends up singed or crushed.

Kendra Fortmeyer, "Things I Know to Be True," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in One Story.

I suspect this was set in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, rather than contemporaneously, in the wake of our Endless Wars, because today the story told would be encompassed within a few abbreviations and stock phrases, such as PTSD or paranoid schizophrenia. Fortmeyer set herself the challenge of telling a story through a narrator whose words, literally, escape him, and met it admirably.

Tom Franklin, "Christians," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Murder under the Oaks.

Some Southern Gothic worthy of Flannery O'Connor, except this one appears to have been based upon real yet obscure incidents of the class struggle in southern Alabama.

Meron Hadero, "The Suitcase," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Missouri Review, vol. 38, no. 3.

An Ethiopian-American O'Henry story, redolent of injera and berbere. There are many world cultures in which hospitality and honor are bound up with one another, so I also ended up chuckling with recognition in those places where Ethiopians sounded strangely like Greeks or Ashkenazi Jews.

Smith Henderson, "Treasure State," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Tin House 64.

Haven't we all wished we could cave in our fathers' heads like pumpkins? Oh, is that not quite a universal sentiment? Well, the pumpkin was asking for it.

Robert Lopresti, "Street of the Dead House," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in nEvermore!

There are a few too many Poe retellings in the world, but this among the better ones that I have seen. There is something in the intellectual atmosphere that is leading many a writer to try to give voice to the beasts.

Elizabeth McCracken, "Mistress Mickle All at Sea," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story.

The story accretes, like a pearl on a grain of sand, around this aphorism: "The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone."

Erin McGraw, "Priest," from 2017 Pushcart Prize 2017. First appeared in Image.

Pascal's wager does not always work.

Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in ZYZZYVA no. 104.

I wanted to dislike the story. After all, I am so sick of stories and novels set in academia, have a general, principled stance that the world would be better with fewer of them, not more. But at a certain point it hit that this was my story--the impostor syndrome, the unexpected failure to play a game one scarcely knew existed--and then it became more than my story, with added intersections overdetermining the outcome. Roland Barthes looms large in the text, but Pierre Bourdieu lurks in the subtext.

Michael Noll, "The Tank Yard," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2015.

This could have been one of the best stories of all time, not merely one of the best stories of 2015, had it not taken a moralistic turn toward the end. The turn was ambiguous enough, however, to keep the story from melting into a puddle of cant. Rural desperation and methamphetamine bond to one another as tightly as anhydrous ammonia and H2O.

Dominica Phetteplace, "The Story of a True Artist," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in ZYZZYVA

The difference between being "Gen X" and "Millennial" seems to be roughly the difference between being imprisoned in the Panopticon, and being born into it. Dominica Phetteplace's writing brings me the closest I can be to understanding what that difference means.

Karen Russell, "The Prospectors," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in The New Yorker, June 8, 2015.

To snatch back life from death is the biggest steal of them all. To know the fact of one's death well enough to be able to forget it is what it takes to become a ghost.

Sofia Samatar, "Meet Me in Iram," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Meet Me in Iram / Those Are Pearls.

A lost city, or a tribe, of which one may imagine oneself to be a part.

Vandana Singh, "Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared on Tor.com.

Vandana Singh is so comprehensively, multi-facetedly brilliant as to vaporize all trace of writerly ego. No one else can write about the possibility space of impossible machines half so convincingly.

Micah Stack, "The G.R.I.E.F." from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in The Oxford American

It's hard out there for us queer hip-hop heads. A little bit of fantasy helps the hate flow smooth.

Lisa Taddeo, "Forty-Two," from 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI. First appeared in New England Review.

Is there any Schadenfreude better than watching terrible people make one another, and themselves, miserable?

Brian Tobin, "Entwined," from Best American Mystery Stories 2016. First appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 2015.

I like this as a voice-driven driven story, capturing the iterative nature of guilt and depression, despite the somewhat contrived nature of its revelations along the way. I like the fact that redemption and forgiveness cannot be given by facts, when the person who feels the guilt does not wish for either.

Catherynne M. Valente, "Planet Lion," from The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. First appeared in Uncanny Magazine May/June 2015.

"What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?" I like stories that begin as jokes but become sublime.

John Edgar Wideman, "Williamsburg Bridge," from Best American Short Stories 2016. First appeared in Harper's Magazine, November 2015.

I recently had a story rejection pounce on one of my meta-fictional digressions, so it is a relief to see that someone can get away with them in print. To be fair, Wideman does it better.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Salvage

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

--T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land," 430-432

The collapse of the Socialist Workers Party of Britain, by way of a sexual assault cover-up scandal, emitted several incandescent fragments, as leftist party implosions have and will. One is tempted to compare it to the supernova that overtook Gerry Healy's Workers Revolutionary Party thirty years ago, and to invoke the 18th Brumaire's overused quote about "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." But if the first time was already farce, then what is the second instantiation? Commedia dell'Arte?

One commonality between the WRP of the 1980s and SWP of the early 2010s, however, is a great quantity of talented individuals, who were not only underutilized but actively sidelined, biding their time in wasted anticipation of the coming insurrection. Within the nebula that once was the mothership of Cliffism, a gravitational agglomeration of such persons has emerged, in a project known as Salvage Quarterly, one of the more promising outcomes of that reckoning.

The "Quarterly" in that title has, to date, been more aspirational than descriptive. As a former contributor to Proletarian Revolution magazine, however, I consider that an expected part of the terrain of leftist publishing. In contrast to most leftist publications, however, they print poetry, visual art, and fiction, and they pay contributors. So when Nick Mamatas mentioned to me that Salvage's fiction editor was looking for "stories under 3000 words" that were not "bad agitprop"--and by the way, this fiction editor was none other than China Miéville--I sent a story that had unsuccessfully made the rounds of more conventional science fiction and fantasy publications, but that I thought would be to China's taste, entitled "Ruins of a Future Empire." Despite a few lingering blemishes, he saw some merit in it, and after a round or two of gentle editing, the final product is now available in Salvage's fourth issue.

Here you can see the story listed, way down at the bottom of the Table of Contents.

Thus I am now on a first-name basis with one of the best novelists of our generation, and even share space with him on the list of contributors printed on the back cover:

Aside from their willingness to print my fictions, however, there are more substantive reasons to value Salvage. They are among the few projects on the international far left today willing to attempt to come to grips with the central antinomy of our present moment--the ineluctable urgency of crisis, and the presently dire state of proletarian class consciousness. It is a relief to be involved, if only tangentially, with an effort to address this through collective effort rather than individual ratiocination. (Note for the perplexed: Such general endorsement of the project does not amount to a specific endorsement of each essay or thesis comprised therein.)

To read my story, or to get a sense of what Salvage is about, buy the issue. Perhaps consider subscribing.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Zionism Then (1933) and Now

The Zionist Organization of America, the most unrepentantly right-wing Zionist organization in this country, has unsurprisingly come out in defense of Trump's ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees. The ZOA, like the hard-right nationalist parties in Israel with which they align, are the ideological and organizational descendants of "Revisionist Zionism," led by Vladimir Jabotinsky.

On February 24, 1933, less than a month after the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany, the Jüdische Rundschau, the leading Zionist newspaper in Germany, reported on a speech that Jabotinsky had just given in Berlin (see page 2 of issue 16. The Rundschau was aligned with what was then the mainstream of the Zionist movement, which favored an alliance with the Jewish labor movement in Palestine (though certainly not with Palestinian Arab workers!), and a conciliatory attitude toward the British Mandatory authorities, so their reportage of Jabotinsky, while fair, was not entirely sympathetic. They wrote the following:

Er legte dar, warum Kommunismus und Zionismus unvereinbar seien. Es sei z. B. das politische Ziel der Kommunisten, Europa aus allen Kolonialländern vertreiben zu wollen, während sich Jabotinsky als enthusiastischer Anhänger des europäischen Rechtes auf Herrschaft in der Kolonialländer bekannte. Aber ist nicht die jüdisch-palästinensische Arbeiterschaft selbst die schärfste Gegnerin des Kommunismus?

My translation is as follows:

He laid out why Communism and Zionism could not be united. For example, it is the political aim of the Communists to expel Europe from all the colonial countries, while Jabotinsky is well known to be an enthusiastic supporter of the European right to rule the colonies. But isn't the Jewish labor movement in Palestine the sharpest opponent of Communism?

Two days later, the Reichstag was set aflame. In this moment, as the Nazis were getting ready first to come for the Communists, as Niemöller would later famously reflect, the Labor Zionists saw fit to counter Jabotinsky by boasting of their own steadfast opposition both to Communism and to the struggles of colonized peoples for liberation.

Seventy-four years later, the heirs of Jabotinsky, having long since outpaced the Labor Zionists in the struggle for hegemony within the Zionist movement, are still boasting of their opposition to the supposed barbarian hordes. The way was paved for this by their putative opponents, the Labor Zionists. Those who do not learn from history may get what they deserve, but not before they have dragged the rest of us to hell alongside them.

Has it ever been more clear that any Jew who wishes to remain loyal to the sacrifices of our ancestors, and the moral core of Jewish traditions, that Zionism must be repudiated?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Top Ten Books of 2016

I read enough books in 2016 that were published that year--and enough of them were good--that it actually makes some meaningful sense for me to indicate which of those books were, for me, in the top ten. These are included without regard to genre, with the result that two are novels, five are single-author collections of short stories, one is a scholarly monograph, and two are single-author collections of essays.

1. Rabih Alameddine, The Angel of History

Despite the advances in anti-retroviral therapies, it is still possible to die of HIV/AIDS. Nonetheless, the "plague" marks off discernible generational divisions among gay and bisexual men. For the elders, those who are now in their fifties (like Jacob, the protagonist of this novel) or older, it meant watching your friends and lovers die. For those around my age, it meant knowing people who caught it when it was still expected to be a certain death sentence, and coming out in an atmosphere in which that threat haunted every erotic liaison. Comparatively carefree young ones appear as characters, foils to Jacob's grim aesthetic of survival. By extensively referencing Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, one of the best novels of the 20th century, Alameddine plays a dangerous game, which works because of his own sharp dialogue and shimmering prose. Early on in the book, I felt myself falling in love with Jacob. The elements of the fantastic are extensive enough that I hope any readers of mine who are eligible to nominate for awards in the macro-genre of "science fiction and fantasy" will read this novel and consider it.

2. Louise Erdrich, LaRose

I already did a long post about the changes in my reception of Erdrich over the years. I had been looking forward to this novel since the appearance of "The Flower" in the New Yorker, a short story based on sections of the novel. I was surprised but not disappointed--though "The Flower" digs deep into the history of colonization, much of LaRose takes place closer to the present. The result is an affecting portrait of the unpredictable ways history can play out into multiple presents, complete with cute kids, family tragedies, and fart jokes.

3. Matthew Neill Null, Allegheny Front

Null's short story "Gauley Season" appeared an earlier Meta-Anthology entry of mine, so I was thrilled to see this collection. Nearly all the stories were as good or better than "Gauley Season." Loosely linked, and well rooted their Appalachian setting, the collection shows Null to be one of the best practitioners of the art of the short story working today.

4. Catherine Besteman, Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

A young anthropologist begins her career studying members of a subordinate ethno-racial caste in a distant land, settled agriculturalists in a country where nomadic herders dominate, many of them descendants of slaves marked by a darker hue. Decades later, after much turmoil in their homeland, the people she studied, including several of her original informants, find themselves resettled as refugees in a declining mill town in the whitest state of the USA--the same state where the anthropologist is now a tenured professor. And the same city where I work, not far from where I live, so reading this book I had the at times disorienting experience of encountering friends and acquaintances in the text, endnotes, and/or acknowledgements. The sole weak point of the book is chapter 6, which I wish had been as incisively critical as the other chapters, highlighting gaps and contradictions in the discourses of the more cosmopolitan-minded members of the helping professions that it profiles, as ruthlessly as other chapters expose the muddles of international humanitarian NGOs, national and local governments, bigots, and even refugees themselves. Aside from that, the book serves as a guide for how to stop "seeing like a state," and start "seeing like a refugee." And in my opinion, the latter will become an increasingly necessary disposition, not only for remaining humane, but for survival.

5. Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

If Liu were only responsible for much of the growing availability of Chinese science fiction in English translation, he would be one of the most important figures in literature today. But before he turned his hand to translation, he was already an undisputed champion of short fiction in the genre. This collection is a welcome addition, not least because many of his short stories previously appeared in online publications. (Personally, I prefer to read fiction on a printed page; I find it more conducive to the necessary contemplative posture than reading on a screen.) The new story contained in the collection "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition," should be considered for awards.

6. Eric Neuenfeldt, Wild Horse: Stories

If this book already won the Grace Paley Prize, does it need my praise? Evidently, judging from the fact that two months after its release mine is still the only review on Goodreads. Loosely linked short stories, most set in Wisconsin, all with youngish working-class white men as protagonists--a sawyer, a scrap hauler, a snow plow driver, a wheelchair builder, retail clerks in marine and medical supplies, a remedial educator in a prison, and a good few bicycle mechanics. This book could be subtitled "Why Trump Won"--not because I could imagine most of these characters voting for him (though there are some exceptions), but because through these stories one sees the aftermath of the decay of social institutions that would once have worked for men like them, the growth of their cynicism--and you know that none of them would have been ready for Hillary. The best story in the book is "Lifer".

7. Rion Amilcar Scott, Insurrections: Stories

Another set of loosely linked short stories, this time all set in a fictional Maryland town, descended from a fictional antebellum slave insurrection. Within that space, Scott satirically explores the potentialities of blackness set not against whiteness (at least, for a change, not primarily) but against itself. The insurrections chronicled here are on smaller scales, but prefigure the fire next time.

8. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays

Worth reading if only for the first essay, "Black Body," which revisits the "village" in James Baldwin's "Stranger in the Village" in order to give voice to critiques that might be unimaginable otherwise. But there is much more that is worth reading in this volume.

9. John Manderino, But You Scared Me the Most: And Other Short Stories

It is unfortunate for Manderino that this book is getting shelved with horror, because even though he toys with the conventions of that genre and makes good use of the uncanny, the predominant emotional expression that results is laughter rather than the shiver. I especially recommend the title story, "Bigfoot Tells All," "Self-Portrait with Wine," "Bob and Todd," and "The Weary Ghost of Uncle Doug."

10. Sayed Kashua, Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life

Kashua is arguably the best living writer in Hebrew. There is probably no argument that he is the funniest. And he is a Palestinian, an Arab, who grew up with Arabic as his primary language until high school in the "Arab town" of Tira. (Municipalities in Israel are classified--by the government--according to their ethnic makeup. Tira and places like it exist because the ethnic cleansing with which the state of Israel was created was not 100% successful, only about 80%.) All of which helps him in his efforts as an ironist. My Hebrew is good enough to appreciate Kashua in the original, but only in short bursts, so the translation of this collection is welcome--not only for my sake, but for others who should hear his voice. This leaves the question of whether the translation works or not. Does humor translate? For me it did, though this translation makes some odd choices, particularly when it comes to leaving Hebrew and Arabic phrases untranslated. Sometimes inexplicable--why not render "ikhsa" as "yuck" or "yech" or "gross"? Sometimes clearly prudish. (Did the translator think that Kashua's profanity would render him less sympathetic to an Anglophone audience? Mother's cunt!) So I wonder how many of the layers of meaning would make their way to a reader who was not like me, who did not know some Hebrew and a little Arabic and a lot about Israeli society and Israeli racism. And if the only people who can appreciate the book are those who have been immersed enough already in "the situation" to have made up their minds about it, then what, exactly, will it have accomplished? Well, if nothing else, it will have accomplished this passage:

"Dad, what's a mortgage?" I asked whenever I saw an article about mortgage holders being thrown into the street, penniless.
"A mortgage, my son," the communist would answer after lengthy reflection, "is a debt because of which poor people have their home taken away."
"What, a mortgage is a Nakba, Dad?"
"Exactly, a Jews' Nakba."