Tag: 2010s

Short story: “Stanville”

“Stanville,” by Rachel Kushner

Appeared in the New Yorker, February 12th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

Several thousand words

You really get a feel for the hopelessness of these women’s lives. The way the main character analyzes that woman who tells the parole board she’s innocent seems very right. I’m a little puzzled by the shifts between first person and third person limited. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author tried two first-person narrators, or two third-, for symmetry’s sake, before discovering that the two points of view required different modes. Maybe the prisoner needs to have her own voice rather than being a distant “she,” while the teacher can’t sustain his own voice because of his lack of self-assurance?

I can’t tell this is a novel excerpt, which is nice.


Defining literary fiction as a genre

“Literary fiction can, like most fiction, be unimportant. It can also be unserious: some of the best of it is. I’d call Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller literary fiction, but it doesn’t strike me as either important or serious. It’s a glorious game.

“[…] I’d suggest that the main identifying feature [of literary fiction]—and in this respect literary writing can and does compass and mingle with any number of other genres—is to do with complexity and depth of attention.”

a very thoughtful essay by Sam Leith, found via Language Hat

Short story: “Backpack”

“Backpack,” by Tony Earley

Appeared in the New Yorker, November 5th, 2018, and in The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

6,904 words

I love the long buildup, with all the details of the plan hinting at suicide, and the way we come to understand (in an intuitive, unarticulatable sense) why John/Jimmy Ray does what he does, and the way the narration keeps switching between the two names (which somehow never becomes confusing—the fact that they start with the same letter helps), and the character of Carmen, naive yet capable of remarkable things.

Most of the other reviews I’ve seen of this story have been very negative, with one person complaining that the initial plan looked like murder rather than suicide—something that never occurred to me.

I notice the three women all practically have the same name. Carly Charlotte Carmen. Wonder why.

Short story: “Like a Ghost I’m Gonna Haunt You”

“Like a Ghost I’m Gonna Haunt You,” by Curtis C. Chen

Appeared in Daily Science Fiction and in Toasted Cake 195, October 2018

979 words


Not crazy about the title, which doesn’t fit the tone. (I didn’t realize it was a song until I googled it just now.)

Short story: “Miracle Polish”

“Miracle Polish,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in the New Yorker, November 14th, 2011 (read here), and read by Stuart Dybek for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, November 1st, 2018 (listen here); also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2012 (Heidi Pitlor and Tom Perrotta)

6,482 words

I listened to this story in two parts and in between the parts I forgot that it was in first person. The narrator’s life seems almost too depressing for first person. Millhauser captures a sense of muted despair, a despair too muted, too drenched in mediocrity and banality, even to be satisfyingly painful. At the end, I wonder if his terrible choice even matters; he’s already irrevocably addicted to what the mirrors show him, and things would have ended just as wretchedly if he had deliberately chosen Miracle Polish over Monica.

That repeated “Are you?” is so awful. You just want it to stop! A good scene, though I suppose you can see where it’s going after a certain point.

I was surprised when I saw the story on the page to notice all the commas and comma splices in the first two sentences. I wonder why Millhauser made that choice? Maybe to show the narrator’s impatience?

Short story: “Waugh”

“Waugh,” by Bryan Washington

Appeared in the New Yorker, October 29th, 2018, and on The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

Several thousand words

Harsh and sad, and sparely written. Interesting how Emil (?) disappears at the end—it seemed as though he and Poke might be forming a real connection, but in reality Poke is only thinking of Emil’s value to Rod. The point of view stays outside of Poke’s emotional center, perhaps because that’s just the way his character is. Very masculine, that aloofness of point of view.

Short story: “Omakase”

“Omakase,” by Weike Wang

Appeared in the New Yorker, June 18th, 2018, and on The Writer’s Voice (read and listen)

Several thousand words

This fucking guy. I love the subtle ways the story shows that he’s a bit of a jerk. He tells the woman (neither are ever named, I’m not sure why) she’s overthinking, and perhaps he means it, and the truth is she’s not, she’s just sensitive to matters of race and to the man’s respect for her.

Even his impressive knowledge of foreign cultures is irritating to me somehow, it’s like he’s using Chinese pottery and sushi and expert chopstick technique to prove how cosmopolitan he is. And it’s subtle enough that it’s hard to put your finger on what’s wrong. I hope the woman realizes all this before it’s too late.

Novel excerpt/novelette?: “The Luck of Kokura”

“The Luck of Kokura,” by Gary Shteyngart

Excerpted from Lake Success, published in the New Yorker (June 25th, 2018) and on The Writer’s Voice

9,315 words

A portrait of an asshole who doesn’t know he’s an asshole, and perhaps for that reason is strangely likable. And of a friendship, limited though it is, a genuine friendship between two assholes.

The title underlines the thoughtless assholery of the two men—Jeff Park’s pleasure at the good fortune of Kokura at Nagasaki’s expense. Is that the whole point of the story, the way we can fail to recognize our own selfishness and smallness (I can’t come up with a better word than smallness, somehow—I mean a certain narrowness of outlook)? Barry doesn’t learn anything from his experience, does he? He’s simply defeated. I suppose there’s hope that he will return to his wife and make a not totally unsuccessful attempt to be a good father. Have to read the novel to find out.

Flash fiction story: “Vodka Vodka Vodka”

“Vodka Vodka Vodka,” by Cindy House

Appeared here in Wigleaf, October 22nd, 2018

930 words

This therapist annoys me so much, laughing the way she does. The bar story the narrator tells her is funny, sure, but also—probably scary? Probably sad, that the narrator spent time in places where things like that happen? It could be a lot of things. And then the jaw story, where the therapist annoys me again by not laughing.  Maybe she can’t be expected to read things like “And then I never saw him again, never answered his calls after that” between the lines, since those admissions are given only to us readers, but she should be able to guess this: “I couldn’t stand the idea that he’d seen me like that, that he knew me at my worst.”

I like “My stilettos never hurt my feet. My jewelry is insured. My car is serviced regularly.”

Short story: “Some Things I Probably Should Have Mentioned Earlier”

“Some Things I Probably Should Have Mentioned Earlier,” by Laura Pearlman

First appeared in Mothership Zeta, May 2016; read live at Worldcon for Escape Pod 650, October 18th, 2018

1,767 words

Ha! Good piece. The live reading format didn’t hurt. I like hearing audience reactions.