I always check The New York Times Notable Books list each year, because, you know, being in New York, where all the publishers are, they are supposed to know what they're doing. On their Fiction list this year, they chose only five collections of short stories. (By the way, speaking of New York: I am currently reading MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, which contains pieces about the "two centers of gravity of American fiction," by writers, critics, students, and profs. I will make some comments on it in March).
Of course, George Saunders' Tenth of December was a NYT Notable, for it was everywhere this past year. Like everyone else, I admired the collection and wrote a couple of blogs on it when it first came out. It was chosen for NPR's Best list (along with Karen Russell's Vampires in a Lemon Grove, on which I also commented in an earlier post), Both these books were chosen by The Huffington Post and Tenth of December was chosen by The Washington Post and The Daily Beast and made the shortlist for The Story Prize and a whole basketful of other prizes. Such publicity, like that surrounding Alice Munro's Nobel Prize win, is good for the often neglected short story.
Also chosen by The New York Times was Jamie Quatro's I Want to Show You More, on which I commented on April 22, just after it came out (I did not particularly like it); and the collection of long stories, Dirty Love, by Andrew Dubus III, which I definitely did not like (You can see my comments on a January 19, 2014 post, if you are of a mind).
I just finished reading the two collections on the NYT Notable list I missed when they first came out—Aimee Bender's The Color Master and Ramona Ausubel's A Guide to Being Born-- entertaining but definitely underwhelming in my opinion.
As usual, after I finished reading the books, I surveyed the reviews, primarily those in print, but also some on line. I was once questioned about how dare I write a review after having read other reviews. My answer was: It has never been my intention on this blog to write reviews of books, but rather to discuss issues relevant to reading and studying short stories; often such issues arise from checking what other commentators have said about short stories. I try to follow the advice I always gave my students: Do your research; see what other folks think before you develop your own thoughts; you may just be repeating what has already been well expressed.
Although I often try to give my readers some idea of what collections I read are like overall, I don't think a series of summaries are of much value. I prefer to focus on only one or two stories contained therein—usually my favorite (for I prefer to talk about stories I like rather than stories I do not, unless, of course, they illustrate an important short story issue) and to discuss the issues the stories raise in a bit more depth than newspaper reviewers usually do.
Aimee Bender's new collection got more reviews--practically all of them favorable—than Ramona Ausubel did. But then, Bender has been around a bit longer and published more books than Ausubel, including two previous collections of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures; this is Ausubel's first collection of stories, although her novel No One Is Here Except Us got good notices when it came out.
Bender's stories are primarily "concept" stories; that is, they are based on a kind of "what if" premise; for example, what if a woman agrees to have sex with her husband only if he pays her for it; what if a woman asked two male friends to have sex for her viewing pleasure? Many of the Bender stories are whimsical, clever, and, it seems to me, inconsequential—savagely sweet, but basically just empty calories. I have no objections to such stories; I often enjoy them, but like other sugary products, a little goes a long way, and too much might make you feel bloated. Everything depends on the cunning originality of the concept of the story and the controlled cleverness of the writing. Bender is both cunning and clever.
However, the two most interesting stories in the collection are based on concepts that Bender did not create, but that she got from a previous bit of artifice. "Tiger Mending" is a narrative version of a painting by artist Amy Cutler, and the title story—the most talked-about story in the collection—is based on Perrault's seventeenth-century fairy tale, "Donkeyskin."
Bender is often placed in a category of writers who have mastered—in one degree or another—the fabulist or fantasy story—e.g. the omnipresent George Saunders, the more profound (in my opinion) Steven Millhauser, the deeply darker Angela Carter, the often brilliant Italo Calvino, and the up-and-coming Karen Russell. Most of Bender's stories, to my mind, are less complex and less thought-provoking than those of Calvino, Carter, Saunders, and Millhauser.
The Perrault fairy tale on which Bender's title story is based, "Donkeyskin," can be googled online, if you want to read what inspired Bender to write this story. The story is about a king who owns a donkey that poops gold coins. When the queen is dying, she makes her husband promise that when she is gone he will marry a woman wiser and more beautiful than she is. Of course, the only woman in the kingdom who fits that description is the king's daughter.
The Princess's fairy godmother advises the distraught daughter to agree to the King's proposal of marriage only if he can fill various seemingly impossible requests: The first is a dress the color of the sky, which he fulfills; the second is a dress the color of the moon, which he fulfills. The third is the skin of the prized gold-producing donkey, which he also fulfills. The fairy godmother then advises her to disguise herself in the donkey skin and run away to a far country, which she does. But she is so repulsive looking no one will give her shelter or work. In this new country there is a young prince who happens to see her wearing her dress the color of the sky. He falls so in love with her that he sinks into a deadly melancholy, insisting that the donkeyskin girl make him a cake with her own hands. Her ring falls into the batter and when the Prince finds it, he institutes a search for who the ring will fit.
Of course, in Cinderella fashion, all works out as we would wish and they live happily ever after. The moral is, " It is better to undergo the greatest hardships rather than to fail in one's duty, that virtue may sometimes seem ill fated, but will always triumph in the end."
Bender combines the medieval milieu of the original fairytale with a modern era in which the narrator works in a fancy store that is "Ex-Pen-Sive." The story begins with a Duke who requests a pair of shoes the color of rock so that when he walks on rocks, it will seem that he is floating. The workers in the shop attend modern-sounding "visualization seminars" where they try to imagine what it was like to be a rock, and finally summon the Color Master for help by sending, in medieval fashion, a goat to fetch her.
The Color Master has the special ability to see the world in a thousand times more detail than others. When she sees a tomato, for example, she sees blues and browns and curves and indentations, shadow and light--not just a pleasant looking fruit. She develops a color for the shoes that makes the narrator feel the original mountain from whence the colors came in the room; she shoes looks like the rocks themselves.
Later, the king requests a dress the color of the moon, as in the original Perrault tale, but the Color Master is ill, dying she says, and the task falls to the narrator. With her workers, she engages in a creative-writing exercise (ala U. of Iowa Workshop) about their first memory of the moon and how it affected them. The Color Master advises the narrator that she should make sure to put anger in the dress color because the king wants to marry his own daughter; however, she forgets to do so.
The king next asks for a dress the color of the sun; again the Color Master who is getting weaker, tells her to put righteous anger into the color of the dress. Again, she neglects to do so. It is with the request for the third dress, the color of the sky, that the narrator understands that the Color Master wants anger in the color of the dress, not for any cultural taboo reasons or for any biological risk, but rather for a logic the Color Master states forthrightly: "You birth someone. And then you release her. You do not marry her, which is a bringing back in. You let her go."
When the Color Master dies, the narrator finds her true anger at the injustice of her loss, and she wants to shake her fists at the heavens: "We shake our fists at the big blue beautiful indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge." Of course, the narrator becomes the new Color Master, and the Princess escapes her father's demands.
Karen Ausubel is also often placed in a category of writers given to fabulism and fantasy, e.g. Lydia Davis, Kevin Brockmeier, and Steven Millhauser, although she is not, to my mind, as mind-bending as they are. Like Bender's stories, the pieces in A Guide to Being Born are concept stories. What if people grew a new hand (the better to touch you with, my dear) whenever they fell in love with someone? What if the concept of a "chest of drawers" were literalized to the extent that a soon-to-be father, who by his own biology cannot give birth, grows drawers in his chest into which he places tiny toy babies to compensate for his essential emptiness? What if a woman who has been raped by a stranger fantasizes giving birth to various nonhuman creatures, including a giraffe? Ouch!
The most emotionally complex story, it seems to me, is the opening story "Safe Passage." It is a curious choice for the introductory story, for in its fantasy concept—a bunch of grandmothers on a sort of purgatorial ship headed toward whatever lies ahead when one dies—is so disorienting that one might be tempted to read no farther, or at least skip ahead to more easily grasped concepts, of which there are several.
"Safe Passage" opens with these sentences: "The grandmothers—dozens of them--find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there." Of course, to be "at sea" is an idiom for being lost, and the grandmothers are indeed lost, in the ultimate sense, for they are in a seemingly in-between state, asking "are we dead? Are we dying?" Why this state of being is objectified as being on a freighter is not quite clear, except for the fact that Alice and her second husband once traveled by freighter. The central character, Alice, remembers a hospital room with beeping machines behind her. Much of the story describes the general state of being grandmothers, e.g. living alone, watching television all day, eating frozen dinners, etc.
The story seems to suggest that all that is happening is a pre-death dream or fantasy of Alice, as she recalls her past two husbands and fantasizes about the lives of women her age who are also nearing death. However, a great deal goes on in the fantasy that does not seem to be unified around a central theme or concept about death in general or Alice in particular. When Alice lowers herself into the water by a rope ladder she has made, she wonders whether her two husbands will be hers again. As the ship moves away from her, she floats on her back, dives into the water and flips back again, in elegant gestures that seem to signify her letting go of life. The final image is of her throwing her arms wide in a "ta-da" position, and the water flying off her arms in a great "celebration of sparks."
I like Bender's "Color Master" and Ausubel's "Safe Passage" because they are more ambitious in intention and execution than the more trivial stories, played mainly for cleverness, in these two collections. However, I am never quite sure of the integrity of the theme of "Color Master," for the anger the Color Master feels about the king's demands on his daughter do not seem to be grounded in anything more profound than, "you just don't do that." And the grandmother's fantasy about being on a freighter, which is at the heart of the Ausubel story, does not seem grounded in anything intrinsic to the kind of experience the grandmother imagines she is having.
In short, a "concept" story by its very nature, depends on the significance of the concept explored; it seems to me that neither of these stories seems unified successfully around a coherent and profound mystery of human experience.