100 Years of The Best American Short Stories
Had Nora Ephron’s title Crazy Salad not already been taken, it might well have been better applied to this collection of American short stories of the past century than it was to Ephron’s essays.
Or better still: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Or perhaps I overstate my case.
But here’s the thing: although the volume 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, as edited by author Lorrie Moore and editor Heidi Pitlor, contains some high points in American short fiction (Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth”), the whole of the project—to produce a single book containing the very best of the best of the short stories produced in America in the last century—is little more than a muddled mess, right from the overwrought introduction onward.
Seldom are the introductions to anthologies of short stories notable or memorable, either for good or ill. Even more seldom to these introductions recall the term “Grand Guignol,” but there you go. Author and short story writer Lorrie Moore, herself rather hit-or-miss in terms of output, seems to have felt that it was a good idea to inflate her introduction with quantities of “personality.” As here, in the opening sentences:
“A story is a noise in the night. You may be lying there quietly resting in the international house of literature and hear something in the walls, the click and burst of heat through the pipes a difficult settling of eaves, ice sliding off the roof, the scurry of animals, the squawk of a floorboard, someone coming up the stairs.
“This is life itself, surprising and not entirely invited. And yet we come to short stories seeking it. Or at least some vivid representation of it: a dark corner that is either turned and gone around or fixed with a light in order to discover what is lurking there.”
And on it goes. And on and on and the idea of the story being “a noise in the night”—a tidy little phrase—would have so happily sufficed. For nine, ten, eleven pages. Long enough that the reader cannot help but note that, had Moore been happy with less, in terms of pages, in terms of lists of the names of writers (Annie Proulx, Amy Tan, T. C. Boyle and Deborah Eisenberg among them) who are not included in the anthology, in terms of explanations and Q & A sessions with a mythical author who sounds not unlike Moore herself all forming a sort of numbing exposition and maddening narrative, both, maybe the editors could have crammed in another story, perhaps one by Proulx herself, and how nice that would have been.
But no, when Moore edits, Moore introduces. And so we get a whole lot more information on what a short story is, according to Lorrie Moore:
“Short stories are about trouble in mind. A bit of the blues. Songs and cries that reveal the range and ways of human character. The secret ordinary and the ordinary secret . . .”
But enough. As to the stories themselves, they are, as noted above, able to be sorted into three categories: Good, Bad, and very, very ugly.
Among the good, some are very, very good, indeed. As promised, they are among the best American short stories. John Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers,” for example, and its exquisite language, especially where those titular feathers are concerned:
“He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair; for each filament was shaped within the shape of a feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feather now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests.”
Updike follows Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” (which contains the uber-sentence, “Somehow when you’re on a roof the darker it gets the less you can hear.”) and the single best thing that one of America’s greatest writers ever wrote, Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” which reads as real and wry and honest and true today as it did when it first hit print in 1962.
And who would have thought that the 1980s were such a source of great short fiction, what with Grace Paley bumping up against Mona Simpson, whose story “Lawns” is one of the best of the volume.
But missing are Jayne Anne Phillips and Ann Beattie and Kurt Vonnegut (“Harrison Bergeron,” anyone?) and Shirley Jackson and J. D. Salinger, and so many others that the mind boggles. True enough, as our editors tell us, there is no way to put all of the best short stories of an entire century into one anthology. Yes, but the lesser tales, the likes of Junot Diaz’s “Fiesta” and Stanley Elkin’s “The Conventional Wisdom,” and nearly everything chosen to represent the years since the change of the millennium could have so easily been pushed aside to include other, better works.
The sole exception here is perhaps the best short story of the last 20 years, a tale so rich, so involving, that it gives hope for the future of fiction in the years ahead. From 2012, that story is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” the titular story from Nathan Englander’s own superb collection.
100 Years gives some oddball choices as well. With “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” we get a strange, off-the-beaten path story from George Sanders, who is usually a sure bet. And the volume’s very first story, an Edna Ferber concoction named “The Gay Old Dog” seems so unlike Ferber that the reader suspects identity theft. In place of the usual broad shoulders and capitalistic expansion, we get a rather sad man who regrets a promise he made at a parent’s deathbed.
Luckily, there’s Eudora Welty, who never wrote an unworthy word in her life. Her story “The Whole World Knows” restores the reader’s sense of joy at binge reading story after story after story. But Katherine Anne Porter goes on too long as she always does, and John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” proves to be the same satisfying thing it was when first read in a college English class.
William Faulkner is, as always William Faulkner and “That Will Be Fine” is a Falkner tale writ fine. James Baldwin in “Sony’s Blues” presents the story that, by law, should be required reading for us all, with moments that sear down to the bones. Like this one:
“One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or, anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks. I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer, and trying to work up the courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dared to admit to myself what I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.”
Little moments linger.
Like this, from Charles Baxter’s “Harmony in the World:”
“When I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her, she patted me on the cheek and said, ‘Aw, how nice. You always try to say the right thing.’”
Or this, from Jamaica Kincaid’s “Xuela”:
“My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between me and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.”
There is quite enough that is good about 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories to make the reader smack his or her lips with satisfaction on completing the volume.
Could it have been better, ever so much better? Yes, oh, yes. And yet it is quite good enough to get a reader through the bleak, cold days now surrounding us, and, surely and honestly, that is enough.