Diamonds in the Smooth

I live in Madrid and I don’t read The New Yorker. But not for that reason.

I’m not much for any sort of periodical, in fact. While I may find individual pieces of writing fascinating, I never rely on publications to be as satisfying throughout as any one thing within their pages. I don’t trust newspapers to simply present the facts without grinding them down against one bias or another, and it seems to me that magazines and journals do the exact same thing, just less frequently. If I wanted to have information reshaped into opinion I’d just ask a person what they thought. But then people tell you that whether you ask them to or not.

In the specific case of The New Yorker though, my default position of reluctance to engage has been reinforced for a number of years by almost everything my American friends say about it, particularly regarding the type of fiction that tends to rear its handsome head there. “The stories are so polished you can see the same face in them,” they tell me. “Each writer’s voice pitch-adjusted to meet the tonal expectations of some Grand-Master of Fine Arts,” they tell me. “They feel exactly alike,” they tell me–all of them, every one.

Well, I imagine that’s probably an unfair charge: I doubt all my American friends think this. However, and apparently in order to send off oddly mixed signals, after a trip back to the States two who definitely do hold that opinion gave me a copy of 20 under 40, a collection of short stories published in The New Yorker by writers (twenty of them) not yet aged forty, all of whom featured in their reboot of a who’s-soon-to-be-hotter list last seen a decade earlier.

Perhaps these friends felt conflicted. Or perhaps they thought I should stop politely nodding whenever the subject came up and uncover the truth for myself. Either way, there I sat, in an occasionally quiet Spanish bar-restaurant, with three aloof profiles and seventeen cases of rather intense eye contact tastefully sketched onto the front cover. Almost daring me to read. My friends too, perhaps.

So I did. And…

On the whole, I have to agree.

Fiction magazines boast some of the few, fleeting exceptions to my periodical rule–what I would term bias elsewhere is more like taste in fiction–but when it comes to short stories my tastes run to the genres, primarily crime, horror and sf in all their varied forms. A collection of short literary fiction presented less familiar territory, though one I was more than happy to explore. In part this was because I just love to read, but also because I felt a touch of reverse snobbery; despite having their occasional luminaries, the genres still tend to get the brush off beside more respectable forms; how nice it would be to find the next establishment in some way wanting.

Knowing nothing of the authors at all, I started at the front and headed for the back. As I turned each page, I found I had no choice but to admit that 20 under 40 contained nothing but invariably good writing. Very good. And I didn’t like it.

That’s not precisely true. But there is an element of truth.

Whatever else I read for, obvious though it is, the main reason is for story. Much as I enjoy science fiction, it fails when it puts a concept ahead of a narrative. Horror doesn’t grip when it’s just a splash of blood and, no matter how nihilistic or meaningless it may finally prove to be, a crime is nothing until the context is revealed. In my brief liaison with literary fiction, it seemed that what could be wrongly placed ahead of story was style.

Time and again, I was confronted with eloquent phrasing and striking images; nuanced characterisation, lifelike locations, dialogue straight from the human’s mouth. What else could a reader want? Well, it was right there on the cover, I checked: stories from The New Yorker; but it didn’t feel that way. The suspicion began to form that, good as they all clearly were, 20 under 40 really contained twenty first chapters under forty pages. It was with an air of reluctance that I persevered with these fairly young bucks; but eventually I was glad I did.

The first piece that really spoke to me also took me by surprise, because after the opening line I wasn’t holding out much hope for anything more than another vivid exploration of some dramatis personae. Not that this line was bad, actually I liked it; but in “Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss” it featured a protagonist’s name so overwrought that I imagined myself back amidst the fanciful futurism I’d recently put aside. This wasn’t science fiction, of course.

It was horror. The most satisfying kind, in which the slow build up of character and situation, the careful layering of details–which as I hope I’ve established were features of the preceding tales too–leads not just to some sudden shock (though it had that too) but resulted in a sensation of powerful discomfort. Hopelessness; helplessness; deep horror. Written with skill and style that totally justified a literary label, but elevated above its predecessors by the story.

The second one was science fiction–but in the background, where sometimes it is best kept. These simple details, the presence of a near future rendered by how close it still is to our living context, formed the basis for a charming, sweet-hearted tale of romance that didn’t rely upon their conceits but flourished alongside them. It need not have been anything more than the story of whether two people might be together; its setting was merely a choice in a well-constructed piece, enjoying all the similar strengths of those other eighteen… plus one more.

Horror and science fiction.

The Dredgeman’s Revelation, by Karen Russell, and Lenny Hearts Eunice, by Gary Shteyngart.

Excellent stories. But in choosing them, perhaps all I really do is betray my biases. Again.

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