Of the countless short fiction archetypes, one of my favorites is the young-person-stuck-in-awful-summer-job-tale. It’s an old story, at least the “young person” part; Western authors have been romanticizing young adulthood since time immemorial, or at least since J.D. Salinger invented Holden Caulfield, and the American Reading Public has indulged heartily. One need look no further than the current Y.A.-craze for proof; as a culture, we’re obsessed with the burgeoning, the lustful and misguided, in no small part because portrayals of youth appeal to our nostalgia, and nostalgia sells. I’m being cynical, but I think that writers appeal to their own younger days in genuine pursuit of truth and beauty and deep-seated pain. In the best cases, it works extraordinarily. In Letters To A Young Poet, Rilke wrote about childhood, calling it a “jewel beyond all price” and a “treasure house of memories”; by embracing it, he wrote, “…your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”
All of which is a convoluted way of saying, hello, it is August, and I bet you’d like to read about a grieving youth and her thankless job. JoAnna Novak‘s “Meaningful Work,” published this month at BOMB, features a verbosely unhappy twenty-something in a purgatory of her own making. She works hors d’ouevres duty at a glitzy New England restaurant called the Mansion, and she wears her cremated mother “…in a fisheye marble around [her] neck.”
Novak’s prose is fast, but slows down for moments of intense clarity, like when her character (addressed as “you”—the story is written in the second person) dwells on the grotesque. “Why is condensation so gross? Like handicapped bathrooms and chicken skin. It’s water, it’s natural, you think, but nausea crawls in your mouth when you touch the wet paper.”
In the vein of parents and death and grieving, but on the other end of the spectrum length-wise, Peter Kispert http://peterkispert.com/writing/ published a beguiling little prose-poem, the last line of which is perfect, in the new (two year anniversary!) issue of Bodega Magazine.
Which reminds me of a stanza from Matthew Zapruder‘s poem “Come On All You Ghosts,” one I think back on frequently: “everyone you have ever seen/ has a dead father,/ some are just walking around alive.” You can read some of that poem here (paywall!), or buy his book.
Speaking of paywalls, The New Yorker said to hell with theirs—for now. This summer only, the magazine has made “every story…since 2007” available to the non-paying public. It’s an effort to get with the times, sort of, although really they’re only poking the times with a stick. Come fall, kids go back to school, leaves die, and The New Yorker begins an eerily monikered “second phase”, the main feature of which will be “an easier-to-use, logical, metered paywall.”
They really do have some great stuff over there, though, what with culling from the literary world’s greatest minds, and if you’re not a subscriber, you might as well take advantage while you can. It’s a daunting prospect—all that culture!—even if you’re only considering the fiction (I’m only considering the fiction), but BuzzFeed Books did a pretty spot-on list of recommendations here, and it’s a great place to start. If you’re like me (choices make you anxious), here’s a winnowed-down version: read “Escape From Spiderhead” by George Saunders, “The Dungeonmaster” by Sam Lipsyte, and “The Christmas Miracle” by Rebecca Curtis.
BuzzFeed missed some great titles (it’d be hard not to), and I would tack on Robert Coover’s brief, haywire fairytale; Rebecca Curtis’s ghost story; Donald Antrim’s “The Emerald Light In The Air”; and Alice Munro’s heart-rending classic about dementia.
But if you don’t have time for any of that (the “short” in “short story” is often pretty relative), just read Simon Rich’s little slice of genius “Guy Walks Into a Bar”. While technically in the “Shouts & Murmurs” section, for my money it has just as much literary merit as the other stuff on this list, and is quick and funny and weird to boot.
Or ignore The New Yorker all together! They get too much attention as it is, and the really good stuff is in the little magazines. Speaking of which, the coolest thing I read this month is about a little magazine. Kathleen Founds‘s “The Wormhole”, published by the unflagging American Short Fiction, is a story in letters: a teenage boy submits work to his high school’s lit mag (El Giraffe), in no small part because he has a crush on one of the editors. If you’ve ever sent lovingly-crafted yet ultimately plot-weak work to any number of small, esteemed publications, and received, months later, a series of unnervingly polite “no”s (I’m not bitter), you will get a kick out of this story. I got a big kick out of this story.
More important, though, than my commiseration with a fictional character, is Founds’s voice—it has real velocity, this mounting outrageousness, and creates a mood of impending chaos. In other words, Founds possesses real talent, the kind that lit mags are on the lookout for.
As does Shelly Oria, whose elegant story “The Disneyland of Albany,” which centers on a harried, bumbling father, saw publication this past July at TriQuarterly. The story is from Oria’s forthcoming collection New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, which FSG will publish in the fall. Also great, but in a very different voice, is Oria’s story “My Wife, in Converse,” published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Paris Review.
In that same issue is an incredible interview with Joy Williams, one of the great contemporary short story writers; read her collection Honored Guest. Speaking to the role of the subconscious in writing, Williams says, “Can we incorporate and treasure and be nourished by that which we do not understand? Of course.” If you don’t have The Paris Review on hand, take a look at this exhaustive post on author Dennis Cooper’s blog, part-written by Tao Lin, which pays particular attention to the aforementioned story collection.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn does a really quality series called Sunday Stories, and one of the more recent installments is a piece called “Valkyrie” by William VanDenBerg. You should read it because it’s about a regular 2014 bro who gets cozy with a Norse Valkyrie of superhuman strength named Hildr. A short short, the brief candle of their romance is rendered by VanDenBerg with skillful concision: “The first months were awesome and basic. We talked, ate, slept, fooled around. I taught her about brunch. As I fell asleep, she told me stories about the world before humans, about the great forest, the unpolluted seas, the empty blue sky.”
Where are the good readings happening? Despite the month’s purported laziness, there’s a lot happening in August. Author Mike Young will be celebrating the release of his new book of poetry, Sprezzatura, at 7pm on August 9th at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. Readers include Young, Emily Toder, and Sampson Starkweather, among others.
The Franklin Park Reading series is hosting an amazing lineup of “indie lit” authors: Paula Bomer, Michael Kimball, Jamie Iredell, Brian Allen Carr, and Andrew Duncan Worthington will all be reading at Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden on Monday, August 11th, at 8pm.