Murakami, Boyle, Oz, Babitz, Cather and Adjei-Brenyah

Short Stories in January, February and March

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to two familiar writers and also explored four new-to-me story writers.

Beneath this striking cover by Pascal Campion for the January 14, 2019 issue of “The New Yorker” is the Amos Oz  short story “All Rivers” (Trans. Philip Simpson).

It’s the story of Eliezer Dror, a twenty-eight-year-old native of the kibbutz Tel Tomer.

“Here we go again: I’m telling things out of order,” readers are warned. But it’s a busy story about girls and work on the kibbutz, about stamp collectors and smoke rings and flies, free agents and poets, raids and commendations, and a missing thumb.

A favourite quote:

“The story needs to move forward, but memory doesn’t move forward; it moves backward, from the end to the beginning, like a crab, like someone waking up from a nightmare and trying to remember what it was, and going back from the nightmare to the unimportant details that preceded it, to try to reconstruct how the dream began, and how it reached the point where fear woke him up.”

Another short story I enjoyed in a print magazine this quarter? Haruki Murakami’s “Cream” in the January 28, 2019 issue of The New Yorker (Trans. Philip Gabriel).

In many ways, the narrator is a typical Murakami character, a “bland, run-of-the-mill guy”, an eighteen-year-old between school sessions, who “found it a lot more enjoyable to read all of Balzac than to delve into the principles of calculus”.

Also typically, he is neither an immediately nor intensely likeable character. He keeps readers at a distance and the story is part piano recital and part philosophical metaphor.

The story feels circular, whether moving through a heartbeat or another kind of meaningful rhythm, all to “help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first”. (I’m not convinced I have.)

And, for the final single story, Shary Boyle’s short story and artwork “Finissage” in the March 2019 issue of “The Walrus”. If you were looking for a story which features the corpse of an orangutan and a ruined subway station, this story will satisfy that requirement for your reading challenge. It would also check the box for “[d]roughts, fires, hurricanes, the poisoned air, face mask, and food wars” in which the “old white mothers and fathers had perished”. For some readers, this might be a sharp and incisive critique. For others, this story of a “new generation who saw the founding project of Canada as a genocidal, gas-lighting, racist, capitalist, colonial, resource-extraction shit show” might feel more like an exercise than a revelation.

The first I heard of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black (2018) was on Andrew Blackman’s site (he also links to a revealing Vox interview) and his recommendation was echoed when I next listened to the New York Times Book Review podcast (I’m often behind in my listening, although my TBH list is not as out-of-control as my TBR list).

There’s a good reason why so many readers are discussing this collection. It’s bold and hyperbolic, clever and engaging.

It’s filled with big ideas. “People say ‘sell your soul’ like it’s easy. But your soul is yours and it’s not for sale. Even if you try, it’ll still be there, waiting for you to remember it.” (“Zimmer Land”)

Sometimes coupled with sharp quips. “Pay attention to the moment. Suck it in like the last sip in the juice box.” (“In Retail”)

One of the striking elements of the collection is the satirical thrust, the author’s push past the unexpected to the unthinkable. But the power in the collection rests in the fact that what you might think is hyperbolic is rooted in history and mythology of the Afro-American community, the hinge that swings between what should be horror and what is true injustice. If you don’t recognize the references and connections, the stories might settle at edgy but that rootedness is what has led so many readers to rave, what has led some to believe what he’s doing is revolutionary. When, really, all he’s doing is flying.

Contents: The Finkelstein 5, Things My Mother Said, The Era, Lark Street, The Hospital Where, Zimmer Land, Friday Black, The Lion & the Spider, Light Spitter, How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing, In Retail, Through the Flash

The only one of Willa Cather’s early short stories I’ve read is “Paul’s Case” (maybe the one about Wagner too), when I first discovered her via The Song of the Lark. So Chris Wolak’s reading project (which I learned about via one of Paula’s event posts) immediately appealed.

The first story up for discussion is Willa Cather’s “Flavia and Her Artists”, which is named for a 35-year-old woman “lit by the effulgence of her most radiant manner”.

Phew, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it? But Flavia would love it. “To Flavia it is more necessary to be called clever than to breathe.” But just how clever is Flavia? It depends who you ask.

It also depends who’s asking. Are you a more accomplished artist basking in the glory of fame? Or are a less successful artist with minor accomplishments who prefers the idea of being an artist to actually putting in the necessary time and effort?

Or are you an old friend who might be resentful of Flavia’s marriage and comfort and influence? Or are you a clear-eyed onlooker who deplores Flavia’s habit of soaking up other people’s daydreams and claiming them as her own analyses and musings? (Next up? “The Garden Lodge”)

Something I read online about Lili Anolik’s new book, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. (2019), piqued my curiosity about Eve Babitz’s short fiction. And I’m not alone. Having expected to be able to renew my library copy of Babitz’s collection, and caught short by the realization that there was a substantial list of readers waiting to read her, I asked the lit-Twits which stories were unmissable. Lili Anolik recommended “Slumming at the Rodeo Gardens”, “Free Tibet” and “Black Swans” by Eve Babitz.

All three stories are set in L.A. and “Slumming at the Rodeo Gardens”  is about her friend Warren “who married for money and now never reads a book or laughs or helps anyone but only tells you how much things cost”. (I suspect there is a real Warren, as Lili Anolik tagged the Walter who appears as a character in “Black Swans” in her Tweet.)

Babitz’s style is powerfully engaging and readers are instantly transported to a world where “body lifts, skin peels, fat suctioning, teeth bonds and collagen flourish in the gracious noonday shade”. (And where many men’s names begin with ‘W’.) There’s a darkness to the stories – “to be corrupt you have to have once not been, and nobody in this place was ever that” – but her prose is dynamic and somehow keeps readers buoyed.

In “Free Tibet”, the narrator debates whether she is like a character in Proust and has an epiphany about her life thanks to Fay Weldon whose “fiction got through to me where facts had feared to tread”. (So, obviously, I loved this. I’ve only read two books by Fay Weldon, but I took pages of notes from each.) One woman is “too much of a cliché to leave” an unhappy marriage but there’s also “great sex, in an Edgar Allan Poe kind of way” and “endless parties for art”.

“Black Swans” chronicles a life of too much, of pill-popping and drinking, of wanting to be a writer (but not like Joan Didion who scared men, more like M.F.K. Fisher). All while our narrator copes with paralyzing heat by staying in air-conditioned hotels with Walter. “Our histories of abandoned relationships, chaos, and broken glasses and broken dreams. And I do mean broken.” But a comic thread remains: “You could suffer fools a lot more gladly when you were one yourself.”

[Coincidentally, my library copy of Lili Anolik’s new book, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. (2019), has just arrived as well. I’m starting early: I’m positive there’s a queue behind me for this one!)]

And you? Any short stories lately?