Wednesday, March 02, 2005

BOOKS: Mavis Gallant Made Me Cry

You know, I used to think that hating Dr. Phil was one of those knee-jerk behaviours expected of today's modern smart-ass media consumer. So, as with most knee-jerk things, I decided to rise above it and not hate Dr. Phil (because it's through tiny, trivial, pathetic declarations like this that I define my tiny, trivial, pathetic place in the cosmos). This was all made much easier by the fact that I'd never watched him on TV. Which I just did for the first time tonight. And I will never again doubt the instincts of today's modern smart-ass media consumer. And P.S. Now I hate Dr. Phil.

The episode I just watched (the first and only one I will ever watch, might I interject) was all about people whose wedding days were "ruined" by random acts of God/stupidity (e.g. drunk bride, freak storm, bride's dad punching groom so hard he had to go to the hospital), and as a result these people were so traumatized that they couldn't get on with their lives and their marriages were suffering. Apparently, you haven't experienced genuine trauma until you've been a privileged white middle-class woman whose wedding day has suffered some setbacks that any sane person would write off as being a great story to tell the kids a few years later.

And it occurred to me (work with me... I'm making it up as I go along) that maybe that's the problem with folks today in our woe-is-me culture: we no longer cultivate a love of good stories.

Oh sure, we watch record amounts of TV and movies, but I'm talking about
stories, those little slices of life that don't follow a formula or espouse a clear moral or have a tidy beginning, middle and end. Think about it: how many people do you know who are great storytellers, who can tell you about some trivial happening and make it compelling and entertaining and perhaps even (dare we dream) poignant? Maybe the fact that we've lost our ability to see our lives as these kinds of stories is what's turned us all into such a bunch of whiny little crybabies who need Dr. Phil to humiliate us on national television.

Which brings me to my latest additions to the countdown...

The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus (#10)
It's been a while since we lived in the same city, so I don't know if it's good memory or serendipity, but Wing Chun and Glark sure kicked a goal with this holiday gift. I'm assuming that they remembered that I have a total hard-on for short stories, and this collection did not disappoint. (Okay, David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" did kinda disappoint, but (a) David Foster Wallace is overrated, and (b) we can't all kick a goal.)

I was about to go off on a tangent about how bleak and nihilistic most of these stories are ("Sea Oak" and "Two Brothers", I'm looking at you -- you kept me awake, you bastards!), but then I realized that's actually a recurring motif in short stories written in any generation. There seems to be something about the genre that lends itself to giving you tiny paper cuts all over your psyche, so that before you know it you're covered in your own blood and you have no idea how it happened.

Don't believe me? Allow me to direct your attention to Exhibit B...

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (#11)
Okay, I'll admit it. Despite having heard nothing but praise for Gallant, and all kinds of stuff about her being the ex-pat
grande dame of Canadian letters, I avoided reading her because I thought her stories would be too mannered and tame for a literary wild child like yours truly. Why did I think this? Oh, no good reason. Just because she's older and her name is Mavis. So there you go. Feel free to judge me.

So I finally picked up
Paris Stories at the library, thinking that it would be full of charming, gentle stories about nice people living in Europe and, as such, it would be a balm for my poor wounded spirit (see above re: The Anchor Book). And boy howdy, was I ever wrong. If ever a book kicked me when I was down and then chuckled cruelly as it sauntered away with its hands in its pockets, it was Paris Stories.

The very first story in the collection, "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street", about a middle-aged Canadian couple recalling the years of their marriage spent in Europe, is a deceptively simple ode to all the silences that surround missed opportunities in a relationship. "The Remission" illustrates how the structure of a once-close nuclear family can decay so slowly, and so permanently, that no one even notices until it is too late.

In all Gallant's stories there's this sense that, while no tangible tragedy has occurred, tragedy nonetheless is everywhere.
What her stories also have in common is their focus on the mundane, making you realize there's no such thing as the truly "mundane"; it's all just life. Gallant has a stunning ability to gather up all these mundanities and use them to create whole universes as distinct from one another as the surface of the moon is from the inside of my cat box, each universe inhabited by an amazingly realized cast of characters that seem more real than the people you see every day.

Maybe if your average Dr. Phil audience member read more short stories -- if they could learn to discern good storytelling from bad -- they'd avoid the banal melodrama he churns out. And maybe if your average Dr. Phil guest could grasp the fact that our lives are full of meaty little incidents that don't have to have a happy ending, that just are what they are, they'd be better off. And TV-land would be a better place for the rest of us. And that's my Jerry Springer Final Thought.

So assuming that we're all on board with my plan to get Dr. Phil back in private practice -- prescribing painkillers to suburban housewives -- where he belongs, let's get this party started with a few other short story collections I enthusiastically endorse.
  • Anton Chekhov's Short Stories
  • The Egg and Other Stories by Sherwood Anderson (If you haven't heard of Anderson, don't blame yourself. Blame your stupid 20th century literature teachers and professors. Anderson was a god to writers like Hemingway, who considered him the father of the modern short story. He picks up where Chekhov leaves off.)
  • Speaking of Hemingway, A Moveable Feast should be on everyone's must-read list. Even if you think you hate Hemingway, read it. It's okay to hate Hemingway (well, actually, no it's not, but I'm trying to win you over and I'm willing to lie). To hate A Moveable Feast, you would also have to hate Paris and books and delicious food and gossip about F. Scott's Fitzgerald's penis, and I know you don't hate those things.
  • Anything ever written by Alice Munro, who has never written a bad sentence in her life. (For whatever it's worth, Jonathan Franzen agrees.) I would love to occupy the inside of Alice Munro's head for just an hour, because I imagine that it is an orderly garden of logic and truth and beauty and that afterwards I would come to a place of perfect comprehension and wholeness with the universe. Screw Being John Malkovich. How about Being Alice Munro? Imagine! Imagine how great it would be to live inside Alice Munro's head! (If you think I'm crazy right now, it's because you've never read anything by Munro, because if you have read anything by Munro, you're nodding your head agreeing with me... or you're not even reading any more because you're already beating a path to the shelf where you keep all your Munro collections.)
Got any recommendations for short story collections? You know where to find me.


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Harlan Ellison's short stories (such as this one), and he's certainly written a lot of them.

There are a couple of good stories in Jeanette Winterson's The World and Other Places (although I can't handle a whole book of her stories. She's best in small doses). The two that I loved were about a world where sleep was illegal and dreaming was fetishized.

Her Ladyship said...

Oh, I'm so glad to hear that someone else is obsessed with short stories. I often veer over to short story collections, thinking that they are a better way of introducing yourself to new writers than dropping $15 on a potentially crappy book. (Although that backfired with Evelyn Waugh. Great short-story writer, but I haaaate "Of Human Bondage.) Anyways. My most recent purchase at a used book store was a textbook of short stories. $5, 1300 pages. So much happiness for such little money.

Anonymous said...

HI. first time poster...

Dancing Girls by Atwood is excellent. I love her 70s/80s stuff.

Death in Midsummer by Mishima is the only work of his I can stand now. The stories are small and beautiful, and less drenched w/ homoerotic S&M goo (not in a good way) than his novels.

Blow Up by Cortazar contains one of my favorite stories of all time, "Letter to a Young lady in Paris"

Thanks for your site!


Anonymous said...

First and foremost, I really enjoyed this post, and look forward to reading around in your site.

Sometimes I find myself anchored by the short stories of William Trevor, who writes effortlessly and beautifully. Occasionally he sums up with what nearly passes for a moral -- as if he didn't trust the strength of his characters and their actions alone -- but otherwise, I find myself returning to him from time to time.

I would have mentioned Chekhov if you didn't.

Some of John Updike's stories are devastating, especially when he distances himself from all that farmhouse imagery and sticky business of the phallus. "More Stately Mansions" is a story that left a bruise, not because I could relate to it or anything, but because I felt I'd been thumped with an authentic chunk of human experience.

And yes, Alice Munro is every bit as good as you say. "Dance of the Happy Shades" is one of my favorites.

Probably you've already read your share of Flannery O'Connor and John Cheever? I like them a lot, too.

I'm going to be reading Mavis Gallant soon, now. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I am also an unapologetic lover of short stories, so this has been my favourite 50 Books entry yet! The last great collection I read was "White People" by Allan Gurganus; I loved it so much that I also tried to read "Plays Well With Others," but it was a novel, and boring, and I bailed out after about a hundred pages. "White People" is more of a story cycle, with the same family of characters reappearing in several stories, interspersed with unrelated ones. If anyone else has read him and can recommend more of his writing -- bearing in mind how much I hated "Plays Well" -- I'd be grateful.

I also liked "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" by Nathan Englander and, though its title is off-puttingly twee, "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing." Oh! And "Personal Velocity" by Rebecca Miller, the basis for the movie of the same name.

Alyssa said...

I loved - Big L - Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. I read them on T in the morning and at the end of each sotry I was all "heh - that's good stuff," which confused the other commuters. But who cares about them?

I'd send you my copy but I just gave it away...

I will also say use Laurie Notaro's name in vain again - her stories are essays/memoirs - but damn funny. I loved them all.

Anonymous said...

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri is a collection I read over and over. Beautiful, lovely gems of stories. A review on Amazon even says that her stories have "a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant." Huh. I'll have to check out this Gallant...

Anonymous said...

Kirsty Gunn's This Place You Return To Is Home is a fabulous collection of stories. There's a real sense of loss throughout all of them. Sad, but beautiful.

Rebecca said...

Atwood's Wilderness Tips was excellent - probably the only work of hers I've read more than once.

Neil Gaiman hasn't been mentioned, so I'll recommend Smoke and Mirrors. "Nicholas was..." walks the fine line between heart-wrenchingly sad and gut-bustingly funny. "We Can Get Them For You Wholesale" is the scariest short story since King's "The Mist" :)

Anonymous said...

all 3 of Grace Paley's collections. Her characters would actually have hilarious things to say about Dr. Phil, I am sure. Her stuff is full of rueful, funny people who understand the uses of storytelling.

also, Antonya Nelson's work, especially Female Trouble. Women behaving badly and unsentimentally -- but she isn't quite as bleak as Alice Munro. Yet.

Tammy said...

Holy smokes. You people deliver the goods, don't you. You've effectively doubled my "to read" list.

I just recalled this great piece that Jonathan Franzen wrote for the New York Times a few months back. It's about Alice Munro specifically, but it could be extrapolated to apply to all short stories. I highly recommend it, because he discusses why the short story is so amazing -- yet still so neglected -- far better than I can.

And apropos of nothing, check out the giant balls on Erica's site. Too cool! I want some!

Dave said...

No one else has, so I'll throw out Mark Anthony Jarman. I've only ready 19 Knives, which is pretty amazing. There's one in there called Eskimo Blue Sky which is the most devastating five page story I've ever read. A father, running to the pool to save his struggling son, slips and cracks his skull on the cement. He can't move or speak, and as everyone crowds around him to help, he's forced to watch his son drown. Sort of spoiled that one for you, but there you go.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to recommend Stuart Dybek! His writing is brilliant.

girlfiend said...

I love A.M. Holmes, Mary Gaitskill, Russell Banks, and most recently Speaking with the Angel, edited by Nick Hornsby.

landismom said...

Doesn't everyone have to read Winesburg, Ohio in high school? ITA that Anderson is brilliant. Ditto on Grace Paley.

My two favorite short story writers are William Faulkner and Ellen Gilchrist. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the gothic South.

Anonymous said...

I have two words: Bronwen Wallace. She died at the age of 44 and her only collection of short stories, People You’d Trust Your Life To, was released a year later. I am now retroactively pissed off because I want more. I actually like her more than Munro.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see another Gallant fan. My initial impression of her writing was that it was too stylish and arty and too little substance. Typical New Yorker fare, I thought. Then I finally got around to reading one of her New Yorker stories and was totally enthralled (and determined to read everything she has written).

My recs: Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn (public domain), Geza Csath stories (sort of morbid, but), Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, Tattered Cloak by Nina Berberova. For comic relief, try stories by Heinrich Boll or Thirteen Stories by Stephen Dixon, Logos by Felipe Alfau. Finally, if you want a great s.s. book to give as gifts to nonreaders, see Three Minutes or Less: Life Lessons from America’s Greatest Writers, by Pen Faulkner Foundation. 3 page stories by the big names. All utterly delightful.

FYI, reading this post just cost me $20+ today.

Anonymous said...

Egad, I meant 14 Stories by Stephen Dixon. (The joke was that the book contains only 13 stories, but it skipped a story). Light hearted.

Essy said...


His novels are good, but they're just pale, undernourished things when compared to the awesomeness of Clovis Sangrail.

The Reginald stories I'm less fond of, but The Chronicles of Clovis and Beasts & Super Beasts are must-reads.

Anonymous said...

Don't leave out all the younger short story writers. I am a fan of Benjamin Percy's Refresh, Refresh. Also, Anthony Doerr, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aryn Kyle, Karen Russell, and Kyle Minor.

- Dennis McPherson