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.)