So best

Ed note: In a review originally commissioned by the New York Times for publication last December, but ultimately not published, Chris Lehmann examines Houghton Mifflin’s “best of” collection. He has generously given permission for me to post the piece here.

by Chris Lehmann

Superlatives are an unofficial American birthright. Bestness, like bigness, is the turbo-charged engine propelling not just the American advertising world, but the literary one. Almost since there has been a self-conscious American literary culture, it has been busily investing itself with outsize claims for its stature, a reflex that feels very much of a piece with the foundational hubris of conquering an inhabited continent and proclaiming it, and all the new Anglo arrivistes governing it, a “New World.”

Hence an annual ritual, as reassuring in its own way as the return of the swallows to Capistrano: Houghton-Mifflin issues collections of writing that a stable of star subeditors hired for the occasion deems the best in its field. Beginning with the 1915 launch of the Best American Short Stories line, the Houghton series, based in the old Brahmin literary capital of Boston, has stood athwart successive revolutions in American literary expression with a stolid, decisive conviction that it is, as the slogan plastered on this year’s series claims, “first, best and bestselling.” The Houghton line is undeniably a great success, bringing in ever newer swathes of bestness under its brief: This year marks not only the return of last year’s brave feint into the deadpan literary playground of uber-star editor Dave Eggers with the Best American Nonrequired Reading volume, but also that surest measure of success in the omnimedia age: imitators. Ecco Press has, since 2000, been publishing its Best American Science Writing series, which coincides exactly with the run of Houghton’s Best American Science and Nature Writing. (One fears that this tight rivalry might explode into the publishing equivalent of the East Coast/West Coast rap wars, with, for instance, boasts from the Houghton stable that Ecco writers “can’t handle nature.”) And so as to take appropriately timely stock of the end of a grueling election year, Thunder’s Mouth has stepped forward with Best American Political Writing, 2004.

Yet for all this marketing brio, many of the big best volumes we have in hand this year suffer from a striking timidity. To begin with the franchise-launching warhorse, The Best American Short Stories, edited this year by a truly gifted practitioner of the form, Lorrie Moore, we find an abundance of pieces–and more to the point, characters–who aspire to little more than a tightly prefigured, inexorably domestic doom. Even though there are several extended entries here, these feel less like short stories than like miniature ones. In the 20 stories collected in Moore’s anthology, characters typically announce their life struggles, introspections, and shifting elective affinities through carefully layered signifiers of culture and taste preference. Here, for example, is the disconsolate protagonist of Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto,” obsessively dissecting the appearance of his teenaged nephews: “When last seen, they had been surly, furtive, persecuted-looking, snickering, hulking, hairy adolescents, and now here they were . . . They had shed their egalitarian denim chrysalis and had risen up in the crisp, mean mantle of their class.”

It’s entirely characteristic of this culture-semaphore storytelling style that at the end of a grandiloquent string of adjectives, the reader still has no clear idea what these boys actually might look like. The closest we get, alas, is “hairy”; and when specificity threatens to break out in the matter of wardrobe, it’s swiftly abstracted away via clumsy metaphor (another unfortunate tic on frequent display in many of this year’s best short fictions): the muffled, portentous notion of an “egalitarian denim chrysalis,” which sounds more like a sleeping bag than an article of clothing; and the decidedly uncozy, (and hence strangely non-aristocratic, contrary to the writer’s clear intent) prospect of a “crisp, mean mantle.”

To be sure, several of the stories in Moore’s anthology resist these exercises in cultural miniaturization. Sherman Alexie’s down-and-out fable, “What You Pawn I Shall Redeem” makes overt sport of most sorts of cultural signification–most of all the bogus purity of (in his case) Native American authenticity that gives them currency. In “A Rich Man” Edward P. Jones also denies his protagonist, Horace Perkins, any glib transparency of cultural surround: A self-destructive womanizer, Horace exits the tale an even greater mystery to himself than he is at its outset; indeed, his carefully tended cultural tastes emerge at the end as a bitter mockery of the person he becomes. It seems striking that Jones and Alexie, two of the writers here identified most forcefully as racial outsiders, seem to have the least use for the iron character dictates of their oft-exoticized cultures.

But most of these stories strenuously assert, as Eisenberg’s does, a drearily implacable cultural determinism. In Nell Freudenberger’s “The Tutor,” an aimless Indian’s seduction of a young American woman serves as an all-too-plain metaphor for a postcolonial reversal of power relations. Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” throngs with obtrusively folksy set-pieces (e.g., a stretch of farmland strewn with mass-produced yellow cupcakes after a delivery truck overturns), all manner of Heartland-signifying cultural clutter–tin trailers, “granny women” and wide-open Kansan skies–and a riot of unwieldy, overburdened, and (yes) folksy metaphor. (As in, “Hettie had huge squash-shaped bosoms and straight boyish hips, so many reddish freckles that she resembled a hunting hound, and a supple apple butter voice.”) Annie Proulx’s Wyoming pastoral, “What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?,” peopled with characters who have names like Coot McNitt, Myrl Otter, and Suzzy New, is every bit as subtle as you might expect. Amid all these diligent inventories of the cultural habitats that suffocate them, characters seem nearly to vanish from the page–when they are not, as in stories like R.T. Smith’s “Docent” or Angela Pneuman’s “All Saints Day,” objects of an author’s all-too-palpable cultural scorn.

So much of the most effective, enduring short fiction works first and foremost as character study–pitching a protagonist’s (and by extension, a reader’s) most cherished self-understandings against the indifferent-to-hostile workings of time and fate, desire and loss. All too many stories here, by contrast, hound their characters into prompt, predictable modes of cultural submission.

Louis Menand’s Best American Essays also gets small, but in a slightly different register. In his introduction Menand writes that he selected most of the essays here “by ear,” following the dictum that “writing is personal; it feels personal.” This writing, in any event, sure does: Eighteen of the 22 pieces collected here are in the first person, creating a strong impression of the essay as primarily an exercise in self-recording. What’s more, most are memory studies, creating an additional, unrelieved mood of elegy: for the New York of one’s youth; for a dead writer father or a living writer-lover; for the heightened rush of a near-death experience, gratefully survived; for a religious or ethnic affiliation, or a cultural enthusiasm now lapsed. At its best, this sort of essay achieves a direct, unforced intimacy with the reader, as with Laura Hillenbrand’s account of her harrowing struggle to overcome Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Kathryn Chetkovich’s piece about the ungainly travails that attended her relationship with another, far more successful writer. He is not named here, but his initials are Jonathan Franzen–and he, in turn, contributes a memoir to the collection about his checkered career as a high-school prankster.

At its worst, though, the relentlessly personal tone of Menand’s collection yields flat, uninvolving songs of the writer’s self. Rick Moody’s “Against Cool,” a shrill yet banal bit of pop culture confessional masquerades none too effectively as an aesthetic polemic. Kyoko Mori’s “Yarn,” a reconstruction of her life as a knitter, veers dangerously close to a parody of sensitive-writer self-infatuation (“At least on a purely personal level, I’ve reconciled myself to the mitten”). Wayne Koestenbaum all but declares war on the reader’s patience with his effort to render his experience of 1980s New York as a series of unconnected Walter Benjamin-like aphorisms (“Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person singular pronoun,” he writes in a typical flourish of disingenuous self-awareness. “Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it.” Suffice it to say that if he tried, he most definitely failed.)

Menand seems so committed to the backward-looking confessional voice that he adds in two essays that were not composed in 2003 at all: recently discovered pieces by James Agee and Tennessee Williams. As tends generally to be the case with uncollected works, these are not among these name writers’ finest hours, and their inclusion here seems an oddly pointed slight to essayists who live and breathe in our own day. Menand’s antiquarian bent is especially unfortunate when one recalls that 2003 saw more than its share of lively, widely discussed essays, addressing the broader world of political, literary and moral controversy: Garry Wills on subjects ranging from conservative Catholic orders to the political career of Bill Clinton; Joan Didion on popular evangelical fiction; Heidi Julavits and Dale Peck on either side of the literary “snark” wars; Nick Lemann on Karl Rove, to name but a few.

Menand’s anthology seems very much a willed retreat from such redoubts: His only real concession to the historical present here is a labored Adam Gopnik essay on the considerable shortcomings of “The Matrix Reloaded”; and even this small presentist indulgence is vitiated by the release of another, still lamer, Matrix sequel, “Matrix Revolutions,” later that same year. This retreat is obviously well within Menand’s prerogative as an editor, but it also forfeits a good deal of the essay form’s singular virtue: Its ability to widen and deepen our sense of the historical moment we inhabit, in ways that make the writer’s self seem very much beside the point.

The writer’s self has always been Dave Eggers’s great literary project, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading certainly opens with healthy doses of it. There is the usual cloying set of faux-self-undercutting pirouettes in Eggers’s foreword, and a stunt celebrity introduction by Vigo Mortensson, making it clear that he’d better hang on to his Orc-slaying day job. Yet despite such pro forma gimmicks, the collection is a pleasant surprise: a genuinely engaging, sharply inflected gathering of distinct voices, addressing all manner of subjects, from African genocide to the psychology of happiness.

Eggers and the team of high-school precocities he recruited to co-edit the volume clearly followed their collective instincts as readers first and foremost. While there are several painful misfires–Christopher Buckley’s plodding, unfunny “We Have a Pope!,” David Benioff’s “Zoanthropy” which reads like a failed Wes Anderson script treatment, and Ben Ehrenreich’s ham-handed “What You Eat,” to name three–the Nonrequired anthology does, as advertised, make for much less of a reading chore than its higher-flown Houghton stablemates. The collection does sport a natural advantage of genre diversity, plunking nonfiction magazine pieces alongside short stories and comics (or what I suppose, these days, are called “graphic bagatelles”). But most of the material here succeeds because it is pointedly heedless of the big-ticket literary virtues on such monotonous display in the Menand and Moore books. Paula W. Peterson’s splendid story “Big Brother,” for instance, sports a sort of trifecta of literary victimization, with a poor single-mom narrator saddled with both a difficult son’s upbringing and a positive HIV diagnosis. Yet Peterson’s narrator refuses to turn any part of her story into a victim’s tale–and so it alights on a note of great humor, all the funnier for being that much more hard won. Michelle Tea’s absorbing dispatch from the battling Michigan summer festivals sponsored by lesbian separatists and transgendered, well, misfits, walks an admirably fine line between each gathering’s penchant for overblown sloganeering–while coming down, rather exuberantly, on the “Trans” side of the fracas.

It used to be that this sort of wryly skeptical, doggedly inquisitive spirit was such a common feature of American letters that it scarcely bore noting as such. It seems at once chastening and oddly hopeful that we should need an editorial board of high-school students to remind us of its genuine resonance.


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