Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Ben Marcus
Anchor Books ($13)

by Laird Hunt

In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno writes of those artists, "of the highest rank," for whom "the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality." Future trajectories of taste and circumstance will determine just how many highest rankers The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories ultimately proves to contain, but it is certainly the case that many of the 29 works that make up this excellent gathering of contemporary American short fiction seem to echo the substantive portion of Adorno's phrase.

Whether in George Saunders intriguing neo-realist/neo-fabulist hybrid, in which shabby beefcake, trailer park particularities and resurrected relatives do a kind of double-time tango, or in Mary Caponegro's characteristically probing and quietly unsettling investigation of a priest who assigns himself expanded duties, or in Aleksandar Hemon's hilarious and strangely haunting mock biography of an individual whose gastro-intestinal "winds" excite the commentary of personages as historically foregrounded as Tito and Stalin, the world of appearances gets held up, even kissed, but then either shoved away or squeezed so hard it coughs, groans, and breaks into rivulets of fascinating multi-colored sweat. Consider, for example, the opening of Gary Lutz's "People Shouldn't Have to Be the Ones to Tell You":

He had a couple of grown daughters, dissapointers, with regretted curiosities and the heavy venture of having once looked alive. One night it was only the older one who came by. It was photos she brought: somebody she claimed was more recent. He started approvingly through the sequence. A man with capped-over hair and a face drowned out by sunlight was seen from unintimate range in decorated settings out-of-doors. The coat he wore was always a dark-blue thing of medium hang. But in one shot you could make out the ragged line of a zipper, and in another a column of buttons, and in still another the buttons were no longer the knobby kind but toggles, and in yet another they were not even buttons, just snaps. Sometimes the coat had grown a drawstring.

What could have been dreary domestic minimalism is here torched or torqued into something fresh and strange; gentle neologism, unabashed alliteration, off-beat rhythms, repetition, and observational obsessiveness collide into delightfully un-realist surfaces. The opening of Dawn Raffel's "Up the Old Goat Road" offers related pleasures as it fuses the pastoral with the paratactic:

We are here on the peninsula, where pie is made from scratch and the goats are getting fatter on a nearby roof. It is an upwind roof. This is industry, my father says. Company, my sister says. This is not the dells. All the supper clubs are shut or tight. The falls are somewhere else we have not been. Overhead is where it's lusher, fresh—green above this hard-luck thumb. But the goats, my sister says, look overwarm. The water is our neighbor, and what washes up is sorry or worse.

As in so many of the stories here, this is writing where style is not treated like varnish or ornamentation but rather as integral to the proceedings. For those who have read their Barthelme and Baudrillard, this might seem like old gravy, but the average mass-circulated compendium of short fiction in this country has continued to propagate the notion that language is just something to look through, not at. It's refreshing to open an anthology and find so many stories where style is celebrated as thoroughly as narrative, characterization, and plot—where, in short, the literary breakthroughs of the twentieth century are integrated, rather than ignored. As editor Ben Marcus puts it, "The writers here have absorbed the fiction methods of the past and added their own hunches, instincts, desires, fears, cravings, and artfulness to command a reader's attention in compelling ways."

In addition to the above-mentioned authors, it would be as relevant in this context to quote from the contributions of Stephen Dixon, Matthew Derby, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, and others whose carefully constructed language fields engender or strongly amplify their far from under-determined narrative thrusts. In fact, I can't resist presenting one further example, this sentence from Brian Evenson's "Two Brothers": "He lay on the floor of the entry hall, the rug bunched under his back, a crubbed jab of bone tearing his trousers at the knee." Evenson is known in his fiction for shedding fresh light on the vicious give and take between language and violence, but it seems to me that in this assonance- and marrow-rich exemplum he sets a kind of standard.

It's important to point out that a significant part of the pleasure of reading this anthology derives from the variety of the work presented. Indeed, a number of the stories (e.g. Jhumpa Lahiri's "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Deborah Eisenberg's "Someone to Talk To," and Anthony Doerr's "The Caretaker") are handsome, even stately, examples of realism—stories that don't shove away or squeeze/throttle the real, but instead stare long and hard into its eyes before offering the reader full, if elliptical, status reports. If these works had been conjoined with a majority of the usual realist suspects, the results might have been tedious. Instead, Marcus has managed—while placing the emphasis of the anthology on formally and stylistically innovative writing—to set up a bracing conversation between a wide-ranging spectrum of contemporary works. The shift from Eisenberg's gorgeous Katherine-Anne-Porter-inflected prose to the high-octane abrasive intensity of David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" is a highlight in this regard, as is the striking distance between, say, Anne Carson's wonderfully gnomic paragraph-length prose/poetry hybrids in "Short Talks" and Lahiri's crystal-clear, classically understated contribution.

In his introduction, Marcus (whose own work could have been seamlessly included in the lineup) elucidates his selection process: "My idea was to read hundreds of stories, in as many styles as I could find. I wanted to align contemporary American story writers who might have radically different ways of getting to a similar place. In each case as I sat down to read, I had to be turned from a somewhat dull, unpromising person into one enlivened, antagonized, buttressed, awed, stunned by what he was reading." If some of the entries fall a little short of the transmogrifying mark, the majority will wake the reader out of whatever stupor they happen to be in. The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories is a book to own, read carefully, and keep close at hand.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004