Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best New Yorker Fiction

It's been a year since I've had a two year subscription to The New Yorker. I got it for myself as a Christmas gift last year. The sole purpose was for the fiction. I got tired of hunching over my lab top, eyes blurry from reading the stories digitally on their website. And, it made me feel all privileged when pieces on the website could only be accessed if the user had a subscription. I figured it would be good for me, as it's regarded as "the best" short fiction being published in the U.S., a reputation I've hardly found validated, especially this year. Reading every story for a year, on the whole, I found myself disappointed. I don't know if this is a product of declining quality or that I've become disillusioned and not as easily impressed. I remember some stories in past years giving me really "wow" moments at what was pulled off in the writing, but there were none like that this year. Or maybe it's a combination of both. This is not to say I haven't read some good pieces of fiction from them this year, which is why I present this list. It's my top 5 New Yorker stories from this year. I wish I had the time to give a more in depth take on what I think about them here, but I'll only give a quick run down. Maybe that's better anyway, to let them stand on their own.

5. "Agreeable" by Jonathan Franzen. I'm assuming this is an excerpt from his new novel Freedom meant to be its own story. I usually don't have a problem with publications doing this, as long as the excerpt can stand on its own with all the tenets I expect from short fiction, or if it doesn't, that its identified as an excerpt, which I will judge differently. I could tell this was an excerpt, and if its not, Franzen has some issues to deal with. But, if it is, I think it's a good one. Though the third person voice can seem too affected and a bit unnatural at times, the central conflict is compelling to me. A teenage girl-basketball player-black sheep in her family is raped. The boy who does it is the son of a couple her parents are good friends with, so her parents don't want to press charges, or if they do, don't want them to be very harsh.

4. "Costello" by Jim Gavin. I provided the link even though a subscription is required. I was pleased to read that this is Jim Gavin's first New Yorker publication. I love it when they premier new writers instead of paying homage to their standard big names. It's usually an indicator that the story will be good, and this one is no exception. It's about a man named Martin Costello who is a plumber salesman. He lives alone and has two daughters, and he frequently deflects dinner invites from his neighbor to sit at home and watch sports instead. The overwhelming loneliness in his life is handled with such subtly not found in most stories in which a central character is in a state of solitude. It's not stated but shown in every way Gavin draws Costello. I particularly like the two line description of the way he eats his microwaved hot dogs while watching the game. The way such a simple detail is delivered gives me a substantial idea of what his life is like. It's eventually revealed that his wife died of cancer. I don't think this is a spoiler, because it's not meant to be a big shock. I like that it refrains from being a "cancer story" even though it's included as a part of the reality of Costello's life.

3. "The Young Painters" by Nicole Krauss. Again, online use restricted to subscription holders. "Meta" has been thrown around liberally recently, especially when discussing a few popular TV shows, as if it's something new and cerebral, even though fiction has been doing it for centuries. Given the boom of its recent popularity, finding a story involving meta-fiction in the NYer this year is no surprise. This one is about a writer who goes to a dinner party that a dancer friend hosts. She takes interest in a painting in his house, and he tells a startling, heartbreaking, and personal anecdote of where it came from, which I'll leave out. The writer ends up writing and publishing a story about it, letting her imagination fill in the details. She worries how her friend will view the way she used something personal from his past. It's told as if she's on trial talking to a judge, occasionally using "Your Honor," as if the reader is the judge. This form does come off as a bit of a gimmick, but I like this story for the central questions it poses about fiction. To what extent is use of real-life inspiration exploiting the people or person from which it comes? (for a similar take, see "Material" by Alice Munro)

2. "Ask Me If I Care" by Jennifer Egan. Now, I know this is an excerpt from her new novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, or if it's not a direct excerpt, it's a story about the same characters. It stands on its own quite well as a story. It's very punk rock. Probably because it's about a teenage punk band. Rhea is the main character, and the story is her first person account. I love that opening paragraph too. There's a big love 5 sided polygon among the members of the band or her friends associated with it, Bennie, Scotty, Jocelyn, and the outsider of the group, Alice. Rhea doesn't beat us over the head with this cliche, but between the lines are insights into why each embraces the "punk" image. Enter Lou. A much older record executive Jocelyn has a fling with after he picked her up hitch hiking. Egan has created a voice in Rhea that is authentic and genuine as she tries to decipher herself what it even means to be "real."

1. "Boys Town" by Jim Shepard. This is my favorite New Yorker story this year. It's a shame it's only available to subscribers. After a major drought in quality stories lasting months, I was starting to get fed up, until this one came toward the end of the year. Refreshing. The power of the story is in the main character's first person POV: Martin, a veteran, who lives with his mom, and is divorced. There's no reason I should be sympathetic toward him. He's a terrible person. He's abused his wife and maybe even his son, who he's lost custody of. He doesn't pay his child support. He's violent, and even wields a gun at one point. But, for some reason I am. He thinks he has post-traumatic stress, which he might, though it's implied he never really fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. His mom only enables him. He's had a hard life. But, so many people have had hard lives and don't turn out like him, which gets at a central question of the story. How much are we affected by our circumstances and how much is a part of our biological make-up? The reason I become sympathetic toward him I suppose is because I'm getting the intimate first person, a power of the form to which this story is a testament.

Honorable Mentions:

1. "Corrie" by Alice Munro. I love her. She's one of my favorite writers. She didn't make the final list perhaps because I was expecting more from her. Every time I pick up a story by Munro I expect to be floored in the well crafted structure and turns of phrase, but this one didn't live up to my expectations for her specifically. This story is still good though. An affair, blackmail, all good stuff.

2. "The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris He was a part of the June 14th and 25th issues' "20 Under 40" fiction segment premiering the "top" 20 young fiction writers under 40. Most I found lacking. The New Yorker seems to be shifting toward this new style that just leaves me thinking "so what?", stories with no real meat and are just showing off some experimental form. Ferris is an exception. I love the main character's obsessive and neurotic tendencies, though they could be a turn off for some.

3. "I.D." by Joyce Carol Oates. Her stories are usually always hit or miss for me. Her recent fiction has been pretty lackluster, especially with the disaster that was "Pumpkin Head", but this one redeems her for me. It's definitely a "hit."

Again, I wish I could go more in depth but lack the time. I find it interesting that the ones I seem to like best are typically in first person when I usually prefer third. I have some ideas about why this is the case, but that's another post for another time. Thanks for indulging this fiction geek.


  1. You don't think that the quality in the new yorker is only on a perceived decline because you're developing a sharper eye for good literature, do you?

  2. Thats a good question, Claire. I don't think so though, because those stories I referenced that "wowed" me still have the same effect if I re-read them. The NYer's selection of style has changed somewhat it seems. It could very well be a question of taste. Every writer included in that 20 Under 40 issue is talented, and no doubt, the writing is good, but it's just that it's different and not what I once expected from the New Yorker. It does still have the reputation as "the best short fiction published in the U.S." but I think now that's more based on the tradition its established for itself.