George Saunders, “A Two-Minute Note to the Future”

IMAG0724A present day office worker writes to his future counterpart.

(from a Chipotle bag)

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high-tech?

I don’t eat much Chipotle, but when I do, it’s nice to get some George Saunders with it. Actually, my burrito was supposed to come with a smaller bag (featuring a piece by Judd Apatow) but I asked for a free upgrade. About the story: It’s decent. It’s short, of course. I like how the present day human speaks like a caveman. Kristyna Baczynski’s accompanying illos are very cool. The burrito was the usual: 50 percent food, 50 percent regret.

So.

There are 125 days left in 2014. I kinda promised myself I’d read/write about 100 stories here this year, to mark I Read A Short Story Today’s 10th birthday. You know, because numbers. But I haven’t read any this year, as far as I can remember. It’s this damn Bolaño kick I’ve been on. His novels aren’t just thick, they’re dense, and thorough. His prose, translated into in English, is pretty in a brutalist way, and I find myself re-reading passage at the same time I marvel at their frustrating pace. Those dead women in 2666 nearly almost me. And I’m still reading The Savage Detectives — Kindle says I’m 84 percent done; so far, no detectives — and a couple other books of varying seriousness. But 125 stories in 100 days. I can do that right? It’s not Kilimanjaro. It’s just reading. If make the time, I’ll succeed. Lunch breaks and stuff. Okay.

Oh, it’s after midnight. 124 days.

 

Future-Pattern_640Present-Pattern_640

Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”

69Johanna leaves town with a new dress and some stolen furniture to begin a life in the middle of nowhere with a man who isn’t expecting her. 

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

The station agent would have said, without thinking about it, that he knew everybody in town. Which meant that he knew about half of them. And most of those he knew were the core people, the ones who really were ‘in town’ in the sense that they had not arrived yesterday and had no plans to move on.

This story is really long, longer than the average Munro story even, or the average Munro story that I’ve read. It’s also kind of confusing, like most of them, in that perspectives shift a lot and you have to read closely in order to keep up (and sometimes there is pronoun confusion because of this). That being said, it’s good. It’s really, really good.

It appears that the entire collection, of which this is the title story, is online. It was also made into a movie called Hateship Loveship (2013) starring Kristin Wiig. Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t crazy about it.

Anyhow, this story gave me all sorts of emotions. I felt hope and sadness and nervousness and all of these things I don’t often feel while reading, and which Alice Munro achieves because she’s a hell of a writer and she never hurries; she really takes her time. She gives us varying perspectives and stories within stories and stories within those stories and they somehow don’t feel out of place. She makes them all fit. Even the station agent has his say. I have no idea how she does it but it’s a pretty wondrous thing to behold. I won’t tell you how things turn out for Johanna, but I’ll say that you really ought to read it and find out.

Jim Gavin, “The Copy Chief”

69After a decade spent surfing and working at a gas station, Eddie becomes a newspaperman.

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

I had a sublet in Mar Vista. My roommate, Brett, was creepy and docile and generally representative of the kind of people who come into your life via Craigslist. I think he was in grad school. He ate incredible amounts of soup and played WWII video games with a silent, frothing passion. Due to my schedule, I rarely saw him, and I was creepy in my own ways. Every night after work I got Del Taco and stayed up late watching TV. I got hooked on The Rockford Files.

I always have such a hard time summarizing these stories. This story isn’t really about Eddie working at a newspaper, or it’s kind of about that, but it’s also about his struggle to live after both of his parents die at a young age; it’s about his friendship with his boss, Gus, who fakes his own death; it’s about living in poverty even after you get a “real” job.” It’s about having a roommate you call “Brett” for six months before you find out his name is actually Brent. I can’t find the quote, but Flannery O’Connor said something along the lines of, ‘if someone asks what your story is about, tell him to read the story,’ which is exactly right. If you can actually tell me what a story is about then I don’t want to read it. I don’t need to read it.

Anyhow, I love the voice and really enjoyed this story. I could spend a lot more time with Eddie. Read some of “The Copy Chief” here and then buy the current issue of Zoetrope.

Joy Williams, “The Little Winter”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMGloria, a thirty-five-year-old woman dying of cancer, goes to visit her friend, Jean, and Jean’s strange daughter, and then sort-of kidnaps the girl.

(from Escapes)

There was something truly terrifying about girls on the verge of puberty, Gloria thought.

There is so much brilliance here, so many lines I would have marked if my copy weren’t hardcover and in such good condition. As I was reading this story, I kept checking to see how many pages I had left, wanting more and more. Anyhow, I loved this story so much until Gloria awakes in the middle of the night and then drives over to Jean’s house and actually takes off with her friend’s daughter, for no reason that I can discern. She doesn’t like this child, thinks she’s odd, and has spent the earlier part of the story wanting to be alone. At this point, the narrative zooms out, not letting us into Gloria’s head where we might see what she’s thinking, where we might get a feel for why she decides to do this and then keep doing it.

I want to rewrite “The Little Winter.” I don’t want Gloria to kidnap the kid or get a dog. I feel like a workshop class got ahold of it and kept asking the author, “But what makes this day different?” I would like to punch them all.

Despite these things, damn can Joy Williams write a sentence.

Kenneth Calhoun, “Primal Scenes”

M-TH60-SKA twelve-year-old boy moves with his family to Guadalajara after his father is caught having an affair with a student; sexy stuff and trouble ensues. 

(from Tin House 60, Summer 2014)

In America we weren’t allowed to roam the streets after the streetlights came on. But in Mexico, we discovered that our parents had relaxed their policies, for reasons we did not understand. There were streetlights in Mexico, too. Julian and I realized, after only a week in the neighborhood, that we could slip out of the apartment after dinner without being questioned or given a return time. We would rejoin the ongoing antics of the kids on the street–setting things alight, hunting rats in the ravine with slingshots.

I’ve never heard of Kenneth Calhoun before, though his bio tells me he has recently published a novel, Black Moon, which I will now have to read. I liked this story a lot. The voice of our twelve-year-old narrator is so certain and charming, and the details about living in Mexico feel very real. I love this: ”The apartment was new and looked very much how a Mexican-themed apartment in California would look. It had extremely hard wooden furniture that was painted bright colors. All the chair backs went up at exactly ninety-degree angles, making for a stiff sit.”

The story is basically about a boy exploring his sexuality at the same time that his philandering father is trying to right past wrongs, and not doing a terribly good job of it. The characters here are all very well drawn with the exception, perhaps, of the narrator’s younger brother Julian, who is presented rather one-dimensionally (“He was three years younger and liked to pretend he was a religious superhero called the Altar Boy.”) Nine-year-olds can be rather one-dimensional, though, and it didn’t bother me much.

Here’s an excerpt from Calhoun’s novel, which sounds really interesting, about a world overtaken by insomnia (I can relate as I’ve been waking up at three am for the past two weeks and can’t seem to break the cycle).

Tin House is damn good. I love their Lost & Found section and always find treasures to add to the list of books I have to read. Pick up the issue. Read Meg Freitag’s poems first and then begin at the beginning.

Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus”

CV1_TNY_06_23_14Booth.inddA man takes care of his little old dog while remembering past relationships.

(from The New Yorker, June 23, 2014)

I considered the dog, a blond female no bigger than a cat. She had long hair like whiskers over her eyes, so she seemed always to be raising her eyebrows. She sat down, as if she knew that would help her case. James is English and wanted to call her Cordelia, not for “Lear” but for an English novel. It was not the name I would have chosen, but it was not worth the argument. He did a ringmaster act with some toys—a knot of cloth, a ball, a round bed—to show me how good this would be. I had long associated terriers with the barking arts, but this one did not bark. She sniffed at the toys and the bed, waiting for my decision.

That description at the top is so stupid. But I’m tired. I only read this story to help me fall asleep, but it was too compelling for that, and I’m only writing this post now because that is what one does when one finishes reading a story. This is a sad little thing, with only a few sparks to make you feel something other than gorgeous hopelessness. Good for a reader. Bad for a sleeper.

Mavis Gallant, “When We Were Nearly Young”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.03.59 AMAging youths scrape by in Madrid, waiting.

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1960)

I saw inside my eyelids at night the nine of clubs, which is an excellent card, and the ten of hearts, which is better, morally speaking, since it implies gain through effort.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.17.40 AMThe four young people around whom this story barely revolves — our passing-through narrator and three vaguely hopeless Spaniards — are not so much friends as similarly afflicted commiserators. The live near each other. They scrape up crappy meals together. They entertain each others’ delusions. The New Yorker‘s accompanying summary calls them “accidental friends,” united by poverty and the idea that money would soon be sent to rescue them. At the risk of sounding like Ben Rand, I did find myself wondering why these four felt so resigned to their poor prospects. “The Spaniards’ characteristic trait was a certain passiveness,” says the summary. Who wrote that, I wonder? Doesn’t matter. This story captures a specific kind of devoted twenty-something lethargy better than anything else I’ve ever read. I was nearly young once.

A friend had been trying to turn me onto Mavis Gallant but, after immersing myself in the moody suffering of Bolaño, I found no attraction to characters apparently concerned with affluent worry. Turns out I was digging in the wrong spot. Soon this story was printed for me and, finally, I believe I get it. Thank you for the recommendation, Pilar.

Roald Dahl, “The Sound Machine”

mcsweeneys-45A scientist named Klausner invents a machine that lets you hear sounds usually outside the range of human hearing.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about — something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.

Things this hilarious, strange little story brought to mind:

1. A book Art Bell would occasionally pretend he bought into called The Secret Life of Plants. It was written by researchers who hooked plants up to polygraphs and found them to be somehow sentient. The plants were fearful of being cut and such. Needless to say, most scientists have a problem with the methodology, findings, etc. (P.S. There was a film version; Stevie Wonder did the soundtrack.)

2. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story called “Confido,” about a guy who invents a machine that tells you what you want to hear.

3. But moreso, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Thanasphere,” in which the first astronaut to leave Earth finds out space is the full of the disembodied souls of the dead, who keep talking to him over the radio.

Stevie+Wonder+-+Journey+Through+The+Secret+Life+Of+Plants+-+DOUBLE+LP-2854634. That line from The Simpsons: “I’m a level five vegan. I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.” Klausner, after hearing flowers shriek upon being nipped by shears, theorizes that he’d never enjoy bread again if he used his machine while a wheat field was being harvested. Happily, he figures that apples are probably okay, since they fall off the tree naturally.

5. How there’s probably so much more Roald Dahl out there I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve read all the kid stuff, but not nearly enough of his even-darker “Switch Bitch” adult material. I read “The Sound Machine” — first printed in the New Yorker in 1949 — in the Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven McSweeney’s compilation issue, but you can find it a bunch of places (like here). Several filmmakers have made adaptations of it, by the way.

miamisoundmachinediscopiano1980-510x506-7869296. How brilliant inventors in certain kinds of stories are always fatally or near-fatally eccentric. This dude’s “sound machine” (respect to Gloria Estefan) would be a huuuge deal. Total game-changer. Once humanity finds out that broccoli whimpers and trees scream, it’s gonna have a lot to think about. But Klausner’s such a pale, awkward spaz, he can barely express himself to his neighbors or the doctor he tries to demonstrate the machine to. Today’s productive geeks and nerds seem better able to express themselves.

7. The way Dahl builds tension. As soon as we hear what the machine is supposed to do, well, we knows it’s going to work. So, dammit, let’s turn the thing on! But no, first we gotta read about Klausner lugging the thing up the stairs, and trying to open the door without putting it down. Purposefully, slyly maddening. Sometimes you want to punch an author because the writing’s that good.

Philip K. Dick, “The Preserving Machine”

images-albums-The_Preserving_Machine_-_20100122162416335.w_290.h_290.m_crop.a_center.v_topA scientist tries to guarantee the survival of classical music by inventing a machine that turns sheet music into animals.

(from Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1953)

For a moment we saw nothing. Then a bush moved, and for the first time we made out its form. It must have been standing there watching us all the time. The creature was immense, thin and extended, with bright, intense eyes. To me, it looked something like a coyote, but much heavier. Its coat was matted and thick, its muzzle hung partly open as it gazed at us silently, studying us as if astonished to find us there.

“The Wagner animal,” Labyrinth said thickly. “But it’s changed. It’s changed. I hardly recognize it.”

The creature sniffed the air, its hackles up. Suddenly it moved hack, into the shadows, and a moment later it was gone.

We stood for a while, not saying anything. At last Labyrinth stirred. “So, that’s what it was,” he said. “I can hardly believe it. But why? What-”

“Adaptation,” I said. “When you toss an ordinary house cat out it becomes wild. Or a dog.”

“Yes.” He nodded. “A dog becomes a wolf again, to stay alive. The law of the forest. I should have expected it. It happens to everything.”

This is a slightly silly but enthralling little parable about creations getting away from their creators. Aspects of it reminded me of Jurassic Park, though “life uh finds a way” means that Doc Labyrinth’s little Bach bugs and Mozart birds evolve in unexpected ways. (Unlike Crichton’s dinosaurs, their designed inability to reproduce seems to be holding firm.) “The Preserving Machine” also brought to mind a recent episode of 99% Invisible called “Ten Thousand Years” which included a story about “ray cats” which were designed to change color when they were near radiation. Actually, I don’t think the cats were ever created or we’d all have them as pets by now. 

Hey check out this album by Argentinian composer Lanark, each track inspired by an animal from “The Preservation Machine.” Also, you can read the story here.

61bahG8xTILI found out about the Philip K. Dick short story while reading Jonathan Lethem’s NYT write-up on Roberto Bolaño’s magnificent 2666, which I just got finished reading and carrying around. It’s immense, and unforgettable, and ultimately satisfying, though trying at times, too. After closing the book, I wandered around Rittenhouse Square, then Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. A good book can do that, but it’s a momentary hopelessness and I don’t enjoy it much. I’ll probably read more Bolaño soon. I also plan on posting here more regularly. I’ve said this and seen this before, a peculiar enthusiasm for short stories stirred up by a behemoth novel.

Lisa Glatt, “Ludlow”

cvr9780743270526_9780743270526_lgDarlene Tate is newly married and newly pregnant, but a psychic has predicted that her fetus will expire at any moment. 

(from The Apple’s Bruise)

Now that I’m twenty-nine I’m becoming a new kind of woman, the kind who gets married to the guy who gets her pregnant, not the kind who keeps the pregnancy a secret and ends one when she discovers her boyfriend is cheating, and ends another when the gray-eyed tourist goes back to his home in Mexico, and ends the third when her boyfriend of nine weeks goes on a fishing trip with his buddies.

I read this story pretty soon after Glatt’s collection was published in 2005. I remember being impressed by these stories, not so much for the writing, but for their content. Glatt writes about women who get abortions and keep secrets from their husbands, women who manipulate others to get what they want. She writes about women who don’t want to be called “good girls,” all of which impressed me terribly at the time because I wasn’t finding stories like them. Coming back to this collection years later, however, leave me a little…what’s the right word? I guess I feel like they rely too heavily on these things. The writing doesn’t quite hold up for me in the same way.

Anyhow, I like this story pretty well. The beginning is especially nice, when Darlene asks her new husband, Jimmy, to make a list of all the things he doesn’t like about her. After some prodding, he does, and then he doesn’t want to stop. Darlene says, “Let me make a list for you,” to which Jimmy replies, “I don’t want a list.”

Worth reading, but there are so many women now writing these stories in much more thought-provoking and interesting ways. Check out some of it here.