Monthly Archives: April 2005

Mona Simpson, "Coins"

A Fillipino maid takes care of a white woman’s kid in the U.S. to pay for her own children’s educations back home.

(from The Best American Short Stories, 2003)

At first I found the lack of consistent punctuation and occasionally inverted words distracting — it’s meant to bring to mind the speech patterns of someone for whom English is a second language — but I ended up finding the rhythm in it. And I liked the way this story mixed humor with warmth and the occasional sting of harsh reality.
Turns out the author will include this story in a larger piece called My Hollywood, or perhaps she already has. Sometimes when I find out that what I have just read is merely one lion from a much larger Voltron, I feel cheated, or tricked, or sleepy. Today I feel like saying, hey, do what you want to do. There are issues and hopes and plans not yet fulfilled at the end of “Coins.” If you want to see all that come to fruition, that’s fine by me. I won’t read it. I only read short stories. Except when I’m tricked.
Recently, I have been pondering whether “plot” is necessary to make a short story worthwhile. “Coins” has a plot, of a sort. Not David Mamet/Dashiell Hammett twists and turns, but some events which mark the end of the story as a place different from the beginning. I wonder how much plot is necessary. Would anybody want to read a still life?
Hah, look at this: On something called the World Socialist Web Site, somebody named Sandy English wrote an article entitled “Best” short stories of 2003 could do better. Here’s what the writer had to say about today’s story: “A Philippine maid in LA has a generally hard time in Mona Simpson’s ‘Coins’. Simpson’s story is little more than a smart workshop-piece, somewhat condescending.” Ah, condescension. Whoever smelt it, dealt it.

N.M. Kelby, "Jubilation, Florida"

Two recipients of Bennington Foundation Leadership awards contemplate a fling on the accompanying retreat.

(from One Story, issue 54)

An entertaining story with a big, poetic, meaningless ending. Not that there should be a meaning. But sometimes there is, and this time there isn’t. I didn’t buy the characters as real people, but as funny little sketches, they served their purposes well. The guy who likes to quote poetry and suddenly, accidentally recites a line from “The Raven?” The woman who does the melodramatic thing at the end which if I say it will spoil it so I won’t? These are not actual people. But their situation seems real and that’s good enough.
You can read an interview with N.M. “Nicole” Kelby here, as is One Story‘s wont. Why I got another issue so soon after the last one I do not know, but you don’t see me complaining. No you don’t.

John Edgar Wideman, "Who Weeps When One Of Us Goes Down Blues"

Watching another old veteran go down with an injury causes our narrator contemplate the hidden truths of the game he plays.

(from Fiction, Vol. 19, Number 1)

More than anything else, this story instilled in me the belief that sports is not a tired idea, that there are still philosophies and aspects and characters and uncarved niches to be created within the genre, if sports fiction is even a genre. It’s not all cliché yet. “Who Weeps…” delves a lot deeper than that, however, as the narrator, himself an aging baller, lets his mind wander to places it’s been before, but maybe didn’t linger this long. Everything sails, untethered by quotation marks and question marks, but never drifting recklessly.
And the language. I will now type for you a part of the story which has little to do with basketball, which only tangentially relates to the plot, just because:

I see fish swimming acorss a plowed field. A pale worm
sprouting wings and rising. Birdfish, fishbirds, leaping,
bodies arched like rainbows, their feathers or gills or hide
or shell, whatever you’d call their wrappings for which
there are no words, glisten, shimmer like metal, like wind,
like water, thousands of messages, thousands of tiny faces
climbing, row after row, from courtside to rafters,
of eyes circling the arena.

I’d never read John Edgar Wideman before, but I’m certainly going to make up for it at some point. Here‘s a Salon interview with him in which the lower majority of his body is replaced by his first initial. A man becomes a J like that. I don’t know why, but he does.

Damn. It is really raining outside.

John Updike, "The Walk With Elizanne"

A fiftieth high school reunion reunites two people who shared a first kiss all those years ago.

(from Best American Short Stories 2004)

A beautiful, breathtaking story. It’s got something to say about milestones, how they happened, whether you remember them or not, how they aren’t quite what you think they are at the time.
Some of the sentences are spectacularly winding, without losing you on the journey:

Had they kicked fallen leaves as they walked through town,
along the Alton Pike with its trolley tracks, into the
rectilinear streets of brick row houses, and then on to
Elmdale, the section where the streets curved, and the
houses stood alone on their lawns, the lawns weedless
and the houses half-timbered and slate-roofed and
expensive, to the house where Elizanne lived?

The story is small-town and nostalgic, but not clichéd in any distracting way. If you have a moment, go here and read it for yourself. Ah.