Monthly Archives: June 2008

Jim Shepard, "Classical Scenes of Farewell"

Etienne recounts his life under the employ of a psychopathic lord in 1430s France.

(from McSweeney’s, issue 27)

But even before he chose to sweep back for me the curtain on the full extent of his ferocity, I knew myself to be already standing outside the ring of salvation, having failed so signally as a neighbor and a brother and a Christian and a son.

I’ve always been fond of Shepard’s eclectic tastes for unexpected settings, characters and plots, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been as wowed by his skills for the language as I am right now. “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is breathtakingly told, each word so smartly placed as to seem inevitable. Some sentences invited me to re-read them and appreciate their solitary beauty as well as their purpose within the larger machine. And Shepard seems to take particular delight in describing ugliness with equal parts of bluntness and poetry. Definitely recommended.

Nancy Kress, "Inertia"

Quarantined victims of a disfiguring disease receive their first visitor from Outside in a long time.

(from Wastelands)

Okay, this isn’t really an apocalypse here. Inside, progress comes to a halt as the diseased make do on teamwork and donations from beyond their confines. And Outside, according to Dr. McHabe is falling apart thanks to violence and war, the usual. I like the narrator, a wise and curious grandmother whose compassion and contemplativeness inches the story along. I don’t believe I’ve ever considered “Inertia”‘s vision of the future before, not the way it is on the Inside. Social and scientific evolution come to a halt, maybe even reverse direction, as humanity settles into a simple, non-competitive rut.

Mary Gaitskill, "Don’t Cry"

A recently widowed woman travels to Ethiopia with a friend looking to adopt.

(from The New Yorker, June 9 & 16)

For a story that, in my mind’s eye, is about about two white ladies traveling to Addis Ababa to child from a poor black family, this story doesn’t dwell much on race. But the situation is clear enough, with these heart-in-the-right-place women always on the outside looking in at a confusing and corrupt system. Far more interesting than Katya, who wants a baby for whatever generic reasons anybody ever wants a baby, is the narrator Janice, who lets her mind wander out of reality to the difficult end of her life with her ailing husband. That both of their concerns remain motivating factors even as political unrest threatens the city around them is interesting, and remarkably told. There was a distinct lack of symmetry to the story, with things never quite working out neatly or simply.

Olaf Olafsson, "On The Lake"

Dad’s showing off on the boat with his son and capsizes them.

(from O. Henry Prize Stories 2008)

This is a really tense, intense little story. The husband, the wife and the two rescuers are sitting around drinking and drying off but every word and gesture is made uncomfortable by the strained relationship between the husband and the wife, and those two with the rescuers who, as neighbors, were really strangers. The true source of the tension might very well be in the story somewhere but all I have are guesses. Which is cool. I actually read this one twice, and enjoyed it both times.

Shannon Cain, "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors"

An American woman gets separated from her eco-tourism group and joins up with a tribe native to the region.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008)

What a strange and pretty story. Strange, because its language is so present tense and matter-of-fact, you wonder sometimes if it’s all a big metaphor for something or other. But it’s not. And so pretty, inspirationally so. Lisa encounters a new morality, or maybe just a social structure, and finds it suits her well. And it kind of looks like a workable one. Of course, every time Spock and Kirk came across some new world, the strangely familiar alien civilization would appear to have its shit together. Then you find out oh but they eat their young, or they make their prisoners fight to the death or something.The story’s over but the other shoe may drop on Lisa yet.

Gene Wolfe, "Mute"

A brother and sister come home after the apocalypse or something.

(from Wastelands)

I took two days to read this one and that was a mistake because the author has no real interest in saying what’s going on. There are all these clues but I just can’t seem to put them together. Interesting, nonetheless.

Larry Smith, "Tight Like That"

A hitman goes incognito to protect the librarian he loves.

(from McSweeney’s, #27)

I like this story. I like Louie, even though he’s a murderer who likes exposing himself. He’s a messed up dude, but he’s trying to do what’s right, according to his own twisted logic. Funny thing about this story, this story is not told from crazy Louie’s perspective and yet the narration is completely unreliable. Name and events are alluded to quickly, and nothing is expounded upon. It’s cool, though. We get what we don’t get. I could see this story putting people off, but I bought it, the whole damn thing.

Annie Proulx, "Tits-Up in a Ditch"

The sad story of Dakotah, abandoned at birth, raised by jerks, alone in motherhood, sent to war.

(The New Yorker, Summer Fiction Issue, June 9 and 16, 2008)

Dakotah’s life story is endlessly sad, just relentlessly harsh and luckless. Still, it’s doesn’t feel like life is piling on. Thanks to Annie Proulx’s calm, well paced story telling, it still comes off kinda realistic-ish. Beautiful.