What I Read in November

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Best American Essays 2012, David Brooks, editor. Picked up in the same swoop as the BASS (covered below), and only because while browsing I happened to flip right to Geoffrey Bent’s essay, “Edward Hopper and the Geometry of Despair,” from Boulevard.

Hopper was perhaps my first “favorite” painter, as in the first one whose works I tried to train myself to recognize on sight, and who I regularly sought out whenever I was at a museum. I’m not sure what, in retrospect, struck me about them—the blurry, unreactive faces; the Gothamy scenes of boulevards unpopulated by traffic—but I suspect I may have found comfort and accessibility in their recognizable milieus: bars, drug stores, movie houses. Hopper places his subjects in scenes that invite interaction and then, like doll house figures, doesn’t let them interact. Bent devotes his essay to, among other things, the function of spatial composition in creating this effect of emotional isolation:

The architectural patterns in Hopper’s work do more than give it a compositional elegance; they confine the people that inhabit them. Hopper embeds his figures in a relentless grid of rectangles and squares. Bold vertical and horizontal lines slice away huge chunks of any scene. The artist’s men and women seem resigned to their compromised space, but not trapped by it; rather the grid is an outer expression of the attitudes they harbor within.

Bent’s essay ended up being my favorite piece in the collection. A lot of illness (mental and physical) and death runs through the rest of it. It sort of made me miss David Foster Wallace (who is eulogized as part of Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Carried Away”).

The Best American Short Stories 2012, Tom Perrotta, editor. Wasn’t there a time when the stories in the BASS collection were not always alphabetical by author? This is apparently the hard-and-fast rule now at Houghton Mifflin. Depending on your perspective, it either enhances the individual merits of each story or causes it to step on the toes of its arbitrarily assigned neighbor. Until these things are purchased on iTunes, there is something to be said for the identity of the complete product. (When Walter Mosley chose the stories in 2003, either he or some keen editorial assistant mischievously ordered them reverse-alphabetically by author.) I only bring this up because the order impacted my enjoyment of this year’s collection. Two of my favorite stories were the first two: Carol Anshaw’s “The Last Speaker of the Language” and Taylor Antrim’s “Pilgrim Life.”

It is gratifying to see so many small-press journals represented in these pages. There were quite a few stories I had read before, almost all from the New Yorker, and while some were a joy to reread (George Saunders’ “Tenth of December”), others made me wonder what I was missing. The collection gives us a heavy dose of perspective on adult-child relationships, many of them bunched by alphabetical serendipity at the end of the book—other than the Saunders, there is Mike Meginnis’s “Navigators,” Taiye Selasi’s “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” Sharon Solwitz’s “Alive,” and Kate Walbert’s “M & M World.”

Writing about children is tricky. Their restricted vocabularies and open sense of wonder at the banal make them too easy to turn into caricatures. There is also the problem of projection—the temptation to turn them into adults. You want them to live comfortably within their own logic, without being stupid.

In Meginnis’s story, a father and son (the boy is Joshua; the father is referred to as “his father,” placing Joshua as the moral center) spend their days almost exclusively playing an 80s-era NES video game, the kind that requires you to draw maps of the layouts. Given that video games operate on their own currency, they are not an easy thing to render in prose, but Meginnis pulls it off:

You always started outside the throne room no matter how much farther you explored. The hall outside was like a decayed palace, hung with rotting standards, walls collapsing, suits of armor disassembled and scattered over the floor, brown with rust. The stern guards at the door to the throne room were responsible for preventing the rot from coming inside, in addition to keeping you out. Of course, much of this was open to interpretation, rendered in simple arrangements of squares.

As the men dig deeper into the game, reality goes to seed: bills do not get paid, utilities get turned off. Dinner is microwaved grilled cheese. Shortcuts are arranged so the game can continue. The shadow of a long-lost mother, whom one presumes would not allow such things to happen, looms over the story.

I grew up playing games like the one Meginnis describes. He nails down the chief aspect to their allure—the chance to replace muddy, real-world problems with scripted problems that have clean, digital solutions. But I also knew of households with absent mothers, the kind that had CD-ROMs and hunting magazines stacked across the dining room table and cereal boxes spilled over on the living room carpet, and it is in these observances of decay out of the corners of Josh’s eyes, and the hesitation to speak up to the adult eschewing responsibility, that the story rang most true to me.

The Pinch, Fall 2011. One odd thing about this fine journal from the University of Memphis is that it is printed entirely on glossy stock, even the pages that are just text. I don’t know of many journals of this cut that do that. What I like about The Pinch is that it does not hold back on the visual art; there is a fine selection here, my favorites being a quartet by Margaret Morrison. I only wish the magazine told us the medium in which the original works were produced.

Popular culture runs as a heavy thread through the stories here. There are references to Evel Knievel, Silver Spoons, the models in Soloflex ads, comic books both real and fictional, Denzel Washington, and Mountain Dew. There is also a story in which Val Kilmer is a significant character, with a background and everything, including a father about to be married. I am not sure when the story is supposed to be set, but according to Pickaweedia, Kilmer’s actual father died while Kilmer was filming Tombstone (1993). It turns out that the actor, in the conceit of the story, “lives in Boise part-time” and hates baseball, which may or may not be really true. He befriends our protagonists as they help him look for a party. One of them calls him “Val Top-Gun-Weird-Science-I-am-Jim-Morrison Kilmer” even though Kilmer wasn’t in Weird Science, he was in Real Genius. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be the character’s mistake that makes him endearing, or if it’s a genuine, sloppy mistake on the part of the author (and the editor who never caught it). Such is the danger when you incorporate real-life personalities in your stories; how much is the reader supposed to suspend disbelief and let the fiction of the narrative not be affected by the facts of the players as we know them? (The only other prominent example I can think of is J.D. Salinger appearing as a character in Shoeless Joe.)

Aside from that, I am 1/4 of the way through Richard Brody’s extensive biography of Jean-Luc Godard, which I imagine I will write about next month.


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