DIY MFA Reading List: “Best American Short Stories 2005” edited by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, who edited the 2005 edition of the popular The Best American Short Stories, has a sweeter tooth than previous guest editors, preferring the sugary delights offered by genre fiction over the sometimes bland sameness in style, subject and effect offered by more literary fare.

Take the opening line from Dennis Lehane’s noirish Until Gwen:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat. Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part time. The rest of the time she does light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar, two Sundays a month, at the local VFW. But she feels her calling – her true calling in life – is to write.

You go, “Books?”

Mandy’s frustrated urge to create appears frequently in this collection: there’s the novelist who spends a decade writing his story, only to realize during the editing process that the entire thing can be distilled down to a single haiku (J. Robert Lennon’s brilliant Eight Pieces for the Left Hand); the stay-at-home mom who moves into a spooky McMansion in the suburbs of upstate New York, painting and repainting room after room, pining for the days when she still contemplated finishing her now-abandoned novel (Kelly Link’s haunting Stone Animals); the pudgy photojournalist trudging through the blasted sands of Afghanistan, in search of a MacGuffin-like cure for his dying friend (Tom Bissell’s Death Defier); the young piano student who grows disillusioned with his studies, after a creepy encounter with a pedophile teacher (Alix Ohlin’s Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student).

Chabon and the authors seem to be commenting on the dilemma faced by the artist in our increasingly connected modern age: when the real world streaming past on the evening news is more gripping than most make-believe ones, how does the author or the painter or the photographer or the pianist survive … much less innovate?

By embracing pulp and bending genres, that’s how.

Chabon is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which tracks the rise and fall of two comic book magnates in the Golden Age of comics during the second World War. He understands that the limitations imposed by what seem like the most elemental of forms (the comic book, the detective story, the hardcore sci-fi saga) can force the author to dig deeper. The result can be characters iconic in their simplicity, yet complex in the depth of their emotional experience.

Kelly Link’s pitch perfect ghost story Stone Animals moved me the most. On the surface, not much happens: a family moves to the suburbs hoping for a better life, finds their expectations unmet, then fragment into four warring individuals. Hoping to bridge the widening gulf between them, the husband and wife resort to fiction: Catherine lies about sleeping with a coworker (she didn’t), hoping that jealousy will rekindle the flame with her husband Henry; Henry tries to persuade Catherine that he loves and needs her more than the job he has in the city (he doesn’t).

The title of the story comes from the pair of stone rabbits planted like gargoyles on the front steps of the McMansion Henry buys in the suburbs of upstate New York. As Henry and a very pregnant Catherine unpack their things, they begin to notice a rapidly growing warren of rabbits plaguing their yard. And their things are haunted: soap smells weird, the TV seems too big, the coffee pot freaks everyone out, Henry’s office looms like a tomb, Catherine complains that her left breast is haunted. And soon their son Henry is seemingly possessed.

Link recycles and revisits a compelling series of symbolic images throughout the story, shifting points of view and reworking perspectives to throw the reader off balance. Catherine buys a gas mask from a door-to-door solicitor and paints (and repaints, and repaints) the rooms of their new house in colors named after famous novels: “Madame Bovary, Forever Amber, Fahrenheit 451, The Tin Drum, A Curtain of Green, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea“.

Henry’s dream of working from home in his pajamas is subverted by his manipulative boss, a woman he calls the Crocodile because of her “reptilian, watery gaze” which she wields like “a tactical advantage, the way it spooked people”. He leaves the house at four or five in the morning, returning days later to sleepwalking children and a lawn plagued by more rabbits, now tunneling through the earth beneath the house’s foundation. The children – Tilly and Carleton – divvy up the unhaunted toys and squabble over which side of the yard is theirs.

Henry originally planned to work from home; now he finds himself commuting at insane hours, talking to the kids on the phone, working even harder. Here’s Tilly, the young daughter, commenting on the dissociative effects of those conversations:

“Hi,” Tilly said. She sounded as if she was asking a question.

Tilly never liked talking to people on the telephone. How were you supposed to know if they were really who they said they were? And even if they were who they claimed to be, they didn’t know whether you were who you said you were. You could be someone else. They might give away information about you and not even know it. There were no protocols. No precautions.

Having finally achieved their dream of a big house in the country, the entire family now consists of four individuals who couldn’t feel more alone. And the technology which was supposed to enable this idyllic state only seems to make the isolation more poignant.

As the story gets weirder and weirder (think David Lynch on LSD), it becomes apparent that the fictions these characters tell one another are all intended to gloss over some deeper, scarier truth, which nobody can bear to address. Though these white lies are told with the best intentions, seemingly the only hope this flawed family has of pulling together during the strangeness of their move into the unforgiving suburbs, Link makes it clear things are just getting worse.

In a final, surreal scene, Henry is transformed into a tiny warrior, leading a small army mounted upon the backs of the hundreds of rabbits in his front yard in an assault on his formerly idyllic existence:

The rabbits are out on the lawn. They’ve been waiting for him, all this time, they’ve been waiting. Here’s his rabbit, his very own rabbit. Who needs a bike? He sits on his rabbit, legs pressed against the warm, silky, shining flanks, one hand holding on to the rabbit’s fur, the knotted string around its neck. He has something in his other hand, and when he looks, he sees it’s a spear. All around him, the others are sitting on their rabbits, waiting patiently, quietly. They’ve been waiting for a long time, but the waiting is almost over. In a little while, the dinner party will be over and the war will begin.

This family, like so many of us, expects too much: from life, from each other, from their jobs, their children. And so they make believe, telling stories in the hopes of painting over the imperfections … which only grow deeper and more malevolent as the story progresses. Link seems to be commenting on the way that the American Dream can be perverted by desire, and the redemption that the creative impulse might offer to fill the resulting void. Henry and his family are an imitation family, just playing the part, like the stone animals on their porch heralding their eventual downward spiral.

Sometimes it takes a science fiction story like this to hammer home the most poignant observations about the American Condition.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.