Jan 17

 

Object Lessons

For weeks I had been taunted by Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents The Art of the Short Story, but I was saving it for something (I don’t know what). I had read the introduction as soon as I had received the review copy from Picador, and I was intrigued. The premise was interesting: well-known short story authors choose a story from the archives of The Paris Review, and provide an introduction.

“Some chose classics. Some chose stories that were new even to us. Our hope is that this collection will be useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique. Most of all, it is intended for readers who are not (or are no longer) in the habit of reading short stories. We hope these object lessons will remind them how varied the form can be, how vital it remains, and how much pleasure it can give.” — from the Editor’s note.

So on Tuesday, I decided I would read a story in Object Lessons. I’ll be honest: it was late at night and I was tired, so I chose the shortest story in the book, “Bangkok,” by James Salter, chosen and introduced by Dave Eggers. This was the first Salter I’d read, and I had no expectations beyond brilliant writing. Since so many introductions in books like this give away bits of the story, I decided to read the story first, and then Eggers’ note. The plot of the story is this: Hollis is visited in his antiquarian bookshop by Carol, an ex-lover. Carol taunts Hollis, pointing out his pedestrian life, and cajoles Hollis to leave his wife and run away to Bangkok for an adventure with Carol and another woman. The initial setting of the bookstore drew me in, of course, and as the story progressed, it turned dark and powerful.

Eggers’ introduction made me realize how much more carefully I needed to begin reading short stories. He pointed out several elements that made this story work so well, but that I had not noticed — things like the names of the characters, and the title of the story. While I didn’t need to understand these things to enjoy the story, I appreciated the deconstruction, and it made the story stay with me longer when I could marvel at the care that Salter put into crafting the story. It has been so long since I’ve been in a literature class, I had forgotten how to tear apart a story down to its basic elements (if I ever knew at all).

I decided to devote the rest of the week to reading stories from Object Lessons, in an attempt to re-learn how to read a short story.

I will say that I was only mildly successful. I believe I began with the strongest introduction in the book. Not all of the contributors were as clear about why he or she chose a particular story, or what made it a good story. I wish everyone had followed the Eggers model. Still, I feel that this anthology stays pretty true to the intent of the Editor — the stories are somewhat varied, and many do indeed give pleasure.

Many of the thoughts that I have about his book are echoed in the brilliant Literary Disco podcast episode 18. I listened to that episode after I’d finished my week’s reading, so it didn’t influence me, but I also agree with much of what Julia, Tod and Rider have to say. I find it interesting that I also chose many of the same stories to read as they did, even though they are spread throughout the book.

I do recommend this book, but mostly for the stories within, not so much for the “lessons,” that I was hoping it would contain.

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Stories I read this week from Object Lessons:

 

  • “Bangkok” by James Salter – my thoughts are above. Brilliant story. Salter’s new novel, All That Is, comes out in April, and I will be reading it for sure.
  • “Another Drunk Gambler” by Craig Nova – Selected by Ann Beattie. In this story, three characters come together over a horse. This reminded me of a classic high school short story, the kind where you discuss the actions and motivations of the characters, the actual meaning of the story, etc.
  • “Emmy Moore’s Journal” by Jane Bowles, selected and introduced by Lydia Davis. A 47-year-old woman writes in her journal about the reasons she has come to stay at the Hotel Henry. It’s a portrait of the main character that is very much in the “show, don’t tell” style. It feels a bit like finding a letter on the street, never knowing what came before or after the events in the letter. I liked this very much.
  • “Funes, the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges – Set in 1884 Uruguay, this is a story tinted with magical realism. I can feel, see and smell the atomosphere. There’s an element of philosophy in this story — you read this for the ideas that the story provokes, for the “what ifs” and “what woulds.” There is a level of imagination in this story that simply astounds me; that Borges could not only think up complex concepts but also explain those concepts through literature speaks to his power as a writer.
  • “Flying Carpets” by Steven Millhauser; chosen by Daniel Orozco. This was my favorite story from the week. I have been aware of Millhauser but have never read him. I am going to change that very soon. “Delighted” is the best way I can describe how this story made me feel. It’s a glimpse of a young boy in the summer time. “My father taught me not to believe stories about martians and spaceships,” the narrators says. And yet his father brings home the popular toy of the summer — a flying carpet. I could read this story over and over. Hunt it down, if you can, and give it a read.
  • “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Raymond Carver, introduced by David Means. This is the only story in the collection that I had read before, and I’m not sure it’s my favorite Carver story. A man’s entire household (minus three boxes) is in his driveway, arranged exactly as it was in the house. A young couple pulls up to maybe buy the bed. What happens from there continues the story. The deliberate use of language, of economy, is a Carver hallmark that is on display here. What most interested me in this reading was Means’ emphasis on the importance of the physical line breaks in the story. That’s something I had never contemplated, but have gone on to notice ever since.
  • “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” by Evan S. Connell. Introduced by Wells Tower. I chose this because Evan S. Connell had just died days before, and I was unaware of him until I saw the news. India Bridge is a wealthy society woman, and the story is a series of vignettes from her life: cocktail parties, volunteer work.  Her views on class and race are confused. She thinks she believes in equality, but her actions show differently. I loved the last line of this story — it really pulled the entire thing together for me.

 

  • Robin

    This book is on my list, so your reviews were interesting to read. In Week 2 I am reading a book of short stories by Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories. Your choice of ‘The Paper Menagerie” rekindled a love of SciFi from childhood.
    Favorite story of the week was by Steven Millhauser – In The Reign of Harold IV, chosen by Cynthia Ozick in the New Yorker. A craftsman creates miniature works of art that only he can see.. The Question of perfection, and who does the artist serve.

    I am happily surprised how quickly a story- a- day fits into y daily schedule,. Lets see if this is still true in week 20-something. Ann, thanks for starting this terrific project.

    • http://www.booksonthenightstand.com AnnKingman

      Robin, I think I’ll make that Millhauser story tonight’s choice if I can find it… Thanks! (I also have to track down that Octavia Butler book; I loved her novel KINDRED).

  • Catelyn

    I’ve been enjoying your short story reviews so much! I love reading short stories and that’s all I’ve been reading so far this year. Thanks so much for bringing attention to a wonderful and often unappreciated form. :) And your story-a-day project inspired me to start my own too.

  • http://twitter.com/justinsteiner Justin Steiner

    Millhauser is one of my favorite short story writers but I don’t think I’ve read “Flying Carpets,” a fact I need to change soon.

    OBJECT LESSONS is on my long list of books to read – might have to move it up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pamela.r.lear Pamela Rosen Lear

    Ann, I do love this idea and I’m looking forward to your updates. You’ve inspired me to read more short stories – - so far, I’ve read four this year (which is three more than I read in all of 2012!). I love finding different resources for them. It’s amazing how many are available. I just finished reading the first story in Emma Donoghue’s “Astray”. Her stories are quite short, but charming and amazingly well written. The next one I’m reading is in the current issue of “Sun” magazine.

  • Pingback: My week in short stories #3: Setting and Voice | Books on the Nightstand

  • ndbob

    I loved this collection – read it a couple weeks ago – I also loved “The Paper Menagerie” I’m a major short story story fan, and I’m really looking forward to see where this project takes you.

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