Sunday, April 30, 2006

Top Ten Online Stories 2005 Reviewed

Tomorrow, May 1st, the Million Writers Award run by storySouth will name the top story of the year (chosen by reader vote) from the top 10 notable stories storySouth's editor chose from a list of approximately 130 notable stories for 2005 selected by a panel of judges. (Five of the stories The King's English published last year were -- ahem -- notables.)

"Famous Fathers" by Pia Z. Ehrhardt (Narrative Magazine) should be our pick as the best story of the lot, but we just can't get there. The main character is the daughter of the mayor of Texadelphia, and her problem is that she wants her father's attention and can't seem to get it. Thwarted, she embarks on a sexual adventure/love affair with one of her father's employees. Her recklessness intrigues, and the writing is head-and-shoulders above any of the others in the top 10 -- Ms. Ehrhardt is clearly in control of her material, and her voice -- but it left us cold. Perhaps it's the narrator's disconnection from anyone around her, her father's never-punctured remoteness, and her mother's odd absence that leaves the characters largely obscure and the story unsatisfying.

You could do a lot worse than to choose "Diamonds and Lemons" by Omar Beer (Fiction Warehouse) as your favorite story of these top 10. In it, Paul and Margaret are engaged to be married when Margaret dies in a car accident. The story shows its readers (rather than telling them, and thank God for an author who trusts us this much!) how Paul makes his way through life, noting its details without latching on to any. When Paul goes to dinner a year after the accident at the home of Margaret's parents, Donald and Janine, Janine becomes upset and Donald and apologizes to Paul, his guest:

He took his drink from the bar and swirled it with his hand. He sat down ... "She just gets a little wound up." Donald took a small drink.

Paul held his. "Should I go?"

"We're not there yet," Donald said softly, patting the air with his hand. "She'll be back down in a few minutes." He flipped through channels, lapped back around to the news station, stopped.
That's nicely done, that "not there yet," and Donald patting the air - it conveys just the right amount of detachment, that of a man who knows his wife and relies on her displays of anguish to cover his own. Ultimately, the story feels flat: Paul leaves the story as he began it, having confessed to doubts about marrying Margaret that were after all hardly surprising. Even the title demonstrates the problem. "Diamonds and Lemons" is a lovely title, but it is, like Paul's scattered, uncommitted experience of life, fatally unrevealing.

Another story in the top 10 that's worth a read is "Two Lives" by Michael Croley, which appeared in Blackbird. Cleverly constructed, a story of plangent regret, it suffers two fatal flaws - its primary narrator is a writer (ho-hum); and it lacks dramatic power. Even the story-within-the-story, about a young boy's father who loses his livelihood and must sell moonshine to keep his family in food, cuts away once the going gets tough.

But I didn't choose any of those as my favorite. Instead, I chose Richard Bowes' There's a Hole in the City", which appeared on the Hugo-award-winning SCIFICTION website before it was rudely shut down for good by its parent company (you can still access the story, though). Bowes' piece is a ghost story, set in the chaos of 9/11 - the slow revelation of the mystery pulls you along. It's strangely similar to Terry Bisson's "Super 8" of 2004, which made storySouth's top 10 last year. Bisson's is better -- it's longer and more sophisticated and because it's also about people haunted by friends from their crazy, student days, it makes Bowes' piece look like a knock-off -- but they both have the virtues of being told in a plain, direct style that counterbalances their spookier aspects, and evincing the supernatural with subtlety and trust for their readers. And, judging from the votes so far, it appears that other readers agreed with me that Bowes' piece is tops.

I think it's significant that Bowes' piece is entertainment fiction, not literature -- most of the other top ten stories could not even compete at this most basic level. A few of the stories struck me as interesting only because they were set in exotic (to us in the U.S.) settings -- Anjana Basu's The Black Tongue" (Gowanus), "Wedad's Cavalry" by Mohja Kahf (MWU: Muslim Wake Up) , and "Nang Fah Jam Laeng: Angels in Disguise" by Cynthia Gralla (Mississippi Review) all fell in this category. You can skip Basu's piece entirely, unless you're curious about what a novel excerpt looks like. Even if it's not intended to be one, it's paced like one, and has all the resolution of an opening chapter, and all the focus on witches and its setting in India can't save it.

"Wedad's Cavalry" details a young Saudi Arabian wife's quest for an orgasm and how her female friends educate her. Though it has some entertaining passages -- the delicious irony of the narrator's second husband, a fundamentalist Muslim, making warm, sweet love to her while detailing all the religious justifications for taking pleasure in it -- it's sloppily written (note the clumsiness of the dialogue at the outset, much of which is there for the reader's sake, not the characters') and the basic question of why it's set in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s is never addressed. Set in Saudi Arabia, fine - but why that particular time period? Everything the author describes seems, from my admittedly ignorant point of view, to be typical of Saudi Arabia now. This begs the question, and makes the reader suspect that it's set in the 1980s because the story is autobiography masquerading as fiction.

Gralla's piece is unsatisfying in the extreme. Set in Bangkok, the only thing of interest is its setting; the self-absorbed narrator never engages with anyone, and nothing happens to her. It's supposed to be about seeking solace and healing from a place, I think, but when you're done, you say to yourself, Who cares?

But stories set in less exotic locales weren't necessarily any better. Witness "The Rules of Urban Living" by Kara Janeczko (Anderbo). Told from the point of view of a woman living in an apartment house, it consists entirely of musings about the etiquette of, well, urban living - how we pretend we can't hear other people's private lives through thin walls, and yet we draw conclusions (often false) based on what we hear as well. "Urban Living" is also supposed to be about the end of an affair, but the narrator is so detached from everything and everyone around her, her experience so abstract, that the story can do nothing more for its readers but inspire a longing to move to the country.

Even better-known writers suffer from self-absorption, like John J. Clayton (his delightful "The Man Who Could See Radiance" has been aired on Selected Shorts on NPR), and his infuriating "Light at the End of the Tunnel" (Agni) proves it. "Light" exists in a perpetual postmodern uncertainty that can only be described as coy. Ostensibly about the death of the narrator's brother, one of a group of 12-year-olds taken by a camp counselor into the Hoosac Tunnel through the Berkshires and killed in a train accident, the story includesthe history of the tunnel, speculation about the camp counselors who led the campers into the tunnel ... but the narrator keeps hedging, refusing to allow the reader to get comfortable with any of the details, because they're all conditional: maybe it happened this way, or that way, or maybe it didn't happen at all. So it's not clear if the 12-year-old campers survived or not, because the narrator won't even tell us for sure if they existed; or even if his brother Joel exists. Which is why it's infuriating to find the narrator recalling the near-accident in the train tunnel the morning after Joel's wedding only to write, "Or there is no Joel; I grew up with my missing brother more real in my life than anyone." Infuriating, yes, but that's not all. Clayton has the temerity to finish up with a sententious paragraph about how much it matters whether or not the train comes through that tunnel with the children inside it, whether there's an accident or not, it matters, "either way, the same: nobody's life ever again the same." Which is horseshit. Of course it matters, but it's an obvious point and it's small details like whether or not the narrator has a brother to lose in a train accident that matter more. If he doesn't have a brother, and there was no train accident, then all Clayton's doing is using his power as a narrator to jerk his readers around. Rubbing our noses in the fact that he's in charge of making up the fictional world his readers are agreeing to pretend exists is pointless and manipulative. I'm not necessarily a hound for realism, and I do like postmodern work as much as anyone -- I like Fowles' two endings for the French Lieutenant's Woman, I like Pynchon's main character dematerializing 3/4 of the way through Gravity's Rainbow, and I think John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" is as perfect a metafictional story as has ever been written -- but for God's sake, commit to something. Otherwise, it's just writerly games, and no fun for the reader. Reminds me of Tim O'Brien's idiotic In the Lake of the Woods, which abuses the narrator's position of knowledge mercilessly to tease and needlessly confound the reader. Since O'Brien's point in that book is the unknowability of "the truth," it's particularly irritating that the main obstacle to the reader's ability to make up his/her own mind about the truth -- or to draw his/her own conclusions about its subjectivity -- is the narrator/author.

After Clayton's piece, it's a relief to turn to "Down and Out in Brentwood" by Neal Marks (Crime Scene Scotland), which is a slick little piece of crime fiction. You'll like it a lot of if you're a fan of Elmore Leonard. In fact, you'll be right at home: the narrative voice and the angle of attack are obviously an homage to Leonard, right down to the references to Detroit. The only thing it's missing is a Sig Sauer. Not a bad piece, but I suspect Marks can do better working in a more original vein.

Considering all 10 of the top stories, I'd say that many of their authors chose detachment as a theme, which is too bad, because detachment also made many of these stories weaker than they should have been. This is a common problem for writers. Most of us like to be observers, and that necessarily flavors our fiction. The problem is, readers aren't really interested in the aper├žus of writers. It's conflict and engagement they want from the characters they read about. It's the hardest thing in the world to create characters that care about something passionately enough to wrestle internal as well as external conflict, and still make your story realistic. It's less difficult, though not by any means easy, to do this, as Bowes does, well enough to merely entertain. (Literature is often distinguishable from entertainment fiction because it does not entirely depend upon its plot to interest the reader, and can be re-read without spoiling its pleasures.) So here's to 2005's top 10 authors, and all who set their sights on bigger game.

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