Before starting “Can’t and Won’t,” I knew Lydia Davis as the translator of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” the first of seven volumes of notoriously dense French modernism. My associating her with such long-windedness is of note because it points out one of the many oddities of Davis as a writer and thinker: she is, to many, best known for her “flash fiction,” stories that are sometimes as brief as a single sentence. Her output is diverse, ranging from startlingly short pieces to epic translations. Her new collection is a bold, brilliant showcase of her sundry talents, its contents a mesmerizing array of largely disconnected stories, letters and translations.
Cumulatively, these heterogeneous storytelling techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and absurdity, while the shortest pieces, like commas in a long, nonsensical sentence, provide an essential rhythm and structure. They are reminiscent of Tweets or Facebook updates in their brevity and mundanity—qualities for which such writing is often denigrated. By creating tiny stories that stick with you, demand rereading, and appear amid more conventional pieces, however, Davis challenges widely-held beliefs regarding the content, length and purpose of “highbrow” fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Megan Milks
By Anne Yoder
I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.
Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »
Lorrie Moore is widely regarded as one of our greatest living American writers, and for good reason. Her short stories are exquisite examples of the form, and her long-awaited collection “Bark” is no exception. The worst thing about it is, at 192 pages, it’s a bit on the short side. All of Moore’s stories move brilliantly between the individual and the universal. One way she does this is by referencing current events, like the day Michael Jackson died, or the night before the Abu Ghraib prison photos broke. Like “A Gate at the Stairs,” which is very much a post-9/11 novel, the characters in “Bark” continue to be worried by the war, both its effects and its non-effects on us. “Debarking” takes place in the GW Bush era. ‘“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope,’” says one character. In “Debarking,” Ira, a newly divorced dad, begins dating a woman and also, essentially, her son. Moore skewers indulgent modern parenting (“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”) and childhood education (Ira’s daughter studies the stock market while finger-knitting). Read the rest of this entry »
Robert Walser might be hailed the forgotten modernist. Beyond academic circles and lovers of German literature, the reverberations of the Swiss writer are scantly felt in the English-speaking world. They are more easily perceived through the writers he influenced: Kafka, Hesse and Musil. Here is an artist who, rather than demand the special attention of the reader to appreciate a fierce, innovative style, writes from an absolutely basic level of prose. His devices are by no means a destruction, or of themselves a statement. His only tragedy, if he can be accused of having one, was being born with too big of a heart.
“A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories” is a collection of short pieces translated by Damion Searls, many appearing for the first time in English. Searls’ selection spans twenty-six years, from Walser’s first work in print “Greifen Lake” (1898) to “A Model Student,” (1925) a piece from his last book “The Rose.” The work is divided into three sections—first is “The Essays of Fritz Kocher,” the essays of a recently deceased schoolboy, followed by an expansive collection of short stories, topics ranging from adultery to military service to the life of an artist and finally, his sensual odyssey through nature, “Hans.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Janice Deal’s debut, “The Decline of Pigeons,” is a short-story collection about broken people amidst the turmoil of loss, from a woman trying to rebuild herself after losing her arm to a man haunted by the memory of letting his daughter be bitten by a vicious dog.
Even though Deal was always interested in writing, it took enrolling in Fred Shafer’s Adult Continuing Education writing class at Northwestern University to start pursuing her fiction. When Deal received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Prose, she took a sabbatical from her day job and went to Paris to focus on her writing. Ever since, she’s been publishing short stories in literary journals like The Sun, CutBank, StoryQuarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. “The Decline of Pigeons” was selected as a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
By Erin Nederbo
Gritty and oftentimes unsettling, Lindsay Hunter’s new short-story collection, “Don’t Kiss Me,” features a cast of fierce and lonely characters: there’s Peggy Paula, who admires the popular girls from afar while she works the night shift at Perkins; a defeated woman who obsesses over a candle-store clerk and the son she never knew; a teenage girl who finds meaning on the bench seat of a boy’s pick-up truck and on the mouth of a shop teacher; the grown adult who believes a nine-year old is her boyfriend. Through these faces, Lindsay captures a unique, overarching sense of place in the mundane Circle Ks, Dairy Queens and school dance halls of America. Even the nameless characters in “Don’t Kiss Me” are as tangible and unforgettable as their grim realities.
Hunter, who is currently working on a novel for FSG Originals, is also the author of “Daddy’s” and the co-founder and co-host of Quickies, a Chicago based flash-fiction reading series.
I had the opportunity to chat on the phone a few weeks before “Don’t Kiss Me” was published. We discussed how Chicago has influenced her work, her writing process, and what it’s like working with a “big press.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Brendan Buck
George Saunders is a number of things. He’s a writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur Fellow (aka “genius”). His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” has made him into a New York Times best-selling author. But “Tenth” is only one of several notable collections, which include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Pastoralia.” But despite having one hell of a pedigree, George Saunders remains humble and approachable, and was willing to shoot emails back and forth with me over a weekend on voice, process and genre.
You tend to wear your influences on your sleeve. Your teacher Tobias Wolff is an obvious one, but you’ve also written at length about how Vonnegut changed your idea about what literature was. In the writing, what ways do you feel your influences have expressed themselves?
I’m actually not sure. There are a lot of questions that the writer himself probably doesn’t think much about, or the answer to which he can’t really articulate. I think influence works like this: you are madly casting about for something to love, so you know better how to direct your energy. Something suitable arrives. You wallow in it. It gets into your DNA. Then you tire of it and move on. Over and over. And then, at the end, all of the things that are “you” have been filtered through these various influences. And you are changed, both as a writer and a person—but in thousands of ways that are too subtle to describe, except in very broad terms. That is, I don’t think the sum change could necessarily be described. And, from a creative standpoint, there’s probably not all that much value in describing it, if you see what I mean. My guess is, we are attracted to writers who are doing something that it is in our nature to do—so we imitate them for awhile so that we can eventually distinguish what in us is different from them—and move on accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »
To those who have lived in the era that began with 9/11, it could be described as a constant state of war against an enemy, nebulous at best, called “Terror.” The longest sustained conflict the United States has been involved in, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been wars largely invisible to the American people. There are televised reports, written articles, blogs and photo essays, but unless you’re a soldier or an immediate acquaintance of one, it exists solely in bits of information from 6,000 miles away. Documentaries and Hollywood dramatizations, too, have sought to capture the grit and soul of the wars, but can’t offer us the most important glimpse—confessional storytelling, rather than a cluster of absurd images from the front lines. Nothing brings the reality of war home like hearing it from the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.
“Fire and Forget” arrives at just the right time, when the last vestiges of conflict fall away. It’s a time when we confront, as a nation, what has been accomplished and at what cost. What this selection of stories shows isn’t contained to combat itself but to home life and life before deployment. There are soldiers, Marines, an army spouse, a Baghdad school teacher—editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher have not only compiled an excellent diversity of experiences and vantage points into the war, but also a list of accomplished and gifted writers. Read the rest of this entry »
Readers who were astounded by Emma Donoghue’s ability in “Room” to so convincingly slip into the point-of-view of a five-year-old boy imprisoned in a single room will not be disappointed with “Astray.” In this intriguing collection of fourteen stories, Donoghue takes on a wide assortment of characters, including a slave, a prostitute, an animal trainer, gold prospectors, a pre-teen on a Southern plantation, and tells their stories in myriad forms. Spanning about 500 years and several countries (though primarily nineteenth-century U.S. and Canada), the stories shift eras and settings with such aplomb that I felt I was transported from one story to the next by a time machine.
Though fictional, each story has its genesis in an actual historical event—be they letters, newspaper accounts, legal records or other documents—that Donoghue credits in a brief explanation following each story. Although these historic origins give the collection a “ripped from the headlines” of yore feeling, it is Donoghue’s imagination that gives the stories their power. As she says in the afterward, “Sometimes it is easier to write a story if you start by knowing very little about the characters; just a spark to fall on the tinder.” Their sense of authenticity comes from her skill at knowing precisely what details to use from her research, and how to integrate those facts into the narratives without sounding forced. Read the rest of this entry »
Yunior is back, and he’s brought along his papi chulo brother Rafa and a string of exes stretching from New Jersey to Santo Domingo.
Sixteen years ago, Junot Diaz enchanted the literary world with his debut collection, “Drown,” and its narrator Yunior, the prototypical Dominican American male negotiating the no-man’s land between boyhood and adulthood, and between a lost homeland and the housing projects of Edison, New Jersey. Diaz has been working with Yunior ever since, as in his latest collection, “This is How You Lose Her.”
“It took me sixteen years to write,” Diaz admitted to students at Columbia College Chicago when he visited recently as part of a thirty-city whirlwind tour. “Any art worth its name requires you to be fundamentally lost for a very long time.”
That stretch between these two collections was anything but idle, and Yunior was not in hiding. Diaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” published in 2007, featured Oscar, an overweight geek virgin hopelessly in love. Though he is the antithesis of Yunior, of the Dominican male archetype, guess who’s telling this heroic tale of love and heartbreak, of Oscar and the Dominican Republic? Yunior de Las Casas, the same Yunior from “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her.” Read the rest of this entry »