Book review: New American Stories

THIS anthology aims to present the range of what American short-story writers have been capable of in the previous ten years,” says the editor of New American Stories, Ben Marcus, in a charming, if somewhat bloated and hyperbolic, introduction.

Edited by Ben Marcus

Granta, €14.99; Kindle, €9.49

“When I could not shake a story ... there was a sign that the story had taken seed. As I read, the stories I sided with were the ones that began to own me.”

The result is a mammoth selection: 32 stories across almost 800 pages. 

While it is tempting to fixate on the glaring absentees, it must be acknowledged that there is a wealth of fine writing on display.

Marcus tries to cover all bases, with a smattering of old-guard names (DeLillo, Coover, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson) and a decent selection of the critics’ current darlings (Yiyun Li, Sam Lipsyte, Anthony Doerr, George Saunders). 

But the bulk of the writers included here – names like Charles Yu, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Rebecca Lee and Tao Lin, to single out just a few – are presented as the next wave, superstars-in-waiting.

With so much variety on offer, unevenness is inevitable. Thankfully, though, there are enough hits to cover the occasional misfires.

Mathias Svalina’s ‘Play’ explores the rules of the various games that children play. More of a collage of flash pieces than a cohesive story in the strictest sense, it is so beautifully written that its affectations are easily forgiven.

‘Valley of the Girls’ by the always terrific Kelly Link is a weird one, about wild, privileged kids who hide away and replace themselves with doppelgängers for well-behaved public consumption. 

In giving the near future an ancient Egyptian slant, Link proves, as usual, that genre really can be not only artistically relevant, but sublime.

Robert Coover’s ‘Going for a Beer’ also surprises. In unfurling, in scattershot fashion, a man’s life from youth to death, it’s the simple but effective idea of a memory laid thoroughly bare, and presents itself in a crazed stream-of-consciousness jumble that builds to something quite hypnotic.

These stories are impressive as much for their ambition as for what they achieve. But the anthology’s two clear highlights, which come from George Saunders and 2005 Frank O’Connor Award winner, Yiyun Li, keep to a more traditional structure.

Li’s ‘A Man Like Him’, tells the story of Teacher Fei, an elderly bachelor who lives with his ailing and senile mother, and who has suffered disgrace following (seemingly unfounded) accusations of paedophilia. 

Now, having discovered the internet, he spends his free time in a cafe, engaging in chat-room conversations. And when he reads about a girl who is suing her father because of an infidelity that led to divorce, Teacher Fei becomes obsessed with righting a wrong.

‘Home’ by George Saunders depicts the homecoming of a soldier back from one of the recent wars. Decorated as a hero but damaged by some terrible combat sin, he struggles to fit back in among his trailer trash brood as it becomes apparent just how much he’s lost. 

“Thank you for your service,” runs like a punchline through the story, the dialogue is as finely tuned as good music and is hilarious until it grows cold and thoroughly sad.

New American Stories, Marcus insists, is his literary equivalent of a mix-tape. 

Rather than settling for his 32 favourites, he has aimed for diversity, in an effort to reveal how wide the limits of the short-form have been stretched: “The idea,” he writes, “was to put together a book that shows just what the short story can do ... Each story here is a different weapon, built to custom specifications.” 

In this, and in portraying – for better and for worse – a fair picture of the 21st century American short story, he succeeds with aplomb.


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