As I am between short story collections at the moment it seemed a perfect time to catch up on my New Yorker short story reading. I've mostly liked the stories I've read so far this year and it has been the perfect way to be introduced to new-to-me (though certainly not new otherwise in some cases) authors--like Zadie Smith, T.C. Boyle, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Antonya Nelson and others. Authors I really should have gotten to by now (but best intentions aside, you know how it goes . . . ) but just haven't. Short stories are really the perfect way to taste someone's work, be introduced to their style.
I managed three stories this weekend and am now all caught up until my next issue arrives in the mail. Adding to the list of should have reads is Tessa Hadley, Louise Erdrich (how have I not yet read her?) and Jonathan Lethem. My favorite (I feel like I shouldn't play favorites but you know how it is--one story will strike you just a little more than another, though there is nothing wrong with any of them) is Tessa Hadley's "Under the Sign of the Moon" from the March 24 issue. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker before. A couple of summers back I read one by her called "The Abduction" about a young woman who is picked up by some boys in a car. Nothing really terrible happens to her, but the story has stayed with me to this day.
Serendipitously the Hadley story begins on a train--and trains have been on my mind lately. What I like so much about this story is the fullness of it, and maybe that is thanks to the length. It was longer than the others, so maybe she had more time to develop the characters and tell her story. You get a strong sense of what Greta is like. She is recovering from an illness that is mentioned only obliquely--one of those "women's reproductive issues". She's okay now, but she is still a little weak and must think out her actions, and it has all left her a little out of sorts--perhaps paving the way to what follows. She is traveling to Liverpool to see her daughter and meets a curious younger man on the train. The encounter at first just one you might have in passing with a stranger but by story's end is quite odd. But it's through this encounter and the response to it by her daughter that offers so much insight into Greta's life. It's an excuse? Or at least a reason why Greta is able to reflect back over her life, so the story moves back in time so smoothly that you barely feel the shift.
There was something about the story that felt very relatable to me--I could mentally shake my head in agreement over what she was feeling and thinking even though Greta is so different from me. At almost sixty she feels a little beyond some experiences, almost like she can simply be an observer and not a full participant. The mood, the texture of the story--all so very well done. I have on more than one occasion picked up Hadley's novels and now I must go further and read one! I may have to read more of her stories in the New Yorker's archives, and then there is her newest novel, just released: Clever Girl, which . . . I had in my hands just last week! You can read more about the short story here, in the Q&A with the author.
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The March 31 issue has a story by Louise Erdrich called "The Big Cat". It's a curious story about a family of women who snore. The story is narrated by the husband of one of the women. The two, native Minnesotans, meet in Hollywood where he's a bit actor and she working on her career as well. They return to the midwest for the sake of their daughter and live quiet and more stable lives. The two later divorce and their daughter wonders about the reason for the split. Could it possibly be due to the furious noise of her nighttime snoring? They assure her it's not, but perhaps there is more to the story and some strange resentment, though on the part of the wife. The two remarry and a night spent with the wife's family ends in vivid images in the night of wild animals accompanied by the ferocity of the women's snoring.
You can read the Q&A with Erdrich here where she discusses the inspiration for her story and a little insight she throws on it, too. It's always interesting to hear an author's take on their own work and what their intentions may (or might not) be.
Isn't "Pending Vegan" an intriguing title? Whatever could it mean? The story is by Jonathan Lethem (whose book Motherless Brooklyn sits high on my reading pile). Pending Vegan is the name by which a man comes to think of himself. He's prescribed an antidepressant which his doctor has decided to take him off of which in turn may make him not exactly paranoid but perhaps more attune to or aware of "bums and pickpockets".
"In withdrawal from Celexa some patients have described a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edge of the everyday world."
Is it the result of the drug or lack of it? But Paul Espeseth begins thinking of himself of Pending Vegan a reflection of the paradoxical nature of life he sees around him--particularly through the eyes of his twin daughters who seem to have no problem being both animal lovers and enjoying the pleasures of eating meat. The story follows Paul and his family's visit to Sea World. Lethem deals with this uneasiness at reconciling the two things with a light touch.
Lethem's inspiration for the story came from a class he taught called Animals in Literature (he mentions in his Q&A that "animals are actually pretty “hot” in theory now" (I had no idea . . . the things you learn in such a roundabout way). It was through his own reading on the subject that he sort of blundered on the idea for the story.
Now that I'm caught up, where to go from here? I might pick up one of my story collections or continue to read randomly. The thing with reading stories from the New Yorker they are always so very different (which is of course a good thing), but I'm just not sure what I am in the mood for now. I was thinking I wanted stories written in the 1950s--don't ask me why, so I might take a look at my library's run of Best American Short Stories. Or maybe something else will tempt me between now and next weekend. Short stories are always an adventure.