New Yorker Stories of the Year
For the past several years, I’ve been asking readers to vote on the New Yorker Story of the Year. It’s fun, but meaningless. Emphasis on the meaningless. Instead, let me just tell you what my favorite stories of the year are. If you have other favorites, or reactions to my picks, please do leave a comment below. The links are to the discussion of the story on this blog:
Tessa Hadley: Experience
Paul Theroux: I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife
Joyce Carol Oates: Mastiff
Sherman Alexie: Happy Trails
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi: Checking Out
What were your favorites?
December 16, 2013: “Coming Soon” by Steven Millhauser
Weird story. Twilight Zone? Kafka? (I couldn’t find a Q&A with Millhauser, so I guess we’re on our own.)
Levinson has moved to a small town to escape the city. He still works hard, but it’s way less stressful than it used to be. Still, he notices that it’s improving and there’s a lot of growth and activity. He goes to visit family and comes back—or does he? There’s a suggestion of a dream state. It hardly matters, though, whether what follows is a dream or an impossible reality. Growth in the town—construction of high-rise apartments, McMansions, new restaurants and shops, an expressway—has moved into hyperspeed.
What’s the point here? You can’t escape progress?
December 9, 2013: “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” by Rivka Galchen
There isn’t too much to be learned from the Q&A with Rivka Galchen other than that her model for the story was one by Roberto Bolano.
A writer, J, takes her stepmother, Q, to a writers conference in Key West. J gets carried away with worry about Q, and is perhaps condescending toward her. At parties, she becomes very protective, but it is J who is making the missteps. In the end, J realizes that Q is rather competent. The end.
There’s not much meat there, I don’t think, but it’s terrifically engaging, and pretty funny. Plus it’s set against the backdrop of a writers’ conference, so there’s that. (Care to speculate about who the various writers are?)
December 23 & 30: “The Christmas Miracle” by Rebecca Curtis
Wow. This story did nothing for me at all. While I admire the story’s three independent threads (as the author discusses in the Q&A with Rebecca Curtis), it left me cold. It also felt incomplete—with none of the threads resolved. Furthermore, the narrator’s very strange behavior isn’t explained. Nor is any exploration made of the dirty old Uncle’s probable abuse of the narrator and her siblings when they lived under his roof. (He’s a pedophile, apparently, and they moved in with him when all four were under the age of six.)
I suppose the New Yorker took this story to use in its Christmas issue. Many members of a family descend on one house—a very strange house it is, too—in which cats are dying. They’re being attacked by coyotes in the backyard. The uncle is a pedophile. The narrator (who is telling the story to a friend in a letter after the event) is on various medicines and is confused by treatments relating to her Lyme disease, which has also affected several members of her family.
Although I didn’t like the story, I did like the scene in which the narrator is hallucinating all her family members as various animals. That was brilliant.
December 2, 2013: “Roadkill” by Romesh Gunesekera
Q&A with Romesh Gunesekera
This story reminds me of my one and only visit to Sri Lanka. At the time, there were still troubles in parts of the country, so my visit was limited. I flew into Colombo, hired a driver, and visit a few hill stations and safe tourist spots. It was fantastic, but it was kind of weird to be with this guide/driver who stayed in a different part of the hotels, ate elsewhere, and was generally invisible.
In this story, it is the tourists who are invisible. The guide has driven them to a stop along the way of their journey and, as a mere driver, is given a paltry dinner. He is visited by the Guest Relations officer who wants to make sure he brings other visitors to the hotel. While they are sitting at the dining table, they spot a rat and the woman throws a bottle at it, killing it. While making small talk, the driver asks about her family, which he is told he should not ask about—clearly, she can’t or doesn’t want to talk about whatever happened to her family during the war. Similarly, she says she is trained in hotel management, but it appears that she’s more likely trained in guerilla warfare.
The story is deliciously vague in some details about the war. As the narrator says at the end, “There comes a point when you don’t want to know.”
Interesting story about different view points on a national tragedy—whether it’s better to forget and move on or to delve in and try to understand. The author doesn’t seem to be taking a position, only suggesting that there are both these points of view and we have to accept that.
November 25, 2013: “Kilfi Creek” by Lionel Shriver
This is a readable story, if only because one wants to know if the protagonist, Liana, finally grows up. She seems to, and by then it’s too late.
The bulk of the story is centered around an incident that takes place on her youthful first trip to Africa. She imposes on some friends of friends and stays at their home. While swimming in Kilfi Creek, she cuts her foot and nearly drowns (the result not of the cut but of underestimating the current in the creek). While we’re waiting to learn if she survives, the POV shifts to her unwilling hosts. That’s a nifty trick to maintain the suspense, although it does break some story-writing rules. (Tough. As I tell my students, there are no rules.)
Flash forward. Liana has survived many more near misses, including a bad marriage. And now, having been promoted, having found a nice apartment in Manhattan, having met a man she likes . . .
But I don’t want to spoil the ending for you!
I seem to be seeing a lot of main characters I don’t like lately. The problem with Liana is that she’s an “ugly American” and seems ill-bred. There’s an odd discussion in the Q&A with Lionel Shriver where Shriver is asked if Liana’s gender matters, as if a man wouldn’t behave the way she does. Shriver’s answer is right on: of course it doesn’t matter.
November 18, 2013: “Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides
There’s not a lot to learn from the Q&A with Jeffrey Eugenides, but there it is anyway.
Charlie D. is a fake. He’s from Michigan, but he’s put on a Texas drawl to fit in, complete with down-home expressions. He’s married to a tall German woman, and they’re in counseling, after he confessed to sleeping with the babysitter. In terms of plot, that’s about it. Charlie’s voice is fun, and some of the details are great: he is interested in the smell of houses; he plays Words with Friends with his daughter; his marriage to his wife was, initially, a sham to get her a green card, but they fell in love; she’s very tall and successful at work (she works at Hyundai, although they drive a Nissan); and so on.
But the bulk of the story is the two of them playing “Find the Bad Guy” in counseling and Charlie moping outside the house.
It’s pleasant enough.
November 11, 2013: “Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta
I guess unlikable characters are a thing now, because it’s hard to like any of these people. It’s also somewhat difficult to figure out whose story this is supposed to be. The title suggests that it’s Benji’s story, and maybe it is—in the middle of the story we switch to his point of view—but at the beginning the story is in the point of view of Alare, an older woman with whom Benji is having an affair, and the story feels very much like her story. The switch seems to suggest a change in sympathy for the characters, although in the end I have little sympathy for either.
The setting is Nigeria. Alare visits Benji’s mother in her home and eventually begins an affair with Benji, even though she is older and Benji is nearly a dwarf. She gets money from the wealthy Benji by claiming that her husband is ill even after Benji’s mother dies. This goes on for some time and eventually we switch to Benji’s point of view. He becomes suspicious of Alare and goes to her home, where he discovers the truth.
The Q&A with Chinelo Okparanta isn’t all that helpful, but it does shed a little like on Okparanta’s thinking.
In the end, although I don’t like the characters, I do like the story. The POV switch is unusual and so is the situation, as is the twist at the end.
November 4, 2013: “Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane
Q&A with Thomas McGuane
I’m not sure I like this story much, but I really like the narrator. He is an adult in the construction business who recognizes that his parents’ bizarre marriage has made him incapable of attachment—not just commitment. On the other hand, he really likes building houses for other people, perhaps in hopes that someone will be able to build a marriage more enduring than his parents’.
As the story begins, the narrator’s father is arriving because the mother has kicked him out until he gets his weight down. The narrator is able to help with that, but in the meantime they spar. The father seems to get to appreciate his son a little better and maybe the son appreciates his father more, but he’s happy when the desired weight is reached and he can go home.
The ending of the story says it all: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.”
October 28, 2013: “Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami
Okay. I guess. Here we have The Metamorphosis turned on its head. Instead of Gregor Samsa waking up to find that he’s turned into a roach, here the roach wakes up to discover that he is a human, someone called Gregor Samsa.
It’s clever. Samsa must get used to walking on 2 legs, wearing clothes, dealing with the hard-on he develops when the locksmith—a woman, the daughter and sister of locksmiths who because of the troubles cannot leave their home.
The story appears to take place during the Prague Spring, when a blooming of free expression and democracy was crushed by the arrival of Soviet tanks. But there’s no turning back, the story seems to be saying. The enslaved must get used to being human, because “the world is waiting for him to learn.”
The story’s a nice allegory that seems clear enough, I think. Just cleverness on the surface, but about much more—just Kafka’s original was about more than the bug.