Recent The New Yorker short stories

While on vacation last week I read a bunch of short stories from the past couple years from The New Yorker.  Sorry to say that many were not very good.  I don’t expect perfection, and it is nice to read stories that do not attain that state, but still, some of these were quite mediocre. Are there really not enough short story writers in the world to keep magazine up to standard?

“God’s Work” by Kevin Canty in the April 4, 2016 issue.  A teenager proselytizes with his mother, while dealing with teenage male sexuality.  Honest and real, but ordinary and nothing great in the writing.  William Trevor wrote similar stories 30 years ago, nothing new here.  Mookse commentators agree, though some liked it.

“It’s a Summer Day” by Andrew Sean Greer in the June 19, 2017 issue.  This was just awful. I first listened to the podcast version of the author reading it, but forgot that I had stopped listening, and as I read it a month later I thought it was familiar… and still disliked it.  Either I am missing something devilishly clever about the story, or it just seems actually sophomoric.  Mookse commentators after an initial disparaging review have do not rise to its defense.

“Ladies’ Lunch” by Lore Segal in the February 27, 2017 issue.  If you have an elderly parent you will immediately understand this story.  Telegraphing, bursting, laughing, and ultimately crying.  The humiliation of the reality of being in your 80s.  “No, I am dead.” Generated a lot of commentary on Mookse, and I like this contribution in the comments:

I’m also finding that the story works quite well as a horror story, like a sophisticated take on the idea of the zombie, something that is strangely popular right now. Lotte’s experience is essentially one of being zombified, of being ripped out of her normal life and put into a state of being among the living dead. And she knows it, which makes it even more horrifying. Her spirit has been murdered, while her body lives on. Her friends watch what happens to her, and want to help her, but are unable to do anything (transportation issues are woven into the story to the extent they seem to be an important theme, reflecting what happens to old people in real life). And, although I don’t remember that it was stated explicitly, the friends are probably fearing that something similar may eventually happen to them, as well. The story can feel distinctly creepy to me if I see it as a contemporary horror tale, a perspective which, once I thought of it, it seems to invite.

“Usl at the Stadium” by Rivka Galchen in the October 12, 2015 issue.  The story is based on a true event, sportscasters mocking a guy sleeping through a Yankees game.  Galchen imagines his interior life, his perspective.  A nice exercise.  Something you might assign in creative writing class.  Galchen’s version very competently done, with nice touches like Usl’s boss Gregory.  The story is sympathetic to a type of person we imagine exists.  The sad sack sweet loser guy. Not much more to say.  Mookse commentators appreciated, but not excited by the story.

“Mother’s Day” by George Saunders in the February 8 & 15, 2016 issue.  Another story about aging and dying. I found this the most interesting in terms of technique. Saunders shifts the point of view repeatedly, and goes back and forth between dialogue and interior monologue. Maybe overripe though. The story practically bursts.  I wasn’t sure what the final bit in the ambulance was about. Just to riff once more on the technique?  To remind us that everybody has a complex interior monologue, even Alma and Debi, even the dying body on the stretcher anonymous to the paramedics? Another good moral, earlier: “This has nothing to do with him. How do you want to be?”  Useful discussion at… Mookse! They have a lot of opinions about Saunders… might think about the line, “This has nothing to do with him. How do you want the story to be?”

And one last story about aging and dying.  Geez, a lot of them. is that what is happening to Americans?

“Quarantine” by Alix Ohlin in the January 30, 2017 issue.  Now about distance, rather than empathy.  A good juxtaposition with the other stories. Can we know, can we help, someone else, really?  The story telescopes thirty years.  Brief paragraphs advance the reader a decade.  A Nigerian ex-husband is exactly drawn.  The relationship between two women, Angela and Bridget, is realistic and complex. Very impressive.  I agree with the comments of Dennis over at Mookse (along with excellent comments and some flaming!):

I wish I was up to the depth other commenters here have provided for so many of these “New Yorker” stories. I can’t, but having just read this one it left me dazzled: it’s dizzying pace, character depictions, riveting scenes, seamlessly cemented though years apart, how it all flows through these lives,the unfolding of their relationships and how they evolve over time–culminating with the pathos between the two women at the center. The mystery and (for lack of a better word) the authenticity of it. Just gripping!!

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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