Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

pump

I often find it difficult to get into worlds that are not the worlds of the roughly here and roughly now – that’s why I’m not much of a sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’m always more interested in humans than in their environments, and I’m way too impatient to read world-building through many-many pages (but not knowing the rules of a given time and place drives me crazy). Anyway, Bacigalupi does a good job with world-building here because reading these stories I could usually figure out quite quickly what kind of setup we’re having here – one where Earth is already beyond redemption; one where humans (and not-fully-humans) live in a shrunken hell almost-destroyed by all kinds of environmental and economic catastrophes; one where humanity conquered death but it seems that perhaps that wasn’t such a great idea – and I was always interested to see how humans and human-like beings live in such a world.

(Still, I can never completely distance myself from the here-and-now, but I don’t mind because this led to interesting ironies and further thoughts here. For instance, one day I was reading one of Bacigalupi’s stories set in a world plagued by water shortage. Then the next day, an ominous-sounding email arrived at my work, saying that new water-filtering machines will be installed in the kitchen. The email warned everyone that on the day the old machines will be removed and the new ones installed, we might have to resort to drinking tap water. Oh the irony. Reading Bacigalupi’s story and then reading this email made me think of how very lucky we are. For multiple reasons, and the fact that we don’t yet filter and treat our water with fancy machines because we must, but just because why not is a pretty damn good reason for feeling lucky, too.)

The settings of the stories is often truly frightening, still, out of all the stories tackling moral questions (and sometimes moralizing a bit) in worlds after a great collapse, my favorites were those which I found the most character-focused. Namely, the following.

The Fluted Girl, where it took me quite long to grasp the rules of the world, but in the end this story evoked in me my favorite feeling that literature can evoke: that shivering, pure bliss, that feeling of standing on the very edge but still having a choice.

Then I liked Pop Squad, which I sometimes found a bit too moralizing, but fortunately the characters were unable to properly explain why they find their own choices morally good, or why they start questioning their choices, and this left enough space for me as a reader to think.

And finally, Pump Six. I found the world here uncannily familiar, which really did scare me: finding the almost completely rotten world of this story – a world which is barely held together anymore and which is running on the last bits of energy left over from an almost forgotten past – so very familiar, while I don’t tend to see the real world like this. This story caused in me the most uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, which, in the case of literature, is always a great compliment.

All in all, this is a collection I enjoyed – Bacigalupi’s stories have a strong, often suffocating atmosphere, he asks interesting questions, and creates worlds I’d like to know more about. Luckily, I already learned that he also wrote novels set in one or another particular world, which means that I’ll have to look them up. I want to know more than I can learn in my sheltered life about places plagued by water shortage.

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Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

freshComplaintI once wrote about one of Eugenides’ novels that he’s so good that I’d happily read even his shopping lists. It’s possible I’ll still feel this way about his novels (but there’ll probably be a ten-year gap between two novels again, so I’m not holding my breath), but based on just these short stories, I’m quite content without having access to Eugenides’ shopping list.

These stories are not bad, far from it.

They’re just…

First of all: Fresh Complaint?

When I first noticed, sometime last year, that this book was coming out, my first thought was: “Great! New short stories!” Well – they’re not new. There’s a couple of new(ish) stories here but most of them come from earlier stages of Eugenides’ career and it seems that most (or perhaps all) of them had already been published earlier. Sure, I don’t mind that they’re collected here, after all, I don’t have a subscription and access to 20 years’ worth of back issues of the New Yorker and other magazines, so for me it’s much simpler to read them in this collection, but still – they’re not new.

Also, these stories provide insight into the development of Eugenides’ themes throughout the years, and it’s interesting to see how certain characters and themes that were later developed into full-fledged novels originally started out in short story form. For example, the protagonist of one story is the very same Mitchell who’ll one day become one of the main characters in The Marriage Plot. And there’s another story that features a sexologist researching transgender issues – for a feature-length take on this theme, see Middlesex.

Yes, all this is interesting. Really. In a way. But I always get suspicious when I have to keep convincing myself that something is interesting, so let’s move on to my second concern with these stories.

Which is that I think Eugenides is a novelist, not a short story writer. I’m not saying that the longer the better, I happen to like his shortest novel the best, but Eugenides is definitely not a master of spare, succinct, bare-boned storytelling – he’s not one to create a whole world in ten pages. I feel that in his case, it’s much better when he wanders through decades and continents, and goes deep into everything, and to me it doesn’t even matter whether he’s going deep into the habits and aspirations of an idealist arts student; or into the mind of a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder; or into an inexplicably melancholy atmosphere through 250 pages – the result is always much better, more beautiful, more intimate than what he achieves in a 15-page story, where there’s only enough space to lay down the facts but no time to get into the feelings.

Reading these stories, I often felt that Eugenides didn’t go close enough, deep enough. These stories are not heartless, shabbily put together, worthless or dull – but there’s a great distance-keeping and impersonal quality to them. They’re like the echoes of stories I had heard before – distant, quiet, lacking real power. And unlike his novels, I don’t think I’ll remember his stories for long.

The Best American Short Stories 2017 by Meg Wolitzer (ed.)

bestam2017

I could easily cut and paste this text from the posts I wrote about the anthologies of the previous years but I’m too lazy to go back to my earlier posts. Still, this is probably going to be very similar to those because – as I came to realize since 2011, when I first started to read this series – this anthology is basically the same every single year.

The ingredients include:

– 1 story written in the second person singular (whether or not the second person singular makes sense there)
– 2-3 somewhat historical, somewhat political stories
– 1-1 story written by a black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American writer or about black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American characters (in a single year, only two out of the four minorities must make an appearance, but sometimes as many as three are included)
– 2 lyrical, experimental short stories (in which sometimes no meaning whatsoever can be found)
– 3-4 stories by well-established, successful author (it’s a well-known fact that in the whole wide country of the United States, only about 20 persons can write decent short stories, so there’s obviously not a whole lot of possibilities to choose from)
– 1-2 stories by writers who never before had anything published
– 4-5 stories about family matters, turning points in relationships, and crises of self-realization (that is: normal, average human stuff; and I usually like these stories)

Of course, one story can possibly fit into more categories. It’s possible for an Asian American writer who never had anything published before to write something experimental, or a well-established author may write something historical in the second person singular. Therefore, the collection is not that boring and predictable, and the quality of the stories is usually very high – the writers featured here can indeed write stories that are really stories and not political, philosophical, existentialist or feminist treaties, even when the topic is political, philosophical and so on.

But it’s not that thrilling and surprising, either, after several years (and I wouldn’t call myself a jaded reader who cannot be pleased anymore), even though this year’s guest editor, Meg Wolitzer says in her introduction that she likes being surprised by a story (I like that, too), and that she thinks these here are surprising stories (I don’t think so).

As roughly 19 out of the 20 stories fall into one or more of the categories outlined above, there’s not much space left for the truly surprising, and I rarely cried out in my mind that “oh wow, this here’s so exquisite and precise and beautiful, and I’ve never seen it expressed like this before, and how is it even possible for someone to write in such an awesome way”. This year no single story made me feel like this on the whole. I felt it sometimes, coming across certain sentences or even paragraphs, and that pleased me, sure (and then I tried to examine why those sentences and paragraphs were so good, but fortunately this mostly resists scientific examinations), but this is not enough. I want the complete story to enchant me. Perhaps next year.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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Recently I’ve started to wonder how and why fiction works. Actually, I first started to wonder about this about 20 years ago, when I first joined the adult branch of the county library and without any proper transition period after children’s books, I started to read books which probably weren’t at all appropriate for my age, and which soon shook my naïve, childish ideas about how books are and can be written.

Several years passed since then, but through all those years, it has never occurred to me to try to look up the answer to the question of how fiction works online. A while back, however, in a free moment, I tried what happens if I ask Google how fiction works. It seems the question intrigues others, too – turns out there’s even a book with this title, by James Wood.

As I had further free moments at my disposal, I looked up this book – could it be the one that answers my big question? Could it be a good read for me, perhaps one fine day when I don’t feel like reading fiction, but I feel like reading about fiction. (It’s impossible for me not to feel like reading about fiction.)

So I read an entertaining and gently sarcastic review about Wood’s book (this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html?_r=1), which convinced me that I probably won’t (and don’t want to) learn the answer from James Wood. But – the author of this wonderful review happened to mention this book by Denis Johnson, claiming it’s a messy masterpiece. I’ve never heard about this book or Denis Johnson before, but my curiosity was immediately kindled. I happen to love messy masterworks a lot.

And now I’m so glad because Denis Johnson’s slightly connected short stories didn’t only blow my mind (I kept re-reading the stories even while I was reading the book), but they also taught me a lot about how fiction works. Or rather: I learned (again) that lots of things can work in fiction, and that there are no rules. Which is pretty encouraging.

Like I said, these stories are connected, but only in the sense that they take place more or less at the same place and same time, and they are all narrated by the same person. The narrator is nameless, but we learn that he’s known as Fuckhead to his friends. And we learn a couple of other details about him: that he’s in his twenties, he’s an alcoholic and a heroin-addict, that he is married and has girlfriends on the side, that he doesn’t refrain from aimless, unplanned violence (he doesn’t have plans and goals, anyway, and in most cases, he only thinks about violence), that he’s completely lost in the world, and that he has a heightened sense and appreciation of beauty. And – indirectly, and hopefully – we also learn that most probably he managed to survive his wild years, because sometimes he writes in a way that suggests that he’s looking back from a more mature age to the period when the non-stories take place.

The non-stories are centered around simple and/or brutal events, start in medias res, and usually end in nothing (and nothingness). In one story, for example, the narrator accompanies his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, and then takes the train to travel up and down in the city because he has nowhere to go. In another story he runs into an old drinking buddy who offers him a bit of work – so they go and steal the cables from an abandoned house, and then go on drinking with the money they made. And in another one the narrator and his buddy decide to split from the hospital where they work, and they go for a drive around the city, kill (a rabbit), save lives (the lives of bunnies, for example), get lost and see angels in the September snow – but then it turns out that the angels are, in fact, the shadows of actors on the screen of an open-air cinema.

How and why this is good – I have no idea. Words are put one after the other in a way that it’s good. I think – literature is like this, at its best.

But I can’t rest – how and why is this good?

Perhaps it’s good because of its shamelessness. These short stories are shameless. Drunk or drugged up hallucinations; paranoid fear of the real nature of things; melancholy musings about the sadness and unknowability of the world; the wild desire for beauty; the hopelessness of the days where all you do is wait for happy hour; the feeling of youthful invincibility; absolute helplessness and lethargy; unexpected tenderness and equally unexpected cruelty – these are all here, simultaneously. And all these are here as a matter of fact. No need for explanations. No need for apologies.

And this is one reason why it’s good. Because of the lack of explanations. The temptation to explain things away, to be logical and consistent is hard to resist. Johnson resists, which is awesome. Here it’s quite possible that in a moment of extraordinary tenderness you’re cradling little bunnies on your belly, making plans to feed them with sugary milk until they grow up – and then in the next moment or hour (perhaps after a drugged blackout) you find that you fucking forgot about the bunnies and accidentally crushed them to death.

I’m amazed by this – that Johnson dares to be just as fucked up as his narrator. That here it’s not a question of life versus literature, but literature equals life.

Which is, by the way, not always sad, miserable, and tragic. From time to time, this book is extremely funny, and not just from time to time but very often it’s beautiful and poetic.

And, again by the way – Denis Johnson is the writer who can capture whole lives in a single parenthetical clause:

(through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a – wham, the noise and dark dropped around your head – tunnel)

And being a devoted fan of parenthetical clauses, this is one more reason I feel deeply in awe of him.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

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The first time I read these short stories – some six years ago – I was stunned, but since then I’ve read several other works by McEwan (far from everything, though), and I realized now upon re-reading this collection that this is indeed a first book, with all the usual weaknesses, stylistic imbalances and the occasional awkwardness of first books. (Still, I’d be happy to write such a weak first book as this.)

McEwan’s usual themes are already present here: he writes about the unknown in us and in the others, about the impossibility of growing up, about unexpected violence, and about the dark side of love, sex, and intimacy – but he writes about all this with a lot more subtlety and eloquence in his later books. Here I sometimes feel that his writing is too direct, too coarse – even spoon-feeding.

For example: the main character in one of the stories was pampered by his mother to an unhealthy degree throughout his childhood, and it seems that this character half-consciously wishes to return to the womb. Then one day he gets locked inside a dark and warm place, where he has quite a pleasant time, and from that moment on, his desire to get back to the womb gets even more pronounced. Oh well – this is certainly not the most subtly symbolic piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.

What is already subtle and amazing here though is the way McEwan builds the layers of words, moods and feelings on one another. What I mean is that even though the stories all stand on their own, if you read them one after the other, their individual effects slowly add up, due to the fact that certain themes and motives come up again and again.

For example, several stories feature rivers, channels, and boats of some kind, and it feels to me as if the abandoned boat that starts its slow journey towards the corrupt and violent London at the end of one of the stories were the same as the boat that’s mentioned by another character in another story when he invites an innocent girl for a walk by the channel. In the end it doesn’t matter that the two boats are different – the connection between the two riversides is made, and this way a connection is made between the characters of the two stories, too. Between characters who are innocent, corrupt, lonely, curious, perverted to different degrees – but it’s not as if there was a strict line between innocence and corruption, curiosity and perversion in these stories. It seems as if everything were already present inside everyone, only waiting for a chance to spring to the surface.

Besides riversides and boats, another recurring motif here is role-playing and being forced into unwanted roles, in all kinds of ages and situations: children play adult roles; adults want to force children around them into either the role of the eternal child, or into the role of the miniature adult. And then there’s role-playing onstage (where it’s perverted to do something for real when you’re only supposed to act – to pretend doing it), and at home (where the overly theatrical gestures get oppressive after a while, as they blur the line between acting and reality). This is a rich and intriguing theme, and McEwan examines it from so many aspects in these eight stories that after a while I’m almost scared to do anything for fear that it would turn out to be only acting, turn out to be something that leads to horrible consequences.

So yes – this is a good, eerie, frightening collection – the only thing that bothers me is really only the occasional coarseness.

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

StrangeWillIt took me about six or seven weeks to get to the end of this book, but this is of course not Kelly Link’s fault. The thing is, I’ve been in a transitional period this last two months and I was usually unable to pay proper attention to any book for more than 3 seconds, so most of the time I didn’t even try to read anything. I don’t like to stretch out a reading experience over such a long period of time, but I think in this case it was useful because it made me think about the longer-term effects of these stories.

I clearly remember that I liked every single story while I was reading it, but when I sat down to write about the book I suddenly realized that I can’t even recall the most basic details about the stories I read a month and a half ago – I only remember a couple of hazy details – details which are sometimes deeply unsettling, sometimes truly amazing, and sometimes heartbreaking. My memories about these stories are like the ones you have in the morning after a very strange or particularly vivid dream, and even though some details may stick with you for a long time, it’s usually impossible to summarize the whole “story” of the dream after a couple of hours.

And these stories are exactly like this – they are impossible to summarize or even clearly recall. This may be due to the fact that they are usually not very story-like: they are the unique combinations of elements you might recognize from the works of other fantasy authors, of bits and pieces coming from well-known fairy tales, and of random associations thrown upon one another – and the result is something which resists “rational” interpretations; something you can’t easily talk about.

In their resistance to being talked about, these stories remind me of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Unicorn, of which a teacher of mine once said that it’s written in such a way that each sentence erases the preceding one, and each paragraph cancels out the meaning of the preceding paragraph, and even though you think you more or less understand what’s going on while you’re reading the novel, in the end you realize you don’t know/remember anything, and you have no idea what you’ve been through. And indeed – I read The Unicorn at least three times so far, and I know I consider it a great novel, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you why I think it’s great, or what’s so great about it. And this is no digression – Kelly Link’s short story collection is exactly like this.

And also, I can’t talk about these stories because of the author’s “style”. As I already mentioned, these stories often contain elements from other works of fiction I’m familiar with, or even if I don’t know the particular element itself, I recognize the way it was created/made up, and I can relate to it. Because even though the strange dreams, irrational trains of thoughts and random associations of Kelly Link’s characters are not like mine, in them I recognize the way my imagination works, even if mine comes up with different stories and different dreams. The difference between the author and me is that Kelly Link can describe these dreams/stories, while I can’t (or won’t). And the fact that she is able to capture the way human imagination works makes these stories strangely personal and intimate – I think every single reader will come up with hugely different interpretations, every reader will be affected by different aspects or details of these stories.

Sure, you can basically say this about every single book (disclaimer: I’m a secret fan of the reader response theory), but still – it’s usually possible to say something general or “universal” about a book, without having to revert to saying: “well, if you want to know what it’s like, then read it for yourself”. But this book is different, and this is really all I can say about it. Of course I could enumerate the details which affected me greatly, or I could explain (or try to) why I find a particular something especially heart-wrenching or bewildering or enchanting – but all these explanations would be about my inner workings, and not about the book. So really – read it for yourself if you want to know what this book is like.

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan

emeraldBefore Jennifer Egan started writing amazing, mind-blowing and hauntingly beautiful postmodern (or post-postmodern) novels, she also wrote books such as this short story collection, which isn’t postmodern at all – but it’s just as beautiful and heartbreaking as, for example, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan published 5 books so far; Emerald City was the third I read, and I start to think that she simply cannot write badly.

Emerald City was Jennifer Egan’s first published book, and it contains 11 short stories. They are all about great emotional upheavals or traumas, about a disappointment, or a major change (or the possibility of a major change), and through the course of events, the protagonists all realize a couple of major truths about their lives, and thanks to these revelations, they will probably be able to live differently after the story ends – or maybe they won’t. The stories are about a unique moment in the protagonists’ life when time stops for a minute, and the characters are free to decide whether they will travel the untrodden path from now on, or simply stay in the lukewarm comfort (or discomfort) of their current life. To be a little more specific, I give you a couple of examples.

One of the stories, Sacred Heart is about a teenage girl who falls madly in love with another girl in her class – a girl with dangerous, self-destructive habits and a dysfunctional family. The protagonist admires her classmate, turns her into a romantic idol in her imagination, and for months, she’s greatly unsettled and unhappy because she feels that the average, safe, boring reality she inhabits is nothing compared to the – apparently – wild, intense, real reality of her classmate – until one day she finds out that the tragic-romantic heroine of her imagination is just another average teenager. Sure, this is a huge disappointment – but at the same time this is a break-away from a destructive, dangerous spell, and after the spell is broken, the protagonist will be able to carry on with her life again.

In another story, Puerto Vallarta we witness the disintegration of a seemingly happy family. (A disintegration which, from another perspective, is not a disintegration at all, but rather the meticulous deconstruction of family ties which were based on lies, and then a new start on different grounds.) Naturally, the disintegration/deconstruction doesn’t come out of the blue, and before it comes, we learn about the (power) relations between the father, the mother and their teenage daughter, and we also get to know the secrets and emotions which tie or separate them. Then finally, during a family holiday in Puerto Vallarta there comes a moment when one of them has to choose between leaking a secret and by this, changing everything, or keeping silent and by this, choosing to go on with a make-believe life forever.

In most of the stories, the protagonists decide to act, to change everything – even though this is often a kind of „passive” change: finally giving up the fight, and accepting/acknowledging the fact that, for instance, they would never really fit into the group they would passionately like to belong to; or that their greatest dream will probably never come true, so it’s time to look for another, more plausible dream. These realizations, of course, make the protagonists sad because they must relinquish something they’ve been clinging to desperately – but after accepting the truth, it finally becomes possible to live an honest life, without self-delusion.

Besides the all-permeating melancholy of change (or the lack of change), Jennifer Egan’s outstanding ability to describe locale is the most remarkable feature which connects these stories. The stories are set in a variety of cities, countries and continents (Mexico, Spain, Bora Bora, Africa, New York City), and the characters usually come to these places from somewhere else – to live, to work, or to rest. Naturally, they often feel like a stranger in these strange lands – just the way they feel within the boundaries of their lives. And even though I’ve never been to any of these places, Jennifer Egan describes them so sensuously that I feel as if I intimately knew all the (inner and outer) spaces her characters inhabit.

So yes – these are enchanting, delicate, beautiful and elegantly written stories. They are full of emotions, but they never get sentimental. And they trust your imagination and empathy. I loved reading them.

The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

PatHobbyBookThe protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s loosely connected short stories is Pat Hobby, a household name in the movie industry. More precisely, Pat Hobby is a 49-year-old alcoholic screenwriter who has seen better days: he hasn’t been writing for ages, and nowadays his major accomplishment in his profession is substituting the word „certainly” for „yes” in someone else’s script – after which he desperately fights for his right to have his name written on the front page of the screenplay, too. Most of the times, he fails to reach this goal – but it also happens that the screenwriter who did 99% of the job finds the movie made out of his script so abominable that he relinquishes all his rights to it, in which case all the – questionable – glory goes to Pat.

And what are these stories about? They are mostly about Pat Hobby’s tragicomic fumblings in the world of the movie industry, and about the way he tries to stay alive day after day in Hollywood, where he is no longer welcome. Although he used to be a star long ago, in the silent film era, and he used to have a lot of money, a house with a pool and several wives and lovers, he no longer has any of these. Now he lives hand to mouth, in a constant state of humiliation, defenseless against the whims of the big bosses of the studio – and he’s always only one step away from total bankruptcy.

Of course, if you’re cruel you might think that he deserves what he gets because no matter how big a genius Pat Hobby was as a young man, now he’s only a parasitic, useless, alcoholic trickster who steers clear from any decent means of earning a living. As I already hinted above, Pat Hobby doesn’t have a whole lot of moral scruples – he steals other people’s movie ideas without a second thought, hoping that he might write a script out of it; and he generally tries to arrange things in a way that he always has a little money without going to the trouble of working for it.

But it’s hard (or perhaps impossible) to be this cruel, because this book – just like all the works of Fitzgerald I know – is in fact very-very sad. True, if you take the stories one by one, you might find them darkly funny, but still, they always feature that special feeling of screwed-upness which characterizes Fitzgerald’s books. Granted, I haven’t read everything by him, so I don’t know if he always wrote about people going down the drain, and about things inevitably, irreversibly getting worse. Anyway, these stories are also about this. And it’s not too difficult for me to believe that things really have to get worse if I imagine how life turns out for Pat Hobby: the one thing he’s excellent at (I presume he must have been really good at writing silent films) is no longer wanted by anyone – consequently, he is no longer wanted by anyone, and the rest of his life, he’s doomed to haunt the places of his past success as a barely tolerated, oft-ridiculed phantom.