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27 August 2015

New American Stories is a vibrant, disturbing collection

Ben Marcus' celebration of the short story demands our dreams be disrupted.

By Erica Wagner

What makes an “American” story? Granta’s chunky anthology offers some interesting answers. Of course, it’s difficult to generalise about a collection such as this, for when its contributors were working they would have had no thought of their inclusion; and an editor is looking for balance and variety as much as cohesion. And yet, with its red, white and blue cover and its bold title, this volume invites the reader to step back and consider both politics and place.

Rivka Galchen’s story “The Lost Order” begins with the narrator receiving a Paul Auster-esque misplaced phone call; it’s a man ordering a takeaway but she can’t bring herself to tell him he hasn’t reached a restaurant. The narrator is stalled in her life: her husband is at work and she has stopped working, the termination of her employment mysterious. Her actions are expressed in the negative: “I was at home, not making spaghetti.” When her husband calls, their communication is stilted. “I’m suddenly missing him very badly, as if I have been woken from one of those dreams where the dead are still with us. Being awake feels ­awful. I language along, and then at some point in my ramblings he says to me, ‘I have to go now,’ and then he is gone.”

Galchen’s story could be used as a synec­doche for the whole collection. Is this realist writing? Not quite – but then it depends on what you mean by “reality”. Over and over again, these stories express the disjointed anxiety of 21st-century western existence, in which plenty must be acknowledged to come at the cost of poverty, and where the price of peace is distant conflict. “When April arrived, it started to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it,” is the first sentence of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia”, the opening tale. What war? We never learn, and it doesn’t matter. There’s an unspecified war in George Saunders’s “Home”, too. In NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Shhhh”, the narrator plays a game called “Find Bin Laden”; the story opens with the narrator telling us that “Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us . . .”

These are stories that “language along”, as Galchen has it; sentences are constructed to remind us that they are just that, constructions. Reading this collection can be “like wearing a stranger’s coat, still warm with heat from another body”, as Charles Yu writes in “Standard Loneliness Package”, a hypnotic tale that draws the reader into the narrator’s wild interior, a landscape – like every human interior – of image and contradiction. “I am expecting a funeral. I am not at a funeral. I can’t tell exactly where I am, but I am far away.”

Ben Marcus, a novelist and short-story writer, edited The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories a decade ago. Here he writes, in his introduction, that this latest anthology “aims to present the range of what American short story writers have been capable of in the previous ten years or so, not as a museum piece but as a sampler of behaviours and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading”. Quite so, and he is right to argue fiercely in favour of the story as a medium of that reading, but some of his passion is expressed in a way that might well put off his intended audience. “Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked . . . Stories don’t come bottled as a cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man.” Now we know. He also doesn’t explain how exactly Zadie Smith – whose story “Meet the President!” appears here – fits in the category of “American writer”, but never mind.

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Introductory excesses aside, this is a vibrant and disturbing collection. At 753 pages long, it’s not a book to shove in your back pocket; and you might not want to keep it by your bed, because your dreams might be badly affected. Yet the book as a whole is a reminder that it’s about time all of our dreams were disturbed. This is a collection that calls the reader awake.

New American Stories is available now from Granta (£14.99)

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