Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Granta Book of the American Short Story Volume 1

After finishing up with the dense misanthropy of Bernhard's Correction I was after something a little... lighter, so figured the straightforward narrative simplicity of the Carver-esque short story would be just the ticket. The praise heaped upon Richard Ford and his curating efforts, and the attractive hardcover edition of his first Granta anthology sitting on the shelf, lured me in but, especially after Bernhard, these pithy tales of suburban ennui seemed flimsy and self-absorbed.

I read three stories before giving it up (for Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway) and even the best of them managed only to be mildly diverting. That was John Cheever's "O City of Broken Dreams", about a family of bumpkins lured to New York by self-serving city slickers. The story: War veteran / bus driving amateur playwright Evart promised opportunities from big apple agent passing through the boondocks, impressed with first scene of his debut play. Wife and daughter initially dazzled by urban glamour, husband sleepless with writers block, bumpkins ridiculed, return to boondocks. This arc replayed itself in varied forms in the three tales I read.

Seems I'm not the only one disappointed:
I knew what to expect when I read the title and first two paragraphs of "O City of Broken Dreams." It's a nicely constructed story but I feel like I've read it before, though I haven't. I wasn't expecting Mama Finelli to show up at the end, but she seemed almost superfluous, as Evart's story is destined to be at least somewhat tragic from the title onward. Maybe its just Cheever's tone, but it seems like he doesn't want the reader to sympathize fully with gullible ol' Evarts' plight--he seems more like a sketch than a fully realized character.

I'm not sure why I expected anything different. I'd been unable to finish Ford's The Sportswriter when I tried reading it years ago, his brand of minimalist realism offering nothing of interest, apart from an awareness that I have no interest in minimalist realism. The meticulous construction present in Ford's writing, and in the writing he champions in his anthologies, is so tight as to be constricting, didactic, leaving no room for thought outside of the scenes established. Zadie Smith eloquently critiqued the vapidity of this style of writing and championed modernist experimentalism in the NYRB.

I'm still attracted by something in Ford's Bascombe trilogy, the idea of following Everyman USA through the travails of middle-aged middle-class melancholia, the covers of the later volumes Independence Day and Lay of the Land, but doubt I'll get to them. Let me know if I'm missing something.

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