If you have been following my blogs you will know that reading and writing take up a fair chunk of my life. My passion for the written word started early, as I was read to as a pre-schooler, and once I could read, I couldn’t stop. I became a keen visitor to the Upper Hutt public library taking home many books at a time. As a teen I was fortunate to read some excellent writers of short fiction. Two that resonate with me today are Janet Frame, one of our (New Zealand’s) most respected authors, and Britain’s Doris Lessing. I have read so many other authors since I have lost count. It is not these lauded authors I wish to speak about however, but what makes a story stand out for me, and why I can remember it, months or even years later.
Here is where I swap countries and authors and introduce you to The Best American Short Stories, which I came across and have read every year since 2007. I have just finished reading the 2017 edition.
All twenty stories were selected from United States and Canadian literary magazines published between January 2016 and January 2017 – fresh off the press. I read all twenty; in sequence, as I like to do. I remember after closing the book, settling back on my pillows and thinking about which stories had affected me the most. Two stood out in particular. But why these two? I wondered, what was it about them exactly? They were set in totally different places: one in a deserted camping ground in modern day South Florida, the other in an apartment block in 1980’s Russia.
The settings were memorable: Midnight Zone begins with a family arriving for a holiday knowing there has been a recent sighting of a Florida panther near the camp grounds. The father is soon called away to deal with an emergency, leaving the mother and two children alone. Add to this, a sparse cabin; where screens ‘pulsed with the tender bellies of lizards’; fluctuating cellphone reception and a tone of lurking menace pervades. Novostroïka opens with the protagonist climbing the crumbling steps of the city council building under ‘Grandfather Lenin’s iron gaze’. It’s snowing outside and freezing in. People hunch over heaters and others line up, moving incrementally towards a wall of glass partitions and indifferent personnel. They are all tired, hungry, and in need of warmth, food and shelter.
In both stories the main characters linger in my mind for different reasons. But that doesn’t make them any less substantial, for the authors possessed the ability, through their very fine writing, to draw me into their characters’ inner worlds, and to the essence of what they lacked, and what they yearned for.
Because Lauren Groff’s The Midnight Zone is written in first person, I did not learn the mother’s name, but I did get to know just how difficult she found the role of parenthood and other conventions relating to being female. Yes, disaster does strike in this story and the mother becomes dependent on her two small sons after a frightful accident. For all that her character was not that likeable to begin with, as two dreadful days go by and she struggles to stay lucid, I developed sympathy for her. This is a woman who knows she lacks the ability to physically demonstrate the love she has for her children and husband. This is her pain, her lack; the essence of who she is, which she dwells on throughout the excruciating wait.
With Maria Neva’s Novostroïka, protagonist Daniil Ivanovich Blinov dwells on a very different fate: how to get the council bureaucrats to recognise that the building he lives in, does in fact exist, Ivansk Street, number 1933. The day he moved into the tiny, new apartment supplied by his company, was nothing short of sublime. He felt a sense of hope, of freedom – until – thirteen of his relatives caught wind of his luck, and one by one, blew in – and stayed. They squash into every corner, every square inch of space. A couple camp on the balcony along with Grandma’s six hens.
This story carries the plight of the protagonist at its heart and ends with Daniil chiselling the street number from the concrete: the proof of existence.
Basically, I’ve talked about a beginning, middle and end. The arc of the narrative stretching from start to finish – the ‘rainbow’ if you will. With both stories the reader has a stake in what happens to these people because of the story the author has created for them. The endings are similar in that the reader is left wondering about what might happen next – and leaves a place for the reader to fill in a resolution. I wanted both protagonists to find themselves, if not a pot of gold, at least a deserved state of grace,
The Midnight Zone by Lauren Groff was published in The New Yorker: Novostroïka by Maria Reva was published in The Atlantic.