Jude Cook reviews short stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, April Ayers Lawson, Roxane Gay, and Ottessa Moshfegh. Originally published by The Literary Review.
It might be premature to herald another renaissance of the American short story, but after books such as last year’s Prodigals by Greg Jackson and Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman, and the appearance of these four collections in the first two months of 2017, one might be allowed to entertain the notion seriously. While two of the writers here have roots elsewhere (Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s parents hail from Croatia and Iran), the stories in these fierce, tender books capture the American experience, each providing snapshots of a fragmented society undergoing great change.
In ‘Black-Eyed Women’, the opening story of Nguyen’s The Refugees, the ghost of a ghostwriter’s brother turns up still dressed as he was on the day he died. Like many of the collection’s narrators, the ghostwriter is haunted by the conflict that convulsed her homeland, Vietnam, often taking almost everything from its survivors: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.’ At thirty-eight, she still remembers the fighting with visceral horror (‘a scalped black American floating in the creek not far from his downed helicopter’), though she refuses to cling even to her stories, believing that ‘stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more … garments shed by ghosts’. In ‘War Years’, the refugees in the USA are expected, decades after the conflict has ceased, to take an anti-communist stance by their relatives back home, who send letters ‘thick with trouble’. In ‘The Other Man’, the impossibility of assimilation is captured in a single brilliant image of the narrator’s reflection in a window: ‘The light in the room had turned the window into a mirror, superimposing his likeness over the landscape outside … Why, then, did he not recognize himself?’ In ‘The Americans’ there are razor-sharp swipes at the casual cruelty of American imperialism. A USAF pilot says, ‘If you’re going to bomb a country … you should at least drink its beer.’ While each story ends on a note of melancholy, Nguyen’s tales never lose their sense of taut political engagement.
April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, Virgin and Other Stories, is studded with gems set largely in the Deep South, and explores the sexual and emotional awakening of several intense, conflicted young women. In ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’, the narrator confesses that at the age of sixteen he ‘committed acts of passion’ while staring at a book of Andrew Wyeth’s The Helga Pictures. Lawson skilfully adumbrates the complex nature of nascent longing: ‘Wyeth’s desire for Helga, my desire for Helga, my desire for Wyeth’s desire for Helga – had warped my brain.’ This is complicated further still by his feelings for his mother, whom the guys on the soccer team find ‘hot’. At a funeral, he reflects that ‘Andrew Wyeth could have really made something of her.’ The longest story, ‘Vulnerability’, interrogates ways of seeing and being through the eyes of its withdrawn protagonist: ‘Because you see … I was often afraid of touching people and of being touched.’ The syntax here is itself mimetic of vulnerability, with its pre-emptive ‘because you see’. The collection proves Lawson is a young writer to watch, with even its slightest pieces, such as the short ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’, containing killer lines: ‘At some time in my life the words I love youhad seemed like a revelation, not a reason to brace myself for its withdrawal.’
Already the author of a searing book of essays, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay spins the drama of female emancipation into a series of memorable tales in her powerful, truculent, ribald collection Difficult Women. In ‘I Will Follow You’, one of the strongest stories, the narrator revisits a harrowing scene of sexual abuse, endured with her sister and only recalled years later. It’s a masterpiece of understatement, ending on a redemptive note of sisterly solidarity. Elsewhere, there are women busy negotiating lives with terrible men: ‘There’s no mystery to keeping a man … You do whatever sick thing he wants, when he wants, and you’ll never have a problem.’ In ‘La Negra Blanca’, a sex worker reflects on how her profession infantilises women and distorts their self-perception. Here, a mixed-race pole dancer changes her name from Sarah to Sierra at the insistence of the club’s manager. It’s a subtle shift, but Gay shows how much it effaces her identity. And in ‘How’, a woman transcends the constrictions of class, abuse, bad men and memories by educating herself: Hanna ‘sits in the library and reads books and learns things so that when she finally escapes she can be more than a waitress with a great rack in a dead Upper Michigan town’.
Of the four collections here, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, whose novel Eileen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is by far the most provocative. As with Eileen, Moshfegh presents characters who evince a flinching disgust for bodily functions and human intimacy. There’s no shortage of colourful sociopaths here. ‘Bettering Myself’ is the compelling tale of a divorced, alcoholic femme libre who frequents bars alone, transfixed by the desperate emptiness at the core of her existence. ‘Mr. Wu’ is the story of unrequited love experienced by a man in his mid-forties, an ordeal shown to be as awkward and fraught as a teenage tryst. Like many of the stories’ protagonists, the misanthropic Mr Wu is ‘at once sympathetic and cruel’, viewing a neighbour’s disabled hand as a ‘prawn claw’. There are narcissists aplenty here, most notably the hilariously vain actor boyfriend in ‘The Weirdos’. And there’s lyricism. When a waitress appears in the characteristically titled ‘No Place for Good People’, the narrator observes, ‘I thought of Marsha Mendoza, her dark lipstick, the furrowed sadness of her mouth at rest.’ But mainly the stories draw a picture of an America that has lost its way, a bigoted, insular nation in the grip of an obesity epidemic, ‘where the fattest people on Earth could be found buzzing around in electronic wheelchairs, trailing huge carts full of hamburger meat … and pillow-size bags of chips’. It’s a bracing, brilliant collection.