by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Writing teachers used to tell budding writers to write what they know. But if you’ve run out of things to say about yourself or the people around you, you’re left to make stuff up. My natterings about “Godmother Tea,” the first story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020), expressed a theory that literary writing tends feel biographical or autobiographical. That’s especially true of stories by young writers. Older writers who have long said everything they wanted to say about themselves, tend to make up fascinating fictional tales, but still with rich characterization. Even with contrived plots, the true hallmark of genre stories, the literary characters feel like real people.
T. C. Boyle is currently 71, and his story, “The Apartment” feels like something Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had taken a very long Rip Van Winkle nap. The story is about a wager between a fortyish man and an eightyish woman with a setting that begins in France in the 1960s. The main characters are merely called Monsieur R and Madame C. Boyle paints what feels like realistic portraits of both in rich detail, but “The Apartment” is really about the plot.
I don’t have a lot to say about this story. It was well-written, entertaining, and I will soon forget it. “The Apartment” is finely crafted by a master wordsmith. It should even make a lovely little movie. I might continue to remember Joy in “Godmother Tea” because the story was about realistic conflicts in her head. “The Apartment” is about an artificial conflict invented for telling this story, and even though it’s entertaining, it’s not memorable.
Most writers who succeed over a lifetime churn out countless such stories, but it’s quite difficult to write memorable stories. Over the decades, I’ve picked up The Best American Short Stories now and then. I’m always dazzled by the level of writing. But my mind seldom hangs on to any of the stories, even when I feel they are excellent. MFA programs have been churning out armies of high trained literary writers for decades, writers that can write with New Yorker level skill. But after you read a few hundred such stories, it’s hard to remember any of them.
I am old. I’ve consumed tens of thousands of good stories in my lifetime if you count up all the short stories, novels, movies, plays, and television shows. This year I’m digging through BASS 2020 looking for something. I’m not sure what, but just being a well written story it’s not. The first story “Godmother Tea” offered a faint scent of what I’m after. I’ve got 18 stories to go, so maybe I can still find what I’m after.
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic has a much more extensive review of “The Apartment” where he reports the story is based on real life events and characters. Now I’m less impressed with Boyle’s plotting and creativity. And the grotesque Poe ending takes on a whole different meaning.
Karen Carlson at A Just Recompense was also reminded of Poe when reading this story.