by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 11, 2020
In literary fiction, plot is often a contrivance that careens the story toward genre fiction. That’s why I often hear friends say “I don’t like those slice of life stories” when sneering at literary fiction. They want a plot that carries them along in the story. “Godmother Tea” the first story in The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020) didn’t have a plot. The second story, “The Apartment” did, one that fits the short story template of having a beginning, middle, and end, with an arc of rising action that includes characters growing and learning. It even had an old fashioned ending that would have amused Poe or O’Henry.
The third story in BASS 2020, “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown promised a plot but it fizzled out. Although I might be completed and fleshed out in the ten linked stories in the collection by the same name, but I haven’t read it.
By coincidence, both this story and “The Apartment” are about a man wanting to acquire a home from an old dying person. Our first person narrator, John Howland, is just as neurotic as Joy was in “Godmother Tea” so the story is really about him and not the quest of ending up with property. Jason Brown has created an imaginary family dynasty that began with the first John Howland arriving on the Mayflower, but is now petering out while fighting over the last four acres they still own in Maine, on Howland Island that the family once owned completely.
The current John Howland is having the same growing up pains as Joy in “Godmother Tea,” but his anxieties are diluted by a story of a grandfather scheduling himself to die on Saturday with a pre-dug hole waiting for him. As a reader I’m torn between following two interesting fictional forks in the road. The first is the kookie Howland family feuding, and the second is the hapless John Howland quest to get married and have children.
I have to say the most interesting aspect of “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” is John’s problem of wanting to marry Melissa, an independent woman who isn’t interested marriage. From my perspective outside the story looking into John Howland’s inner perspective, I can’t see why any woman would want to marry him. His dream is to marry and have children so he can occupy the ancestral manse that has no electricity or indoor plumbing.
This story is entertaining because Jason Brown has concocted a fun story and has the creative skills to do so, but that’s all it is. I’m afraid I crave something heavier. To give you an example of what I mean read “Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh.
In this story, the unnamed narrator is a woman living alone out in the country in New Mexico near the border. Times are tough, few people have jobs, drought is the norm. The temporal setting is the near future when climate change has taken its economic toll, but the story could be very close to now. Like the two other stories about wanting property, the narrator of this story is struggling to make ends meet so she can pay her property taxes, keep her home, and avoid becoming homeless person living out of her car. To scratch out a survivable income she makes realistic dolls that look like babies that have died for a very sad clientele. But a hobo immigrant steals her tools, so she’s forced to sculpt realistic dildoes for online buyers instead because they require fewer tools and resources.
There is a grim realism in “Useless Things” that hits you in the gut. The story scares us about the future. We feel the desperation, fear, and pain. The people in the story don’t feel like they were made up fit a story, even though they were.
I’m not saying fiction needs to be grim to be worthy. Joy’s struggle for identity in “Godmother Tea” is funny and light even though it’s about a serious existential crisis. But I am saying I want stories that make an emotional impact. They have to be about something I can connect with reality. I want stories that point to something other than themselves. Does that make sense?
Now this is just me. My take on BASS 2020 is probably extremely atypical. I’m old and tired of just being entertained, but I do know and understand the value of entertainment. Just watch Sullivan’s Travel (1941) to understand why I say that. I seek fiction where writers are driven to comment on reality, usually inspired by their angst, or some other powerfully felt emotion. I want stories that make me cry or laugh, or dazzle me with awe and insight. Creative and clever are amusing, earning some Brownie points, but they don’t satisfy my hunger for hardcore emotionality.