The New Yorker Fiction Issue

Not long ago, while talking to my wife and brother about The New Yorker, I said “I never read the fiction.”  They gave me identical looks of surprise, confusion, and horror, almost like Jack Torrence’s wife stumbling upon her husband’s typewriter.  This look inspired me to pick up some back issues (starting with the previous two fiction issues) and read the fiction.  Shockingly, I discovered that the fiction in The New Yorker is excellent (who knew?).  The fiction issues are particularly great, featuring prominent, superb writers.  I now believe that if you want to follow contemporary literature, at least enough to understand the conversations people have about it, you really just need to do two things: keep up with the reviews in The New York Times and read the fiction in The New Yorker.

It would be hard for this year’s fiction issue to live up to the last couple: the 2009 issue featured stories by Tea Obreht, Edna O’Brien, and Jonathan Franzen, and last year’s “20 under 40” issue featured a lot of great writing.

George Saunders’ “Home” immediately puts the reader into discomfort.  The narrator enters a familiar but terribly messy room, and he gets surprised by an eccentric stranger whose conversation is difficult.  The prose itself doesn’t allow the reader to relax: it is dialogue, back and forth, including the “__ said,” so that the reader can’t get comfortable in long stretches of prose, but rather tries to follow the sense of what people are saying.  Slowly the situation the narrator finds himself in is revealed to the reader, in ways both very funny and very sad.

You may think it a bit much to say that I read literature for the salvation of my immortal soul (and it probably is).  Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Asleep in the Lord” is a concretely grounded story about the complexities and real world difficulties of a religious search and a religious desire to do good and live well.  It has an almost dialogical, polyphonic feel, as a breadth of characters, some appearing very briefly, embody or express different angles of human and religious efforts and failings.

Lauren Groff’s “Above and Below” starts out with unpromising cliche, but that doesn’t last.  In cold, direct prose, Groff tells the story of a former graduate student/college professor who becomes homeless.  The detached narration makes the story all the more devastating: the unemotional prose puts the detailed focus on the concrete, physical, material life of a destitute woman.  That she roams around a college town, remembering her previous life with books and grammar (her few abstract thoughts focus on the new meaninglessness of those past concerns) is inspired: the grim life of the homeless, focused on food, shelter, and little else, contrasts against the complacent comforts of university life, a life the protagonist knows well.  It’s hard to read the story and not realize that this very act of reading a short story in The New Yorker is, in fact, pointless, a luxurious comfort that has nothing to do with hunger and cold.

The New Yorker fiction issue always makes it worth your while to put down whatever else you’ve been currently reading for a short bit.

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