I always heave these fiction issues out of the mailbox with a deep sigh; they ought to excite me, as the once did, back in the day, but instead they just make me weary. Maybe it's because I know I'm not in them. I don't think so, though--I think that I prefer normal New Yorkers--they're more likely to take you by surprise. The fiction issues, on the other hand, always seem to give you something you're guaranteed to like, which means I'm guaranteed not to.
Jhumpa Lahiri's story, "Year's End," is unbelievably long, and it will surprise no one to learn that it's about love and family, set against a backdrop of New-World / Old-World tension. I have nothing against Lahiri, her writing is fluid and clear, but like a lot of contemporary literary fiction that people actually pay money for, it spends a hell of a long time saying absolutely obvious things. The narrator, a fully Americanized Indian college student, recalls a nurse speaking to him during his mother's final illness. "This is the worst part," the nurse says, referring to the days of waiting for death. "I realized that Mrs. Gharibian had been right," the narrator admits, "there had been nothing worse than waiting for it to come, that the void that followed was easier to bear than the solid weight of those days."
Didn't Tom Petty say all there was to say about this, back in 1981? Do we really need such detailed elaboration upon facts that every human being on earth already knows? To be fair, there is more to the story than this small sentiment, but not nearly enough. I kept asking myself, What Would Alice Munro Do? (Perhaps we should print up some W6 tee shirts bearing this slogan.) I had a good idea of what, and I wanted it real, real bad--it could have made this story a knockout. But Lahiri let me down. Instead, she ends the story with somebody burying photographs in the sand. Cue the strings.
Lore Segal's story, "The Arbus Factor," is slight, and hinges on a zinger--the smug upper-middle-class couple whose restuarant conversation we have been listening to for a page and a half...turn out to be OLD! Good God, we've been tricked! The woman goes into the ladies' room and looks in the mirror, and some kind of crone looks back! And here I thought we were reading about middle-aged boring rich people. And even Junot Diaz's "Alma" doesn't do it for me--I generally find it hard to fault Junot, and this piece crackles with the same energy as all his other stuff. But it's about a guy who falls for a Dominican girl with a nice ass and then he cheats on her and she dumps him. It ain't bad, but he's written it already.
And "Beginners," Tess Gallagher's retro-Carverian reconstruction, well--I couldn't get through it. Lish's edit is so, so, so, so much better. Don't get me wrong: at the end of his life, the more discursive writer inside Carver came into his own. Carver knew it--a couple of the stories he collected in Where I'm Calling From are in fact pre-Lish versions, and he knew at the time when he was right, and when Lish was right. (Case in point: "A Small, Good Thing." The long version is the right one.) And his final story, "Errand," was in my opinion his best story, and is one of my favorite stories, period. But Lish was way right about "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and I find this version painful to read. Like the Lahiri, it's needlessly elaborated; like the Diaz, it's a lesser work by a master of the form.
Maybe it's the weather, but I feel a terrible drear hanging over this issue. Every story's about the same damn stuff--love, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends. They aren't dead topics, for sure, but can we have maybe one weird story? Just one that conforms to nothing whatsoever?
Here's a list of topics, then--all of you, go write these and send them to The New Yorker. Quick, before they fill the summer fiction issue. Pick one at random and get working:
1) An astronaut on a voyage to Mars ends up someplace entirely unexpected.
2) A day in the life of a five-year-old mind reader.
3) The zoo employees go on strike.
4) Some townspeople are protesting the building of a new bridge, and one goes missing.
5) A woman loses the mayoral election by five votes.
6) A breakfast cereal designer runs out of ideas.
7) A solider in Iraq goes AWOL and is taken in by a cadre of disillusioned reporters.
8) A man tries to commit suicide by walking into the sea, but he can't get it to work.
9) An agricultural scientist is angry at the college where he works because they claimed ownership of his many potato hybrids, and so he plans revenge.
10) An adolescent girl, discovering she is adopted, decides to start a rock band.
Good luck! If they accept your story, I get ten percent.