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  • Ed Minus (bio)
The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gopnick. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. xxii + 292 pages. $14 pb; The Best American Poetry 2008, edited by Charles Wright. Scribner Poetry, 2008. xx + 196 pages. $16 pb; The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. xvi + 358 pages. $14 pb.

Each of the volumes under review here has a foreword by the series editor and an introduction by the year’s guest editor. Heidi Pitlor’s foreword for The Best American Short Stories 2008 is the shortest (two pages) and the least satisfactory of these preliminaries. She takes a put-upon tone and also blurs pertinent distinctions among definitions, classifications, and criteria. Her comments get to the point only when she summarizes the editor Salman Rushdie’s preferred qualities in short stories: energy, humor, surprise. I share those preferences, but of course none of the three is absolute. Energy can become frenetic, incoherent; humor can seem forced; surprise, contrived. Looking back at the twenty stories, I would not have guessed that liveliness figured as a prime consideration. Indeed two stories in particular could have used a pick-me-up: Danielle Evans’s humdrum “Virgins” and Steven Millhauser’s “The Wizard of West Orange,” one of the two longest stories at thirty pages. (The other thirty-pager, as you might guess, is by Alice Munro.) Millhauser reprises the eccentric scientist routine; and Munro, recalling the sometimes intuitive, sometimes irrational likes and dislikes of childhood, happens on precisely the surprising action that figures centrally in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula; Munro’s story also traces similar lifetime aftereffects.

Four distinctly different kinds of humor crop up among these stories. T. C. Boyle, whom I think of as a self-consciously hip and less genre-bound Stephen King, often seems, here and elsewhere, to be trying too hard for a giggle, sweating for spontaneity. But the more novel humor of Jonathan Lethem’s “The King of Sentences” drowns in preciosity. (Lethem is the only writer represented in both the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays for 2008. In his essay on plagiarism and attendant problems or nonproblems he avoids the tedium and strain of the story.) Karen Russell is one of three writers who appear in both the 2007 volume (edited by Stephen King) and in the present volume. The other two are Munro and Boyle. Russell’s story last year was “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”; this year it’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Those titles ought to tell you what you need to know. Russell will either divert you or make your teeth ache. [End Page 331] George Saunders, whose story “Puppy” certainly qualifies as Saundersesque, generally rises above diversion; he has more important matters in mind. He writes stories that are not only high-energy, oddly amusing, and unpredictable but also provocative. If it is possible to combine surrealism and post-modernism, Saunders has cornered that market. “Puppy,” along with Mark Wisniewski’s caper tale “Straightaway,” may rank as the most distinctively American of these stories.

At the other end of the spectrum is a story set in South Punjab (but not without certain typically American elements): “Nawabdin Electrician” by Daniyal Mueenuddin. It’s an episode in the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1913)—but not squarely in that tradition: Tagore’s stories, as I remember them, are more muted, their worlds even smaller and much quieter than Mueenuddin’s.

Nothing comes as a more felicitous surprise in any of these annual Best collections than sheer unmistakable excellence. The single story out of this year’s volume that I would not hesitate to call brilliant is “Man and Wife” by Katie Chase, her first published story (in the Missouri Review). Not at all a story that profits from summary or standard analysis, it is nonetheless compelling, unhinging, and astonishingly original, falling as it does somewhere between Barbie and Balthus, Kafka and comic strip.

The stories I haven’t mentioned struck me as no more (nor less) than competent. But in the spirit of full disclosure I should perhaps...


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