Three from recent issues of The New Yorker. In mid-June, the magazine started featuring "20 Under 40," twenty writers under the age of 40. It seems this will run through the fall. I'm behind on my New Yorker reading, and I'm not approaching the stories in any kind of order. Just whatever's next on the pile.
268. The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Galchen from the June 14-21, 2010 issue. To be blunt: I really didn't like this story. I read it, and as I was reading I hoped I'd find something favorable to say about it. The best I can say is that it is not badly written. But I thoroughly disliked the characters and the fact that the story doesn't seem to go anywhere and the abrupt ending that failed to resolve anything at all. If all of that was the author's intention, then she did a good job. The main character is either incredibly self-involved or is the stereotype of the dumb blond who just doesn't get what's going on around her. Both of the people she expresses her problems to (her brother and a close friend) are equally self-involved. The main character's agent seems like the only person who might have a clue as to anything, and we never actually see him on-screen, just get a summary of a phone conversation. And I realize that there are very good stories out there (some of which I've reviewed here) that have ambiguous endings and lack complete resolution. This story's ending doesn't just leave things hanging, it feels tacked on.
269. The Erlking by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum from the July 5, 2010 issue. I've only read one other Bynum story, Yurt, reviewed earlier this year. The main character in that story struck me as disconnected from herself and the world around her, and the main characters in this story strike me in much the same way. Kate, the mother, and Ruthie/Ondine/Dorothy, the young daughter, both are wrapped up in their own heads (as so many of us so often are) that even the simplest social interaction between them becomes something absolutely different to each. Bynum works the neat trick of alternating pov without making any sharp breaks in the narrative (and the few sharp breaks there are don't occur at a POV change but in the midst of Kate's thoughts, providing us with some indication of the recent past). Both mother and daughter are caught up in their own fantasy worlds, although Kate's fantasies are of the mundane kind: find the right school for her daughter, find the right colored doll, and the child's problems will disappear, while Ruthie's are typical child flights of fantasy: the strange man and the Renaissance Faire-like day at a nearby school surely has an amazing surprise gift meant only for her, if only she could get her mother to talk to the man. The story takes on a darker tone near the end, as the mother's searching for the right doll overwhelms her attention to what her daughter is doing. The ending is a bit ambiguous -- is the last paragraph in Ruthie's imagination or is it real -- but compared to the story above, the ambiguity is a satisfying ending.
270. The Dredgeman's Revelation by Karen Russell from the July 26, 2010 issue. Karen Russell is one of those writers I feel I've read more of than I really have. I've read Vampires In the Lemon Grove twice now, and St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves once, although I can't seem to locate the review of that latter story here in the community. Perhaps I mis-tagged it. Anyway -- I loved both of those stories, taking genre tropes and tweaking them. This story works in a very different way. There is no obvious genre feel to the story at the beginning, unless you consider "Depression-era Dust Bowl Lit" to be a genre like SF or Horror. The story is about an adopted son who runs away from home during the Depression and ends up on first one, then another, work crew in Florida dredging a swamp. Most of the story has a very Oh Brother Where Art Thou / Grapes of Wrath feel: the boy is optimistic despite hard times, does what he has to to survive, doesn't talk about his past with his coworkers. You can almost feel the tension building like humidity on a summer day: something is going to happen, things seem too happy. Sure enough, something does happen -- something that caught me so off-guard I don't want to spoil it here. In its final page the story takes on a genre aspect, and in fact reminded me of a very different movie than the two referenced above. Very much enjoyed this one, and will be surprised if it doesn't end up in Best American Short Stories in 2011.