Arts Desk

Six Great Works of Short Fiction From 2011

Short-story collections have a way of getting, er, short shrift when top-10 season rolls around. In part that's because they have to meet an impossible standard: A novel is usually obligated to sustain only one tone and a handful of themes across its pages, while the short-story writer has to play with multiple tones and themes across 15 or 20 pieces. But if start-to-finish great collections are hard to come by, plenty of excellent short fiction found its way into book form in 2011. Here are six of my favorites.

"My Meeting With Mrs. Nixon"/"I Didn’t Meet Her," from Ann Beattie, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. Reviewers have been cranky—if not outright pissed—at Beattie’s book for being a bait-and-switch, as if it promised to shed light on the former First Lady’s life and then failed to. But the book wasn’t never meant to be a biography of Patricia Nixon, just one writer’s study of the inherent compromises and frustrations that come with making up stories about real people. (Maybe a lot of critical frustration could’ve been avoided if the book had been titled Ann Beattie: A Novelist Imagines a Life instead.) In this pair of pieces, Beattie pulls a bait-and-switch of an endearing sort, describing meeting Pat Nixon at Woodies as a child, then revealing that no such meeting happened—in the process laying bare the trusswork of fiction (not to mention a lot of invented memoirs).

"Family Life," from Quim Monzó, Guadalajara. The opening story in the Catalan author’s collection imagines a grotesque ritual among a family in which one finger is severed from a hand on one’s ninth birthday. Armand, the story’s hero, is understandably creeped out by how easygoing everybody is about this: "They aren’t chopping your neck off. It’s only a finger, and not even the most important one at that," a cousin tells him. With perfectly tuned black humor, Monzo allegorizes the chopping (and the anxiety it causes) into a riff on the arbitrariness of tradition.

"The Staying Freight," from Alan Heathcock, Volt. Wrecked by the death of his son, a man wanders the wilderness before falling into a community where he sets himself up to be beaten for entertainment. It’s a brutal act of penance, and Heathcock makes every lash hurt: "That’s my wild man. That’s my rock," his keeper creepily exhorts. In its crazed surreality, the story lays bare a mood of misery that feels real and authentic.

"Tess," from Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories. A steady if little-known presence in literary magazines for decades, Pearlman writes beautifully about children, who amplify feelings of emotional uncertainty and unfinished-ness. The child in this heartbreaking story is an infant caught in limbo due to a terminal illness, and as the narrative shifts between the hospital counsel and the infant's mother, the story grows thick with moral frustration and emotional pain in just a handful of pages.

Chapter 22, David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. Wallace’s unfinished posthumous novel is so messy that the whole thing is hard to recommend. But there's greatness in The Pale King: You just have to skip ahead to this hundred-page chapter, which stands by itself just fine and chronicles the redemption of Chris Fogle, a directionless man who is saved—truly, with a religious intensity—to be an accountant for the IRS. "I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic," Fogle is told, and the miracle of the story is that it convinces you that no statement could be more true.

"We Others," from Steven Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories. The ghost story that anchors this retrospective of Millhauser’s work follows one ghost’s business in granular detail. "Our desire is infused with a darker, more ferocious longing: the desire for all that we have ceased to be," the narrator tells us, stressing the point that his purgatory isn’t dissimilar from our own everyday feelings of disconnection. The passages in first person plural only bolster the creepiness. You’ll be one of us too, that "we" suggests. Just you wait.

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