The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Short Story Collections

Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review: Short Story Collections

If the 2009 anthologies I've read were mostly solid, competent works that barely stood out from each other, the 2009 short story collections I read this year present a different problem.  This might have been one of the best years in recent years I've had in terms of reading recently-released single-author collections.  When a just-released (in Spanish) collection of Julio Cortázar's previously-uncollected stories and prose non-fiction finishes eighth out of nine and it's a damn good collection, what might be said about the collections I ranked above it?

Perhaps "hot damn" ought to be the phrase to describe this company of great works?  Or perhaps "holy shit, these are good!" might be more apt?  Regardless, the three collections that I talk about at length contain stories that were almost uniformly very excellent and at worst just merely very damn good. 

Terrence Holt, In the Valley of the Kings

From my original review:

The opening story to Terrence Holt's debut story collection In the Valley of the Kings, " 'Ο Λογοσ", serves as a represenative piece. The opening paragraph quoted above sets the stage for an apocalyptic tale to follow, as one by one, "word" by "word," people are infected with a new plague that is carried not by microbes, but instead by the etching of "the word" on their flesh. Holt's matter-of-fact, clinical prose (he has alternated between being a writing instructor, medical doctor, and storywriter for the past 15 years) is all the more chilling here because the reader knows something dreadful is happening, but the prose purposely understates this in order to allow the reader's imagination to create more and more dreadful consequences for what is transpiring within the story. By the time the final paragraph is reached, the tension has built to the point that one begins to wonder if the narrator has gone mad...or if we will.

The second story, "My Father's Heart," is much shorter (5 pages compared to the 16 devoted for the first story), but it too contains an unsettling image:

I have raged at it of late: Leech, I cry: Blooksucker. It burps clear saline in mild protest; innocence sits on every valve. I am not taken in. It has not been so many years since I have seen it raging in its turn, swollen to the size of a dirigible, as full of gas and fire, stopping raffic across four lanes of Sixth Avenue. A cab driver had refused to carry it: "I don't haul meat." I spent the balance of that day in terror, cradling the jar in my lap (we took a bus), looking into it each time the saline sloshed. It refused to look up. (p. 29)
The imagery would have been at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story; the juxtaposition of the mudane (taking the bus) and the unreal (the heart being sentient and prone to outbursts) serving to underscore the strangeness of the situation. The resolution to this story is emotional, not as it was in the first, but in a way that reminded me of how family members, whether or not their hearts literally act for themselves, clash and bond over crises.


But the end of dreams and self-delusions is not necessarily bad. In many respects, the final paragraph to "Apocalyse" could serve as the epigraph for In the Valley of the Kings:

But before the end we will speak once more, of everything that matters: of the brightness of the moon; of the birds still flying dark against the sky; of the man who brought me here; of the hours that she waited; of what wwe would name the child; of the grace of everything that dies; of the love that moves the sun and other stars. (p. 223)

Through it all, In the Valley of the Kings is a true tour de force of exploring the human condition(s). At times, I was reminded of the best of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. Holt's prose tantalizes. It hints, it promises, but at the end there are no true revelations within the text itself. It is up to the reader to fill in the spots purposely left blank. It is up to the reader to provide meaning, to establish hope, to ward off despair. Holt's collection simply is great, provocative storytelling at its best and it deserves serious consideration for any and all awards for which it may be eligible.
 This collection will also be featured in tomorrow's list of my 25 Favorite Fictions.

 Peter Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother

Some people discovered Peter Beagle through The Last Unicorn or the animated adaptation of it.  Others, like myself, did not discover Beagle's work until recently.  For myself, We Never Talk About My Brother contains magical story after magical story, with very few dull or uninspired pieces.

I thought so highly of this work that I mailed my only copy overseas so someone very close to me would have the opportunity to read this stunning work without having to wait for years for a translation that might never come.  Needless to say, she loved it.  All I know is that reading We Never Talk About My Brother has since persuaded me to discover Beagle's novels and that too has been almost as rewarding of an experience.

Brian Evenson, Fugue State

Evenson has released two excellent books this year (the other, the novel Last Days, will be covered tomorrow). In his latest collection, Fugue State, Evenson continues exploring some of the darkest parts of our cultural and personal makeups.

While I did not get the chance to review this at length this summer when I read it, I will be re-reading it carefully in the next couple of months, as I found several of the stories to be so unsettling (in the good sense!) that I want to take my time to reconsider what Evenson is stating here.  All I know is that after my cursory first read, I came away impressed with this collection.

Other Collections:

Gene Wolfe, The Best of Gene Wolfe

Caitlín Kiernan, A is for Alien

Zoran Živković, Impossible Stories II

Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes 

Julio Cortázar, Papeles inesperados

Otsuichi, ZOO

Any collections that you read this year that merit consideration for future reads from myself or from others? 


Joe said...

This year has been light on collections for me (5 total), and the best two were easily the Beagle you mentioned and then Beagle's Strange Roads - a three story chapbook which was later collected into We Never Talk About My Brother.

These are my first experiences with Peter Beagle. I've been missing out.

Anonymous said...

I've also read We Never Talk About My Brother (one of my favourite books this year). After that I bought and read The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche (also from Beagle, not so good as We Never Talk...)
The Best of Michael Moorcock was also good and I discovered Tim Lebbon in As the Sun Goes Down (very very good)

Lsrry said...

The problem with making lists is that sometimes one can forget to write down something. Thanks for reminding me about The Best of Michael Moorcock, as that one was an enjoyable read. When I'm off work this afternoon, I'll edit the post to add that collection in.

Anonymous said...

And I totally forgot one of the best books I read this year - As Atribulações de Jacques Bonhomme, from Telmo Marçal

Nephtis said...

Is this only for works released in 2009? There are two 2008 notable releases:

Tempting The Gods: The Selected Stories Of Tanith Lee Volume One (Oct 2008)


A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects by Catherynne Valente (May 2008)

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