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Stories to read twice

December 20, 2011

Sometimes a story comes along that strikes me so much I have to read it twice.

Usually this is attributed to authors who I really appreciate: I’ve read more Raymond Carver stories more times than I can recount, and I’m often especially struck by the short works of George Saunders, Jonathan Lethem (whose short works are, in my mind, superior to his longer, more self-indulgent ones). As a writer of primarily short fiction, I love to read it, and I love when it strikes me.

Color me struck by Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms”, originally published by McSweeney’s and reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2011. It’s a collection I wrote about in my inaugural post, about how the editors thought everything in it was of quality but plotless.

“Phantoms”, then, surprised me. It so thoroughly captures the spirit of genre-bending that I couldn’t help but appreciate it. The story is structured like an objective report on the appearance of the titular phantoms in a small American town. The phantoms, obviously, are metaphorical, but they are treated as real, factual entities, discussed with a cold scientific awareness, emotion only occasionally bleeding through in smaller flash fiction like pieces describing individual reactions to them, describing people’s individual phantoms.

It’s a great story. It’s the second story in the collection to mine similar themes to what I’ve written about in my own fiction (the other, Sam Lipsyte’s “The Dungeon Master” was both closer to the story I’d written before and also further off in strange, archaic ways). My parents watch pretty much exclusively television shows about ghosts (along with classic 50’s sitcoms and Country Music Television), and one of the moments that has most stuck in my memory was imagining seeing a ghost as a child. It’s a topic I love to write about because there are so many themes ghosts can represent that are relevant to my world view, to my fiction: a fear of death, a fear of being forgotten, a fear of remembering.

“Phantoms” doesn’t touch on any of those points, but it shows how fantastic elements can work in literary fiction. I love stories about small things – family, love, etc – but there’s only so many of them I can read before fatigue sets in. It’s telling when I experience this lack of interest even in a collection of the absolute best short stories of the year. I love reading well-crafted fiction, and there’s an incredible amount of variety to literary fiction, but sometimes you have to ask: what’s the point? If I, a fairly above average reader willing to invest time and energy and money into buying and reading a collection of literary short fiction, don’t want to read story after story of disenfranchisement with no real punch line, then who will?

Again, not to parrot my first post, but it’s something I’ve come to realize in my own writing: what I want to write isn’t something conforming to someone else’s definition of mastery, but instead something I’m going to want to read twice. Sure, not anyone can create a work I want to read once, but it takes a special kind of writer for me to read it twice. It’s the kind of story I’ll keep locked away in my head, the kind of writing that will inform my own work.

That’s the kind of fiction I want to read.

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