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Reviewing The Atlantic’s Fiction Issue

PUBLISHED: April 23, 2010

In December, I took a look at The Atlantic’s then-new partnership with Amazon to publish two short stories a month on the Kindle. At the time, I was hopeful about the partnership but critical about the cost ($3.99 per story) and the lack of infrastructure, such as social networking tools, that would help to promote the stories. I was also concerned that The Atlantic was making these stories available to a rather limited audience—only Kindle owners—rather than to the magazine’s 400,000 or so subscribers. To The Atlantic’s credit, however, they have maintained a nice selection of stories, including, as promised, work by new writers. Their May issue contains the magazine’s annual fiction supplement, showing that the magazine is still committed to providing fiction to its readers, albeit only once a year.

So how does the 2010 fiction supplement fare? On two important fronts, accessibility and presence of young writers, The Atlantic has done quite well. The entire issue is available online, although those readers may be missing out on the print edition’s elegant design, which nicely integrates several poems and drawings. Every story, except for those by T.C. Boyle and Jerome Charyn, is from a relatively new or young writer: E.C. Osondu (a Nigerian and the winner of the 2009 Caine Prize), Ryan Mecklenburg, Katie Williams, Stuart Nadler, and Amanda Briggs. The Atlantic should be commended for so readily embracing quality young writers, though the presence of only one non-American is dispiriting.

Perhaps it’s the lack of non-American writers that gives this volume its sense of near-uniformity. To be sure, no story here is a dud, but several don’t rise much above basic tales of suburban or familial discontent, though Mecklenburg’s “Hopefulness,” about a cuckolded husband who becomes obsessed with his Neighborhood Watch duties, makes interesting use of the financial crisis. A foreclosed house across the street from his is slowly looted by residents of his fairly prosperous neighborhood, and even the protagonist eventually finds himself getting in on the act. It’s a smoothly drawn story, but one that doesn’t reach very far beyond the grey interior of its severely depressed hero’s life.

Stuart Nadler’s “Visiting” begins slowly, with Jonathan, a divorced father, taking his unruly 15-year-old son, Marc, to visit the grandfather that Jonathan had for years claimed was dead. It eventually picks up speed, with a sudden late revelation, but I found myself more charmed by Linda Gregerson’s “Varenna,” a poem nestled near the end of the story that draws some gorgeous images of the Alps.

A welcome twist on these family dramas comes in the form of Katie Williams’ “Bone Hinge,” which tells the pleasantly bizarre story of conjoined twins—they’re connected by a small bone “hinge” at the base of their spines—living in what appears to be a Depression-era Southern town. Their domineering father runs a dye factory, which Williams evokes with some technicolor descriptions: Matthew, a suitor of one of the twins and worker at the dye factory, had hands that “were stained a different color every few weeks—blue, yellow, green, sometimes a dream-snarled purple.” That last phrase is enviable, as are others like “the silkworm webbing that hung from the trees above us in a marvelous cottony cancer.” The story seems on the verge of dipping into some gothic magical realism, but Williams gently scales it back, maintaining a light, occasionally moving, touch.

The other two stories I’d add to this top tier—and probably place them just a notch higher—are E.C. Osondu’s “A Simple Case” and T.C. Boyle’s “The Silence.” The former concerns Paiko, a young Nigerian man who, while waiting for his prostitute girlfriend to finish her workday, gets caught up in a police raid. He later becomes a victim of police corruption, eventually finding himself before a frightening but charismatic jailhouse leader who calls himself “the Presido,” leader of the “Jungle Republic.”

Boyle’s piece also allows for a trip into a foreign land, this time closer to home. Jeremy Clutter has taken on the name Akosha and joined a Buddhist commune in a remote part of the Arizona desert, where he’s agreed for be silent for three years, three months, and three days—“the very term undertaken by the Dalai Lamas themselves.” Boyle’s prose is as shimmeringly precise as ever: he describes the commune’s leader as “long-nosed and tall, with a slight stoop, watery blue eyes, and two permanent spots of moisture housed in his outsized nostrils.” The story adroitly shifts between Akosha’s quest for solitude—”the days became unglued, loosening and flapping in the wind that swept the desert in a turmoil of cast-off spines and seed pods”—his attraction to his commune “wife” (supposedly a platonic pairing), and the comedy and danger that emerge when people are forced to be silent in a brutal landscape.

The fiction supplement is rounded out by a number of good poems—I particularly recommend the brief piece from the always worthwhile Kevin Young—nonfiction pieces from Richard Bausch and Joyce Carol Oates, and an interview on e-books with Paul Theroux. The nonfiction pieces are decent, with the interviewer asking Theroux some forthright questions about his alleged misanthropy and Theroux providing intriguing answers throughout. Bausch’s essay, “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” is a lamentation against facile books that promise to teach people how to write. His thesis is sound: surely reading great fiction is the best education, but some people will never see fiction writing as more than what Bausch calls a “pose,” a way to be a writer, to have written or been published, rather than finding essential pleasure in the work. I wonder then why this essay was included here; Flannery O’Connor lectured on the exact same subject a half-century ago, and her thoughts can be found in the essay “Writing Short Stories,” collected in Mystery and Manners.

The final piece here is Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” about the death of her husband, Raymond Smith. It’s a searingly personal and mournful work. Oates is honest and, understandably, deeply emotional about Smith’s death, and the essay illuminates both her personal life and the way that teaching has acted as a sort of salve. It’s certainly not an uplifting piece to end on, but few readers will leave it unmoved and, frankly, concerned about Oates’ well-being.

In sum, this is a worthwhile collection of writing, and I’m glad that The Atlantic is sticking with this annual feature. Their inclusion of so many unestablished writers is heartening. But the lack of dynamism, and the strict adherence to realism and, save one story, American settings, is frustrating. Hopefully next year, The Atlantic will retain some of these good qualities while venturing farther afield.


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