Showing posts from October, 2009

Carried Away by the Lower River

Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” (published by The New Yorker last month) is a great story. Its full text is available here. Okay, so it’s a bit uneven. It seemed to miss a step when it started, but then it catches on and it keeps you hooked until the very end—when it offers no easy solutions, psychological or otherwise. More on this in a minute.

“The Lower River” is a story about an elderly American man, called Altman, who travels back to the tiny town of Malabo, in the south of Malawi. Altman had been a teacher there for four years when he was younger, and he remembers it fondly (“his Eden,” he calls it). People quickly remember him when he returns, they almost idolize him, and he glows with the warm reception: if only people back home could see him now, he thinks. He feels nothing has changed (“It was as it had been—[…] a world that was ancient in its simplicities”).

But things have changed. The village leader is a young and wily man called Manyenga, who greets Altman with uncertaint…


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Alarcón in BASS 2009

This year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories is off to a dour start. The series editor’s Foreword tells us that, “[a]t this time, all sorts of publishing seem destined to disappear, or at least exit from this challenging time enormously scathed. I have talked with editors who claim that literature is dead” (p. ix).

Then we get this edition’s editor, Alice Sebold, elaborating further in her Introduction: “We are living, as I write this, in the worst economic conditions almost any of us can remember. In the world of publishing, good people have lost their jobs, and more job losses are on the horizon. Whole divisions of venerable publishing houses are falling away. Historic names are disappearing overnight, there one day and gone the next. The individuals who have survived so far are not quite sure why, and spend hours every day doing a job—editing quality fiction—that the powers that be are beginning to deem no longer necessary” (p. xv). In such a milieu, she goes on to say, bes…

Apostasía del culto a los escritores

Hace un tiempo alguien me dijo que evitaba los eventos de escritores, porque prefería leer a los escritores y no tener que conocerlos. Quien me lo dijo es un escritor. Ayer precisamente tuve la oportunidad de comprobarlo.

Desde hace varios meses no asistía a eventos de escritores: tal vez el último fue la terrorífica conferencia en la que todos los miembros del público resultaron ser poetas hiperpublicados (y desconocidos); un poco antes, estuve en el Hay (que incluyó un recital de poesía algo desencantador). Y no es que hubiera perdido el interés en esos eventos (hace tan sólo unas semanas estaba consultando la programación del festival de The New Yorker). Ayer, en cambio, me llevé una impresión muy distinta, que confirmó lo que me había dicho ese escritor.

El evento de ayer reunió a dos autores conocidos. Los entrevistó una persona reputada en el campo del periodismo cultural. Del público no brotaron preguntas bochornosas, ni soliloquios de elogio propio, ni nada semejante. El evento …

The Appeal of Breathing

Lydia Peelle first published the story “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” in One Storyback in 2007. The story was picked up by Pushcart Prize XXXII. It then became the title story in Peelle’s debut short story collection, published this year by HarperCollins; it’s gotten good reviews. Peelle was recently named one of the five writers under 35 by the National Book Award (a distinction celebrated by One Story). All of these seemed like good reasons to read the story. I couldn’t get it from One Story (it’s sold out), so I read it in her book.

The story is narrated by a hopeless woman whose life has turned rather messy. Her husband left her recently; we find out he had been cheating on her for years (looking for fun women, he said), and even then they still see each other on occasion and have meaningless sex. She has an office job, which dully consumes her days.

The story is kick-started by a chance encounter with a herpetologist in a crowded, cold bus. The herpetologist is a univers…


The New Yorker and Zoetrope are up there among the most prestigious venues for short stories, and actor and writer Sam Shepard published something on both, a few weeks apart. So why not comment on both stories at once?I read “Land of the Living” first. The New Yorker has it on its website, here. It’s a simple enough story about a family (mother, father, two kids) from Minnesota that goes on vacation to Cancún. The tale looks pretty uneventful, stirred by funny dialogues and the typical stuff that goes awry on vacation, until, out of the blue, the wife asks her husband if he has a girlfriend. He denies it promptly, but he spends more time and energy remarking on how inappropriate it is to talk about this in front of the kids, and asking where she’s getting her ideas from. Your cell phone, she says when asked; a woman called. It could’ve been anyone, he protests. This is a first-person story, narrated by the husband, so we could’ve gotten a flat denial any time; we don’t. The story ends…

A Deep Bite

I’m not exactly a fan of vampire literature. But, heck, so many people are these days that it’s up there as a major cultural phenomenon. The bookstore I visit most frequently has a whole flank that houses vampire books (of course, Stephanie Meyer has her own glimmering niche); people write down their name and number on pads, waiting to be called when the books they’re craving get in. Writers have been commenting on this in the papers (like so). Short blog posts have ignited involved discussions on vampire popularity, with some people saying it’s nothing new, and others claiming it is. On top of all this, someone in my family has joined the ranks of authors writing vampire novels—with enough success to prompt sequels.So I wonder what’s behind the immense popularity of vampire literature. Industry reports must have very detailed answers, but I had a hazy, makeshift explanation of my own. My guess was that it had something to do with blood, and that it had something to do with materialis…

Joyland: Malla’s Internet and Meno’s Ghost

I just discovered Joyland, a short fiction magazine with an interesting partition: they’ve splintered the magazine into cities, and each city has its own editor and manages its own submissions (submissions must come from people who’ve lived in the city, but the stories don’t need to be set in the city). It’s an interesting concept.Well, on my first promenade through Joyland, I chanced upon two authors I’ve commented on before: I had liked Pasha Malla’s story “Monsters,”on Zoetrope Summer 2009, and I had enjoyed Joe Meno’s One Story piece, “Children are the Only Ones who Blush.”On Joyland, I first read the story by Pasha Malla called “The Other Internet.” I didn’t like this one nearly as much as “Monsters.” It’s an interesting thought about a free and communal Internet, spread thin through 16 paragraphs, without any characters or actions. (I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s not a story because it lacks such things.) It reminded me of Vonnegut’s brilliant description of a war movie sho…

El perseguidor

Hace poco me referí a un experimento con un puñado de cuentos de Cortázar y de García Márquez. Hoy vuelvo a Cortázar. La razón es que, con ocasión de un cuento reciente, alguien me recomendó muy enfáticamente “El perseguidor”. Es difícil desatender las sugerencias hechas con tanto ímpetu, así que hoy aproveché para cazar y leer el cuento de Cortázar. Lo leí en esta antología; descubrí en Internet una versión desordenada (y quizás con errores), aquí.Lo primero que salta a la vista es la extensión del cuento. Ocupa más de 50 páginas en la edición que leí, lo que lo pone en un limbo entre cuento largo y novela corta. Procede parsimonioso por esas 50 páginas, con algunos destellos que recompensan la lectura, sin llegar a generar gran suspenso o fuertes emociones. El cuento es un estudio de un artista soberbio, pero el estudio no se hace desde la tarima, durante sus presentaciones geniales, sino desde el andén, mientras el artista se droga y colapsa y desvaría. (Y desvaría mucho, a veces e…

A Note on Plotting the Plot

Plot is one of those things readers of fiction are very familiar with. It’s probably what got us to read fiction in the first place. Besides, everyone with a sense of sequence will have a sense of plot, so it’s not just something habitual readers of fiction will feel close to home.Here’s a fairly simple definition: according to the Norton Introduction to Fiction, the plot is “the arrangement of the action” (p. 71). There’s a nice take on this subject in chapter 6 of Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. He says that the “theory of narrative postulates the existence of a level of structure—what we generally call ‘plot’—independent of any particular language or representational medium. Unlike poetry, which gets lost in translation, plot can be preserved in translation from one language or one medium into another: a silent film or a comic strip can have the same plot as a short story” (p. 84). A plot is never wholly in the story. It is an abstraction, a summary of…

Un desencuentro

Un escritor me contó hace poco que fue jurado en un concurso de libros de cuentos. Eran cinco jurados, y participaron más de 150 libros. Cada jurado recibió unos 30 libros, y en una semana tenía que escoger cinco. Y esta fue su confesión honesta: dado que eran 30 libros de más o menos 200 páginas cada uno, era imposible leerlos todos en una semana; por lo tanto, si había alguna frase desastrosa en la primera página de un libro, o algo particularmente débil, el libro quedaba inmediatamente descalificado. Puede parecer antirromántico o injusto, pero en las condiciones del concurso me pareció hasta sensato el método.Decidí ponerlo a prueba con un libro de cuentos ya publicado. Lo seleccioné al azar en una librería: la colección de cuentos Desencuentros, del chileno Luis Sepúlveda (Barcelona: Tusquets [1997]). El primer cuento se llama “El último faquir”; está disponible aquí. No sé si se deba considerar una frase desastrosa, pero esta, la segunda frase del cuento, me quitó casi todas las…