New short fiction: Good times ahead

April 13, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,special to the sun

Alice Munro is the master, the most accomplished short story writer working today. Among many new short fiction collections being published, it is an event that Knopf has issued her "Selected Stories" (545 pages, $30). With a silken hand Munro ranges among the multifarious conspiracies into which readers enter with the world, unknowingly plotting against their own transcendence.

Women stand at the center of these stories, striving for dignity and settling for sanity. "The most mortifying thing of all was simply hope," Munro writes in "The Beggar Maid," "which burrows so deceitfully at first, masks itself cunningly."

One person's story becomes another's. "Of course it's my mother I'm thinking of," the narrator of "Friend Of My Youth" suddenly interjects, close to the end of a story ostensibly about a woman named Flora. In "Differently," a woman's creative writing teacher complains that she is wearing him out, only in the next paragraph for them to be living together. "People make momentous shifts," Munro writes, "but not the changes they imagine." Every story in this collection is a masterpiece.

With classical elegance of form, William Trevor in "After Rain (Viking, 213 pages, $22.95) brilliantly isolates his characters in "a net of compromise and acceptance." Once something goes wrong it is never made right. Meanwhile he plumbs the subtleties of motivation so that you always know why people behave as they do. Ellie is married off to "The Potato Dealer," "expecting of the future only what she knew of the present."

Yet these stories are so richly imagined that they never seem deterministic. Indeed, after a miserable fortnight in Italy, Harriet in the title story perceives that she herself is the cause of why she is "unable to keep the men she loves in love with her."

When Trevor uses the present tense, it is to remind us that pain is habitual, perpetual. He's a master of the embedded epiphany, nowhere more strongly than in "Child's Play" which chronicles how "helplessness" is our "natural state." Loss is his great subject, from the death of a loved one, to the awful death of a friendship.

David Leavitt's new collection, "Arkansas: Three Novellas (Houghton Mifflin, 198 pages, $23) has created a stir because its first story, "The Term Paper Artist," was purchased and then dropped by Esquire. An editor resigned in the wake of the brouhaha. Ostensibly a roman a clef, it's a hilarious exercise in irony and self-hatred. Leavitt introduces himself with historical accuracy as "Dave," a writer who had been sued by "an English poet" (read Stephen Spender) "over a novel I had written because it was based in part on an episode from his life." The readers hear as well about "the hugely famous novelist cringing to learn that her university colleague has won the Nobel Prize for which she has shamelessly campaigned," an obvious reference to Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison, colleagues at Princeton.

As soon as "Dave" exchanges his literary skills for sex with male UCLA students, however, we are in the realm of fiction. And, yes, the sex is explicit. "Do I cause offense?" Leavitt asks the reader at one of the raunchier moments.

By the end of this tour de force he has "disguised fiction as his life," rather than, as most novelists do, "disguising his life as fiction." The third story in the collection, "Saturn Street," is unsparing of the moral inadequacy of the narrator and it too is compelling.

Paul Theroux offers "The Collected Stories" (Viking, 660 pages) Known for his travel books ("The Great Railway Bazaar") as well as his fiction ("The Mosquito Coast"), Theroux is an anthropologist of human behavior. The settings are exotic, like Saigon, where the wives of foreign service drones are on the side of the Viet Cong.

Theroux depicts what it's like to live in modern times. In "Sinning With Annie," a 13-year-old married to a 12-year-old finds that marriage interrupts his algebra homework. Don't miss "Zombie," which depicts the novelist Jean Rhys approaching dementia and vicious toward women who haven't worked as hard as she, like a poet's widow: "She is to her late husband's work what Anne Hathaway's cottage is to "Hamlet." With breathtaking range, Theroux chronicles the manners of that strange tribe, Homo sapiens, hunting him down from London to Lusaka.

Among other worthy candidates: Julie Hecht's "Do The Window Open?" (Random House), "The Stories : So Far of Deborah Eisenberg" (The Noonday Press), "Bear And His Daughter: Stories" by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin) and "Tabloid Dreams: Stories" by Robert Olen Butler (Holt).

Joan Mellen teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Templ University. The most recent of her 13 books is "Hellman and Hammett." It will be published in paperback in August by Harper Perennial.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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