Maybe there are not enough lists in the world.
In that spirit, now that the entire series has been published, I address The New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” by refining it down to an even thinner and more rarified number. Is this possible, the reader may ask—or prudent? Why not try, I say to the first question, and prudent, who knows: if it were a contest, the following are those I would declare winner and runners up. But it is not a contest, and perhaps all this choosing actually reflects is one reader’s head and heart. So let me ask: fiction, fiction, what do you make of me?
After viewing a painting in the bedroom of her male acquaintance, a married New York City writer makes use of a tragedy that befell him in childhood: two close friends of his, the creators of the painting, were fed sleeping pills and burned to death in a forest by their suicidal mother. With the proverbial fine-toothed brush, Krauss’s story succinctly unknots the psychological effects of necessary borrowing in the life of a writer.
We move from initial obsession (“In the taxi home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children: the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale faces of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails.”) to a sort of catharsis (“[It was] as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.”) to the beginnings of reckoning (“In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”).
Rendered as testimony in a courtroom, Krauss’s story probes questions of guilt and innocence in the imaginative life both slyly and directly. Like the hook to a catchy song, this one rekindled in my mind days and weeks after I had first read it.
4. Daniel Alarcón “Second Lives”
“People talk a lot these days about virtual reality, second lives, digital avatars. It’s a concept I’m fully conversant with, of course.”: the younger son of South American parents compelled to return from Baltimore years before his birth due to an expired visa narrates the story of his older brother’s immersion in America, where old Baltimore friends agree to take the older brother into their Birmingham, Alabama home in the 1980s—and how his now distant family south of the equator struggles with what to communicate to him.
Alarcón takes on the human side of heavy socio-political realities with a light hand. His narrator whose words, at times, seethe with resentment sees in the memory of his older brother a bully whose tactics mirror the dark side of a seductive, all encompassing American mythos:
Just before he left, he’d warned me with bared teeth, frightening as only older brothers can be, not to touch a thing. In case he came back. If I were to change anything, Francisco said, he’d know.
“How?” I asked. “How will you know?”
3. C.E. Morgan “Twins” (subscription required)
Scope is something I admire in fiction, the willingness to address a wider world through the restricted window of a short story, and Morgan’s premise is rich with scope: twins, one light skinned (Mickey) and one dark (Allmon), born of the same black mother, navigate the perils and thrills of childhood while longing for their far off Irish American father.
“Twins” opens with the kind of wide-lens portrait of a city (in this case Cincinnati) that’s found in the novels of Balzac, but zips in, just as quickly, on the vibrant, vulnerable lives of the characters. Of Allmon, Morgan writes: “He learned to wait before he knew what waiting was, learned to want before he had the words to want with.”
Neither does she eschew the lyrical, a style which perfectly matches the kind of longing her characters harbor:
“Look,” his father said again, and [Allmon] looked and all he would remember later was the river like a snake, and barely the city at all—but what a city! A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, forming the circlet of a crown. A jagged cityscape of steel and brick and glass, with its own bright nightless burn and, beyond it, the fretful, historied amplitude of Kentucky, that netherworld. This was Cincinnati—the capital of pork, the first truly American city—sprawled before the eyes of two little boys under the momentary aegis of one Mike Shaughnessy…
2. Chris Adrian “The Warm Fuzzies”
More than the others on this list, Adrian’s fiction is funny. There was no dearth of funny to be found among the “20 under 40” (Gary Shteyngart, Joshua Ferris, Karen Russell, Wells Tower), but Adrian’s funny registered as somehow the most original and otherworldly—even if his protagonist happened to be as recognizable as a teen in a Christian family rock band. (Or is that not recognizable?)
One in a series of black foster siblings, a boy named Paul, or Peabo, takes up the tambourine in the rehearsal garage of the Musical Carter Family of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Within days, middle daughter Molly finds herself involved with the newcomer in an episodic, after hours interpretive dance-off that verges on the inappropriate. Molly attempts to reconcile the Peabo of daylight with the Peabo of night:
There was the boy who had sneaked into her room to offer up the little dance for her interpretation, and then there was the boy who arm-wrestled with Craig and did algebra equations for fun with Colin. She could understand if there were two boys in him, since she had felt there were two girls in her, one for the regular voice that said regular things about people and one that spoke a language made up only of cruel insults. If she stared in the bathroom mirror long enough, she thought she could catch that other girl’s features super-imposed in brief flashes upon hers…
The son of an Ethiopian refugee delivers an off-the-cuff account to his privileged students in an Upper West Side classroom of his father’s passage from Ethiopia to a Sudanese port town to Europe, England and America, making free with factual veracity. The students are enthralled:
As I walked home that night I was aware of a growing vortex of e-mails and text messages being passed among my students. Millions of invisible bits of data were being transmitted through underground cable wires and satellite networks, and I was their sole subject and object of concern. I don’t know why I found so much comfort in that thought, but it nearly lifted me off the ground, and, suddenly, everywhere, I felt embraced. As I walked down Riverside Drive, with the Hudson River and the rush of traffic pouring up and down the West Side Highway to my right, the tightly controlled neighborhood borders and divisions hardly mattered.
I found Mengestu’s story to be haunting in the way of Krauss, thematically poised in the way of Alarcón, visceral and sweeping in the way of Morgan, and, well, maybe not quite as funny as Adrian. But it didn’t have it to be. Echoing real life incident, such as the case of Joseph Ellis, a history professor at Mount Holyoke who claimed to have served in the Vietnam War while teaching it to his students, or, more dubiously, the memoirs of James Frey, Mengestu relays how spinning fact into fiction can bring light to the lives of young minds.
Broadly put, The New Yorker appears to favor stories about great divides and mixed identity. Conveniently, there is something endemic to these boundary lines, their reinforcement or blending or blurring, that literary fiction speaks toward well.
So, with mine listed above, I invite you to cite your own favorite short stories from the past year, New Yorker endorsed or no. Because, of course, there were many worthy others; the New Yorker list just makes for all it was ever meant to be: a starting point. We can call the one that follows “The Infinite under the Same All Embracing Sky.”