Beattie, Moore, Eggers, Gaitskill, Eugenides, Lethem and others publish a master class in the short story for 'Paris Review'
It’s the unfamiliar that pulls you in. Reading Object Lessons, a new anthology of short fiction from The Paris Review, one finds familiar names beside those that might inspire research.
The book opens with an Editors’ Note discussing “how varied the form can be” and “how vital it remains.” Those editors are Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein, The Paris Review’s editor and deputy editor, respectively (the former appears tonight at 7:30, along with contributors Donald Antrim and David Means to discuss the collection at Greenlight Bookstore), and the story they’ve chosen to open the anthology with is immediately striking. “Dimmer,” Joy Williams’s fractured monument of a story, follows its protagonist from the Australian desert to Texas in prose that leaves the reader dizzied. As Sadie Stein explained it, the question of how the anthology should be organized remained open for a time, until Williams’s story emerged as a logical choice to lead off.
“In the end,” Stein said, “that story just made a perfect opener…. [It’s] very contemporary, extremely vivid, and also not one of the necessarily best-known or most-anthologized stories.”
As Stein explained it to me, the process of assembling the book involved reaching out to a group of writers, who would in turn select stories from the magazine’s archive for the anthology.
“We were very interested to see who the writers’ writers were, and what they looked for and remembered,” Stein said. And the authors selecting stories represent a sort of literary fiction dream team—a group that includes Lorrie Moore, Sam Lipsyte, Ali Smith, Ann Beattie, Dave Eggers, Mary Gaitskill, Jeffrey Eugenidies, and Jonathan Lethem. Some of their introductions focus on the lives of the writers they selected. Others, such as Eggers’s discussion of James Salter’s “Bangkok,” approach it from the level of craft: Eggers calls it a “nine-page master class in dialogue” in his introduction.
“Our initial concern was maybe that the stories selected would be too well-known, and that it would be a sort of greatest-hits collection,” Stein explained. “Those fears were pretty quickly laid to rest by the range of stories that were selected.” And while some of the writers’ writers featured here are not exactly obscure—Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges—the density and stylistic variation of Object Lessons proves Stein’s point.
Several contributors both selected stories and had stories selected, including Lydia Davis, Norman Rush, and Joy Williams.
“To be able to go back to them and tell them they had been chosen was a thrill, and a lot of fun,” Stein said. But the process of assembling the book also made Stein more familiar with the work of certain authors in the Paris Review pantheon. Leonard Michaels is represented by “City Boy,” his surreal tale of a tryst gone comically awry.
“[It] got me very into his entire archive,” Stein recalled, and later described “exhausting all his fiction” and seeking out his essays.
Another writer whose presence here prompted Stein to delve further into their work is Jane Bowles. In her introduction to Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal,” Lydia Davis notes that the story was completed not long before Bowles’s 1973 death. The story shifts from a diary entry to a letter to the voice of an omniscient narrator, its fractured momentum never abating as it tells a tale of alcoholic resignation and a tremulous marriage.
“I thought [it] was disturbing and amazing,” Stein said. “Of course, her husband [Paul Bowles] is slightly better-known as a writer, but she was not just a great writer but an interesting person. I’ve gotten interested, not just in her work but in her biography.” (For those who may be curious, a collected edition of Bowles’s works—with a preface by Joy Williams—is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
That initiation into new things, according to Stein, was part of the joy of the effort, and brought forth all sorts of unexpected connections. Late in our conversation, Stein pointed out that she had recently realized that Ethan Canin’s “The Palace Thief,” the story of a decades-long conflict between an ascetic classics professor and his duplicitous student, was the source of the 2002 film The Emperor’s Club, starring Kevin Kline, along with Jesse Eisenberg and Paul Dano.
“I love that someone made a film of that,” she said. “It’s such an unlikely idea.”
The order of the stories allowed for numerous possibilities.
“We loved the range of styles, and the ways it allowed us to play around in times of ordering,” Stein said. The very realistic “The Palace Thief,” then, backs up against Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets,” the story of one summer in which flying carpets briefly become the center of a young boy’s attention. Strict realism progresses to magic realism, but the evocation of youth—both its promise and its deception—is present in both.
Object Lessons closes with Dallas Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm,” its writer protagonist on a trip to collect his Nobel Prize after having sacrificed most of his body in a series of grimly comedic bargains for literary immortality.
“Joy [Williams] chose Dallas Wiebe immediately,” Stein recalled. “I had to track down Dallas Wiebe’s daughter Ericka, who is lovely, and who was so excited to think of her father’s work being read and finding a new audience. As was his agent. They were very moved and extremely excited. It’s so fun to be able to get those emails, and to make that happen.”
The narrator of Wiebe’s 1978 story sacrifices his left pinkie in order to gain a Paris Review acceptance. These trade-offs add up: by the time of the flight described in the story, what remains of him fits in a basket. As this anthology suggests, there are other ways to literary renown—and other ways for notable work to find its way back to find a receptive audience.
‘Paris Review’ editor Lorin Stein appears tonight at 7:30 at Greenlight Bookstore, along with Donald Antrim and David Means, to discuss ‘Object Lessons.’