Monday, August 20, 2012

Apocalypse in Pairs Part 1

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's Zone One, I often wondered if he was trying to do too much, if his material would work better as a short story.  The first story in Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse shows how well zombies can work as short story material.  I must say, though, it's not one of my favorites of her book of mostly perfect stories.

I don't often read short stories, unless it's a book of linked short stories.  I'm still in awe of what Jennifer Egan did with A Visit from the Goon Squad.  But much as I like teaching the short story, much as I like writing it, I don't always like reading my way through a collection.  Occasionally I read such great reviews that I search out a collection.

I read In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson.  It got dazzling reviews.  It was a slim book.  It seemed to have a bit of an apocalypse theme.  I decided to give it a chance. 

Alas, I didn't like most of the stories.  They were just too slender.  My brain has returned to "Diary of an Interesting Year" again and again.  It's a story set in the near future, as environmental problems have escalated.  A family feels more and more besieged in their home and they set out looking for someplace better.  Their lives get progressively more horrible.

Note to self:  in event of apocalypse, shelter in place.  And save the bullets.  Marauders will come, and you will need them.

McHugh's stories make a similar point.  "After the Apocalypse" shows the hazards of being a woman on the road.  The main character in "Useless Things" does much better by staying in her New Mexico house, even though she can't afford to travel to see her mother in the midwest. 

My brain came back to "Useless Things" many times in the weeks since I've read it.  I loved the story of an artist making her way through hard times.  I loved the ways that it showed that tough times can change us into someone we'd prefer not to be, even though it grieved me to be reminded of that.

With its details of dwindling water, the possibility of this story doesn't seem so far away.  "Special Economics," on the other hand, feels both like a journalistic expose of working conditions in Asia right now and of something completely made up.  The story shows how easy it is to get trapped into modern slavery.  The plucky girls keep us from getting too bogged down in despair.

"The Lost Boy:  A Reporter at Large" is told in a journalistic style, which reminds me of how many ways that a short story writer can play, in ways a novelist cannot.

The other stories didn't stay with me, although they captured my attention as I read them.  This collection is one that I'd like to read again and again.  I'm sure there were things I missed.  I'm sure I'd notice ways that the stories intersected.

But the main reason I'd like to read them again is that McHugh is such a talented writer that the stories are a joy to read.  They're well developed, unlike Helen Simpson's.   It makes me wonder how one collection gets chosen to be heralded, while the other slips by unnoticed.  They've both got merit, and readers would be out there for both.  But for those who want a full-blown apocalypse, Maureen F. McHugh offers a special treat.

1 comment:

Jeannine Hall Gailey said...

Two of my favorite books of short stories:
Haruki Murakami is a master of the short story form, and less great as a novelist. All his short story collections are great, but "After Dark," a collection of linked short stories, was my favorite.
Kelly Link's "Stranger Things Happen" has two of my top ten favorite short stories of all time in it. That book never fails to inspire some poetry when I read it.
Another short story collection that I loved was from 1930's Japan, by Osamu Dazai called "Blue Bamboo."
All of these have slightly off, slightly apocalyptic tones, too...the struggle to survive is the main theme...