Strange Objects & Sockdolagers
Honey in the Carcase
(Dzanc Books, 2019)
Song for the Unraveling of the World
(Coffee House Press, 2019)
No one seems to understand how the short story came to matter. After all, before I praise new selections from two old pros—Josip Novakovich and Brian Evenson—shouldn't I know how what they do earned such esteem? A persistent cliché insists that Big Publishing doesn't like small fictions, yet such work keeps turning up on mainstream houses. Smaller presses, meanwhile, both introduce fresh voices and sustain established ones. Then how did the form achieve such status? The question gets largely ignored, even in the latest American Book Review, dedicated to the short story. A couple of the issue's contributors mention myth and parable, but the connection's both obvious and irrelevant. The stories of the Good Samaritan or Medusa's curse had wholly different contexts and forms (often song form). Rather, short fiction as we know it is barely a couple of centuries old and largely American.
If Evenson recalls Poe, as he finds the most frightening way to open another box of horrors, and if Novakovich recalls de Maupassant, as he unpacks another swift, dark comedy of war or exile, it's in part because the two earlier authors had so much to do with creating the form. In 1846 Poe gave us a definition still hard to beat, "A story that can be read at one sitting," and not much later de Maupassant became the first to make a living off the little conte, with over a decade of breathtaking productivity. Making a living was the point; neither author could ever have held a straight job. But a good short piece meant a decent paycheck, as Poe and de Maupassant profited from the spread of literacy and print technology. New serials like The Atlantic and La Presse needed what's now called "content." Thus the short story: a product of market forces, as Marx would say—but at times a beautiful one. Poe's work has become essential, and De Maupassant too could deliver, in Donald Barthelme's great phrase, "a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart."
But as Barthelme's career got underway in the 1960s, the cash cow was going dry. Before then, its sweet milk had lured outstanding talents—in particular the empathetic Chekhov—who enriched the art, no question. Still, it depended on a demand for entertainment in print, especially here in the States. Fitzgerald, just to name one, could never have supported his lifestyle off The Great Gatsby. The novel swiftly flatlined, but he could always count on selling a piece like "The Camel's Back" to the Saturday Evening Post. The Post folded in '69, however, and these days even a New Yorker contributor needs another gig. Both Novakovich and Evenson publish in literary magazines and make their livings in the classroom, as does just about everyone writing short fiction. But their "strange object" still enjoys the status as art it first achieved back when it was paying the rent. Now a story that appears in some neglected corner, say by Amy Bender, can become over time a must-read, circulated in workshops everywhere. The same magic has visited foreign writers once obscure. The short story is dead, its economic underpinnings rotted away—and the short story lives; indeed, it flourishes.
Case in point, Josip Novakovich. His previous fiction includes just one novel, April Fool's Day, from 2004, which emphasizes the spectacular vignette over longer developments. It turns Stalinist former Yugoslavia and its violent collapse—the turmoil that drove the author from Croatia to Canada—to savage picaresque. As for Novakovich's essays, they often veer into story, their episodic quality conveyed by the title of the 2012 set: Shopping for a Better Country. Not that this book fails to satisfy either, its thinking sharp on both romantic interludes and irreparable loss. Nevertheless, the stories of Honey In the Carcase put the man back in his wheelhouse.
The title—also the name of the opening piece—references the form's Old Testament roots. After the young Samson slew a lion, it says in the King James, the bees made "honey in the carcase." So too another title mentions Boccaccio, and another calls itself "A Fable." One has an animal's point of view and a paired set, "Lies" and "Counter-Lies," depend on children's distorted, quasi-magical perceptions.
The territory, however, remains a far cry from Disneyland. A number of characters fall victim to the recent Balkan wars, and those who survive lose homes, friends, or family. A pastoral piece about a small farmer's struggle with a cat, close to a fairytale, lurches into mass violence even as it stays in voice: lofty, Aesoppian.
Who knows how much longer this would have been going on if people hadn't begun to behave like—and worse than—cats and dogs. Lipik was one of the first towns to be surrounded by the Serb armies. […] ®umors of approaching Chetniks with bared knives reached the town.
The stories all strike the same worldly tone, even when there's a narrator. In one such case, a "Yugoslav" at a US college does some hitchhiking and winds up in an Iowa pokey. He's locked up as much for his accent as anything else, and most likely Novakovich himself suffered such xenophobia, but when the boy is let out of jail, justice gives way to joshing: "I got back my belt and shoelaces. … My hand trembled from the hangover. … A policeman observed my struggles and I looked at him angrily to mind his own holes." So too, the marriage stories have a tinge of jaundice; "Flirting is a wonderful thing," thinks one wife, "[i]t sharpens your senses." The same saturates the endings of nearly all these fourteen pieces, conclusions both just and unsettled.
Indeed, all the players are unsettled, hustled around sharp corners, recalling the way a fable prizes moral over character. A more useful comparison, however, would be to the Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer too found the short story congenial, and worked with uprooted figures; for these, he didn't lack affection, but he never lost his shrewd appraisal of their low motives—rather like de Maupassant. That's good company for any storyteller, and by considering the bizarre dislocations of our fractured moment, Novakovich updates the sensibility winningly.
The best collections offer, besides coherence and insight, at least one real sockdolager. It's got a story that knocks you right out of your chair. Song for the Unraveling of the World has a number of candidates among its sumptuous assortment—22 stories, the most in any single Evenson collection. The title piece, for one, pulls off chilling manipulations; narrated by an abusive father, it parses out the spooky details with exquisite timing. My pick, however, would be "Sisters."
Whereas "Unraveling" must be considered realism, the portrayal of a sick psyche, "Sisters" has a supernatural premise. The title figures may live at "the end of the block," but you'd call their family, um, another order of being. They have only a rough understanding of humans, in particular their "immature specimens," though the narrator and her sister are themselves young and living with their parents. Over a few creepy pages, the faux girls do more and more damage to the ones we'd call "real." Naturally I'm reluctant to reveal more, but I can say that a paranormal malevolence lurks in most of these stories, and it has recurring way of sharing our skin. Again and again, bodies that appear ordinary turn out to be inhabited by, um, Another.
The old demons dwelling among us, wreaking havoc: sounds like Lovecraft. Indeed, Yog-Sothoth, out of the Cthulhu mythos, gets a mention in "Lord of the Vats," another humdinger. But then, "Vats" is science fiction, such as you'd never see in Lovecraft. It takes place on a spaceship and uploads someone's consciousness into a computer. SciFi materials turn up often in Unraveling, setting it apart not just from Lovecraft (who didn't invent the trope of Primordial Evil, anyway), but also from Evenson's previous work. He's tended more toward Americana, in keeping with his Utah upbringing. The very title of his last collection, A Collapse of Horses (2016), suggests the milieu, and that book began with a cowboy nightmare. In this one, we first encounter an alien abduction—gone horribly wrong.
Insofar as the setting is new, it allows the author more room for his sense of humor. "Sisters" slays me in part because of its nutty misinterpretations of the mundane. Confronted with a Halloween decoration, the narrator concludes that its "tall black hat, floppy and crimped," along with its "black broom," indicates "some sort of ancient and inefficient cleaning woman, perhaps." That rhetoric, by the way, is as complex as the text offers. As usual, Evenson reins in his style, even in the lone piece you'd call "experimental." This is "Trigger Warnings," a fine joke on the whole notion of keeping stories safe: "Caution: unrealistic characters. Caution: white men from the Midwest. … Caution: God, but God's a woman. Or rather—caution!!!—just became a woman…"
The endings—unravelings?—reveal the same light touch. They sketch the final horror with a brush stroke or two, and one piece, "Glasses," has so few moving parts, it demands to be adapted for the revived Twilight Zone. The TV show, too, raises the final question concerning this terrific book. Should such stories be considered literature? If their primary accomplishment is to grab you and scare you like a great Rod Serling bit, then shouldn't Novakovich be considered "better" because his work addresses serious business like Srebrenica? The answer eludes me, actually. I can only fall back on what I said before: the artform is still young and full of surprises.