Edited by Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein (Picador)
For this new short fiction anthology, Paris Review editors Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein (no relation) asked 20 of today’s leading fiction writers to select a favorite story from the venerable literary journal’s archive and explain, in an introductory essay, how the story achieves its memorable effects. Along with marquee names like Jeffrey Eugenides, Dave Eggers, Mary Gaitskill and Jonathan Lethem, selectors also include short-fiction legends like Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel. There are touchstones—Leonard Michaels’s “City Boy” and Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”—and pieces from masters Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges and Davis. But more obscure authors like Mary-Beth Hughes—no surprise that her dark, twisted tale of a trust-funded aspiring flash fiction writer, “Pelican Song,” was chosen by Gaitskill—and the exuberantly experimental Guy Davenport also make it into the mix.
In their opening note, the editors state that they envisioned Object Lessons as both a guidebook for writers and a means to stimulate interest in an underappreciated literary form. In their introductions, some authors present detailed analyses approaching the level of a grad school workshop. Discussing “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Eugenides examines Johnson’s innovations in voice, prose, characterization and structure. In outline format, Eggers conveys lessons on dialogue, the resonance of titles and the implication of characters’ names in James Salter’s “Bangkok.”
Lethem and Ben Marcus offer more playful and idiosynchratic commentary. Declaring it would be “most respectful, perhaps even ethical, not to look too closely into the workings of his magic,” Marcus addresses the poignancy and appealing absurdity of Barthelme’s “Several Garlic Tales,” admitting that the characters’ behavior and plot details approach the nonsensical yet achieve emotionally satisfying effects. Lethem creates a new genre—“Crumbling Tenement Grotesque”—to describe Thomas Glynn’s “Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now. You Can Be-lieve That.”
Reflecting the preferred styles of the authors who selected them, the pieces veer from the more realist mode of Craig Nova’s tale of a feckless mid-century racehorse owner in Burma, “Another Drunk Gambler,” selected by Ann Beattie, to Jorge Luis Borges’s fantastical tale of a man traumatized by his infinite memory, “Funes, the Memorious,” chosen by Aleksandar Hemon. Readers might question the omission of standard bearers like Alice Munro, Jim Shepard and Moore, but one of the collection’s many pleasures lies in the curators’ individualistic tastes. Unlike a textbook, Object Lessons is not a straightforward compendium of influential short work, but a tantalizing tasting menu for literary enthusiasts.