Lauren Groff was born in Cooperstown, New York. She is the author of the novel The Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Ploughshares, among other publications, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize anthology and two editions of The Best American Short Stories. Her second novel, Arcadia, was published in 2012. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Lauren Groff on "Your Duck Is My Duck" by Deborah Eisenberg
A short story, done right, is a ferocious creature: razor-toothed
and bristling and deceptively small for all its power. Think wolverine.
Think barracuda. A reader, finding herself alone in a room
with a great short story, should feel thrilled, unbalanced, alive.
Such intensity is not for everyone; readers, we are told, have
a hard time with short stories, preferring the long slow waltz of
novels to the story's grapple and throw. A writer of stories will be
told this a hundred times, by publishing houses and book clubs
and friends and even family members who are a little bit abashed
that they haven't read the writer's own stories. It's okay, we say,
and shrug, because for the most part we are meek people who
have a horror of unwritten confrontations, and only later do we
shuffle off to our little word-hovels and weep.
Any fierce lover and defender of the story form should take
such statements personally. Frankly, it is not okay. One: the story
is not a lesser form. It is merely a smaller form. Two: since when
are readers some monolithic block of zombies who have no say
in what they like? Maybe readers simply haven't been exposed to
the story geniuses rampant on the earth these days, people like
George Saunders and Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Mavis
Gallant and—cripes almighty!—William Trevor.
Or, for that matter, Deborah Eisenberg, whose "Your Duck
Is My Duck" was a fever dream from which, a dozen reads later,
I have yet to awaken. We judges are given the twenty stories in
this anthology to read blind, which means we read the stories
without the authors' names attached. But if you love short stories
passionately, you read them passionately and in great quantities,
and if you read them passionately and in great quantities, you
begin to be able to see the individual writer's imprint on her story
from her very first words. It was impossible to read "The Summer
People," and not know that it was a story by the astounding Kelly
Link, or to read "The Particles," and not know that the author
was Andrea Barrett, who so often electrifies science in her fiction,
or to read "Leaving Maverley," and not understand that the
sharp sentences and elegant timeline could only have come from
Alice Munro. There were a few among my favorites that I didn't
identify immediately, the moving and memorable "The History
of Girls," "Two Opinions," and "Pérou," by Ayşe Papatya Bucak,
Joan Silber, and Lily Tuck, respectively. When I first read the
collection, I simply couldn't choose from among the half-dozen
stories that blew my mind. So I put the collection away. I went off
to London. I locked the door of my subconscious and let the stories
fight it out, a roomful of wolverines, all sleek and snarling and
In the end, "Your Duck Is My Duck" is the one I saw when I
opened the door again. It had stayed alive, and, by staying alive,
it had changed me. The story bears Eisenberg's signature from the first words, her brittle humor and world-weariness and the astounding grace of her lines. She writes: "Way back—oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I'd gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth's core to its surface—I was going to a lot of parties." See what she does! I want to shout. See Deborah Eisenberg's brilliance! Three words in, and our narrator is
already contradicting herself; a few more, and we see her oddly
self-puncturing bombast; then, boom, the final clause, like the
punchline to a joke we won't quite understand until the end of
the piece. Already, we've been whipped like a top, and we'll be
jittery and teetering, just like the narrator, for the rest of the story.
But what is most thrilling about "Your Duck Is My Duck,"
what makes it so deeply "Eisenberg-y," is how seductive and
light the story feels for most of its gallop. Okeydoke, we think
at first, this is a story about self-obsessed rich people, and for most
writers, that would be enough. But Eisenberg is canny and wise,
and we come to understand at the end how the story is about so
much more, about everything, about the end of an empire and
the obscenity of great wealth and millenarian anxieties and the
insanity of creating art in the face of the horrors that Eisenberg
hints are to come. This is the kind of work that is alive, and that,
in turn, sparks other stories to life. This is art. This is the kind
of story you want to press into the hands of short-story doubters,
because it is its own best defense of its form.
Edith Pearlman's short stories have appeared in many prize anthologies, and in 2011, she was the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction, honoring her four collections of stories: Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, How To Fall, and Binocular Vision, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, the Story Prize, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It received awards from the National Book Critics Circle and the Boston Authors Club, as well as the Edward Lewis Wallant Award given by the University of Hartford. Edith Pearlman lives in Massachusetts.
Edith Pearlman on "The Summer People" by Kelly Link
I have a taste for the inexplicable and the semisurreal, in literature
and in life, and so I warned myself when I began reading these
twenty stories (which turned out to be as masterful as expected)
to be wary of indulging that taste. And two realistic stories did
attract me. One is "Sugarcane" by Derek Palacio, whose protagonist,
a doctor in post-Batista Cuba, is obsessed with sugar itself,
which represents all that is sweet and rare and addictive and ultimately
monotonous. The story is about abstractions like love, loyalty,
and deception. It also reveals particulars of life on the island:
the annual burning of sugarcane fields to chase out vermin, the
saddling and calming of a mule, and a nearly fatal baby delivery,
which, like the story containing it, lingers in the memory for a
In "The Visitor" by Asako Serizawa, set in Japan immediately
after World War II, there are only two characters—a woman
and a demobilized soldier—but the woman's absent son, Yasushi,
who fought alongside the visiting soldier, is also achingly present.
Yasushi's history seeps into the conversation and reminiscences
and gives the story urgency. In seemingly straightforward sentences
(with deft side metaphors, allusions, and unexpected adjectives)
the story behaves like a scorched flower, slowly dropping its
browned florets to reveal the next circle of unpleasant facts or
perhaps fabrications or perhaps distortions, always deepening our
sense of war's corruption of its warriors. Another memorable tale.
But in the end, despite these worthy temptations, I recognized
as my favorite "The Summer People" by Kelly Link. Its setting is
an unnamed semirural area of woods, waterfalls, pastures, meadows,
and hollows where rich people have summer houses and the
local population serves them. The teenaged heroine, Fran, abandoned
by her mother, neglected by her father, laid low by the flu
and dosing herself with NyQuil, feverishly takes care of summer
houses and shops for summer people. She acquires a fascinated sidekick. Two unsupervised adolescents accomplishing adult tasks tickle our interest, especially Fran with her ungrammatical backwoods locutions; her kindness; the intelligence she isn't sure she has. So far, so realistic.
The particular summer people of the title, though, are not
rich vacationers—they are a seldom-glimpsed crowd who live
all year round in a house in the wooded mountain, where they
make wind- up toys and other devices, and also dispense whiskey
and medicine. They do need services, though, and they will not
release whoever is currently taking care of them and their premises
(the caretaker is Fran, just now). be bold, be bold, but
not too bold, warns a sign within the house.
This is a fairy tale, except that no one is heroic or wise or
cruel—not even Fran's alcoholic father and his crooked cronies.
There is trickery; there are spooky goings on; there's a pair of
magical binoculars. But be not too bold could be said by any anxious
parent you know, and NyQuil can be bought in your local
drugstore. These things anchor the fantastic to the real.
Yes, a fairy tale. It supplies Whys, not Becauses; endings, not
wrappings-up; and it dispenses with that sine qua non of realism,
motivation. (Conversely, "Sugarcane" lets us in on the doctor's
need for sugar, "The Visit" the mother's ambivalent search for
truth). But "who knows what makes any of us do what we do?"
the poet Amy Clampitt bravely wrote—an insight that writing
workshops might keep in mind. Clampitt could have been referring
to the characters in "The Summer People." And who knows
what made its writer create this tale? To gladden my heart, maybe.
Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the
author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four
story collections, the most recent of which is You Think That's Bad: Stories. His third collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway,
was a finalist for a National Book Award and won the Story Prize.
Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book
Award for fiction, as well as an Alex Award from the American
Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among
other magazines, Harper's, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He's won an Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural
Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams
College and lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Jim Shepard on "The Particles" by Andrea Barrett
Although it begins with as flamboyant a narrative hook as you're
likely to find—our hero barely able to swim and thrashing about
the cold Atlantic alongside a ship that's just been torpedoed—
Andrea Barrett's "The Particles" at first seems as unassuming as
its main character, the hardworking if moony and mopey Sam.
Some of that restraint seems to be generated by the story's expert
management of its macro and micro modes: as it processes along,
its length making the reader wonder where the short story stops
and the novella begins, it unfolds, in turn, the opening of the Second
World War, the modern history of genetics, and the dismal
and mostly on-hold chronicle of its protagonist's emotional life.
Even as the story never loses sight of the longing and disappointment
at the heart of Sam's relationship with his old friend
and teacher, Axel, it provides a visceral (and really, epic, if such
a term can be applied to the quotidian life of a scientist such
as Sam's) sense of his lifelong absorption in science itself. The
story renders unforgettably that experience of falling in love with
experimental science as if "tumbling down a well," the voices of
other kids outside diminishing and then silent. It allows us to feel
the exhilaration of concepts made visible. It's marvelous on that
moment when the whole world starts to shimmer under the spell
of that intensity of curiosity. It even pulls off the nearly impossible
feat of seducing us into imagining fruit flies as fascinating. (In
that regard, I'm now with Sam. That courting male who holds
out his wing and dances right and then left before embracing his
bride: "who wouldn't love that?")
The story's wonderful too, in its offhanded way, on just where
the politicization of science leads us: its account of Trofim Lysenko's dismissal of all of formal genetics at a conference in 1936
in the Soviet Union—"A theory of heredity, to be correct, must
promise not just the power to understand nature but the power
to change it"— resonates uncomfortably with anyone who's been
unfortunate enough to follow the climate-change debate in the
United States over the last ten years.
There's something unassuming and appealing, too, in the way
in which this world's judgments are apportioned: "In the distance
a shape, which might have been the guilty submarine, seemed to
shift position." The sufferings of the many are rendered with a
distance that seems both compassionate and clear-eyed: "A little
string of emptied lifeboats tossed in the swell beside the tanker,
the boat closest to the stern still packed with people." And lives
are lost almost out at the very edges of our vision: struggling figures,
too small to identify, dotting the water in the distance after
their lifeboat's been tipped, or an old woman caught in the gap
between her lifeboat and a destroyer's hull, a space that disappears
when the boats collide.
But for all the suffering around him, the perversity of Sam's
inner stubbornness never recedes. Nothing he experiences—his
lost love Ellen, his professional failures and humiliations, the
Stalinist purges he just evades, or the trauma of the torpedoed
Athenia itself—has the force of his estrangement from Axel. But
of course his primary disappointment is with himself. Much of
the story's power comes from its evocation of how, for all of Sam's
humility and gratitude for what he has been able to experience,
life has often seemed to him to have been centered elsewhere:
wherever his mentor—and with him, the promise of scientific
intimacy, and the white-hot core of genetics—resided. No matter
what contrary evidence the story so poignantly provides.