Monday, November 17, 2008

Space Oddities: New Yorker Fiction

Fosco is one of the few people he knows who still reads short stories. As the novel and the memoir battle for dominance in book sales and as the "personal essay" becomes the standard non-journalistic genre for magazine publication, the short story remains almost entirely irrelevant to literary culture (to say nothing of popular culture). The short story is essentially an academic exercise at this point--a genre practiced for its own sake, with little interest from most literary readers.

The educated reader can still find short stories in two main sources: McSweeney's (which has had some financial difficulties) and The New Yorker. While Fosco enjoys much of the McSweeney's short fiction, his relationship to NYer fiction is more ambivalent. Truly, Fosco only reads about five NYer stories a year.

And yet, some of Fosco's very favorite recent stories first appeared in that magazine: Jonathan Safran Foer's "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" (6/10/02), Stuart Dybek's "If I Vanished," "Roy Spivey" by Miranda July (6/11/07), "Spider Boy," by Joyce Carol Oates.

And yet, Fosco still can't bring himself to read most NYer fiction. In fact, there is a very complicated set of rules that determine the likelihood of Fosco reading a New Yorker story.

Fosco is less likely to read a story IF

  1. he's never heard of the author (sorry, Janet Frame).
  2. dislikes almost everything else written by that author (sorry, John Updike).
  3. the story appears to contain numerous words NOT in English (sorry, Daniel Alarcon).
  4. it's by Roddy Doyle or Tessa Hadley (sorry, Roddy Doyle and Tessa Hadley).
Fosco is more likely to read a story IF
  1. it's written by a writer whose previous work he admires (George Saunders!)
  2. it's short (Miranda July!)
  3. it's "ripped from the headlines" (Joyce Carol Oates!)
  4. there is a cool picture next to it
So, based on the second rule #4 (cool picture), Fosco read last week's story by Jonathan Lethem called "Lostronaut." It's an epistolary short story, a form that Fosco does not particularly like. It's a one-sided correspondence from an astronaut trapped in an international space station as it begins to shut down. There are some remarkably affecting passages in the story, especially the description of an emergency space walk:
Oh, the lie of weightlessness! We feel we’re floating only because we’re forever falling, as in an elevator with no bottom floor to smash into. And so, inside the elevator, the human party continues oblivious, the riders flirt and complain and mix zero-G cocktails, or chase bewildered zero-G leaf-cutter bees. Outside the ship, our consoling elevator’s walls dissolved, Keldysh and I were two specks falling forever, specks streaming down the face of the night. Ourselves plummeting downward to the gassy blue orb, the gassy blue orb also plummeting at the same mad rate away from us.
And yet, there are also some stupid bits (like why does the narrator need to have cancer?). But, on the whole, the narrator's mix of forced good nature, gallows humor, and willing acquiescence to her fate is strangely appealing.

There is another beautiful bit at the end, as the narrator resigns herself to her fate: abandoned in void, the space station begins to shut down.
(Did you know we can’t even properly gaze at the stars now? Our breath fogs any window we turn to. We’re moisture, Chase, we’re returning to dew.)
Perhaps it's something about the times in which we live, but this kind of dreamy resignation seems appropriate right now.

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