My Fiction Writing class finished reading The Best American Short Stories: 2007 last Tuesday, and in an informal poll I took in class about favorite stories, the one most chosen was "Wait," an odd little fantasy/commentary by Roy Kesey, a story originally published in the Kenyon Review.
"Wait" is original and entertaining and, as my students say, grows out of a universal experience these days, waiting in airports. Just about everything happens in the story--an asteroid destroys a chunk of the airport, there's a revolution, a love affair, a death or two--all of it while gang of travelers is waiting at an airport gate. Kesey mixes just enough realism with fantasy that the story never once gets boring because while it pulls you almost lovingly away from reality, the progression is so artfully accomplished that the story never really allows you to stop believing. It's a kick--it really is. But their prof would not have rated it as high as they did--no way. When it's over, what's there to say?--cute little high, maybe. Artful, little escapist silliness. Cute ride.
They love it. I find it interesting, but I shrug my shoulders. Ay, there's the rub.
This morning's Writer's Almanac quotes David Foster Wallace: "Fiction's about what it is to be a human being." Wallace is dead on.
Then why my students' penchant--no adoration--for fantasy, for sci fi, for ET stuff? This old Sixties Boomer just doesn't get it.
Years ago already, my son told me that the greatest stories of my youth were likely those connected to the havoc created by the Vietnam War. In the Sixties, one had to take sides because the reality of our lives was war itself. For my students, my son told me, the greatest stories ever told were something in the Star Wars genre, or Harry Potter, or computer gaming--all of which connect to reality only metaphorically--or, at best, as parable. How could I expect them to like writers who worked in the genre of psychological realism (as I do), when their heroes wear capes or make war on the dark side?
I've always found that lecture helpful.
Oddly enough, today my son doesn't consider my students to be of his generation. These days he teaches them himself, and he has to laugh at them now and then, which, of course, I find not only interesting but even a little satisfying.
Which is not to say he was wrong in his definitions. Last week, I had my students send me synopses of the stories they are working on: half were the kind of genre fiction I've come to think of as their literary staple. This year, when Stephen King chose the Best American Short Stories, I had high hopes the volumn would contain more of their beloved fantasy stuff. Alas, King let me and them down and chose a range of stories not at all unlike any other year, despite his own bold assessment on the back cover: "here's some fine kick-ass stories."
About that he was right, but he wasn't the Stephen King my students know and love, and the register of stories could have been chosen by, say, Ann Patchett or Alice Munro.
So why do my students adore strange stories?--these strange students of mine? Well, maybe students always do. I remember getting some kicks from Jack Kerouac and John Barth (Giles Goat-Boy); shoot, I even subscribed to the infamous Ralph Ginzburg's Avant Garde, and the squarish, bizarre rag that came right here to righteous Sioux Center, Iowa, in the late Sixties. It's a wonder it got through the post office.
Perhaps, to understand my students, I only need to remember my own late teens, early-twenties. Maybe I wouldn't have settled for what seemed the straight-and-narrow of psychological realism either. Perhaps its an affinity of youth to look to fantasy.
Sure. But today give me the old-time religion. Here's a story I just heard, a story I love.
She's almost ninety, but cagey and sharp, and she's heartbroken because her granddaughter is having an affair--or at least having big trouble in her marriage. Let's call her Aunt Zennie. Aunt Zennie is sure that the cause of the wreck is her grandddaughter's job, which she's never been happy about, but which she sees the real cause of because there's all that blasted traveling involved, and traveling's where the girl gets in trouble. If she weren't on the road like that and away from her husband, well, then, for sure, she wouldn't have cause to rupture things, if you know what I mean.
We're in a small town here, and Aunt Zennie knows her granddaughter's boss's father, so she goes to him, at home, and says he's got to do something about this situation. "You think maybe you can talk to your boy about not sending my granddaughter out on the road so often like that?" she asks the man, let's call him Matt.
Matt shakes his head and says there's nothing he can do because he doesn't run the business anymore.
"But you know what I mean here?" Aunt Zennie says. "If Carla weren't out on the road, she'd be with her family more and we wouldn't have the trouble we're in."
"I can't do a thing," Matt tells her. "My son can't run the business that way anyway, you know--I mean making exceptions like that--I'm sure he can't."
"It's a matter of keeping a marriage together, Matt," Aunt Zennie says, pointing a crooked finger. "It's a matter of what the Lord brought together here, husband and wife."
"Zennie, you don't understand," Matt says. "My son can't be responsible for what your granddaughter does on the road--he's running a business. It's her job to control her own behavior."
Aunt Zennie licks her dry lips, shakes her head once or twice, then looks at him bitterly. "Matt," she says, "you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground." And then she left.
True story. I'm sorry about the vulgarity, but that's the way it went. Look, I like that story, not only because of the shock of the ending, but also because it offers us pretty much what David Foster Wallace says: "Fiction's about what it is to be a human being." There's another inter-generational war going on in that little story, of course, but it's set at the crossroads of our finest intentions and acid bitterness. Shoot, it's funny because it's us.
I'm not sure my students would like it as much as I do; but then, we probably wouldn't agree on what it means to be human either, my students and me, forty long years between us.
Maybe I can live with that, if they can.