by Weston Cutter
I missed the boat on Daniel Orozco’s Orientation, a collection released in hardcover in 2011 and out this spring in paperback, and a collection which was urged on me by more writer friends than any book I can recall. That there’s a mildly compelling story behind the book—long gestation by an older writer who didn’t just MFA his way into accolades—is gravy, but the crucial thing is that this is a really, really good work. I don’t want to play too much of this game, but it’s hard not to at least acknowledge that a writer’s work’s goodness has lots to do with that writer’s…well, grace, I suppose. Grace or wisdom, empathy. Maybe this is something that’s just happening to me as I age and especially as I wait for my first child to be born. But here’s the thing: I very much love me some young hot-shot short stories—they’re just great. The fresh-out-the-gate folks, frustratingly young in author photos and writing stories that are usually torqued and strangely charged—these things are great, and they (in best case scenarios) offer the pleasure (at least to this reader) of seeing old things anew or askew, different and interesting enough to feel, again in the best cases, that amazement that fiction first offered. Then there are books like Orientation, or like Alan Heathcock’s masterful Volt, books which seem suffused with a generosity and heart that pulses slightly thicker, more deeply, than some of the whiz-bang younger writers’ books. Maybe this is just me. Certainly there are exceptions (but think, too, of a simple example: Lorrie Moore. Read Self Help and then Birds of America; it’s not just that she grew as a writer, but as a person). Anyway, I didn’t even mean to write all of this: all I intended to say was that there’s a real magic gift, sometimes, in debuts from folks who’ve got some miles, and that the magic gift, in the best scenarios, feels like what’s on offer in Orozco’s Orientation, a book which (loosely) takes as its common theme aspects of working life, stories in which the folks within are all learning stuff, being oriented by stuff (by earthquakes and death in “Shakers,” by witnessed tragedy in “The Bridge,” by the explosive shifting brought on by love in “Officers Weep.” Orientation‘s just fantastic. Please: if you’ve missed this, rectify your errors.
Dan Chaon is just fantastic—you maybe found him, as I did, through his story “Big Me,” which was collected in 2001′s Among the Missing, though if you know him solely as a story writer, dig into Await Your Reply, a book I foolishly slept on till this spring. His new collection, Stay Awake, was released earlier this year and before anything else let’s cite what Chaon’s (pronounced shawn, says Wikipedia) said in interviews, which is that his stories are ghost stories in which the ghost doesn’t appear (the line, actually, is from Peter Straub, and somewhere online there’s an interview with Chaon in which he actually says all this, but I’ve lost track of it). What exactly is a ghost story in which the ghost does not appear? It’s a story of hint: it’s a story in which the door is always ajar into a darkness, in which folks are listening or waiting for whatever’s gonna come through the dark—the stories aren’t scary, at least I didn’t think so, but creepily portentous, loaded like springs, plus this: the bad stuff that happens is almost always a compounding, an other: the husband getting in an accident that leaves him with a brain injury is not the Big Moment the fiction moves toward—that happens three pages in (this is “Long Delayed, Always Expected”). What’s scarier is what happens more than that. In other words: these are goose-bumpily real stories, the sort that evade the sometimes tidy metric of fiction in which drama is risen toward then resolved. It’s murky, unsettling reading by one of the country’s best writers, stories or novels or whatever.
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins’ debut collection, was released just this week, and it’s one of the best debut collections I can think of. That hyperventilation above, re: Orozco’s work and the tendency among younger writers to write whiz-bangy stuff instead of thicker, realer, heavier stuff? Mostly neatly avoided by Watkins (who I intended to interview and dropped the ball on, apologies). For instance “Ghosts, Cowboys,” the collection’s badass opener which, though slightly messed-with, form-wise, feels as naturally made and fluid a story as anyone could hope to write (for what it’s worth, the messed-with form isn’t obstrusive, and it’s a perfect example of a story’s form tracking exactly along to function). Even Watkins’s less massively compelling stuff—”Wish You Were Here,” for instance, about two young couples vacationing—is still absolutely readable. You find yourself sucked massively in, or I did anyway (ugly admission: for those of us who read lots of fiction, and who track the ‘literary scene’ or whatever, it’s impossible not to, several times a year, sit down to some heralded debut by some great whoever feeling something like grumpiness or worse, this stand-off-ish okay, dazzle me attitude [maybe I'm alone in this, though I doubt it]. Of course the schadenfreudy satisfaction on the clunkers is its own caustic fun, but when the supposedly good stuff actually hits, actually is as good as folks claim, well, that’s just something. This is exactly one of those somethings).