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The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories

1 rating: -1.0
A book by Ben Marcus

The works that editor Ben Marcus has collected inThe Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, while diverse in their stylistic methods, are uniformly accomplished. An almost confoundingly cerebral and brilliantnovelistandshort storywriter, Marcus is … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Ben Marcus
Publisher: Anchor
1 review about The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories

Far too many of these stories are all style and no heart

  • Dec 15, 2008
There are five absolutely terrific stories in this book:

"The Caretaker" by Anthony Doerr
"When Mr. Pirazda Came to Dine" by Jhumpa Lahiri
"Tiny, Smiling Daddy" by Mary Gaitskill
"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower
"Sea Oak" by George Saunders

Some of the contributions, although they don't fully succeed, are well worth reading:

"Gentlemen's Agreement" by Mark Roth
"Someone to Talk To" by Deborah Eisenberg
"Field Events" by Rick Bass
"X Number of Possibilities" by Joanna Scott
"The Old Dictionary" by Lydia Davis

Two of the stories ("The Paper Hanger", "Do Not Disturb") are well-written, but feature characters so vile they will leave you (a) needing to take a long, hot shower to get clean (b) wondering just why the author feels it necessary to punish the reader (yeah, we get it A.M. Homes - cancer patients can be loathsome people too, so what?), and with such evident gusto.

Sadly, it's downhill all the way for the remaining 17. Some are merely dull, without being actively offensive. Padgett Powell's 'Scarliotti and the Sinkhole', Ann Cummins's 'Where I Work', Brian Evenson's 'Two Brothers', 'Histories of the Undead' by Kate Braverman, 'You Drive' by Christine Schutt, -- each of these succumbs to some combination of self-absorbed protagonists, incoherent or overly flashy style, or terminal lack of action and generalized anomie.

That still leaves ten to a dozen contributions. These are not just bad - they are aggressively, offensively, in-your-face dreadful - the kind of incoherent, smirkingly self-indulgent, look-at-me-see-how-clever-I-am, pointless rubbish that makes you want to smack the author (and the editor of this sorry collection) about the head. HARD. The usual grab-bag of archly self-referential, postmodern stylistic tics is paraded before the reader, with the results you'd expect. Your computer's IP address packs a greater emotional punch than any of the remaining stories in the book. Calling out individual offenders by name seems pointless; in any case, the real culprit is the editor, Ben Marcus.

I have to admit that the warning signs were right there in Marcus's introductory essay, which is studded with overwrought, barely intelligible, sentences like the following:

* Plot would be another name for our bodies, carved hollow to receive something amazing.
* The story, then, is what the story is hiding, and the hide is indeed a piece of skin, whose effect is to conceal the body.
.... the current practice of the short story has ample methods of matterfulness .....
.. these stories ... are toolkits for the future.
* They could be projected by megaphone onto an empty field and people would grow there.

Marcus acknowledges that he deliberately "tried to include a single vigorous practitioner of each thriving literary style I could identify". What he fails to grasp is that the insistent, obtrusive obsession with stylistic novelty comes at a serious price - even the most technically accomplished of the resulting stories fails to kindle any emotional spark whatsoever. As a result, almost half the stories in this book are emotionally bankrupt, and a complete waste of time.

Viewed as a snapshot of the state of the American short story in 2004, this book is probably a fairly accurate representation. A 15% hit rate (only 5 great stories out of 29) seems disappointingly low.

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