29 December 2005

"Pure Fiction" in the Chicago Reader

Used some unplanned time off this afternoon to read the Chicago Reader’s “Pure Fiction” feature: seven short stories, filling Section 1 from cover to cover. All of the stories were decent: readable and compelling, and the editors seemed to take pains to make sure each of them represented a distinct slice of modern life. When I was all done, though, I realized that each story was about the main characters’ lack of control over what happened to them, from an aspiring country club tennis pro who recounts the disaster that ruined his third-rate athletic career, to a kid who can’t get himself to tolerate peanut butter. None of the characters in these stories succeeds in getting control over much; none of them manage to overcome the key thing they’re concerned about.

So I find myself wondering if this is a new trend. It’s not a very pleasant one: stories with characters who don’t change. You want characters to change; it gives you hope that you can change.

Certainly, reading seven stories in which characters don’t change is a bummer. Still, I’d particularly recommend Hilary Frank’s “Arachibutyrophobia,” which is, I think, the best story of the bunch, packing the most genuine complexity. And also the well-done “How He Leaves,” by Sigers Steele, where the surprise of the story is more about how you come to feel about the protagonist than about what he does or doesn’t do.

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