I finished off the Story Prize, and finally got to move the needle a bit on my recent stories goal.

91. “Nirvana,” Adam Johnson, 2015.
Well, this is an odd one. In a near-future setting, the narrator and his wife struggle with her rapidly progressing degenerative nerve disease. He comforts himself by conversing with a recently-assassinated president, using technology that he developed, which projects an interactive 3D replica of the late statesman, whose campaign platitudes are hollow but reassuring. She comforts herself by listening to Nirvana on her headphones. The story has some powerful moments, but suffers (in my opinion) from first-person present narration* and its very predictable ending—it is a development that I saw coming almost as soon as the narrator’s conversations with the president were explained, and spent the rest of the story impatiently waiting for it to happen.

* I’m not going to claim I never met a first-person present narration that I liked; I’m sure there are stories in which it works fine, and I’ve probably even read some of them which I can’t think of now because of confirmation bias. But more often than not I find it irritating and unnecessary.


92. “How She Remembers It,” Rick Bass, 2016.
I guess this is a somewhat touching story of a girl’s memory of traveling with her father right before he begins to decline from dementia, but for a long chunk of it, very little happens; it takes a while for the engine to kick in and even when it does, it’s a bit anticlimactic. Also, her father’s impending mental decline isn’t shown, or hinted at through his actions or behavior, but signposted and told via clunky sentences like “She didn’t know then that something was wrong with him, and that he wasn’t going to get better.” I generally hate this kind of “Later, she would....” time jumping in an otherwise close third-person narrative. So the story doesn’t do all that much for me.

93. “The Sign,” Elizabeth Strout, 2017.
Oh, Elizabeth Strout is just wonderful. I have only read Olive Kitteridge and a smattering of other stories, but wow can she evoke a time and place, and animate deep and sympathetic characters within it. One of the things she does extraordinarily well is create sensitive, gentle men and show how the structures (or conventions, or expectations) of twentieth-century American masculinity chafe against their empathy. I say twentieth-century because the characters I am thinking of tend to be older men, as the protagonist in this story, in his early 80s, reckoning with events that took place decades earlier. It’s an absolutely beautiful story, just beautiful, and a hell of a place to end this collection. Strout is one of the few writers whose stories have made me tear up—this is one of them.

93/100 read, 41/50 from the last five years.

And now, I’ll see if I can finish out the year with another modern collection, or with the New Yorker podcast, or just by spelunking through some of the markets I’m looking to submit to, so that I can hit both halves of my goal.