A new anthology of fiction explores the chaotic literary energy of the 1980s.
The 1980s were a vibrant period for American fiction. On the one hand, there were the so-called “Dirty Realists”: Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson. On the other, the gritty urban writers of the Lower East Side, such as Lynne Tillman, Dennis Cooper, and David Wojnarowicz. Somewhere in the middle were the literary brat packers, including Bret Easton Ellis. Add Los Angeles’ Gil Cuadros and San Francisco’s Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, and you’ve got a potent mix encapsulating the tensions, aesthetic or otherwise, of the decade: AIDS, economic disruption, a disconnect between official culture (Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America) and the more treacherous realities of the street. “It may be that history—whatever 'history' is anymore—remembers the '80s as the last analog moment when human beings were what we had always been, before we’re fully digitized into whatever hive creature information technology is in the process of creating," editor Peck writes in his introduction to this far-reaching collection. That’s an important aspect of the era, too. All these concerns, these implications, mark the 34 stories Peck has gathered, which are notable for their pointedness as well as their diversity. In “Pretending to Say No,” Bruce Benderson imagines Nancy Reagan showing up at a crack house (or does she?), where she reveals a fundamental secret about herself. A.M. Homes’ “A Real Doll” is narrated by a boy who doses his sister’s Barbie with Valium so he can have sex with her—an oddly human experience for all its transgressive fantasy. Some of the stories here (Johnson’s “Work” or Carver’s magnificent “So Much Water So Close to Home”) are widely recognized, but others, including Eileen Myles’ “Robin” and Jessica Hagedorn’s “Pet Food,” are lesser known. The result is a collection that avoids cliché or nostalgia in favor of an unexpected and refreshingly inclusive point of view.
Peck's collection masterfully evokes the range and diversity of its era.