Twenty pieces of the year’s crop of short fiction that never fail to deliver what is expected but rarely take us anywhere but the expected.
The O. Henry series works thus: the editor, Dark this year, collects what is presumably some of the best fiction in the land and then a panel of three respected writers vote for their favorites. The winners are ranked one, two, and three, and each jury member writes an introduction for one of them. This time, a trio of heavy-hitters, Dave Eggers, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead, are on board. Oates’s winner, “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier, is a real corker about a town where a giant burnished thing—simply called “the object”—has appeared in the sky and is inexorably bearing down upon those who dwell there. Eggers and Whitehead fare less successfully with, respectively, a strong-starting fizzler about a gay musician reuniting with his ultra-Christian family in Texas (“Scordatura,” by Mark Ray Lewis) and a manufactured piece of Minnesota drama (“The Butcher’s Wife,” by Louise Erdrich). The inspiration for last year’s film Memento is included here—“Memento Mori,” by Jonathan Nolan—and it’s a good thing, too, as this is a collection that desperately needs a shot of twisty and inventive pulp. Despite how much solid and talented writing is on display, from Richard Ford’s serene “Charity” to David Foster Wallace’s chatty “Good Old Neon,” there is also a serious lack of much that’s terribly exciting or new. Passion? Experimentation? Good taste and the artfully constructed sentence rule here, and putting a trio of big names at the front of the book can’t change that reality.
Perhaps this is the way of things with fiction anthologies: lots of skill and nothing to rock the boat. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one wouldn’t enjoy reading the collection; it’s just that there’s little to make the reading of it a necessity. (For comparison’s sake, see Miller, below.)