Character provides the thematic key to these stories, all new to this collection, from some of our finest younger contemporary fiction writers.
Editor and contributor Smith (On Beauty, 2005, etc.) invited 22 other authors, many of them (like her) better known for novels than short fiction, to write a story inspired by the creation of a character. “The instruction was simple,” she writes in her introduction, “make somebody up.” Yet the stories correspond to no consensus about the role of character in fiction, or a return to realism, or the responsibility of fiction to mirror society. To the contrary, what Smith believes the stories show is that “there are as many ways to create ‘character’ (or deny the possibility of ‘character’) as there are writers.” The title of each story comes from the name of a character or type (“The Monster”) with the selections sequenced alphabetically. Many of the writers, including Smith, come from the McSweeney’s and/or Believer literary circle (Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, Chris Ware, Nick Hornby et al.) and most of the contributions range from the short to the very short (Toby Litt’s “The Monster” is a four-page paragraph). With proceeds benefiting 826 New York (a nonprofit organization for the inspiration and development of student writing), none of the writers were paid for their work, with the results sometimes more playful (and occasionally slighter) than one has come to expect from them. Jonathan Lethem’s Dickensian titled “Perkus Tooth” offers a hilarious dismissal of rock critics. A.L. Kennedy’s “Frank” provides an existential parable about a man who isn’t who he thinks he is. Though many of the stories have a first-person perspective, the narrator is rarely the title character, and some of the challenge for the reader can be determining whom a story is really about. In Colm Tóibín’s “Donal Webster,” the name of the title character is never even mentioned, leaving the reader to guess who is addressing whom.
While the quality inevitably varies, the spirit of the anthology is that reading should be fun rather than work.