Tuesday, July 6, 2010

20 Under 40: The First Ten

The long holiday weekend proved a good opportunity to catch up on my pleasure reading. I dedicated much of yesterday and this afternoon to the ten of the “20 under 40” stories that the New Yorker has published so far. (The second ten will be pulished in the next ten episodes of the magazine.) As the “Talk of the Town” piece that introduced the first issue on these writers said, these are the authors they “believe are or will be key to their generation,” so what these stories have to say and how they’re said makes them more important than your average short story, even in comparison to other New Yorker-caliber tales.

After reading ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” and Philipp Meyer’s “What You Do Out Here When You’re Alone,” I was blown away by how hope-filled they were. Anyone who reads a lot of contemporary literary fiction can tell you that protagonists don’t always end up on top and the guy doesn’t always get the girl. Packer’s and Meyer’s stories, while filled with human suffereing, loss, and doubt, ended on positive, uplifitng notes. While there was no sticky sentimentality or happy heroes riding off into the sunset, there was some hint that these characters just might be alright, or at least find a way to survive their travails. With only two stories under my belt, I started wondering whether Obama’s “Hope” campaign had started influencing the literary world, or at least members therof young enough to be labeled part of “the Obama generation.”

Alas, after reaidng the other eight stories, I realized how remarkably I had jumped the gun. Joshua Ferris’s “The Pilot,” while masterfully executed, was gutwrenchingly devoid of human happiness or potential, and even the brightest optimists among us couldn’t have found much to celebrate about humanity in Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid” (though again, it was impressively done!). The other six stories ended on similarly sad or ambiguous notes.

What all ten of these stories do have in common, I realized after some consideration, is that they’re all very much grounded in reality. There are almost no fantastical or supernatural elements, and not a trace of magical realism. (The little girl in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s “The Erkling” had an active imagination, and for short bits of time we see the world as she does, but it’s always clear that this is her imagination, as opposed to an alternate reality.) What’s more, with the exception of Packer’s “Dayward,” they’re set in contemporary times.

Perhaps the next ten stories will turn this observation on its ear, and once again I’ll be surprised. In the meantime, though, I’m left wondering what it means that these great minds of our generation take a very realistic approach in their storytelling. For generations, storytellers have been creating vivid, alternate universes that, in unlikely ways, say something about our own. What does it say that most of our best young writers forego this route for the world they already know?

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