As I wrote in an earlier post, my favorite story in the latest Best American Short Stories anthology was “Soldier of Fortune” by Bret Anthony Johnston. It inspired me to make Mr. Johnston’s collection, Corpus Christi, my first Kindle Fire purchase. Now, I believe in Kindles–I think they make sense–but personally I had a harder time engaging with the text mediated through a screen. As someone who writes a blog and edits a digital journal, this is obviously ridiculous. It begs the question, I guess, if I was less engaged with the actual collection than I expected to be and so am blaming it on the format. Perhaps.
Here’s the thing. If I had read any one of these stories in a journal, or photocopied, or anthologized, I would have really liked them–not as much as “Soldier of Fortune,” which still stands out as remarkable, but as strong, true stories nonetheless. The prose is top notch–simple, yet careful. Per the notes in the back of the book, none of the stories were completed in less than twenty drafts and it shows, not in that they are labored or over-written, as can happen with so much revision (speaking from experience here!!!) but in that there isn’t a lazy sentence among them.
But I didn’t read one of these stories, I read ten. And although I liked some more than others–my favorites were a trilogy about a dying mother and her son, each of which tackled a different stage in her illness and their relationship, with frequent use of the past and of their different points of view–they were, on the whole, kind of same-y.
Was it the landscape? The stories shared Corpus Christi as a setting, but took place variously by motel pools, inside homes, in cars–no, the settings were well-rendered and interesting.
Was it the style? Well, I think I would now be able to recognize a Bret Anthony Johnston story from its first paragraph. But if I could separate tone out from style, that might be half the problem. The other half? Subject matter. Obviously death, sickness and loss are huge parts of life and literature. I don’t, roundly, think that writing about terminal illness is always just an easy way to infuse a story with gravity and emotion–I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. But, it still bothered me. Johnston takes an even, exploratory tone with this heavy subject matter–he never resorts to sentimentality or histrionics. He does tragedy really well. But he does it in almost every story. I do believe in serving every story on its own terms, but there is something to be said for considering the arc of a collection. Especially because of the consistency of the book’s tone, the recurrence of dramatic personal losses here rendered each story less unique than it would have been standing alone. For me, the stories really wound up blurring together.
I certainly advocate for reading Bret Anthony Johnston–I think he produces thoughtful, beautiful, moving work. But maybe space out the stories and read them one at a time.