Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverMy fifth and final post about Richard Ford’s collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story will be a quick note on the remaining four stories. Very quick, in one case.

Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.

Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.

The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.

Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?

This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.

At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.

George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.

There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.

Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.

Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.

The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.

Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.

The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.

Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.

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10 thoughts on “Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

  1. Well, it sounds like the collection was a bit of a mixed bag, Simon! I’m not surprised the Oates turned out to be the best – if I had had to take bets, I would have chosen her (I’ve only read a little of her work, but was impressed). I wonder which authors would feature in a collection of this type put together nowdays? ;D

    • I’ve only read one by Oates myself, so long ago I don’t even remember which one! I don’t feel sufficiently well read to speculate which US writers might be included from more recent years – the only name that comes immediately to mind is Nigerian-American Teju Cole, and I’ve only read some of his essays.

  2. Enjoyable as always, Simon. The collection sounds like an interesting adventure and, if you came away with a few good “long stories,” well, I’d call it a win.
    Like Kaggsy, I’m not surprised that the Oates’ story was the best of the bunch. I’ve read four or five of her novels and several pieces of shorter fiction; given her enormous output, this is a mere nothing. I’ve had mixed feelings about her work at times but there’s no doubting her talent and energy.
    I’m being totally unfair, having only read one work of his (probably his short story collection Airships many years ago, but quite honestly I’ve forgotten its name), but it left me with a total distaste for all things Barry Hannah. He actually taught for a few years in the English department of one of my old schools (a totally insignificant portion of his career, it’s usually overlooked); it was a big place & I never met him (I was busy doing other things) but he was regarded as a bit of a writer god. There was some discussion in the comments of a previous post regarding “big male American” novelists or some such; I mention it as I slot Hannah into the similar category of macho southern male writer, post-WWII. In fairness to the guy, my opinion is a minority one.
    I’ve always meant to get to Edwidge Dandicat, who seems to offer such a unique perspective, combined with great writing (i’ve read lots of reviews of her work).
    As for who would be included in a more recent edition of this work, well, I wouldn’t know either, especially given the ambiguity associated with the term “long stories.” With respect to the more traditional short story form, have you looked at the annual O. Henry Prize Story Collections and the Best American Short Stories? The O. Henry has the nice feature of a discussion by the judges on their favorites; editors on both collections change annually, which also makes for an interesting and unpredictable mix.

    • Good to hear your thoughts. Interesting that you also favour JC Oates. Those ‘big American males’ were just too darned depressing in their stories, and as you say, had a tedious macho element in their characterisation. I heard a reading of a Hannah story on a podcast long ago, and recall quite liking it – but if my memory serves, it was also very ‘male’. The same podcast had a story of Edwidge D’s, which I also liked. Maybe these women writers just don’t feel they have to prove something. Thanks for the tip about the Henry prize: I’ll take a look. I remember reading a collection of Henry stories in my youth: the twisty endings became a bit predictable after a while, but he’s entertaining – like the one about the homeless guy trying and failing to get himself arrested so he can spend Christmas in jail in the warm.

      • O. Henry really is a classic writer; I always loved those twisty endings of his. I should really re-read a couple. Have you encountered “The Ransom of Red Chief”? It’s one of my favorites.
        The annual collection in his honor has had some very good things. I can’t recall the rules but I believe the entries are from “little magazines” and such, so it also gives you a good glimpse into some little known venues. I also like “The Best of” American short stories series, although it tilts pretty heavily towards The New Yorker! I noticed something by Tessa Hadley in a recent edition, so obviously it looks beyond the good old U.S. of A. I imagine Granta must do something similar; I always seem to be seeing something from it around.
        I’ve pretty much included both the O. Henry & The Best of– on my annual acquisition list, which isn’t to say I’ve read their contents! I used to take the latest edition with me on vacation and just dip at random into the contents; even without liking short stories very much at the time (that’s changing) I almost became hooked.

        • I don’t recall reading the Red Chief story by OH. I’ve read a fair few short story collections over the years; Elizabeth Taylor is one of my favourites (I posted about those here at T Days – and several of her excellent novels); William Trevor is another, but pre-blog (though I have posted on his equally excellent novels). I’m slowly wading through the collected Cheever stories (very slowly); posted on his famous Christmas story a while back. Some are duds, but he can be very good.

          • I haven’t read anything by Cheever, a big omission (have to take care of that at some point!) I love both E. Taylor & W. Trevor; they’re both two of the greats!

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