The Best American Short Stories 1993 is a collection of 20 stories selected by guest editor Louise Erdrich. This selection has big names such as John Updike, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Monro, and Mary Gordon. Many of these stories I enjoyed such as ‘Playing with Dynamite’ by John Updike which describes the marriage and infidelity of an old man, ‘The Girl on the Plane’ by Mary Gaitskill about a man who recalls being part of a gang rape after seeing a stranger on a plane, ‘The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore’ by Harlan Ellison about a man who is part of surreal moments in history and it takes up an interesting structure, ‘Poltergeists’ by Jane Shapiro about a mother trying to care for her teenagers who are always partying, ‘Red Moccasins’ by Susan Powers about a Native American family who lose a young child, ‘Pray Without Ceasing’ by Wendell Berry about a grandfather who is shot by his friend, and ‘Gold’ by Kim Edwards about a nugget of gold found in Malaysia.
This collection had some amazing pieces, and pieces that I’m not sure why they work. For example, the final story of the collection ‘The Important Houses’ by Mary Gordon begins and stays almost too long in describing the features and events that happened in the narrator’s grandmother’s house. There is a lot of backstory and discussions of relationships that seem fairly sprawled out, and it’s only in the last two pages where I felt there was reason to tell the story: the father died when the narrator was younger. It is unexpected but makes sense and many of the relationships/descriptions come back in the last moments to make the narrative work, though I’m still perplexed. The story, I think, also has one of the best lines in the collection, in which it preempts the reader with the father’s death. It goes, “There is a sound of disaster, and a quiet after it, when the universe becomes still with shock; the wind stops, the light is colorless, and humans have no words, because no words fit the enormity.” It’s a sprawling, intricate sentence that really made me realize how effortless it seems for Gordon to transition from the grandmother’s house and its happenings to something deeply entangled in the narrator.
Though there were other stories, such as ‘Terrific Mother’ by Lorrie Moore which had a twinge of Orientalism in moments such as this, “’Dishonored?’ So Japanese. Adrienne like the sound of it.”. Or “She sighed. ‘Then I shall sing to you. Mood music.’ She made up a romantic, Asian sounding tune and danced around the room with her cigarette, in a floating, wing-limbed way. ‘This is my Hopi dance,’ she said. ‘So full of hope.’” These are moments that made me question Moore’s intent. Because why would you take a very stereotypical aspect of Japanese culture and use it as a prop? Or still, the second quote feels even more icky in that not only does it otherize Asian cultures (let alone sticking them together and mentioning “Asian sounding”, what the heck does that even mean—there’s no monolithic “Asian sounding” music), but it displays it in a grotesque and characterized way. Why name it a “Hopi dance”? Why make something seem ‘exotic’? And while yes, the narrator is intentionally grating, these moments feel off.
However, overall, I found the collection to be a decent read.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.