BOOK REVIEW / Old names come to a surprise party: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories - Ed. Joyce Carol Oates: OUP, pounds l7.50

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THIS BAGGY monster can hardly fail to be a brilliant book: among its roll call of 56 stories can be counted so many heavyweights, old masters and dab hands that its concerted effect bewilders as much as it bewitches. While contenders still queue up to take their shot at The Great American Novel (even to the point of pre-empting the competition and just calling it The Great American Novel) there seems to exist a more democratic attitude to the Great American Short Story. It is too numerous, too various, for any single champion to clinch - better to think of the short story as belonging to . . . America.

Hawthorne, Melville, James, Edith Wharton, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Carver, Wolff - there's a World XI for starters. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories can hardly fail, and it doesn't. That said, Joyce Carol Oates has made some pretty eccentric choices for what should be, essentially, a Greatest Hits compilation. In a long introductory essay, she explains her modus operandi as 'familiar names, unfamiliar titles', the purpose being to avoid those stories anthologised so often as to be predictable. In a bizarre rhetorical flourish, she asks: 'Isn't the implicit promise of an anthology that it will, or aspires to, present something different, unexpected?' Well, no, not really. All an anthology promises, implicitly or explicitly, is a collection of what is considered the best, and while Oates's intention to surprise us is honourable, the book occasionally feels not 'different' but perverse and slightly unsatisfying. As the old saw goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Oates has also worked out a neat definition of the short story. It is, in her view, 'a concentration of imagination, and not an expansion; it is no more than 10,000 words; and . . . it achieves closure - meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader understands why'. I'm not sure I quite understand why Paul Bowles' horrifying story 'A Distant Episode' ended when it did, but I knew I didn't want it to go on.

Arranged in chronological order - the book begins with Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle' - the early stories are largely preoccupied with death, which I suppose is about as emphatic as 'closure' gets. Hawthorne's 'The Wives of the Dead' is a touching threnody which exacts pathos from one of the least interesting narrative devices, the dream. Poe can still scare us with that favourite Gothic chestnut, 'The Tell-Tale Heart', in which a murderer comes down with a bad case of the screaming abdabs on hearing a dead man's heartbeat. In Henry James's grandly melancholic 'The Middle Years' an ailing writer realises his career has reached its twilight after a sequence of false dawns ('It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art').

Even when a story seems to be about something else, death keeps up a steady bass thrum before it cranks up the volume. Saul Bellow's marvellous 'Something To Remember Me By' tells a funnysad anecdote in which the narrator is gulled by a couple of con-artists and reduced to walking the streets of Depressionbound Chicago in a woman's dress (it's a long story).

Amid the lovely cadences of the prose and the teeming Thirties street life, we somehow forget that his mother is close to death. Then the narrator inwardly rejoices when his father clouts him on his tardy return: 'If my mother had already died, he would have embraced me instead.'

Tragedy and farce play a morbidly funny duet in John Cheever's 'The Death of Justina', which culminates, as so often with Cheever, on a note of celestial grace. Darker, much darker, is Tim O'Brien's Vietnam story 'The Things They Carried': the weight of a soldier's kit is inventoried with poignant calm while a young lieutenant struggles with a far more terrible burden - his memories. Bharati Mukherjee's 'The Management of Grief' examines death as it haunts the living: an Indian passenger jet goes down off the Irish coast, and a distraught woman hears the voices of her dead family.

Joyce Carol Oates reckons that the theme common to all these stories is 'discord', and that 'the quelling of discord and re-establishment of harmony may well be the point of the art'. This being America, harmony is in rather short supply, though not for want of trying. As Cheever mournfully wonders: 'Why, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world - where even the cleaning women practise Chopin preludes in their spare time - should everyone seem to be so disappointed?' It's the American way - so much promise, so much frustration - and it is nowhere more delicately dramatised than in Raymond Carver's portrait of a marriage, 'Are These Actual Miles?' (and isn't that the greatest title?) The isolation of men and women who share one another's lives is movingly explored in Peter Taylor's 'Rain in the Heart', the closure of which is so odd and unsettling you might not feel like reading anything else for a while.

Many of the stories here are as fine as could be, but I couldn't help puzzling over some of those 'unfamiliar titles'. Considering Hemingway and Fitzgerald rank as Titans of the genre, 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place' and 'An Alcoholic Case' are heavily watered scotch - where's the champagne? Similarly, I wondered about the Malamud and Updike stories, both of them small good things, but not the best. In her desire to shake up the tried and tested, Oates occasionally fouls up the mixture: first-rate author, second-rate story. What's more, she contravenes her own criteria: I was happy to read Amy Tan's 'Two Kinds' and Louise Erdrich's superb 'Fleur', but both of these are excerpted from novels. There's not much sense of closure there.

Comparison between this book and Richard Ford's selection for Granta last year may be instructive. The Oxford book has all the famous names, and is plainly more comprehensive in scope. Ford's selection is more personal, and he limits himself to stories dating from 1944, the year of his birth: it feels untroubled by the need to be all-inclusive.

There is no special agenda at work. As Ford reflected in his introduction, the best stories 'treat us to language. They stir our moral imaginations. They take our minds off our woes, and give order to the previously unordered for the purpose of making beauty and clarity anew'.

There is much beauty and clarity to be found in this terrific collection, though this in spite, rather than because, of those 'different, unexpected' inclusions.