New American Stories, Edited by Ben Marcus, book review: Beautiful and bloody tales

This generous and beautifully-designed paperback is a brick of an anthology

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The Independent Culture

Anyone who knows Ben Marcus from his own nervy postmodern fiction, in books like The Age of Wire and String and The Flame Alphabet, will have fair warning as to what to expect from this generous and beautifully designed paperback brick of an anthology. In his editor's introduction Marcus talks of wanting to show "just what the short story can do", and then invites us to "get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways".

With that in mind, you might turn first to Kyle Coma-Thompson's short, brilliant "The Lucky Body", in which a gang kill a man on the street, and then go on mutilating his body. As a story it carries a full charge of both the unpleasant and the uncanny.

There's a similar audacity to Lucy Corin's "Madmen", which begins: "The day I got my period, my mother and father took me to pick my madman," and to Rachel B Glaser's exuberant gallop through the history of the planet in "Pee on Water": "Atoms bump and lump. Birds have sex. Bears have sex. The sun gets better at setting." Mathias Svalina's "Play" is a rare misfire, if only for sticking rather too closely to Marcus's own back catalogue, coming as it does in the form of a set of instructions for children's games.

Lydia Davies is here, as you'd hope and expect, with a typically trenchant and affectless paragraph, and George Saunders, still out there writing joyous, bitter stories set in an alternate reality seemingly half-evolved out of The Simpsons. Add in Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover and it's clear that Marcus does not equate newness, or experimentation, with youth. (Coover's "Going for a Beer" is a three-page masterpiece.) Tao Lin is there for the late-night crowd, and holds up well.

But you'll want there to be names that you've only vaguely heard of, or not at all. As well as those first three stories I mentioned, I was particularly taken by Donald Antrim's "Another Manhattan", a reasonably straightforward, then increasingly hysterical relationship-breakdown story. Rebecca Curtis's "The Toast" starts weakly, with a failed Brooklyn writer lying to her older sister about why she won't be making it to her Hawaiian wedding, but then deepens and twists in on itself in ways that will have you feeling guilty about your own small-heartedness.

Of course there are stories that feel like duds. But overall it's a well-weighted collection confidently establishing a centre of gravity for American fiction in the no-name aftermath of postmodernity where its editor feels most at home.