Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Story Month Giveaway: The Great Frustration by Seth Fried

This week, I'm celebrating short stories with giveaways and thoughts about short fiction by participating authors.  Join me each day as I pay tribute to National Short Story Month, a movement which has snowballed since the first efforts by Larry Dark and Dan Wickett to give overdue national attention to short stories.  For details on how to enter today's contest, scroll to the bottom of this post.  For more bloggers participating in Short Story Month giveaways, be sure to visit this page at Fiction Writers Review.

Today's book is The Great Frustration by Seth Fried, hot off the Soft Skull Press.  As I mentioned before on the blog, I was a fan of Fried's writing long before The Great Frustration hit my doorstep.  The collection of stories is worth the price of admission for "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre" alone.  But it's easy to be sucked into the book by the first lines of the rest of the stories.  It's no secret I'm a huge fan of great opening lines and in Fried's case, he seems to have mastered the art of the suck-in.  Here's a small sampling from The Great Frustration:
Last year, the people in charge of the picnic blew us up.  ("Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre")
To begin with, I am a man.  ("Life in the Harem")
Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule.  ("Those of Us in Plaid")
In a dense wood, I kill a native woman.  She approaches me from behind, perhaps out of curiosity, and I brain her with my helmet.  Sheer reflex.  Secluded from my men, I remove her simple garments, place my forehead reverently to her pudenda, and weep.  ("The Misery of the Conquistador")
In the Garden of Eden, a cat steadies itself on a branch while quietly regarding a parrot.  ("The Great Frustration")
The men on the walls are all dead.  ("The Siege")
In the seventh grade, I starred in a play written by my school's gym teacher.  ("The Frenchman")
My father was shot and killed the day after I was born.  ("Lie Down and Die")
Okay, so that's more than a "small" sampling; but honestly, those opening lines are like Lay's potato chips.  I couldn't eat just one.  And I suspect you'll want to scarf the whole bag when you get your hands on it.
About the Author:  Seth Fried's short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Tin House, One Story, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Kenyon Review, and The Missouri Review, and have been anthologized in The Better of McSweeney's Vol. 2 and The Pushcart Prize XXXV.  Be sure to check out his Absolute-Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog ("Now with 68% more New York cool!").
The 5 Best Short Stories You’ve Never Read

"The Adventure of the Bather" by Italo Calvino
A woman is swimming in the ocean when she eventually discovers that she has lost the lower half of her bathing suit.  The majority of this story takes place as the woman treads water because she is too embarrassed to go ashore.  In books like Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, Calvino is famous for writing stories that are adventurously over the top.  So the relatively simple, real-life premise of "The Adventure of the Bather" might at first seem underwhelming to the experienced Calvino fan.  However, from this straightforward premise Calvino manages to weave a brilliant examination of self and of our relationship to our own bodies.

"The Guest" by Stanley Elkin
A lovably reckless jazz musician named Bertie (who wears an eye patch, obviously) somehow ends up house-sitting for his bourgeois friends.  In a manner similar to that of the children in Graham Greene's "The Destructors," Bertie proceeds to destroy his friends' cushy abode.  Despite the fact that almost the entire story is devoted to one man alone in an apartment, Elkin somehow manages to make the action of the story feel dangerously anarchic and larger than life.  Not only is "The Guest" one of the funniest short stories ever written, but it also contains brilliant insight into the absurd nature of rebellion and counterculture.

"Charlie in the House of Rue" by Robert Coover
When people talk about Robert Coover's short stories, they tend to focus on Pricksongs and Descants (probably because it contains that undisputed masterpiece of the short form, "The Babysitter").  Few people think to mention his equally amazing collection A Night at the Movies which, like Pricksongs and Descants, features some of Coover’s most challenging and invigorating work.  "Charlie in the House of Rue" is a shot-by-shot description of a fictional Charlie Chaplin film.  It's a gimmicky premise to be sure, but the resulting story is gripping, surreal, and as entertaining as it is completely malevolent.

"Cockroaches in Autumn" by Lydia Davis
Among the many, many things to admire about the fiction of Lydia Davis is that she manages to do so much in so few words.  "Cockroaches in Autumn" is a prime example of this.  In a series of brief fragments describing the day-to-day discovery of cockroaches in the narrator‘s home, Davis creates something startlingly real and visceral.  Some of the most unsettling descriptions in the story are also somehow the most beautiful.  The bare-bones approach of "Cockroaches in Autumn" is so masterful that it's difficult to tell whether Davis is stripping fiction down or building it up to new heights.

"Bigfoot Stole My Wife" by Ron Carlson
This story is often used by creative writing instructors as a classic example of an unreliable narrator.  A man tells the reader how he came home one day to find his wife was gone.  Naturally, the only explanation is that she was stolen by Bigfoot.  Never mind the fact that the narrator himself makes a few references to his own gambling, clearly Bigfoot is to blame.  Running this story through a quick, college-English analysis, Bigfoot becomes a metaphor for the narrator’s denial.  However, Carlson undercuts this more obvious interpretation by having the narrator tell you another story from his youth involving a flash flood, a trailer, and a copy of Dude magazine.  Without spoiling anything, the tale in question is just as outlandish as the Bigfoot abduction.  But because of the level of detail the narrator offers, this second story also seems to be completely true.  Therefore, the meat of this story doesn’t seem to be (though it is often taught this way) that the narrator is in denial.  Rather, the point is in Carlson asking you whether you as a reader have lost your ability to believe in something, even though it sounds ridiculous.

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