Fortune Smiles: Stories, by Adam Johnson
All through high school and college the bulk of my literary education was done through short stories. In some ways it’s understandable. In junior high it took us a couple of months to get a full class through Tale of Two Cities. Short stories are easily digested, can be handled by a classroom in a few days to a week, and allow a teacher to move through a wide variety of literary eras and writers in a single semester.
Yet despite this quirk in our education system publishers hate short story collections. Poetry, too, for all that. But the publishing world has learned that short story collections don’t sell well. Even for Hemingway Scribners would only publish a collection as part of a package, and most publishers will only print a collection if they have what they feel will be a best-selling novel also in hand. But think about that. From your school days think of a work of literature that rocked you when you read it in school for the first time. There’s a good chance you thought of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I carried the Hemingway Collected Stories in my backpack (along with Leave of Grass) until the pages were falling out.
But readers like novels, and especially big novels or series and that’s what gets printed. So some cheap and easy advice from one reader to another: If a major publisher agrees to print a short story collection (or a book of poetry) there’s a good chance that its power to really move you is going to be way above ordinary.
The past year or so we’ve seen some exceptional story collections from single writers. Bream Gives Me Hiccups by Jesse Eisenberg, Tenth of December by George Saunders, and now this collection by the author of The Orphan Master’s Son, which won a Pulitzer for fiction in 2013.
These stories have a lot of variety for a six-story collection. Some rumble around in my mind long after reading them. Out of the six I think “George Orwell Was A Friend Of Mine” has stuck with me the most. It’s the story of a former member of the East German Stasi and warden of a prison. He continues to live near the prison and is angered by how the prison is portrayed by the people who now offer tours of the place. He takes one of the tours himself to try to justify the atrocities that happened there. In what I would call a science fiction story (though the author and publisher might flee from the idea) titled “Nirvana” a programmer, home caring for his wife who’s dying from a rare disease, creates a computer version of an assassinated US president. In the title story Johnson returns to Korea, the setting of The Orphan Master’s Son, to follow two refugees from North Korea trying to adjust to the new world of South Korea.
There’s something especially powerful about stories that are unsettling, something most of these stories manage. They alter one’s perception and make one go back to the story, literally or in the imagination, to get to the root of what the story is saying. Eudora Welty was a master of this kind of story, with realistic people in odd situations trying to manage or at least survive their worlds. These are certainly in that tradition with barely a false note to be found.
I carried the Hemingway book with me because it let me enter a reality like “Big Two-Hearted River” when there was a lull in whatever life was bringing around. I’ll be carrying these stories on my phone (the modern backpack) for the same reason.