HERE’S SOMETHING I’VE been thinking about a lot during quarantine. What is fiction for?
Allow me to be honest. Over the last (as I type this) 100-plus days in quarantine, my ability to read and focus and hold a story in my head has absolutely cratered. Where before I could read, on average, two to three books a week, these days a single 200-page novel has taken me approximately two weeks to finish. I find myself envious of the people who are able to forget about our world, with all its fury and anxiety, and slip away into another one where, regardless of the outcome of the story, a reader can trust in the structure and order provided by the author.
Whether you’re reading a meticulously plotted novel, an avant-garde deconstruction of plot, or, as is the case with Yxta Maya Murray’s new story collection, something squarely between the two, there’s no question that the writer (with or without help from an editor) has chosen a particular set of words and arranged them in a sequence of their choosing in hopes of an emotionally and intellectually compelling experience for the reader. In other words, every choice set forth in a story is indeed a choice; and every choice has consequences. Every choice takes a stance, plants a flag, reveals a point of view. A story is never written in a vacuum. Without question, it’s never read inside of one either.
So, again, what is fiction for? At its most base, it’s entertainment. At its most elevated, it’s art. It’s a simple enough answer, I suppose, but it doesn’t exactly satisfy the demands of the question. Is the purpose of fiction to supply a need, a commodity, packaged and sold and fulfilling its role as another source for capital within the cultural marketplace? Or is the role of fiction to help unburden the anxieties of human existence, to shed light where there is only darkness, to further expand our ability to experience empathy and connection? Is the purpose of fiction to firmly plant, or to whisk away? Is there even an answer to this question? I’m not entirely sure that there is, but I do believe it’s a question worth wrestling with.
Which brings us to The World Doesn’t Work that Way, but It Could, a new short story collection by Yxta Maya Murray, author of six previous novels, most notably The Conquest, which won a Whiting Award in 1999. This collection, it should go without saying, is remarkably attuned to our current moment. It’s not so much “ripped from the headlines” as it is pulled from the putty of American life, molded into shape, and shocked into life by the lightning bolt of our national news. In fact, each and every single story — except for the final story, the one which gives the collection its title — is preceded by a citation, a quote from some news or media outlet, pointing the reader toward the backdrop of each individual narrative. That’s 13 stories, each set against a different social justice concern. The checklist of issues includes: racism, gentrification, the federal response to Hurricane Maria, corruption at the EPA, sexual assault within the halls of power, California wildfires, fracking, abortion bans, the immigration crisis, family separation policies, mass shootings, and the prison-industrial complex. The list of texts cited at the beginning of the stories include: The Guardian, Bloomberg, The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, just to name a few. Should the reader be even more curious still regarding the origin of each story, they can turn to the “Additional Sources” section at the back of the book for a full citation.
In “Draft of a Letter of Recommendation to the Honorable Alex Kozinski, Which I Guess I’m Not Going to Send Now,” a law professor, herself a victim of sexual assault, writes a letter of recommendation for a student to work for a judge, himself accused of sexual assault. In “Paradise,” a widowed Latina woman struggles to remove her father-in-law, a loud and proud member of the MAGA army, from his home as a raging wildfire threatens to consume their community. “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” is a satirical Zillow listing for the lot that used to house PSSST, a controversial art space in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles that served as a flashpoint for the debate on gentrification. By the time I arrived at “Walmart,” a story set in the direct aftermath of the El Paso massacre that left 23 dead and another 23 injured, the characters felt less like living breathing humans making their way through a grief-stricken world and more like stock characters awaiting their destinies as symbols and metaphors.
Reading these stories, what is it exactly we are meant to feel? Righteous anger and indignation? Sadness and despair? Complicity? A sense of relief and satisfaction that we, the readers of these stories, are (presumably) good liberals and already know, before opening Page One, where we land on these issues? Are we to be enlightened, or entertained? Or are we meant to simply stare at the great big tangle of it all? I can’t help but imagine how this collection would feel without the prompts at the beginning of each story setting the table for the narrative. I can’t help but wonder if, instead of the citations directing the focus toward the larger societal forces, the reader could have been allowed to focus on the characters, their triumphs and their failures, and the paths they carve through a polarized nation.
The collection, however, is not entirely without its merits. The language of these stories doesn’t exactly sing, but there is deep feeling in the bones, a great sense of empathy for what humans have made of humanity. The story “Abundance,” set within a community ensconced in the economics of fracking, reads like an echo of a Denis Johnson story. The adults drink and carouse while the children run afoot and the economic (and ecologic) ramifications of fracking tower in the background. The story opens with the beginning of an affair, then rewinds so that we see how the roots of the affair were seeded. Taken alone, without the opening citation from www.courthousenews.com, this story could have stood on the strength of the characters. But by placing the anxieties surrounding the auction of federal lands and the resulting ecological impact at the forefront of the story, it signals to the reader (at the very least, to this reader) that what really matters here are the looming towers waving thin blue plumes of fire against the night sky and not, instead, the disaster that will soon undoubtedly find its way to the secreted lovers.
The opening story, “Miss USA 2015,” which centers two Latina women, a professional beauty pageant coach and her newest client, is another of the collection’s standout stories. Given the construct of the collection, Trump’s comments about Mexicans make their way into the narrative and the women have to reconcile their goals with the reality of their lives:
Then I got on the phone and called my girl.
“Do you know about what Trump said on T.V.?” I asked her.
“Oh yeah, I know,” she said. “It’s all over the news. He wants his whites to kill us or something.”
“My other one [another client, white, blonde, tall, with a degree from Brown] dropped out because of the morals,” I said. “Do you want to, too?”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Do you want to drop out because he’s co-owner of Miss USA?”
“Oh — Jajajajaja!” she laughed, so loud and she dropped the phone. I could hear her mother yelling and the kids crying. She picked the phone back up.
“Do you know what I’ve been through?” she said. “This is nothing.”
“That’s what I said.”
There’s an indelible point of view at work in this passage that cuts to the core of this collection’s ambition. The story deftly navigates issues of race, capital, sex and gender, and white liberalism, and it complicates any attempt at answering how we, as a nation, arrived at this terrible moment in time. Sadly, few of the subsequent stories are as adept as “Miss USA 2015” in observing these discomforting truths. Still, this book will certainly find its audience. There will, undoubtedly, be readers for whom this collection strikes the right balance between real-world reportage and the kind of ringing emotional truth that can only be found in fiction. Without question, there will be book clubs for which this collection will provide an ideal gateway into discussing and debating its various points of view. And yet I find myself once again returning to the inciting question. What is fiction for? Do we, as readers, demand an excavation of truth, artful in its rendering? Do we require that literature ask us to reconsider the world? Or do we simply want fiction to reflect back to us our deepest assumptions of it? The answer, dear reader, lies with you.
J. David Gonzalez is a writer and former bookseller living in Los Angeles. He is also the publisher of Breaking and Entering, a quarterly journal dedicated to stories that explore the boundaries of genre fiction.