To employ an extended seasonal metaphor, if the New Yorker's last fiction issue -- the one dated June 23 & 30, 1997, and dedicated to Indian writers -- seemed like a Big Present, the kind found under the Christmas tree, then this month's fiction issue is more of a stocking. The Indian issue arrived as a genuine surprise, a sudden and welcome expansion of American readers' universe of possible delights, and it anticipated my own curiosity about the literary explosion on the subcontinent in a way I never expect the New Yorker, which tends to sanctify the tastes of literary fiction readers rather than extend them, to do.
The Christmas stocking, in most families, is a miniature, monopedal carrier of tradition. Certain gifts appear in them annually, and the pleasure of finding them midway down that long neck of red felt has less to do with actually wanting another pair of tube socks or deck of playing cards (or candy cane, or tangerine) than it does with the comfort of knowing that they have been, and will be, waiting for us there every year. The table of contents for this New Yorker fiction issue is full of familiar names, even if some of them belong to young Turks like Jeffrey Eugenides and George Saunders, and they deliver, reassuringly, according to their reputation.
Alice Munro's "The Children Stay" is the quintessence of a certain kind of New Yorker story -- resolutely unexotic, preoccupied with the intimate trials and betrayals of middle-class family life, melancholy about the possibilities for human happiness in a routine world -- a species of short fiction directly descended from Chekhov. No one writes these better than Munro, however, and her story of a young Canadian housewife and mother, Pauline, who decides to run off with her lover, the director of an amateur theatrical production in which she's starring, has a seamless, autumnal potency that's undiminished by the conventionality of its heroine's dilemma. Munro portrays the slow formulation of Pauline's resolve with tremendous care. There's a break, and a brief coda set 30 years later -- a short, evocative conversation between Pauline and her daughters, now grown -- that invites the reader's imagination to flood the break between story and coda with the rich matter of this woman's entire adulthood.
If none of the other stories in the magazine can quite match the mature accomplishment of Munro's, it's still a treat to find one of Nick Hornby's droll comedies of manners centered around the kind of puppyish boy-men who have inspired scores of self-help books and much feminine angst. "Serial Nice Guy" relates the romantic adventures of one Will Leitmann, an aging but still resolutely callow pop culture addict who has chosen for himself "a life without care and difficulty and detail, a life without context and texture," and hits upon the perfect strategy for dating a series of beautiful women: focus on single mothers, a tactic guaranteed to "reduce the competition." This is the stuff of pitched, take-no-prisoners battles between the sexes, a tale that, if told by the likes of Martin Amis, might seem marinated in bile and surreptitiously self-righteous, but Hornby has a guileless honesty and an essential sweetness (also a determination to take his characters beyond their blinkered worldview) that makes his stories hilarious and goofily charming instead.
Eugenides contributes part one of a two-part story of an (entirely fictional) incestuous romance between "his" Greek grandparents. It shows the interweaving of mythic and modern themes that makes him one of the most interesting young writers around. Saunders, whose dystopian futuristic story collection "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" excited readers and critics in 1996, seems to be concentrating these days on more realistic stories about odd, thwarted little men, which nevertheless leave a muted aftertaste of menace and potential violence that may be even more disturbing than the patent grotesques of "CivilWarLand." Journalist John Walsh's article about the unpublished "masterpiece" by the difficult, grandly ambitious but decidedly obscure London novelist James Thackara is a rueful tale of editor/writer relations gone awry that might not interest you if you're not a member of either profession, but will probably fascinate anyone who is.
Unsurprisingly, the only lump of coal in this stocking is New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford's introduction, in which he natters on about "the lustful, appetite-driven, pleasure-seeking behavior" that, according to historian Stephen Nissenbaum (whose book "The Battle for Christmas" is out in paperback and on every desperate journalist's desktop this month), characterized pre-20th century Christmases. Admittedly, writing this sort of space-filling, seasonal editorial is a wretched and thankless task, but in this case Buford's leaden double-entendres seem bizarrely out of touch with the wry sensibilities of the stories he's selected for this issue, or even the brief memoirs of "miserable Christmases" the editors have gathered from such luminaries as John Updike, Lorrie Moore and Frank McCourt. There's always been something defensive about Buford's tiresome Falstaffian posturing -- as if he's trying to prove that fiction (writing and editing) isn't just the province of lily-livered pansies, you know, but also of hard-drinking, hairy-chested he-men who'd be lustily pinching the secretaries' bottoms at the office Christmas party if only a passel of thin-lipped, scolding Puritans hadn't taken over America and spoiled all the fun. Congratulations to Buford on having solved the thorny problem of reconciling his profession with his manhood, but I -- and I strongly suspect the secretaries as well -- am roundly sick of hearing about it.