“Assorted Fire Events” by David Means
I finished this collection yesterday. It was one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a while. I went in with an ever-so-slightly adversarial attitude, on the basis of never having read Means but making assumptions based on his pedigree (publications in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, etc.) and the general perceived blandness of his name and the titles of his books (The Spot made me want to take a nap; The Secret Goldfish made me roll my eyes).
Man, I was wrong. Halfway through the collection, given the opportunity to browse a big used bookstore, I looked first for Means books, and picked up The Secret Goldfish. The stories have a compactness that reminded me a tiny bit of Andre Dubus. Means frequently uses long, complexly punctuated sentences—he loves the semi-colon—that made me think of some close readings I did in grad school of Dubus stories. His method seems to be to present something, and then to complicate it or go deeper into that fact, that impression. At other times I thought of David Foster Wallace, the way Means seemed to pick his way through a fictional event—in the story “The Interruption,” a bum crashes a wedding reception and is badly beaten, but we never quite see the beating that (you’d assume) is the climax and centerpiece of the story—giving meaning to the whole constellation of details, characters, events, and relationships in the story without succumbing to the craving to (in the case of the Means story) give us the meat and potatoes of the fight itself. It reminded me of the way I felt during the last 50 or so pages of Infinite Jest, realizing there was to be no explicit action sequence resolving everything, that the really entertaining stuff was to take place off-screen, as it were. The implication in both books was that that’s not what’s important. Or, maybe more accurately, that these climactic fictional events are intensely important but one way of giving them their due is to omit them, to have the rest of the story swirl around them, a conspicuous absence.
I never felt unsatisfied by the stories or their conclusions, though; I still felt, in a way, that I did get my meat and potatoes from these stories. Each had a completeness, a feeling of exhaustively going through the possibilities, that made each story feel compact and self-contained. One example that’s online: “The Woodcutter,” one of the last stories in the book.
This is very much the kind of collection I could study, picking apart an individual story to see how Means put it together. These stories feel “drafted”; that is, it seems to me that Means wrote his way through a number of iterations of each of them, stripping away what he didn’t need, paring each piece down to the lean form it takes in this book.
One out-of-left-field quibble, not at all related to Means’ craft: I’ve never read a book with so many typos, of such dumb pedigree: lots of “a animal” and “the the beach” and letters dropping out of words to form new non-words that any spell-check would catch. The publisher, Harper Perennial, certainly seems no slouch, which only made it weirder.
The copy of The Secret Goldfish I picked up is actually a set of uncorrected proofs, though, so while I’m tempted to say “This collection couldn’t be any worse on that score,” the fact is it may be much worse.