Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”
I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.
Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”
Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.
Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?