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The Burned Children of America
Introduced by Zadie Smith
Marco Cassini & Martina Testa, eds.
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.
£10.00, 298 pages, ISBN 0-241-14205-9.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

The Burned Children of America is a collection of stories by "the best young writers from the USA." Such collections are meant, finally, to cheer-look what promise lies ahead-but, talented though all those writers are, they step forward not with blossoms but with handfuls of dust. What, then, to make of such charred offerings?

In this America, babies are miscarried. They are scalded. They are permanently scarred. They are born with fingers shaped like keys. They are confined in disfiguring contraptions to make their speech articulate. Death rocks their cradles. Parents do not catch them when they fall.

By adolescence--and before--they are feckless, affectless. They sexually abuse their toys, and each other. They grow fat. They go unloved. They go unheard. They have "the wrong arms." High school turns them into ghosts. They deal drugs to their teachers; kill them when they fail to pay up.

As adults, their flesh sprouts teeth. They turn into their parents; dream like them; fail like them. Sleep falls over America in thick folds of snow from which they fashion Substitutes, which will do their living for them.

It is the saddest nation, and these are the saddest stories.

This is a fearful and coruscating collection, the pieces delicate and brutal, commonplace and absurd, smouldering and cool. They glitter, but they glitter darkly. Some of the stories burn themselves into the memory, and while several fail to ignite in the mind, few fail to chill the soul.

First compiled and published in Italy by Marco Cassini and Martina Testa-and all praise to them-it now comes with an introduction by Zadie Smith. She embraces the task with a comprehensive glee and a thoughtful enthusiasm.

As a writer she has never been more likeable. She is this collection's ideal advocate. Her introduction records how intrigued, puzzled, unsettled and, ultimately, exhilarated she is-as reader and as writer-by this collection's bone-deep sadness. I, too, am intrigued, puzzled, unsettled. I am even exhilarated by them, but I can't account myself quite as joyful. I genuinely admire this collection, rate it highly, but I cannot enjoy the one story it is intent on telling me.

Smith makes only implicit references to 9/11. She has no real need she do so. Most of these stories pre-date that tragedy, and this sadness is a generation old at least. It may be older. It's difficult to say. Sadness is not a new theme in American letters. From Thoreau to Jonathan Franzen American writers have narrated lives of quiet desperation, but I have never read a collection by American writers who seem to express that despair so obsessively, without any hope of respite from it-or any wisdom or beauty to be garnered despite it. Hope, Emily Dickinson had it, is the thing with feathers, but these stories can be bald birds, uninterested, in the main, in flying.

The writing, I think, explains it. What else is fiction but writing? And the writers here, with two exceptions, share, in varying degrees, that peculiarly contemporary American style: a blank-faced prose that will reference Walt Disney and Pepsodent, but not Whitman or Willa Cather. At its most extreme, it is a style that prefers to shrug and dismiss rather than hymn and exalt. Only in David Foster Wallace's Faulknerian sentences and Shelley Jackson's baroquely extended metaphors is there, to the fore, a relish for language, an ear for its deep echoes, an interest in extending its effects. The rest write as if fearful of being thought clever. They prefer the muttered aside, the almost-mute response to life's details. Their stories often stop, come to a halt, dazed and abrupt, or, maybe, they sneak in some smoky aria but more as a form of punctuation than any joy or revelling in how the music feels. The laconic style prevails; a clipped delivery, a level, blunt prose that is Carver's legacy (if not his practice), and one that can seem almost parodic when exploited by his heirs. It is often done well, but it is often done, so the effect is cheapened; it feels too easily achieved, and one begins to think the plain style is no more a guarantee of truth than the purple.

Henry James feared this effect even as he prophesied it. After Balzac and the European novel, its history, its fine distinctions--that fact that they did not get there first--he feared what was left to American writers was a style of "fatal fusions and uniformities [...] the running together of all differences of form and tone, the ruinous liquefying wash of the great industrial brush over the old conditions of contrast and colour."

The end result, as Myra Goldberg, in this collection, observes of one of her characters: a weariness blanches every word. Such writers seem to despair of language's higher register, are nervous of exploiting or developing fiction's traditions and resources. They write as if parked in a cul-de-sac, the engine barely ticking over. Is there really no place left to go?

Take this paragraph from the second story in the collection; Matthew Klam's "There Should Be a Name for It:"

We get a pizza. We pay the man. We eat the salad she picked and lie on the rug in the living room, eating pizza, watching TV, together on the floor. We have no furniture-we aren't there yet. The vibe between us is two people very tired and in shock, but amiable. I put some cream on my face. The welt on my hand throbs. I'd rather have pizza anyway; chicken sucks. I love her. Who else would accept me in this condition? [p. 30]

Smith sees Updike behind this prose but it has not his transfiguring charm, or his sense of the immanence in the details of everyday life. Klam's prose has rhythm and accuracy, but it is also airless, wiped clean of aspiration. It is of a piece with his characters, true to the world he has them inhabit-Godless, some would say, without anything to put in His place. There should be a name for it, the title tells us, but the story has no hope of finding the name for whatever 'it' might be, and it speaks in a voice that would not be able to utter it if it did. This, and not Marlowe's Faust or Beckett's Malloy, is how despair must sound. Klam writes with an almost adamic simplicity, but the world he describes is already fallen-fallen and concussed.

I am trying here for praise, but it feels like condemnation. Klam's writing-and that paragraph is the story's high point-has a stunned poise, I can't deny it, but, look, too, at this opening paragraph of Jeffrey Eugenides's "Timeshare:"

My father is showing me around his new motel. I shouldn't call it a motel after everything he's explained to me but I still do. What it is, what it's going to be, my father says, is a timeshare resort. As we walk down the dim hallway (some of the bulbs have burned out), my father informs me of the recent improvements. 'We put in a new oceanfront patio,' he says. 'I had a landscape architect come in, but he wanted to charge me an arm and a leg. So I designed it myself.' [p. 71]

Our interest is piqued, but it is a dutiful interest, almost polite. It is not only the hallway that is dim in this paragraph-more than "some of the bulbs" have been burned out. The tone is resolutely unenlivened. It seems not the same writer--mind, eye or ear--who produced The Virgin Suicides, which, at its best, made one think of Hawthorne and Anderson and Carson McCullers--as if you were reading another instalment in a nation-long novel about love and death. His latest novel, Middlesex, shows how sinuous and diverse a stylist he can be. The richness of his work--its poetic daring--is not evident in "Timeshare." It is well-written: it does work. The dialogue is exquisitely tuned and its images, when they occur, are quietly surreal, but the prose--like that of Klam and Judy Budnitz and others--is without memory; an amnesiac's hum. It's a prose that lives in the present, that can only recall the most recent of traumas and imagine a future that is merely the present, continued.

It is this deadened prose that emits the anthology's general sadness, and expresses and accounts for its dispiritedness. The dispiritedness is fascinating, well, because it is American-and somehow that shouldn't be. Even at its most dyspeptic--say, in what Smith calls the "masculine raging' of Philip Roth--American fiction has always sounded in love with itself. America, richer and more powerful than any nation before it, richer and more powerful than it has a right to be? From its luxurious and generous stew of people and ideas and achievements drips this thin strange gruel? A whole world in its sights, and these writers rarely leave the house? A whole orchestra at their disposal, and these writers pick out tunes single-handed on some sad piano? America, which idolizes those who achieve success, has produced these writers? They do not try, and fail: they make their art, simply, out of failing.

And art there is? While the general tone is dispiriting--and, if one decides to take against it, self-indulgent, dull, just wrong, too easy and unhelpful--there is real writing going on here. That I don't want it said--and, much more so, I don't want it said in this way--is of no real import. I don't read to hear myself echoed back or myself reflected--or not always, and not that often. I read to hear what I don't know, to hear what others have to say and, more importantly--because it just is--I want to hear how they say it. And there are voices here that sing siren-like, horrible and seductive. Tie yourself to the mast, and listen.

Any collection that begins with a George Saunders story has earned its keep from the get-go. Whether his characters are white-collar or blue-collar, Saunders makes pearl necklaces from their lives, ones that both decorate and choke them. "I Can Speak" is a joke piece by his standards, but it is a bitter one, wonderful and horrifying and sad, sad, sad.

Smith might argue that the dried-out prose of Klam and others is what's left after an attempt to wash language clean from the pollutants of commerce, government and advertising. The argument has great credence, but it is, and she acknowledges it, Saunders who best fashions out of the language of corporate America a poetry cognizant of the soul such a force is intent on quelling. As she puts it:

No one else can do so much with exclamation marks, brackets, rhetorical questions [...] terrified sentences, every word of which we know will be checked over by middle management on the next floor who has the narrator's balls in their hands. [p. xviii]

It is with the fifth story-and the one from which the collection derives its title-that the book catches fire: David Foster Wallace's "Incarnation of Burned Children." Its flames illuminate the other stories even as it puts them in its shadow. Just over three pages long, a terrifying account of a child's scalding, it is emotionally raw and, here's the thing, technically ambitious. It is written from a God-like point of view-merciless and appalled-but it's a God having difficulty working the zoom lens. Mid sentence, the focus shifts and slides, whirls and points at the sky, falls to the floor, zips through the characters' ears and crashes into the trees. It enacts the panic of a terrible accident, but it is only deceptively drunken and woozy, and the note of grace on which it ends is both biblical and homespun. It looks so quiet on the page, and then you read it.

From here on, each story, while not matching Wallace's achievement, improves on those that open the collection. Amanda Davis's "Faith or Tips for the Successful Young Lady" could lose some of its weight and move more fleetly to its conclusion, but she is-or was-a genuinely enthralling writer. The book is dedicated to her, and a biographical note informs us that she died in March this year-a serious loss.

Dave Eggers's "Letters from Steven, a Dog, to Captains of Industry" is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a welcome piece of whimsy amidst the general misery. What Smith writes concerning it is more interesting than the story itself. Her case for it sounds like special pleading for a shaggy dog story without teeth to bite for itself or much of a tail to wag, but her request for stories that "make something happen off the page, outside words" is worth attention. Poets and conceptual artists build whole careers around such an ambition, and prose writers seldom take up the challenge. Eggers's McSweeney site [<>] might, but its outsider-ish qualities can often just seem cliquey. How liberating can an in-joke be?

America, from this collection, might seem one big in-joke because no other culture or nation gets much of a look in. In Ken Kalfus's "Invisible Malls" there is a homage to Italo Calvino, pleasant enough but it feels like a creative writing exercise. Elsewhere, more profitably, Kafka haunts stories like Sam Lypsite's "The Wrong Arm," and, especially, Julia Slavin's "Dentaphilia" in which a lover's body grows teeth--a beautiful piece, as enamelled and glistening as its heroine's body. It's a cute Kafka, perhaps, sugared over and sentimentalized-more overtly sad than ever Kafka allows himself to be. Are these his heirs, Karl Rossman's great grandchildren--the Burned Children of Amerika?

A. M. Holmes's "A Real Doll," in which a boy has sex with his sister's Barbie, is the kind of story you read with a shamed glee. Among the burned children, Holmes, with Wallace, seems one of the grown-ups. Like the Foster Wallace story, "A Real Doll" is fiction that utterly knows itself, understands the writer's brief, and exceeds it. You think you know where it's going. It takes you there. And then it takes you further. You land, appalled and grateful.

Shelley Jackson's "Sleep" comes from a different world from that of the other stories. A reverie of a world where sleep falls like snow, her America is just as sad but her feeling for it is more loving, the language richer, the idea she expresses more complex, more highly wrought in its expression. It is, I suspect, the only truly generous voice in the collection and, in its quiet authority, it is the most moving and distinct.

Clever then to follow it with Aimee Bender's "The First Men," written with a stand-up's deceptive garrulity and timing that hardly prepares us for the stuttering horror of its conclusion. Sadness and horror but a few wry laughs, too: Bender's story is something of a paradigm for the collection. There's a lot of humour here, but there's nothing to laugh at either.

Why are these works so sad? The question just does not go away while you read them. Smith does her best to explain and justify it. She claims it is a sadness that connects with "the sadness that other people have felt throughout history" and this sadness, as a result, has "a moral aspect." Most short stories--of a literary turn--are sad, and the best, of course, connect with the sadness of others, but I could not identify any sign that these "burned children" were aware of anyone beyond their own charred company. Here, the reader makes the connection with their sadness, and so it is the reader who displays this particular "moral aspect" and not the writer. These stories do not seem aware of a world outside America, its impositions and absurdities as others see and feel them--and as others are made to see and feel them. Detractors will have little difficulty in finding ways to prove these stories are self-pitying, politically unengaged and unengaging.

I missed the presence of David Means and Adam Haslett--magnificent writers--but they would only deepen and not redress the collection's sadness. If redress there is, it might lie in "the new wave of diverse sub-cultural voices" Smith acknowledges that are missing from this collection, and must wait for another volume. It's all very White, very American, but that's not a criticism; it's, perhaps, the very point. The stories would not work together as they do if these writers showed how alive they might be to other possibilities, other Americas.

I read these stories as if I were watching a nation burn, appalled at the flames, warmed by them, excited by them, grateful I was at a distance, and wishing my own home fires burned so well. The best of these stories burn on in my head, but I'm not sure what light their flames throw, or what picture to make from them other than a sky filled with flames, and the youth of America doodling in the soot.

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