September 2006

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

The Fictional is Political

One of the better short fiction anthologies I've read in awhile, A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing presents stories that take issue with the high school version of American history. It’s more fun than Howard Zinn’s classic radical history book, and doesn’t even skimp on specifics. Editors T Cooper and Adam Mansbach have curated a mix of stories that hit notes of tragedy and hilarity with equal care. They and their contributors have found “history” to be as irresistible a framing device as any resulting readers will.

Some of the stories are retellings or reimaginings of events in the collective memory. A few are set in the present, noting the lasting impact of a specific moment in the past. Some deal with notable (or at least commonly known) historical events. But they don't all need to: as you read, it becomes clear that the history of anything is a history of relationships, of interactions, of individual peoples' smaller stories. History is always our context. You know that bumper sticker, “Those Who Forget History Are Doomed To Repeat It”? That repetition happens even if we take pains to remember the lessons of the past. It just gets called reliving.

Paul La Farge and Alexander Chee contribute beautiful, contemplative pieces about the discovery of America. The poll tax and the Harlem Globetrotters are taken to task in comics by David Rees and Keith Knight, respectively. Kate Bornstein’s imagining of Huck Finn as a tranny hooker is delicious, while Benjamin Weissman’s “West” is a cleverly dirty story of life among the covered wagon set. The ghosts of the Vietnam War haunt Thomas O’Malley’s “The Resurrection Men” to great effect, and Felicia Luna Lemus reveals a romance with origins in the 1937 Woolworth's strike. For some writers -- and some histories -- solemnity is called for. Others demand ridicule; the injection of sex, laughter. Every one of the writers here -- who also include Neal Pollack, Ron Kovic and Amy Bloom -- has crafted a convincing, artful response to a history that has left so many people’s stories out.

The existence of This Is Not Chick Lit is equally politically charged. Editor Elizabeth Merrick, who we won't even pretend to be neutral about around here, has brought together an admirable roster of writers for this collection. Setting out to prove that women writers of literary fiction are busily producing amazing work, the book features stories about identity and relationships that sit proudly outside the “man + expensive shoes = happily ever after” narrative that has proved so marketable.

With its attention to the very personal conflicts between a person’s heart and their home, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's “The Thing Around Your Neck,” is the perfect piece to open the collection. Judy Budnitz confronts the mythology of Joan of Arc in “Joan, Jeanne, La Pucelle, Maid of Orleans,” and Dika Lam puts the narrator’s tiny sister at the center of a formidable “Seventy-two-Ounce Steak Challenge.” The two unlikable characters in Caitlin Macy's “The Red Coat” are a case study in dysfunction between women. These characters are not necessarily more sympathetic or less shallow than so many in typical chick lit, but there’s certainly a difference in how their writer treats them. The reliably great Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan and Samantha Hunt also deliver striking new work.

But it still doesn't answer the overarching question. What does a genre of writing by women look like when it's defined by what it is not? With a book called This Is Chick Lit also published recently, the debate isn’t going to end anytime soon. The contrast set up by This Is Not Chick Lit is a useful one though, because while we may not be able to define the anti-chick lit exactly, we certainly know it when we see it. 

With public figures increasingly insisting that politics themselves are not political, books like these are calling attention to fiction that is confrontational, and that poses a challenge to long accepted definitions, genres and histories. They’re proving that fiction can be a powerful way to tell the truth.