Monday, March 11, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 7

Jon Davies on Eric Shade's EYESORES

Eric Shade's Eyesores is a book wherein an alien abduction is looked upon with jealousy. Anything is a welcome vacation from the tedium that is life in this little patch of upstate Pennsylvania.

Over the last decade, I've read about half of the Flannery O'Connor Award winners and a large selection of stories from the other collections. Some of my recent reading of random stories tells me I need to read even more of the collections (Ostlund, Brady, and Walton, my reading eyes are coming for you soon). Some of the books stand as favorites on my shelf at home: David Crouse's Copy Cats, with its mildly disturbed characters; Geoffrey Becker's Black Elvis, with its tales of would-be artists, including one about a man whose afterlife consists of standing in for Sherman Alexie at poetry readings; or Hester Kaplan's The Edge of Marriage, with its devastating tale of a wife caring for her injured, philandering husband. But among all of these winners, Eric Shade's Eyesores still continues to hold a special place in my mind and heart. Why that is the case, beyond the fact that an alien abduction occurs inside its pages, is what I wish to explore here.

Eyesores is a mean and gritty and sad book--dark, the same way Crouse's book is. Perhaps I'm a bit of a masochist, I tend to like stories that put me on edge. I also like that Eyesores is more than the sum of its parts. The stories stand well alone, but they also fit neatly together. Many—in fact, perhaps, most—of the collections among the award winners feature some kind of unifying element, a theme or motif or particular type of character that runs throughout the tales. I think, for example, Amina Gautier's At-Risk, which focuses on teens in Brooklyn; of Gina Ochsner's The Necessary Grace to Fall, which focuses on death; or of the aforementioned Black Elvis's focus on would-be musicians, writers, and painters. But only a few of the collections are what I would call "short story cycles," where the settings and characters occur not just in one story but span all of them. Margot Singer's The Pale of Settlement, for example, focuses mostly on one extended Jewish family, and Carole Glickfeld's Useful Gifts bothers itself entirely with one little girl growing up in a hearing-impaired family. Shade, however, rather than focusing on family pulls a Sherwood Anderson and places all his stories in a small fictional town, Windfall, Pennsylvania. Like Anderson's Winesburg, Windfall isn't exactly a pleasant place to live. It's small-town America as is perhaps too often the case: a place where everyone knows everyone else's business and where many of the good things in life pass by unnoticed. These aren't the stories about the youths who leave (as most will) but about those who don't--or can't.

But what is it about Eyesores that sticks with me so long after I first read it? Is it merely that the stories are related? That there's a kind of unity of dread and apathy (if those two things can go together)? I have to think that something beyond a kind of Cormac McCarthy horror (most of whose work I actually don't care much for) sticks with me. Perhaps, it is the design of this book. The book has gone through two cover designs. The hardcover jacket featured, at top, a photo of a gun and a deer—appropriate, since deer hunting is an activity the characters are known to partake in—and at bottom, a grainy, blown-out image of a car on a highway. It's the latter that I found so utterly captivating. The car looks like one of those oversized monstrosities from the 1970s, and the photo itself looks like something of that era. Once upon a time, this was a great car on a cool-looking highway, and now, there's this: this spattering of pixels against paper, almost as if I'm looking not at a photograph but at a picture that accidentally happened to emerge from rough concrete like some kind of disappointing Virgin Mary miracle. Eyesores would come to have a different cover design in its paper edition. Again, we have deer, but what I like so much this time around is the map that curls around the cover's edges and the shape of the picture itself, curved like a road sign. This is where you've come to: a place where death and deer heads line a wall like a taxidermist's fantasy.

Inside, more eyesores await. I don't know the name of the display font, but it looks something like this:

 Yes, even the words of the titles on the page are coming apart like the photograph on the front jacket once did. And the ornaments that set off one part of a story from another—they're zeroes with slashes through them (ØØØ), in other words, less than zero. Windfall has seen better times.

But while I may be a fan of the book as an ornament, neither can that wholly explain what it is that ties me so much to Shade's text. And so I turn next to how Shade's work compares to other collections in the series. Since 2002, when Eyesores first appeared, there have been twenty-one other winners. I'm a numbers guy. Let's do some numbers. Here's how Eyesores compares with the other collections in terms of the number of stories and the average page count of the stories:

It seems to me that with ten stories of an average of about twenty pages each, Eyesores is a rather typical collection, the same way ten tends to be the number of songs on a record. And at 20.4 pages per story, on average, Eyesores falls just between the two most common lengths for stories in collections that have won the Flannery O'Connor Award.

There's something to be said for this length of story. Flash fiction has been the rage for the past decade online, brevity being the key to success among a population now too busy to give more than passing attention to the words of an article or story. But only one Flannery O'Connor Award collection in the past decade, Ed Allen's wonderfully absurd tribute to accepting what one is given, Ate It Anyway, has had an average length of stories that even comes close to being under ten pages (his stories average 11.375 pages), which is still hardly microfiction. Laying down heavy emotional oomph, it seems, generally takes more than a paragraph—or a sentence (for those who prefer microblog entries to blog entries). We have to come to empathize with a character before we can feel for him or her. And the more we invest, the more we can empathize. This is where the novel gains its power. We live with a character for days or weeks. But where the novel loses power and the short story of roughly twenty pages gains is in E. A. Poe's unity of effect. We aren't distracted by our own lives—the dry cleaning we have to pick up before 9:00 p.m., the job we have to get back to at 1:00 p.m., the child we have to feed—as we read a twenty-page story. As such, we can become wholly submerged in the lives of the characters in the story itself, and we can get that rush of payoff at the tale's end when some kind of denouement has been reached.

Certainly, I do believe that the length Eric Shade chooses for each story has some bearing on the power of the individual pieces in the collection. And I think that the design makes it a collection I like to look at on my shelf. And I think that the tone of the stories, the characters themselves, the linking of the stories all to the same setting—all these things have some bearing on why this collection is special and wonderful to me. But when I really get down to my thoughts on this book, what I realize is that, like certain other books I've read in my lifetime, this one came to me at a particular moment, and it is the tie to that moment that forever renders it special. For in fact, Eric Shade's Eyesores was the first Flannery O'Connor Award-winning book I had an opportunity to work on when I started as a manuscript editor at the Press over a decade ago. I was very excited to work on the book, and as I read it, I became very keen on what the book had to offer the world. I encouraged others I knew to buy it and to read it. And for all the reasons noted here, I would still do that--along with the other Flannery O'Connor Award winners that have found their way to publication over the past three decades. These are short stories at their finest.

Jon Davies is managing editor at the University of Georgia Press.