Back in 2012, when I was still living in Wyoming, I was reading a newly arrived issue of One Story. If you don’t know about One Story, you should; as it says on the tin, each issue contains exactly one short story. As someone who will never even manage to keep up with their New Yorker subscription, let alone the well-made (but rather longer) quarterlies that arrive with all their due beauty and extensive choice, I find One Story to be the most accessible of literary magazines. Also, as someone who, for better or worse, is far more predisposed to the novel than short fiction, I appreciate that the specimens One Story has delivered to my doorstep are always good. But, to be fair, my attentions are usually directed to novels, so when a short story grips me, it’s usually for my own suspect reasons: here, I think, here is a short story that feels novelistic, one in which the world feels like its own fully realized thing. It has a time and a place and characters whose lives reverberate within that world and within me.
That is, I think, an unfair thing to ask of short fiction in many cases. I defend myself by hiding behind novels. Again, for better or worse, the novel has shaped my reading taste. I can adore a spare and scintillating short story, its sunset flash of green, can note and appreciate its workings (even while they retain some whiff of the mysterious, even as they seem to sit in someone else’s shop window) and I do, especially when I am teaching a short fiction workshop. But I am more likely to love the ones that remind me of the other things I love, which is a reason Andrea Barrett’s short fiction delights me so. (Barrett also “cheats” in certain ways, of course, that wave at the novel: the Marburg sisters occurring and recurring, stories set so explicitly within the larger narrative of the natural sciences, full of cameos and arcs that say this doesn’t end here. And it should be known that here, “cheat” is no pejorative; I am, as I say, delighted by all this.)
But back to 2012: I was reading the new issue, a story called “World’s End,” and it had done all of these things that I love so. The historical setting, the enormity of the task before the young architect, the incongruity of love and obsession, the tender and wondering treatment of the setting that struck me in my heart of hearts somewhere between Barrett and Dillard—it was a short story that felt like it was made for me, rather than one I admired through the glass.
As the architect turns over in his mind the challenge of the land and his new infatuation with his employer’s daughter, the two things merge:
On the tidal marsh, the glossy, impossibly vivid grass like the pelt of some animal and the rich, dark, heavy-smelling mud like its hide, where the wet would leach through their clothes, where it would slick their lips, where he could suck water as salty as tears from the collar of her dress.
The sentences move so easily between exterior and interior and of course, exactly so, because that’s where the story lives.
I loved this story, for its wet green world, its familiar difficulties made strange and stuning…and then I forgot about it, the issue itself loaned or given or absorbed into the ether. In the midst of teaching four or five classes a semester that only very seldom had to do with creative writing, committee work, and then applying for a new job, moving 2000 miles, teaching more classes, and so on, it crept away from me, and I let it, all the poorer without it. I hadn’t noted the author, hadn’t noted anything except that brief burst of happiness I forgot to capture somehow, sure I could do it later, so profligate with this little gift from the universe.
Fast-forward to August 2018, to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where I had the absolute good fortune to be in a workshop led by Josh Weil. Our workshop fellow was Clare Beams. Together, Weil and Beams revolutionized my current revision, providing excellent insight and clarity that’s fueling this next step for me. I’d managed to read Weil’s work before going to Vermont (The Great Glass Sea is on my top 10 list for novels I’ve read in the last decade), but beyond the story Josh very thoughtfully shared with the workshop before the conference started, I hadn’t read Clare’s work before (because I live under a rock, obviously). But I attended her craft talk, and listened to her read, and was just generally rapt by all she said and the kind, eloquent way she did so, so I bought We Show What We Have Learned & Other Stories (Lookout Books 2016).
I finally managed to find a time to begin reading it last night, and what did I find?
I found “World’s End.” It’s the second story in the collection, and I’d feel like an utter numpty about it except I’m just so happy to have found it again and to learn it was written by Clare Beams. The whole collection is as absorbing, as richly made as “World’s End,” and in a few deft sentences, these stories will land you in places you did not know they could go.
If you’re going to be in the area, catch Clare on a panel about literary contests, grants, residencies, and the like at Barrelhouse Magazine‘s Conversations & Connections Conference on October 20, and look forward to her novel, The Illness Lesson, in 2020. I know I’m looking forward to it!