It can be difficult to review a book like this one, with the only things connecting the stories inside it being the nation of their publication and the taste of the man who decided to put them all together. One thing we can say, in this instance at least, is that the man who did the picking has very good taste indeed. The author of Leaving the Sea, The Flame Alphabet, and The Age of Wire and String may stick to the completely bizarre and outlandish in his own writing, but when it comes to his story selection this book shows Ben Marcus to be a man who likes his fiction in a variety of flavours. There are bizarre and mind-bending stories like those that made Marcus famous, for sure. But there are just as many that take the straight realist route all the way. And almost without exception, the 32 tales on display here are damned good if not downright bloody marvellous.
So good, in fact, that it feels almost wrong to pick any standouts. But I will. Claire Vaye Watkins closes the collection with ‘The Diggings.’ This tale of two brothers who head out west to dig for gold was one of only two in the collection that I’d read previously. I adored it the first time around, and its strength is in no way diminished by being placed after the 31 works that precede it here. Zadie Smith, a writer I am usually unsure of, shows another side to her writing with the frighteningly futuristic ‘Meet the President’. And there’s some delightful weirdness of the Ben Marcus ilk in ‘Madmen’, Lucy Corin’s tale of puberty that rivals Carrie in its creepiness. But if one story must be crowned the best in this fantastic collection, then Anthony Doerr’s ‘The Deep’ would have to take the prize. A coming-of-age story with a difference, featuring holes in the heart and a crush that lasts a lifetime, it is probably the story most likely to stick with you. As Marcus says in his intro, ‘drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife.’ ‘The Deep’ lives up to that statement, but I’m glad it stuck hard.
And it’s with Marcus’s intro that we should probably end. It rivals every other piece of writing in this 750 page collection, and as an ode to the short story it is impassioned, unrivalled, and inspiring. In fact, you shouldn’t bother reading this review. Everything you need to know is present in those first seven pages.
Any Cop?: Rarely have seven hundred odd pages felt so readable. Perfect as something to jump in and out of, but if you really want to immerse yourself in the strength of contemporary short fiction writing, put everything else away until you’ve read New American Stories from cover to cover.