The summer issue of Tin House: cue an essay on “miserablism”—not in music, as Simon Reynolds once used to describe Morrissey and other gloomy Manchester bands but in fiction, as Gerald Howard employs in an essay on the “Merritt Parkway Novel.” More on that later, but let that brief introduction to this issue suffice to say that this isn’t exactly light-hearted beach reading. Who wants that anyways? The editor’s note says, “Consider this summer reading as providing a few grains of sand in your suntan lotion, a little bit of grit to remind of you the depth and breadth of the human condition.” So, let this Tin House do just that—give a dark, realistic, take on summer reading.
In “Notes on the Merritt Parkway Novel,” Howard discusses six writers who use Connecticut as a setting. He starts in the 1950s with Sloan Wilson, Max Schulman, and John Keats, goes into the early sixties for Richard Yates, and then skips about thirty years to get to Rick Moody, followed by Stephen Amidon, and Allison Espach. The essay is interesting, examining a loose collection of novels based on the way they tackle a location. Of course, it’s a troublesome thesis, as there are those unrepresented decades, but Howard’s central question of why these novels focus on the mundane, on the miserable, on the unsuccessful, when there must be plenty of happier folks in an American population generally considered optimistic, provides a certain tension and intrigue. Unfortunately, his conclusion that this is simply what writers gravitate towards and that “the whole business is hard to square,” while thought provoking, lacks finality.
The fiction in this issue does seem to bear out Howard’s assumption though. Alexander Maksik’s excellent, “Snake River Gorge,” starts with the line, “Are you happy?” The story is about a clearly unhappy boy named Theo who answers an ad in the paper about a job selling subscriptions. He joins a motley crew of coworkers whose even unhappier leader grows more abusive as the story goes on. Theo’s reaction to the abuse, the tension between him and the leader, and the slight ways in which he’s different than the other kids selling subscriptions fuel the powerful story. Maksik’s writing uses a riveting guttural realism to depict a world of outcasts.
Another story about characters who seem to have reached the end of their line is Kristen Iskandrian’s “The Inheritors,” which centers on two young women working at a consignment shop called “Second Chances.” The story builds a murky relationship between them that seems both predestined and completely out of the blue. But even though the relationship builds up naturally, it isn’t ever clearly defined, leaving the reader wondering about it in the end just as the narrator does. The writing is taunt throughout this piece, almost as tight and thin as the mysterious relationship between the two main characters.
As this issue seems focused on miserable people, it contains a number of stories about writers. One that stands out is Holly Goddard Jones’s “The Right Way to End a Story.” Jones’s story focuses on Juliet, a recent MFA grad trying to make sense of both her failed love life and a bleak job market. The story is set during a winter term when Juliet, who has been pulling together adjunct jobs, accepts a short-term teaching position at a rural private college with residency. Juliet’s extreme isolation is so honestly portrayed and pushed so hard that that the story transcends its dismalness, rather than wallowing in misery.
Those selections are only a few of the highlights in this issue of Tin House. There’s also work from Amy Hempel, Alice Munro, Sherman Alexie and Adrienne Rich, among others. As I’ve said, these stories traverse in the central themes of miserablism and realism, but none of the stories are miserable to read. They provide unique takes on sadness, on loneliness, on desperation, on all sorts of forces that drive people.