Too many stories in life fade out into "Guess you had to be there." These novels and short-story collections do what a really good raconteur does: drop you right inside somebody else's experience.
Let It Be
But what if there's no there there? How do you describe what goes on inside an empty shell? Jerzy Kosinski pulls it off adroitly in his novel Being There (Grove, $11), back in paperback almost 30 years after its publication. You've seen the movie; now read the book.
If Kosinski's hero, Chance, is more than the sum of those parts, it's not his fault; he's a zero-sum guy, a negative, a mirror image reflecting back to other people whatever they wish to see. As the book opens, Chance is doing what he has always done: working in the garden of the Old Man, a benefactor/jailer who provides room and board and abuse: "Chance would do exactly what he was told or else he would be sent to a special home for the insane where, the Old Man said, he would be locked in a cell and forgotten."
Chance, you see, isn't like other people. He's barely himself. "His name was Chance because he had been born by chance. He had no family. Although his mother had been very pretty, her mind had been as damaged as his: the soft soil of his brain, the ground from which all his thoughts shot up, had been ruined forever."
When the Old Man dies, Chance is kicked out; no sooner has he dragged his suitcase off the premises than a socialite snags him on the bumper of her limo. She misunderstands when he introduces himself as "Chance, the gardener," and he's reborn -- as the enigmatic Chauncey Gardiner, whose simple observations are taken as elegant metaphors by the worldly folk he falls in with. At a dinner with the Soviet ambassador, he says, "Our chairs are almost touching," and the diplomats think it's a brilliant gesture of rapprochement. It helps that he fills out a suit nicely.
If you've seen the movie with Peter Sellers, you know what happens. It doesn't spoil anything to tell you that Chance's career takes off like a rocket. Before long he has the ear of tycoons and presidents; the media slobber over him like Dobermans over a slab of beefsteak. Nobody can get their fill of this man so blank that he doesn't even know "why some women had babies and others did not."
This sendup of the star-maker machine -- a gadget cranking along in an even higher gear than it did in 1970 -- feels perfectly at home in 1999. Behind the satire, the book suggests that Chance really does have a touch of the philosopher about him. No cipher would have this reaction to a garden: "And yet, with all its life, even at the peak of its bloom, the garden was its own graveyard. Under every tree and bush lay rotten trunks and disintegrated and decomposing roots. It was hard to know which was more important: the garden's surface or the graveyard from which it grew and into which it was constantly lapsing."
Birds and Beasts
The men and women who inhabit the stories in Lorrie Moore's collection Birds of America (Picador, $14) don't share Chance's lack of self-awareness; if anything, they're so attuned to their own signals they block out everyone else's. Abby Mallon, the central figure in "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People," writes questions for an educational testing service; in fact, she has nothing but questions -- about herself and her nearest and dearest. "Of all Abby's fanciful ideas for self-improvement (the inspirational video, the breathing exercises, the hypnosis class), the Blarney Stone, with its whoring barter of eloquence for love -- O GIFT OF GAB, read the T-shirts -- was perhaps the most extreme. Perhaps. There had been, after all, her marriage to Bob, her boyfriend of many years, after her dog, Randolph, had died of kidney failure and marriage to Bob seemed the only way to overcome her grief."
She leaves Bob, comes back, leaves again, running off to Ireland with her mother as self-appointed travelling companion and cheerleader. Get tough, her mother says. Stop expecting so much. You have to bend over backward to kiss the Blarney Stone of life. When they do make it to the actual Stone, Abby nearly chickens out, but she manages to do the gymnastics required to give the Stone a peck: "It was about the size of a microwave oven and was covered with moisture and dirt and lipstick marks in the shape of lips -- lavender, apricot, red. It seemed very unhygienic for a public event . . . "
Then it's her mother's turn: "For all her bullying and bravado, her mother was proceeding, and proceeding badly, through a great storm of terror in her brain. . . . it was a ruse, all her formidable display. She was only trying to prove something, trying pointlessly to defy and overcome her fears -- instead of just learning to live with them since, hell, you were living with them anyway." Moore, whose previous books include Like Life and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, brings the story in for a nice landing: Weakness acknowledged, the story says, makes a relationship stronger.
Along with Sherman Alexie and Stephen King, Moore served as judge for Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards (Anchor/Random House, $11.95), edited by Larry Dark. This unlikely triumvirate put together an impressive list of winners: Alice Munro, David Foster Wallace, Michael Cunningham (author of The Hours), Steven Millhauser, Annie Proulx and others. In "Son of the Wolfman," by Michael Chabon, a husband and wife deal with the aftermath of her rape: a pregnancy. Should they abort? "That evening, as they ate their fugitive supper, Cara pressed him to say something. The looping phrase of proteins that they had tried so hard and for so long to produce themselves, spending years and running up medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, had finally been scrawled inside her, albeit by a vandal's hand, and now tomorrow, with ten minutes' work, it was going to be rubbed away. He must feel something. Richard shrugged and toyed with his fork, turning it over and over as if looking for the silver mark." (Hints of a silver bullet there.)
Cara decides to keep the baby, which "in spite of the evil instant of its origin -- the smell of hot dust and Mexican sage in her nostrils, the winking star of pain behind her eyes as her head smacked the ground -- she now felt to be composed entirely of her own materials and shaped by her own hand. It was being built of her platelets and antibodies . . . " For Richard, as he catches the hairy infant in the delivery room, the experience is somewhere between "Rosemary's Baby" and a revelation: "Its eyes were wide open, large and dark, pupils invisible, staring, Richard felt, at him . . . No one, Richard felt, had ever quite looked at him this way, without emotion, without judgment. . . . It worked its tiny jaw, snorting and snuffling hungrily at the sharp first mouthfuls of air."
Writers of short fiction take note: This volume includes a list of "Magazines Consulted," including contact names, addresses and website information -- something to keep handy when you're firing off stories.
Another short-story maven has a collection out in paperback: Ann Beattie, whose Park City: New and Selected Stories (Vintage, $14) culls the best of a quarter-century's work. Reviewing Park City last year for Book World, Andy Solomon especially liked "Cosmos," one of eight new stories: "Beattie weaves a remarkable network of unobtrusive symbols to show how all our lives are filled with disorder, some innocent, some hurtful. But, when seen with compassionate eyes, our clutter can be accepted by others as an imperfect but lovable whole. The constant evolution of technique and empathic humanity of these new stories make clear that the mature Beattie is even better than the famous Beattie."
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org