May 10, 2018KR BlogBlogReading

Everyone Dies: Found Annotations in BASS 2016

When I checked out a library copy of Best American Short Stories 2016, I found more than the twenty short stories selected that year. As it turns out, many of these stories were annotated in soft pencil, notes clearly made by a student tasked with an assignment.

Let’s put aside the issue of writing in a library book (can you hear my “Noooo!” echoing in the night?) to consider the annotations themselves. In a few cases, I worried the annotations were spoilers. Others caused me to question what “experimental” really means in terms of contemporary fiction, not to mention what is or isn’t “dystopian” and even the larger concept of “plot.”

Here’s a taste of the annotations:

  • “The Bears” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: Happy endings. Experimental plot, everyone dies.
  • “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang: Dystopian. Harrison Bergeron.
  • “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” by Lauren Groff: novel in short story. had to do research to understand / omniscient POV
  • “The Suitcase” by Meron Hadero: Best. Little plot variation. Characters keep you going. Want to see what ends up in suitcase.
  • “Pat + Sam” by Lisa Ko. 3rd POV, 2 character filter, experimental.
  • “Bridge” by Daniel J. O’Malley: no plot, rabbit/birds, can’t cope with death.
  • “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus: dystopian
  • “Secret Stream” by Hector Tobar: experimental plot, not a realistic story. green = color of life / water = life, baptism

A few things to start: (1) Fear not, the “everyone dies” reference in “The Bears” isn’t a spoiler; instead, it’s a general reference to mortality and (2) I’m making the assumption this reader might be female based solely on the handwriting, but I’m aware that could be wrong.

On to the annotations. I was stumped by the use of “dystopian” for a few stories. Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence” is narrated by a parrot and surrounds, in part, humankind’s desire (and failure) to communicate with other life forms. While it does slant toward the concept of extinction, I wouldn’t necessarily call it dystopian. The same goes for “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus, one of my favorite stories in the collection. This is a chilling, unsettling tale of a child who turns against his parents for no discernible reason, but it’s not a dystopian world where, say, all children turn against their parents in this way.

“Experimental” was another repeated description that threw me. I suspect the reader labeled Lisa Ko’s “Pat + Sam” experimental because the story includes numbered sections. That’s not reason enough for me to classify something as experimental, but I realize these things are subjective. Similarly, the declarations that certain stories are plotless (or plot-lite?) surprised me—but then, I read a lot of literary fiction, and I’m sure someone out there could argue I don’t know what plot is, anyway. (I mean, I did write a story about a necrophiliac and organize its structure like a farmer’s almanac, so I’m probably not the best authority on what should be considered experimental or weak in plot.)

If it sounds as though I’m being too harsh on a (likely young) student trying to find her entry into an academic essay involving one or more BASS stories, that’s not my intention at all. Rather, I was mystified and often intrigued by her notes. Confronting these annotations was like entering a portal into another reader’s brain. It gave me a chance to see these stories through her point of view. For example, she seemed most taken with “The Suitcase,” and part of what compelled her was apparently the mystery of what ends up in the suitcase. I experienced the story differently; the items that ultimately get packed were beside the point for me. My reading certainly isn’t the correct one—it’s just different.

The truth is, I have a lot of sympathy for this reader. A few years ago, I plucked a poetry collection from my bookcase and was horrified to discover my own annotations from a long-ago undergraduate poetry course. The notes I’d made in the margins were embarrassing, plain and simple: they included obvious observations and clunky attempts to decode meaning. Some I didn’t even recognize as my own thoughts at all—it’s possible I was writing down what other students were saying in class. To see those notes years later, and to have them stand as if they were objective records of my actual thoughts and reading experiences at the time, was unsettling.

I recognize a similar effort to unlock the “true” meaning of stories in these annotations. This is how we’re sometimes taught to engage with literature—to look for symbolism and veiled hints of meaning beyond what appears in black and white on the page. The notes on “Secret Stream,” with its list of “image = meaning” items, suggest this most of all. I sense an underlying anxiety in these annotations, a desire to interpret a piece of fiction in just the right way.

If these annotations are going to exist in the first place (and muck up a library book in the process), then if anything, I wish there were more of them. For example, I adore both “The Prospectors” by Karen Russell and “The Letician Age” by Yalitza Ferreras, but neither story was granted a single note. I wish I could track down this reader and tell her to focus on those two stories next. I admit I’m curious what she’d say about them, and I hope she might enjoy them as much as I did.

In fact, I’d like to get a cup of coffee with this reader. I’d ask her to elaborate on her thoughts about plot, experimentation, and dystopian worlds. I’d like to know which stories captivated her most, which ones confounded her and why, and which left her cold. I’d also ask her what she’s reading next—and if it happens to be a library book, I might ask her to please refrain from writing in it.

We all have our limits.