The Perfection of Short: Mary Miller and Chanelle Benz

Article by ben

 

Two anguished cries often heard in pseudo-literary circles, both usually experienced as something approximating all caps: INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ARE FAILING (they’re not—but you already know that, BrazosBookstore.com reader), and LITERARY FICTION IS DEAD. That second cry is heard so often that not only has it become a cliché, the response to it—to point toward exciting new novels, young authors, book sales, etc.—now feels like its own kind of cliché.

The short story, perhaps, is another matter—a form often practiced, rarely mastered. Few writers really make it their lifelong work, notable among them Chekhov and Carver. Saunders is only now getting around to his first novel. Charles D’Ambrosio has so far only worked in shorter forms. Even Munro and Barthelme, as influential story stylists as one can think of, published a novel or two. I know I’m leaving people off this list, but probably fewer than I think. Maybe this is because the short story seems, to many publishers, like literary training wheels before authors get down to the serious, wind-in-their-hair business of novelistic cycling. Maybe this is why I don’t always pay attention to the short stories of young writers anymore.

This month, two collections have made me realize my mistake: THE MAN WHO SHOT OUT MY EYE IS DEAD by Chanelle Benz, and ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR by Mary Miller. It’s Benz’s first book, Miller’s third (after another collection and a novel). The two books have nothing in common with one another except for release date and form, but both are writers who make me wonder: Why ever move on from the gem-like elegance of a short story?

***

Granted, Miller has published one novel already, 2014’s THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA, the story of a family driving across the South for cultish reasons. The novel was about a trip, not about a destination, the core activities driving and talking and exploring deadbeat highway hotels. Although the family has made an initial big gesture—to get the hell out of town—the “plot” itself consists mostly of small details and inner psychological workings. And, I should add, it’s funny.

In ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR, Miller refines this brand of inaction across stories in which her narrators seem afraid of big gestures. “I think, in this way, the narrators are a lot like I am,” Miller says, “in that we’re not living our mothers’ or grandmothers’ lives like many Southern people I grew up with.” Miller is a Southern writer who cuts against traditional notions of fiction set in that region. Where we often associate the South with wide-open landscapes and estates, Miller’s characters linger in dirty hotels and cramped apartments, or lounge poolside, drinking too much and seeing the same people entirely too often. Their worlds are small. “You don’t need huge gestures to explain your narrator’s feelings,” Miller says.

Many of her narrators resemble one another—nearly broke, in vaguely crappy relationships, living in small towns (the biggest she gets is Austin, which never feels “urban” in her work)—and certain themes and phrases echo through the book. Nearly all of these characters know their lives aren’t working out, but lack the imagination to change that. There is often the sense of something unnamed holding them back. In more than one story, a narrator finds sudden and strange comfort in small moments of uniformity—moments in which they feel like everybody else. In one of the book’s most plot-heavy—and best—stories, a couple goes on a mission to take a photograph of a woman for potentially sinister purposes. The start of a noir? Not in Miller’s hands. When the climax arrives, Miller’s narrator isn’t even present for it, choosing instead to lounge in her hotel room—all she ever really wanted out of the trip. Most of these characters spend a lot of time in bed.

Because of this collection’s impressive cohesiveness, I’m surprised when she tells me she wrote these stories over a nine-year period, beginning in graduate school in Austin. Part of this might have to do with the fact that Miller, unlike many writers, writes about her places of residence while she still lives in them, not requiring the distance of some authors. Another reason may be her use of first-person present tense in many of these stories, which means her narrators often feel immediate, like somebody you meet one night in a bar, dropping their voice when they talk to you, forcing you to lean a little too close to them to hear their words. Miller’s narrators breathe on your face. And sometimes they have bad breath.

In one of her stories, a narrator says, “It’s an admirable quality, showcasing one’s most glaring defect.” In a way, this seems like Miller’s mission. Her protagonists are frequently judgmental, pointing out surface-level flaws in strangers, friends, boyfriends. “It’s tricky,” Miller says, “because sometimes I think, ‘Gosh, is this going to make the narrator seem racist, or like a complete dick?’ But I think it’s pretty clear that most of the narrators are younger women struggling so much with themselves that they project it on others. They’re harsh on themselves too, so everybody gets treated with the same lens.” As she tells me, she likes writing characters that are “kind of assholes,” and she believes a writer needs to implicate herself and make herself look bad. “Where I live,” she says, “I watch super trashy things all day, and I’m mesmerized and thrilled by it. I have fun with it.”

As you might guess, Miller gets asked often how similar she is to her characters. I rarely assume anything about an author—all fiction is equally autobiographical and not, after all—but Miller certainly assumes the posture of an author writing close to experience, whether she actually is. She dedicates her book “to all my exes,” and nearly every story hinges on a romantic relationship going wrong in some way. “I think writing, in general, is a sort of humiliating thing to do,” she says. But for her, the idea is that readers get to hear her characters’ most private thoughts, whether or not they’re Miller’s too. “If I followed you all day, and was in your head,” she tells me, “how many of your thoughts would be inappropriate and weird?”

Still, she may have gotten this kind of storytelling out of her system. “I don’t ever want to write another book,” she says, “where people can read me so closely into the stories.”

***

I doubt Chanelle Benz has this problem. Rare among younger writers, she seems to have zero interest in writing anything that even vaguely resembles the outlines of her own life. The stories in THE MAN WHO SHOT OUT MY EYE IS DEAD are varied. There are a couple Westerns; an epistolary slave narrative; a story set in an abbey, 1536; and two for which Benz invents an older text that she then frames (one, a story from 1800s France; another, a prisoner’s confession from mid-century America). Many of these stories have elements of the unreal and uncanny. She blends the contemporary with the old-fashioned, and does so in riveting ways.

For her, voice is the way in. “When I’m thinking about writing a story,” she says, “I need to get the voice first before I can move forward.” And she wants her readers to be equally immersed in her various worlds—“to be swallowed up, to just go with the story. I want them to feel like they’re in a distinctive point in time.” But the points in time these stories occupy don’t always feel like period pieces in a conventional way; her writing is not what you think of when you see the term “historical fiction.” Instead, Benz crisscrosses literary forms, rifling through drawers of the short story’s past, rather than her own.

Three of her stories do feel contemporary. In one—a sprawling, sort-of action thriller—a woman is recruited into a shadowy agency, forgetting her own identity along the way. In another, a scientist is the keynote speaker at a newly discovered site in the middle of the desert, falling into otherworldly dread. One story shares a milieu similar to Miller’s, and characters in similar economic brackets, but Benz makes hers outwardly thrilling, whereas Miller would be more concerned with interior landscapes.

Benz’s stories feel like puzzles she’s trying to solve—a notion she’s happy to agree with. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, moving pieces around until it sort of feels right.” But she also cites her training as an actress. “When I did theater, we talked about having a container, finding the right form.” In this sense, both Miller and Benz feel like performers—but where Miller is a stand-up comedian riffing on her own life, Benz is putting on a one-woman show in which she embodies multiple voices.

If voice is the first thing she needs to hear, the architecture of a story becomes her major challenge—something she usually doesn’t get to until the revision process. But this is where her adherence to—and influence from—earlier literary forms can come in handy. One of her stories takes the form of an old narrative from the 1800s, complete with scholarly footnotes that inject a modern sensibility. “I’d been reading some post-colonial scholarship,” she says, “and some old eighteenth century documents. That Byronic hero is something I’m very familiar with.”

This knowledge of literary history may have helped her nail down a voice and structure, but from there, as she puts it, “things got dark fairly quickly” as a group of children begin doing terrible things to a strange woman in town. Reading this story, you see many layers at once: the literary historical, the contemporary voice weighing in, the story a group of children are telling about a lonely woman, and the story Benz is telling you about the darkness of children.

If this kind of thinking makes these stories seem dense, they are, but in the best possible way—beautifully written, but posing challenges of comprehension and sight to the reader. Reading this book, I constantly felt as though Benz was smarter than me, and I wanted to rise to her level. But she assures me that the density is mitigated: “I write way more than I use.” This, again, is the matter of architecture: she could keep writing scenes for most of her stories, but at a certain point the form forces her to stop. Architecture—like looking at a building, I suppose, that’s dense and technically unknowable from the outside, but inhabitable on the inside.

So, two terrific talents, one aiming for the interior, the other crafting alive exteriors. With short stories as rich and fulfilling as those of Benz and Miller, what do you need novels for?

Chanelle Benz read at Brazos Bookstore on 1/19, and we still have signed copies of THE MAN WHO SHOT OUT MY EYE IS DEAD.

Mary Miller reads from ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR at Brazos Bookstore on 1/30 at 7pm.

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead: Stories Cover Image
$24.99
ISBN: 9780062490759
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco Press - January 17th, 2017

Always Happy Hour: Stories Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9781631492181
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - January 10th, 2017

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