The title of this anthology says a bit more than it means to. OBJECT LESSONS has an attractive concept: twenty contemporary writers pick their favorite stories from the archive of THE PARIS REVIEW and, in the words of the editors' note, "describe the key to its success as a work of fiction" in an introductory comment. This approach, the justification for the subtitle's mention of the art of the short story, will, the editors hope, make the anthology "useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique." And it is-- but no more so than any other largely excellent anthology would be.
Perhaps the problem is that the writers were asked to pick favorite stories. Writing with a truly intelligent critical eye about things one loves is difficult. Or perhaps it's the space available; the longest of the introductions is about three pages, which doesn't leave room for much specific insight. Whatever the reason, these mini-essays don't reveal much about "keys to success" or "the art of the short story" that readers of such an anthology couldn't work out on their own. They're more enthusiastic than analytic, with piles of superlatives about general, easily-observed features. Of course the situation doesn't call for term papers, but the success or failure of any short story is a complicated question, and virtue often rests in small, easy to miss things. A few writers do offer appropriately close readings, but even then they focus on broad variations in diction and similar comparatively simple points. (One of Dave Eggers' observations on James Salter's "Bangkok" would be quite powerful, except that it rests on a literal misreading of the text.) The introductions are well-written, affectionate, often poetic, not incisive about technique.
But enough about the introductions. The stories themselves are more than enough to make OBJECT LESSONS worth reading for students of contemporary and recent literary fiction. Ranging in date from 1955 to 2010, they're varied in length, style, and setting, though eccentric characters, surreal turns, and jagged, disorienting styles abound. The anthology opens, for example, with Joy Williams' "Dimmer," a story so bleak and so disturbing in its imagery that it wouldn't be out of place in a horror anthology, and ends with Dallas Wiebe's "Night Flight to Stockholm," a satire on literary success and its very physical price that takes an unexpected lyrical turn. But the anthology also offers demonstrations of the power of more traditional prose and plot, as in the earliest story, Evan S. Connell's "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge," a quietly devastating, sympathetic reflection on middle-class convention and repression that grew into Connell's famous novel, or Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief," a fifty-page story with as much insight into politics, education, and ambition as many novels, topped off by what may be the best example of refined, unexpectedly revealing narration since THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. This enthusiastic list of stories could be greatly prolonged, but as has been noted, enthusiasm has its limits. A few stories didn't dazzle this reader as much as they did the authors who chose them-- "Bangkok" is so stripped down it verges on pointlessness, and Thomas Glynn's "Except for the Sickness I'm Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That." demonstrates the perils of the eccentric, the surreal, and the jagged by offering more oddness than genius. But all twenty stories have something to offer the reader interested in craft. They are, indeed, object lessons, and those who want to study them can learn more from them than any introduction could reveal, for the virtues of a great short story are infinite.