Why my not liking “Blood Work” means you should buy Dispensation

4.19.10 | | 7 comments

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If you know anything about Angela Hallstrom, you should know that she is a person of taste and a keen parser of literariness.

And if you followed my Twitter reviews of her new short story collection (archived here–scroll up for the key), then you know that I did not feel equally positive about every story she collected. In fact, some I didn’t really care for at all. But not liking a story in a collection–or even several stories–is a far cry from disliking a collection.

Let me explain.

Darrell Spencer is one of the most respected fictionists among Mormon literary snobs and perhaps his most talked-about story is “Blood Work”–I’ve heard gushing over this story so many times I was sorely tempted to read Dispensation out of order just to f-i-n-a-l-l-y read it. (I felt the same way, incidentally, about Lee Allred’s “Hymnal” which I had heard so much about I would have broken all my fingers and paid double this volume’s asking price just to f-i-n-a-l-l-y get it into my newly crippled hands.) But I, Theric, am a true expert in delayed gratification and I proceeded in order.

En route to Spencer, I was introduced to some excellent stories like Levi Peterson’s “Brothers” (the best evidence I’ve come across that he deserves the love we give him), Stephen Tuttle’s “The Weather Here” (which might [?] be postapocalyptic–or [?] set in hell), Coke Newell’s “Trusting Lilly” (a bit obvious but absolutely lovely), Margaret Blair Young’s “Zoo Sounds” (which should have come off like a gimmick but was truly moving and excellently written), Larry Menlove’s, “Who Brought Forth This Christmas Demon” (proof that God loves everyone–in the form of fiction that will offend your mother), and Karen Rosenbaum’s “Out of the Woods” (which breaks a lot of my rules [it’s mostly flashbacks, for instance, a terrible cliché], but is clever and fresh all the same). And then I arrived at “Blood Work.”

And it was the most tawdry mess of— Let me put it this way: One step further and it would have been a parody of modern literary fiction. It was absurd.

I make this claim well advised that every proper Mormon literary snob (except me) will jump to Spencer’s defense, which is why I feel no guilt about railing him here. Clearly my opinion is in a minority. Angela, for instance, told me that “Spencer’s story grows richer for me w/ each reading. Definitely a literary story, concerned with language (some may say above all else, although I disagree) but a great example of the genre.”

This is Angela Hallstrom’s opinion, people. She wrote Bound on Earth. She deserves major props for turning Irreantum into a respectable fiction rag.

So what’s the deal?

Here’s something she said in regards to another story I knocked for its literary sins:

One of my favorite pieces in the whole anthology. Not the strongest in terms of storytelling, I agree with you there, but the language and imagery and the powerful yet subtle way she threads her themes throughout the piece knock me out every time I read it. And that last paragraph? Slays me.

Anthologies are great because they do allow such a range of style and tone and focus. It will be interesting to see which stories speak to different readers and why.

This is exactly right. If I had liked every single story in Dispensation, where’s the room for conversation? At that point, why not just reread the Book of Mormon if it’s so dang infallible?

An anthology of this sort–its job is not to provide you with loveydovey feelings all the way through. Its job is to represent the state of the artform, present an argument for What Is Excellence, and then force you to contend with that argument and the barrels of evidence accompanying it.

To me, one of Dispensation‘s strongest selling points is that it is 448 pages of fiction. That’s 28 stories. That’s 71.25 cents per story. That’s a steal, folks. A steal. Even if you only like half of them, that’s under a buck-fifty per story you do like. About the same as my beloved One Story subscription. (Note: Dispensation‘s currently on sale at the publisher’s site for 20¢ off per story.)

It’s so big you’re bound to like something–several somethings. And of the stories in those 448 pages you don’t like? Well. Now we have something to talk about.

Because if you don’t think that Eric Samuelsen’s “Miracle” is one of the best stories you’ve read this year I will drop dead in shock then defend it vociferously from the grave.

And that’s what an anthology should do.

It should get us talking.

Want to know what’s excellent in the world of Mormon fiction? Here’s one reader’s argument.

What’s yours?

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Contents:

    Lee Allred, “Hymnal”
    Matthew James Babcock, “The Walker”
    Phyllis Barber, “Bread for Gunnar”
    Orson Scott Card, “Christmas at Helaman’s House”
    Mary Clyde, “Jumping”
    Arianne Cope, “White Shell”
    Darin Cozzens, “Light of the New Day”
    Lisa Torcasso Downing, “Clothing Esther”
    Brian Evenson, “The Care of the State”
    Angela Hallstrom, “Thanksgiving”
    Jack Harrell, “Calling and Election”
    Lewis Horne, “Healthy Partners”
    Helen Walker Jones, “Voluptuous”
    Bruce Jorgensen, “Measures of Music”
    Laura McCune-Poplin, “Salvation”
    Larry Menlove, “Who Brought Forth This Christmas Demon”
    Coke Newell, “Trusting Lilly”
    Todd Robert Petersen, “Quietly”
    Levi Peterson, “Brothers”
    Paul Rawlins, “The Garden”
    Karen Rosenbaum, “Out of the Woods”
    Lisa Madsen Rubilar, “Obbligato”
    Eric Samuelsen, “Miracle”
    Darrell Spencer, “Blood Work”
    Douglas Thayer, “Wolves”
    Stephen Tuttle, “The Weather Here”
    Brady Udall, “Buckeye the Elder”
    Margaret Blair Young, “Zoo Sounds”

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Content warning:

I’m not giving one. You have a coupla drunks in one story and a trio of serial torturers in another, an arthritic testimony here, a broken clavicle there–but nothing that, in my laissez-faire opinion, you need to stress about (those items are, after all balanced out by an altruistic rich guy, some faithful missionaries, and a pioneer woman successfully coming to terms with The Principle). The nature of this anthology just gives us “appropriateness” as one more thing to discuss. Besides, they’re,  I mean–

Perhaps my greatest disappointment with this book is that I didn’t feel like taking a shower after reading the Brian Evenson tale!


7 comments: “Why my not liking “Blood Work” means you should buy Dispensation

  1. Lee Allred

    Sheesh, Theric! Had I but known, I would have emailed you a review copy of “Hymnal.” A finger is a terrible thing to waste. Five of them are a terrible Thing to waste. (A little Addams Famliy humor there.)*

    Anyway, you wrote: “An anthology of this sort–its job is not to provide you with loveydovey feelings all the way through. Its job is to represent the state of the artform …”

    … and that’s spot on.

    I am not 100% loveydovey about some trends in the state of the Mormon short story artform, so it stands to reason I would not be 100% loveydovey about the collection. In fact, _were_ I 100% lovedovey about the antho, that would be an indication the anthology failed to take an accurate snapshot.

    I have yet to run into a story in DISPENSATION, though, I that could not make the arguement that “yes, this story belongs in the book” (even the ones of which I’m not all that fond) which further demonstrates Angela’s singular skill in selecting stories.

    — Lee Allred

    * Would a type of magic giving Theric instant access to a story to prevent crippled fingerly digits be “prestodigitation”?

  2. Th.

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    Lee! I didn’t know you told jokes!

    (actually, now that I think longer, that’s not true: I’ve seen your eight-cow wife)

    And next time I will just email you and ask. (As you can see, I’ve learned to type again.)

    I have yet to run into a story in DISPENSATION, though, I that could not make the arguement that “yes, this story belongs in the book” (even the ones of which I’m not all that fond)

    I feel the same way. Even the ones I thought were lousy were not poorly written. And since she is the one who read short fiction for six months solid, and since I trust her, I choose to trust her here as well.

  3. Th.

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    Hola!

    I forgot to mention in the review that I received a free review copy of this book. Please keep that in mind.

    Thanks.

  4. Jonathan Langford

    So now you have to tell us, Theric: What’s your reaction to Hymnal now that you’ve read it? FYI, I haven’t read it yet; I’m just FINALLY digging myself out from under the Writing Project from Hell(TM). So it’s possible that you’ve already written your opinion and I just missed it…

    On the main point: I absolutely agree. The very best short fiction anthologies I’ve ever encountered had maybe 2 knock-me-dead super stories, 3-4 good stories, and the rest were okay (or less good). The same, by the way, with music albums (except Simon and Garfunkel, who someone managed a higher average). In my highly fallible view. But then, the point of an anthology like this is, indeed, to provide a snapshot, a range of the best stuff. It sounds like it’s done that.

  5. Th.

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    My tweeted review:

    More a celebration of language than science fiction, a metaphor that asks more questions than offers answers.

    It’s one of the few stories I’m still undecided about. But since I’m still thinking about it, I think we must call it a success.

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