Book Reviews

Published on April 28th, 2022 | by Conor Hultman


Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Bass 1998” by Karen Marron

BASS 1998
by Karen Marron
Gold Line Press ($15)
Available at Square Books Order here

The impermanence of writing is uncomfortable for many to think about. The halls of literature are supposed to be made of incorruptible marble, and entrance there grants immortality. This is, of course, a fallacy. The amount of books lost forever to time likely rivals what we have, and the computer has done less than we would hope to change this equation. Bestsellers plummet into obscurity; magazines collect dust in the library; political tell-alls and vitamin bibles become so much pulp; the mountains of ephemera are as like silent pyres, books burning themselves with quiet, threatening the assured eternity of the “literature.”

Nothing lives so much on the border of literature and ephemera as “The Best American Short Stories” annual series. In their modern incarnation est. 1978, these yearly compilations shuffled from magazines have featured stories by writers such as David Foster Wallace and Barry Hannah, and have been edited by the likes of Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, etc. Despite that, I’ve never seen someone reading last year’s edition. I never find older copies in a friend’s house. They occupy a sad and actionless shelf at the Goodwill. These books carry an expiration date.

Karen Marron has written a book that magnifies an entry in this series, blowing up the insignificant specific with Proustian lenses into containing multitudes. BASS 1998 (short for Best American Short Stories 1998) takes each story from that year’s collection as a frame device and starting point for wildly diverse flash fictions and micro-memoirs. The stories in Marron’s book share the name of the corresponding story in the original, and start with a quotation from the original, but delineate into experimental ends. For example: “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace,” a lush piece by John Updike about a son’s memories of his father in the ’30s, becomes in Marron’s version a brief history and explication of The Suze Orman Show. “Penance” by Matthew Crain, a story about an ex-alcoholic trying to help a mentally-challenged man, is transformed into a sober reflection on the career of the author (just this one anthologized story, and a self-published guide for Joyce’s Dubliners). These may sound schizophrenic, but trust me, Marron makes them work.

Other topics in BASS 1998 include political life in Israel, sexual violence, and the Internet. The guiding and binding subject, however, is just that very wound between time and art that something like an old Best American Short Story volume inspires on sight. Marron has gone beyond mere criticism, however; she has breathed life into dead work, an ecstatic act of spontaneous generation.

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