In his introduction to the issue, guest editor Jim Shepard says, “I’ve been drawn to protagonists who are geniuses at knitting together self-indictment and self-exoneration in ways that are both unconscious and calculated. Protagonists who leave us to sort through what they’ve figured out, what they can’t figure out, and what they won’t try to figure out about themselves.” In some ways, this neatly sums up the characters in this issue of Ploughshares; they are all characters who are stuck deep in the space of figuring things out. Lucky for us, it’s a complicated space, and an ideal place for a story to unfold.
This issue is devoted entirely to fiction, and there are nine cohesive stories included here. Each story is strong, and it’s clear that Shepard has meticulously curated this issue, but there are two pieces that stand out as representative of the entire collection.
Not surprisingly, Aimee Bender’s piece, “The Fake Nazi” is the most imaginative of the stories, the most clever and strange. The story is broken into five numbered sections, which creates a structure that allows for the characters to present their own story in a series of connected vignettes. In the first section, we meet Hans, the fake Nazi, who tries desperately to get a small court near Nuremberg to restart the trials so he can be punished for his alleged crimes. After Hans pleads with the court for some time, providing them with evidence that doesn’t add up, they finally declare him “just a regular man.” Case closed.
Although we never have a precise sense where this story is going, it is quite a surprise to see the story shift and follow the courtroom secretary, who builds a minor obsession with Hans, attempts to track him down, and ultimately finds herself in conversation with Hans’ brother. What begins as a story about a Nazi, who really wasn’t a Nazi, becomes a story about two lonely strangers connecting over their own loss. Secrets about Hans are revealed, and the story, which is tenser than most of Bender’s writing, shifts again and ends unexpectedly with the affecting thoughts of Hans’ brother.
Ethan Rutherford’s piece, “John, for Christmas,” is the most emotionally interrogative piece, and the one that feels the most remarkable. Part of the reason this story works so well is because Rutherford manages to avoid clichés, in what seems at first to be a classic story about a man cheating on his wife. Joan and Thomas, a married couple who rent out their garage apartment to a young medical student, Sarah, are waiting for their son to arrive for Christmas. It is established early on that there are difficulties in their marriage and that Thomas is attracted to Sarah. What could have easily been an unoriginal account of a husband cheating on his wife with a younger woman, turns out to be a complex examination of a dysfunctional family and a deeply unhappy wife and mother.
Interestingly, the key element holding this story together, literally and metaphorically, is a dying alpaca named Zachary. While Joan looks out the window, waiting for John to come home in a snowstorm, she watches Zachary. “Through the kitchen window, Joan could see the alpacas standing dumbly near the fence; the snow was starting to catch in their fur, and their large, expressive eyes were glued on the horizon, as if they were collectively willing some ancient Godhead to materialize. Zachary—she’d named him after he became sick—was on his haunches, fifty feet away from the herd.”
Everyone in this story is suffering. Joan is disconnected from her husband and son. Thomas is frustrated with his son’s bizarre behavior, and contemplating cheating on his wife. John, their son who is absent for the entire story, except for flashbacks and phone calls, is a depressive who can barely function in the company of others. And yet it’s Zachary who becomes the most tragic figure in this story. Who knew an alpaca could carry so much emotional weight?
As we near the end of this story, and the end of Zachary’s life, the precise arrangement of the pieces becomes clear and Rutherford has masterfully put each element together in a way that is both unpredictable and compelling. Stories can end in a variety of ways: with a classic epiphany, an insightful or shocking twist, a subtle realization, or an ambiguous, philosophical musing, and Rutherford could have ended this story in any of those ways. Somehow, he has picked the perfect end to this story. I’ll leave the ending a mystery, but that final line, more than any of the nine final lines in this collection, captures the essence of good short fiction.
Each story in this issue of Ploughshares carries a surprise, which of course is exactly the joy we seek while reading short stories. All of the narratives here loop in unexpected directions and uncover layers we didn’t know were there. Charles Baxter opens the collection with a quiet piece about a grandmother trying to connect with her surly grandson. Near the end of the issue, Greg Schutz gives us an aging police officer who is solving a crime, while learning to relate to his sixteen-year-old daughter after the death of her mother. These are the kinds of characters who represent the Everyman, but also feel like fully realized human beings, unique characters who have flaws and contradictions. Or to use Shepard’s phrasing, these characters are “divided against themselves.”
One of the best things about Ploughshares tradition of having guest-editors is that each issue feels like a fully realized collection. Many literary magazines feel disconnected; as if the editor gathered up all of the best submissions they received and stuck them into one edition. It’s a pleasure to read a literary magazine that feels so thoughtfully planned. Not only are the stories in this issue thematically linked, but the order in which they are placed invites us to make connections that we might not have otherwise seen.
Shepard has pulled together nine stories that, in one way or another, show us a world full of people who are still figuring things out, who are not quite sure of their place in the world, and who ultimately want to figure it out. Perhaps it’s that small sense of hope that gives the collection its cohesiveness. If nothing else, it gives us a beautiful set of stories that challenges our sense of self and reinforces the uncertainty inherent in all our lives.