What I’m Reading: This Month’s New Yorker

The current Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker magazine (dated for June 14 & 21, 2010) is focused the theme of  “20 Under 40,” with the editors having chosen 20 American writers under the age of 40 who The New Yorker believes “are, or will be, key to their generation” of great American writers.

If you’re questioning why you should put faith in The New Yorker‘s ability to predict American literature’s rising stars, it’s worthwhile to note (as the editors helpfully—and, I imagine, self-satisfyingly—point out for you) that more than a decade ago the magazine ran a similar issue focused on the then “Future of American Fiction.”  They featured pieces by Michael Chabon, the late David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Not too shabby, considering those five have managed to pull in at least one Pulitzer and a handful of National Book Awards.

This year’s selections show what I’m discovering quickly in my Reading ‘Round the Nation project: American fiction today is a difficult thing to map.  As the editors write, “the fiction being written in this country today is not necessarily fiction set in this country, or fiction by writers who were born in this country.”

This issue's New Yorker cover, designed by Chris Ware.

The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 come from all around the world, and their background within the United States is as varied as their origins outside it. The magazine does a good job of selling their chosen authors as a diverse, talented and exciting group.

The current issue contains short stories by 8 of the forty writers selected; the only one I’d heard of was Jonathan Safran Foer (author of the 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated), and his story, “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” is really beautiful in its lyrical and poetic exploration of memory, ambiguity, and love. So far, I’ve also really enjoyed “The Pilot,” by Joshua Ferris (high praise—perhaps misleadingly high—but it reminded me of The Great Gatsby, and Gary Shteyngart’s futuristic, diary-style piece titled “Lenny Hearts Eunice.”

Of the stories I’ve read so far, they are all of course very different in style and subject, but still certain themes recur. Not surprisingly, these writers seem drawn (just as I am) to the question of what it means to be a writer today, of where writing fits into an increasingly technologically-driven world. And just as literature has done forever, these stories explore questions of memory, immortality, and of what it means to be a fragment of this petty, absurd, self-absorbed and magnificent thing we call humanity.

As I said before, this issue features stories from 8 of the 20 writers; the other 12 writers’ stories will run, one at a time, in the magazine’s next twelve issues (darn them for their nasty salesmanship!). I’m sure some of the names in this issue and the ones to follow will show up on a number of high-profile prizes in the next decade; for $5.99, you can be in the know now, and you’ll have names to through out at cocktail parties, a warm, pleasantly (if snobbily) superior feeling when the author of your favorite story snags a National Book Award, and best of all, a few hours of great reading and the chance to discover a writer or two worth following for life.