Most collections of short crime fiction or fantastic fiction, and collections prepared by people who also work in those fields (thus many western story collections, for example) are usually scrupulous about listing previous publication credits, usually magazines that were the first to publish the fiction collected. In contemporary mimetic fiction, for no good reason I'm aware of, one is lucky, usually, to find a small paragraph or sentence tossing off a quick list of magazines that were the sources of the stories, with no indication of the issue or even which stories appeared in which magazine, with, usually, the exception of detailed citations of The New Yorker, in American books...whether as an attempt to toady to that magazine or in some sort of attempt to pretend that it is the exceptional newsstand source of fiction, I'm not sure (perhaps they have a policy of asking for explicit credit when granting reprint rights).
Sadly, this task was not really necessary for this, the first and
presumably only collection we'll see from Mary Ladd Gavell, who was managing editor of the journal Psychiatry at the time of her death in 1967, at the age of 47, and whose first published short story was in that magazine as a sort of memorial. "The Rotifer" was an excellent tripartite metaphor for the difficulty, to say the absolute least, in attempting to aid others in their lives, and somehow Martha Foley was made aware of its publication in the journal, and liked it enough to reprint in The Best American Short Stories 1968; in going through the volumes in the course of editing The Best American Short Stories of the Century in 1999 (or, more likely, in reading the galleys of what the series editor had provided for him from the volumes), John Updike tapped "The Rotifer" for inclusion in that latter volume, so every blurb and review writer dutifully notes that Updike "discovered" the Gavell story, a feat somewhat similar to Discovering a donut in a box of donuts. Foley's not mentioned, because why would we? None of the other stories had been published until this book appeared in late summer, 2001, just in time for a certain tragedy in NYC, and the often less remarked-about corresponding ones in Pennsylvania and Virginia, to capture most chattering-class attention.
I'm not sure I understand the excess of modesty that led Gavell to make no effort to publish any of her short stories during her life, if she didn't...as they are polished, pointed and remind everyone (including me) of Katherine Anne Porter and almost as often of Lorrie Moore; I'm put in mind of John Cheever and Theodore Sturgeon and Joan Aiken in certain moods as well, and that's good company to travel in...also Wilma Shore, though while these stories share a similar generous feminist spirit, they usually aren't quite as fraught or blatantly pointed as Shore's or Muriel Spark's. The first story, "The Swing," turns out to be a fantasy of loss...the inevitable loss not of a child, but of the relation between a doting mother and her son as a child, as he grows into a man. Gavell delicately traces the slow diminishment of the lives of the protagonist and her ailing husband in their late lives, and what seems at first to be a sort of waking dream of her son as a preschooler returned to her for nocturnal chats at the backyard swing. Bradbury would've made this adorable; Vonnegut wry, but with some flippant asides. Instead, it's pared down but not stark, and utterly deft.
Among the more common criticisms of contemporary mimetic fiction as it's published in The New Yorker and similar venues these years is that it tends to be about superannuated adolescents who have difficulty taking seriously the effects of their actions and behavior on others; self-involvement rules OK to such a degree that alternate approaches to character are almost unseen. Happily, in such stories as "The Rotifer" and "The Infant," Gavell manages to gracefully impart not only, for example, the need for some post-partum recuperation for the mother but also the fierce devotion she can feel simultaneously with the resentment of the world too much with her and moving through her.
Kaye Gibbons, in her introduction, wants you to know that this kind of fiction is still needed, that which manages to see the weight of human interaction as more than just a set of guilty oppressions, means of keeping people from their better lives that Were Gonna Be Like Paris. True, but it's notable how often this kind of fiction is rather shunted aside, as it was, apparently, even by its author at time of creation...perhaps because she thought she'd be able to get to that novel when she retired.
Too often, it just doesn't happen that way, of course, though usually not as severely as it has for Mary Gavell.
Clay Smith's fine piece about Gavell and her book in the Austin Chronicle, which, however, tells you Much too much about "The Swing" beforehand, if one hasn't yet read it. Mike Ashley let members of the FictionMags list know about that article, after Barry Malzberg brought up Gavell and the book. Thanks, folks.
For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.