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book review

For a Little While: New and Selected Stories by Rick Bass, Little, Brown, 471 pages, $34

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

By Helen Oyeyemi, Hamish Hamilton Canada, 325 pages, $21

For a Little While: New and Selected Stories

By Rick Bass, Little, Brown, 471 pages, $34

The first four words in the opening story of Helen Oyeyemi's debut short-fiction collection are "once upon a time." This is typical of the author's approach and literary referents: fairy tales and myths abound, and stories unfold one out of another, like Russian matryoshka dolls. It also sets her work immediately in opposition to that of Rick Bass, whose massive volume of new and selected short stories mines a deep – and deeply American – vein of naturalism and nature writing. Where Oyeyemi recalls the Brothers Grimm and Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, Bass is more indebted to Emerson, Thoreau and Hemingway.

This is not to suggest that Oyeyemi eschews modern themes or subjects altogether. Two of the most readily accessible stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours focus on material that is foregrounded in the present moment's zeitgeist. A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society tells the story of a group of Cambridge University students who are members of the eponymous collective, originally created in opposition to a fraternity that would invite only strikingly beautiful women to its dinners. In 1949, one of the brothers found himself stuck writing a poem for which he needed an example of an unattractive woman, "a girl whose very name conjured up the idea of ugliness the same way invoking Helen of Troy did for beauty." In defiant reaction, the sisterhood of the Homely Wenches was born.

Oyeyemi complicates her vision of modern campus gender politics by having her main character, Day, develop an infatuation on the mythologically named Hercules, a member of the offending fraternity (the attraction, we come to understand, is at least partly reciprocated), and by having the women discover, when they ransack the frat's library to replace male-authored books with books by women, that the bros' choice of reading material (Henry James, Nikolai Gogol, Truman Capote, John Cheever) is surprisingly solid. ("The Wenches had their noses in books that were new to them for weeks.")

Day also appears in the earlier entry "Sorry" Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea, which concerns itself in part with an online scandal involving a YouTube video of a woman who accuses a superstar musician of viciously beating her. Like A Brief History, this story flirts with didacticism, but what is arguably more troublesome is its scattershot structure: it begins with a discourse on the nature and habits of Betta splendens, the so-called "Siamese fighting fish," then starts to unfold an intriguing tale about a weight-loss clinic where the clients undergo "drug-induced and -maintained deep sleep, during which they're fed vitamins through a drip"; when they wake up after 72 hours, the clients have lost at least one clothing size. This narrative sideroad is itself more or less abandoned in favour of the online abuse scandal.

It is perhaps possible to argue that all these story strands share thematic elements in common – together, they interrogate issues of resilience and superficiality – though there is no real sense of internal cohesion at work here. Similarly, the interwoven narratives in the opening story, Books and Roses, which are held together by the motif of locks and keys (a symbolic pattern that will repeat itself throughout the entire volume), do not feel completely coherent, and the author is ultimately forced to resort to a newly discovered letter from the past – that hoariest of literary devices – to round out the story's final act.

Oyeyemi plays with archetypes (the evil ruler in the fable-like Drownings is referred to simply as "the tyrant") and recognizable fairy tales (Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose is a reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood story), but there is frequently a sense that the author's ambition has gotten away from her: These stories are often forced to shoulder more narrative weight than they can reasonably be expected to bear.

By contrast, Rick Bass's stories are models of concision and understatement. Though his work has been compared with that of Raymond Carver, Bass is not precisely a minimalist: Judged simply by their length, The Watch, Field Events and The Lives of Rocks are substantial stories, often flirting with the territory of novellas. On the level of the prose, Bass indulges in paragraph-long sentences that don't resemble Carver's (or his editor's) ruthless paring away, but nevertheless eschew anything extraneous or ornate: "It was very cold outside – up above – and there was a steady stream, a current like a river, of the night's colder, heavier air plunging down through their porthole – as if trying to fill the empty lake with that frozen air – but there was also the hot muck of the Earth's massive respirations breathing out warmth and being trapped and protected beneath that ice, so that there were warm currents doing battle with the lone cold current."

What makes prose like this so difficult to pull off is it doesn't offer the writer anywhere to hide: Like the characters he so frequently strands in the wilderness, Bass is left alone with only his instincts and skill to prevent him from succumbing to the elements. Because his writing is so restrained and subtle, it does threaten to adopt a surface sameness if the stories are read one after another. But For a Little While is such a generous volume – close to 500 pages featuring 25 stories written over the course of the author's career (the earliest from the 1989 collection The Watch) – that it makes sense to read one or two stories then set the book aside and return to it later.

It makes sense, too, because for a writer so intimately invested in the elemental – in the intricacies and combined comforts and terrors of earth, air, fire and water – what Bass traffics in most frequently is transcendence, those moments in which humans find some fragile communion with something spiritual or otherworldly.

Take, for instance, one of the best stories on offer here: Her First Elk. In this piece, the protagonist, Jyl, kills an elk, not realizing she is trespassing on the property of two aging brothers. The two take solace on her in her naiveté and help her gut and skin the animal (a scene that is brutal and unsparing in its detail). Looking back on the experience as an older woman "now woven of losses and gains," Jyl is struck by the way her communion with nature has brought her closer to the world and to the people she has lost, including her father, also an avid hunter. "Mountains in her heart now, and antlers, and mountain lions and sunrises and huge forests of pine and spruce and tamarack, and elk, all uncontrollable. She likes to think now that each day she moves farther away from him, she is also moving closer to him."

In crystalline imagery and unadorned language, Bass delivers a powerful, affecting punch to the solar plexus.

Steven W. Beattie's column on short stories appears monthly.

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