A review of 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker is fraught with complications, the least of which is the risk of pissing off an entire literary generation. These difficulties spring from the impetus for the enterprise: This anthology, unlike, say, the Best American Series, originated from a showcase for writers, a magazine and publishers–Farrar, Strauss, Giroux publishes 5 of the 20 writers on the list–not necessarily stories.
According to the New Yorker editors, some writers were excluded from consideration because they couldn’t produce any new fiction by the stipulated deadline. Those who wanted to make the cut either had to complete a new story or cull a section from a novel in progress. It’s therefore inevitable that there would be mixed results, particularly for those writers for whom the short story isn’t a favored métier. For many young writers, stories are apprentice work, a byproduct of the workshop process, and collections are the front end of a two-book deal predicated on a novel.
An easy journalistic angle is the apparent emergence of “émigré themes” among the newly coronated; nearly half the list are immigrants or the children of immigrants. But American fiction, at least to the extent it still exists, has always been invigorated by voices finding the center (though if you’re being promoted by The New Yorker, you’re already there). The 1999 list included Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat and Chang-Rae Lee, as well as Jeffrey Eugenides, the grandson of Greek immigrants. Of the heralded older generation, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo were all the children of immigrants; Philip Roth’s parents were first-generation Americans; Saul Bellow was born in a Montreal suburb two years after his parents left St. Petersburg.
In terms of literary sensibilities, the 1999 list included a distinct group of writers who were, to varying degrees, ensconced in “The White Man’s Ivory Tower,” heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism descended from Thomas Pynchon, Mr. DeLillo and Donald Barthelme: David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, William Vollmann, George Saunders and Mr. Eugenides. With the members of the new list, even where this influence is present–in the writing of Joshua Ferris, whose first novel borrowed its title from a line of Mr. DeLillo’s; Rivka Galchen; Jonathan Safran Foer; and Gary Shteyngart–it is greatly subdued. For the most part, they appear to be less self-consciously ambitious, than their predecessors, who at the very least wanted to be perceived as mandarins. (It’s hardly surprising that most of those writers took a shot at writing a Great American Novel.)
To the extent that there is any thematic preoccupation binding these stories, it is of escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility. Daniel Alarcon’s “Second Lives” features a family stuck in Peru during a period of political strife while a teenage son makes his way in the American South; Dinaw Mengestu’s central character escapes to America from East Africa but never truly settles. Yiyun Li and Nell Freudenberger both produced stories about women struggling to deal with the legacy of their cultures, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writes about one unable to extricate herself from an affair. Philip Meyers and Mr. Foer both depict deteriorating marriages. (Why so cynical about peace, love and understanding?)
The two most accomplished stories come from two of the list’s less heralded writers: Salvatore Scibona and C. E. Morgan. With “The Kid,” Mr. Scibona delivers a morality play that in its somber, antiseptic manner portrays the decadence of what we only in retrospect recognize as the fin de siècle, not the End of History. Curiously, both “The Kid” and David Bezmozgis’ “The Train of Their Departure” are set in Latvia, though Mr. Bezmozgis’ story, an examination of how totalitarianism impinges upon even the most intimate yearnings, is set during Soviet rule in the early 1980s.
Ms. Morgan’s “Twins,” about biracial twin brothers, is the other jewel of this anthology. (Her line “No one had ever said she was beautiful but she was young and that was a kind of beauty” could serve as an epigraph for the whole anthology.) Her excerpt is a Bildungsroman of sorts, set in a Cincinnati slum during the Reagan era. Her depiction of the brothers, their mother and their peripatetic father is generous without becoming mawkish; her sensitive eye and capacity for empathy are the tools of a major talent. That said, Ms. Morgan’s contribution could be a microcosm of the entire project: Its signal achievement is in the promise it displays. Full appreciation requires faith in the writer’s ability to deliver on that promise. This kind of proleptic view is not without some justification: The 1999 issue included excerpts from what became Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Mr. Franzen’s The Corrections, Mr. Eugenides’ Middlesex and Mr. Vollmann’s Europe Central. (“Twins” was excerpted from a 450-page manuscript on “horse-racing and race relations,” reported to be only half-done.)