Coen Head

My father-in-law got me Ethan Coen’s short-story collection Gates of Eden for Christmas because I’m so fond of the Coen brothers’ movies. (At least I assume that’s why he got it for me–what kind of man, after all, wants his daughter to marry someone with an appetite for Contemporary Short Fiction?)

This is an extraordinary collection. Roughly a third of the stories are about mobsters, a third about anomic losers, and a third about growing up Jewish in Minneapolis (which Coen did). Throughout, it’s a book so funny you should not take it out of the house without a change of underpants. The three best stories:

(1) “Have You Ever Been to Electric Ladyland,” the monologue of a schlock- rock producer trying to figure out who had a motive to break into his house and castrate his dog (answer: anyone who’s ever had to deal with him for five minutes);

(2) “It is an Ancient Mariner,” which has the same kind of self-incriminating narrator as Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” –and is a better story;

(3) “Gates of Eden,” which describes the sexual misadventures of a fascistic operative on the California Weights and Measures board. “Well, that’s the beauty of the Eastern female,” says Joe. “We might tag her submissive or unliberated or what have you, but to my mind she has a grace and dignity all her own, bred by centuries of tradition. Her purpose in life, which she will ever strive to perfect, is the serving of her master, Jap though he may be.”

Few writers alive have Coen’s gift for voice. A lawyer in “Hector Berlioz, Private Investigator,” says, “I knew a Frenchman once. Fellow named Le Clare, though he spelled it Le Clerk. Died of typhus. I did his estate work. Had to fill out a bunch of French forms. Pain in the neck, but I guess they know what they’re doing.” And a mafioso in “Destiny” says: “These girls, me they would not fuck.”

Even if Gates of Eden was given to me as a curiosity, I’m ticked off that the mere handful of critics who’ve noticed it have reviewed it as a curiosity. Excepting Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New YorkTimes, the attitude has been: “How … em, sweet that this famous filmmaker should try to apply his gifts to our genre.” Here I’m thinking of Mark Lindquist in the TimesBook Review (“while Ethan Coen [qua screenwriter] isn’t quite as stylish with language as his brother is with a camera, he does have a distinctive voice and an offbeat worldview”) or Renee Graham in the Boston Globe (“As with his films, his failures are often almost as interesting as other writers’ successes.”).

Which means nothing. Like much deference, it’s really a disguised kiss-off. It’s precisely because Coen is a filmmaker that no resident of Contemporary Short Fictionland will give this book its due. Contemporary Short Fiction is shriveled up like a protectionist economy. It is an economy in which everyone is a Buchananite and the policy is one of praise-rationing and fame-redistribution. Those who labor in the rusting fiction mills of the Midwest look at Coen as a recent immigrant to the genre who’s taking jobs away from native Contemporary Short Fictionites. Time to open the borders.

–Christopher Caldwell