Max Apple Apple, Max (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Max Apple 1941–-

(Full name Max Isaac Apple) American short story writer, memoirist, and novelist. See also Max Apple Literary Criticism.

Apple's first book of short stories, The Oranging of America (1976), established his literary reputation for comedy, intelligence, and witty inventiveness, an eclat that has persisted with the publication of subsequent short fiction. Often writing in parables, Apple uses historical figures such as Howard Johnson, Norman Mailer, and C. W. Post as cultural images, placing them in farcical situations that serve to satirize and criticize a variety of social norms. Apple has stated that he borrows real-life figures for use in his fiction for purely utilitarian and pragmatic purposes: “I have certain things that I can assume my readers know a lot about, and I can work from that. I try to write very quickly and economically so that anything that saves me from descriptions and unnecessary words is always helpful to me.” Apple gives serious themes—death, love, health, money—comic treatment as he examines the variety of human fixations. To Apple, allusions, ironies, and levels of meaning burden writing; he instead prefers symbols, acronyms, images, real names, datelines, and the kind of absurd headlines often found in tabloids to inform his writing.

Biographical Information

Apple was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1963; he later received his Ph.D. in 1970. Apple was raised in a Jewish home where language was esteemed, humor irradicable, and a powerful sense of tone held as significant in learning the American idiom. Apple taught literature and humanities as an assistant professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, from 1970 to 1971. The following year, he accepted a position at Rice University in Houston, Texas, serving as an assistant professor from 1972 to 1976, an associate professor from 1976 to 1980, and a full professor since 1980. Apple was a recipient of the young humanists fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1971. He also won the Jess Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters in 1976 for The Oranging of America and in 1985 for Free Agents (1984), and Apple also received the Hadassah Magazine-Ribalous Award for Best Jewish Fiction in 1985.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Apple's The Oranging of America was identified by a critic in the New York Times Book Review as original and witty, with the reviewer stating: “Writing deftly and economically, [Apple] translates the most battered of our cultural clichés into glistening artifacts.” The title story of the collection follows Apple's version of Howard Johnson as he travels across America looking for places to build his motels—fulfilling his dream of making travel comfortable. It was this story that established Apple's use of celebrity personalities as symbols, as well as his use of off-beat humor. A further story in The Oranging of America, “Vegetable Love,” is also about personal fetishes: A man is hagridden about a woman and a woman is obsessed about her diet. The dominant theme depicted through the stories in The Oranging of America is the human pursuance for meaning. In the short story collection Free Agents, Apple continues to use esprit and cultural icons to further probe human nature. The title story is narrated by a stomach as it recounts its search for independence, along with other internal organs. In the story “Will and Walt” the pop culture figure of Walt Disney is teamed with a fictional brother, Will, as they search for a place to build Walt's dream world. The tale “Postmodernism,” a label often applied to Apple's own work, renders the symbolic personage of Joyce Carol Oates to explore the asperity of the writing act.

Critical Reception

Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple's heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple's audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple's pictographs.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Oranging of America and Other Stories 1976

Three Stories 1983

Free Agents 1984

Zip: A Novel of the Left and the Right (novel) 1978

The Propheteers (novel) 1987

Roommates: My Grandfather's Story (memoir) 1994

I Love Gootie: My Grandmother's Story (memoir) 1998

Carole Cook (review date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Carole. “Fiction and Mock Fact.” The Nation 224 (15 January 1977): 59–60.

[In the following review of The Oranging of America, Cook denigrates Apple's prose.]

If fiction and poetry, those vestiges of the mythic mind, are endangered species, it is probably because they are not considered, in a verifiable sense, “real”: not substantial enough, not serious enough, inconsequential. They, and their kind of truth, are being pre-empted by the facts, which are, as any nonfiction reader will be happy to tell you at the drop of a hat, stranger and more interesting than fiction.

But perhaps because the worm must turn, the writers of fiction have decided to invade the previously undisputed territory of fact. They're mucking around with history. The most blatant trespasser is E. L. Doctorow. Reviewers of Ragtime were somewhat unsure as to what was invented and what borrowed, and one can foresee a similar, if less spectacular, response to Robert Coover's forthcoming fictionalization, The Public Burning of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, subtitled “A Historical Romance.” (One is reminded here that following the publication of The Book of Daniel, the Rosenberg story according to Doctorow, the sons of the Rosenbergs felt it necessary to set the facts straight with a book of their own.)

In the case of Ragtime, it's reasonable to hypothesize that the historical element contributed to the book's phenomenal commercial success, but the novelist has reasons more respectable than profit for taking the facts into his own hands. Here is Coover's rationale: “… only for the egoist and the dogmatist (and maybe they're one and the same, though I'm thinking of different friends of mine) is there one ‘history’ only. The rest of us suffer from the suspicion that there are as many different histories as there are people and maybe a few more—out here in the flood, after all, what configurations can we not imagine?” And in The Oranging of America, Max Apple restructures the personal atoms of quite a number of contemporary figures with the following disclaimer serving as a quiet preface: “Where I have used real names or what seem to be physical descriptions of real people, it is done purely in the interest of fiction. In any serious sense any similarities between these stories and the real lives of any person living or dead are unintended and coincidental.” This is a slightly queer way of saying that factuality actually promotes fiction, perhaps by making the stories more fictional.

A similar disclaimer by the editors was appended to the title story when it first appeared in American Review 19 in January of 1974, presumably to deflect any ill feelings on the part of the historical counterpart to the story's hero, one Howard Johnson. The real names used elsewhere in the book, Norman Mailer, Fidel Castro, Gerald Ford and an assortment of sports, literary and TV figures belong to people less likely to employ legal staff with nothing better than libel actions on their minds. In two instances, however, “real names” have undergone slight metamorphoses: Velikovsky has become Kefirovsky (his new crank theory has to do with yogurt …), and the TV host of Let's Make a Deal has become Les Love, while his show has become Trade or Betrayed. Lighthearted satire, need we say, is the prevailing spirit of the stories, an effect achieved largely through Apple's wedding of nonfictional elements...

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Celia Betsky (review date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Betsky, Celia. Review of The Oranging of America and Other Stories, by Max Apple. Saturday Review 4 (22 January 1977): 40.

[In the following review of The Oranging of America, Betsky discusses Apple's use of humor.]

Max Apple writes fiction the way Claes Oldenburg makes sculptures. His short stories in The Oranging of America take American obsessions and fads, myths and habits, and explode them into ingenious symbols with a life all their own. His comic intelligence either magnifies desires like the need to own a home (“My Real Estate”) into tangible absurdities or reduces pressing ideological issues to metaphorical jokes, as when Fidel Castro and an American “capitalist” agent compete in a baseball game for the loyalties of a Cuban ex-ballplayer turned revolutionary.

Life is not only a game, Apple's stories seem to say, but a game show (“Noon” for instance, is based on television's Let's Make a Deal). They mimic peculiarly American aspirations in matters as grave as economics, politics, and literature. “Inside Norman Mailer” pits the young author, Apple, as “campy lightweight” against Mailer in a prizefight that becomes a struggle for artistic identity and independence. Apple's parables are about pioneers, because in America that is what our deluded dreamers, mad visionaries, and inspired madmen turn out to be. The title story, “The Oranging of America,” then, is about Howard Johnson and his mission to spread plastic romance and the “color of the sunset” across the continent. After you have read Apple's version of how “HJ's” faithful but dying secretary is given a cryogenic deep-freeze trailer to die in, those 28 flavors will never taste the same.

Apple's humor is entirely effective. From political morality to private hangups, he hits things right on target by making the familiar into a parody of itself, by letting spoofs show how serious our zany realities are. Much of his brilliance lies in the versatile range of voices he is able to assume and in a talent for punning that leaps into a wonderful realm of linguistic high jinks and buffoonery. Apple pokes fun at high culture and appreciates low, but his own art shades more to the transcendental than the pop. It transforms while it impersonates, changing not only what we see but the way we see it.

Dennis Vannatta (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Vannatta, Dennis. “Satiric Gestures in Max Apple's The Oranging of America.Studies in Contemporary Satire 7 (spring 1980): 1–7.

[In the following essay, Vannatta considers the satirical elements of The Oranging of America.]

Satires on the banality of the American dream are by this time such literary commonplaces that they threaten to become triter than the cliches which they attack. Vietnam, inflation, and Nathanael West's A Cool Million have done in America quite well, thank you; why kick a tired old fellow when he's down? Yet on they come, novels such as Rob Swiggart's Little America (1977), at a time when the American dream is...

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Alan Wilde (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilde, Alan. “A Map of Suspensiveness: Irony in the Postmodern Age.” In Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination, pp. 161–65. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Wilde explores Apple's utilization of irony and symbolism in creating postmodern fiction.]

Max Apple at his best, as in the title story of The Oranging of America and the slightly later “Disneyad,” is all chamber music. Equally postmodern, Apple's prose is more intimate, its tone, at once affectionate and aware, more understand—full of a significative doubt directed at the contemporary world of goods and...

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Wayne Glausser (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Glausser, Wayne. “Spots of Meaning: Literary Allusions in Max Apple's ‘Vegetable Love.’” Studies in Short Fiction 20, no. 4 (1983): 255–63.

[In the below essay, Glausser examines Apple's use of literary allusions in the short story “Vegetable Love.”]

Max Apple's fiction doesn't seem at all dense or recondite. Reviewers have described his stories in The Oranging of America as “lighthearted satire,” “unpretentious,” even “giggle-ridden.”1 Apple's imagination thrives on materials offered by popular culture—Howard Johnson's, the Houston Astrodome, Let's Make a Deal, Ban Roll-On, and similar institutions and...

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Max Apple with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (interview date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Apple, Max, Larry McCaffery, and Sinda Gregory. “An Interview with Max Apple.” In Alive and Writing, pp. 26–45. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

[In the following interview with McCaffery and Gregory, conducted March 17, 1983, Apple discusses his narrative style, thematic concerns, and creative processes.]

Born and raised in the center of America's Midwest, Max Apple is, at heart and in his fiction, an emigré. With an outsider's eye for the incongruous, for irreconcilable peculiarities, he manages to penetrate the mythological world that shimmers just beyond the golden arches, the orange roofs, the magic kingdoms that line our main streets...

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Tom LeClair (review date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: LeClair, Tom. “Brief Review.” New Republic 191, no. 3640 (22 October 1984): 46, 48.

[In the following review of Free Agents, LeClair explores Apple's self-obsessed narrative manner.]

Much of Max Apple's new collection could have been published in Me Magazine. There's Max growing up in the 1950s with a Yiddish-speaking grandmother in Grand Rapids, deserting his family and region, holding onto kosher food (“The American Bakery,” “Blood Relatives,” “Stranger at the Table”). From the “Me and Mine” section we have three stories: Max exploring fatherhood with children Jessica and Sam at Girl Scout meetings, in a “Pizza Time”...

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Max Apple with Allan Vorda (interview date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Apple, Max, and Allan Vorda. “An Interview with Max Apple.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27, no. 1 (winter 1988): 69–78.

[In the following interview with Vorda, conducted February 19, 1987, Apple discusses contemporary fiction and his own writing.]

Max Apple was born October 22, 1941, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he spent his childhood and youth. He attended the University of Michigan, and received his first significant attention as a writer by earning several Hopwood Awards, as well as his Ph.D., in 1970. Since 1972 he has taught at Rice University where he holds the title of Fox Professor of English Literature. He has published four books: The...

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Alan Wilde (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilde, Alan. “Dayanu: Max Apple and the Ethics of Sufficiency.” In Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction, pp. 131–58. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Wilde traces Apple's stylistic development.]

The conventional tags that generally fill out the titles of short-story collections—“five stories,” “eight stories,” sometimes the spare and humble “stories,” and, most often, as in the case of The Oranging of America, the serviceable, formulaic “and other stories”—all leave open the question of what, if any, unifying principle binds together a volume's title story and its...

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Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Ritual: Max Apple's History of Our Times.” In Structuring the Void: The Struggle for Subject in Contemporary American Fiction, pp. 73–90. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Klinkowitz analyzes Apple's depiction of American cultural history and usage of cultural icons, and compares Apple's writing to that of Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan.]

As Kurt Vonnegut takes the otherwise unknowable self and from its elements constructs a system for interpreting the world, so does Max Apple approach the history of our times, which would otherwise remain an ineluctable subject, and transform it into something...

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Joe David Bellamy (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bellamy, Joe David. “Max Apple.” In Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, pp. 179–182. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Bellamy surveys the stories in The Oranging of America.]

The spirit that made America what it is today is still operative, according to Max Apple in his remarkable debut, The Oranging of America. That peculiar combination of resourcefulness, fanaticism, greed, and dumb luck is all around us, just waiting to launch another multibillion-dollar franchise. This spirit is embodied for Apple during a fill-up at the world's largest gas station, in a real-estate woman's yen...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 July 1985): 8.

Review of Free Agents.

Pochoda, Elizabeth. The Nation 239, no. 21 (22 December 1984): 685.

Review of Free Agents.

Shack, Neville. “Front Line of a Phoney War.” Times Literary Supplement (10 October 1986).

Review of The Oranging of America and Free Agents, considering Apple's fictions to be merely gags.

Virginia Quarterly Review 61, no. 1 (winter 1985): 24–5.

Review of Free Agents.

Wilde, Alan. “Max Apple and the...

(The entire section is 113 words.)