‘The Fur Coat’ by Hjalmar Söderberg, translated by C. W. Storck

Until I was 12 years old, I lived in Sweden and read exclusively in Swedish. It wasn’t until we moved to France in 1993 that I became starved for books in a language I understood (it took a while to get the hang of French), and so began frequenting the many fantastic English bookstores in Paris. One of the stories I read before the move was this short, bittersweet, story of a borrowed coat.

I was never much for the canonical Swedish authors, their parochial concerns and preoccupations seeming completely alien to me. But Söderberg (1869 – 1941) is altogether excellent: grappling with genuine moral issues, his flaneurs wander around early 20th Century Stockholm trying to figure out how to live a good life while their author cynically gazes down on them. This was the first time I encountered a twist ending that did not seem cheap, but rather gave depth to all that had come before.

Collected in Modern Swedish Masterpieces, E.P. Button & Company, 1923. Read it online, in a PDF of the whole collection, here

‘The Library Policeman’ by Stephen King

Other than books assigned by teachers, most of what I read as a teenager was horror (I dabbled ever so slightly in fantasy and sci-fi), and until Stephen King’s collaboration with Peter Straub Black House in 2002, which I just could not get through, I had read every single thing King ever published. The way others can discuss Pynchon for hours making obscure paranoid connections between various characters in Gravity’s Rainbow, I can talk for days about the influence of drugs and alcohol on King’s early novels and the effect that getting sober had on his prose. And as much as some of his novels tend to sag and bloat, his short fiction has always been exemplarily pared down to the bones. David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Soul Is Not a Smithy’ owes a clear debt to King’s shorter fiction (I’m thinking especially of the Bradbury-riff ‘Suffer the Little Children’). But it is this novella that I remember most clearly, perhaps because it has a premise so preposterous that there is no way that it should ever be scary — a man forgets to return a book to the library and suffers the wrath of the supernatural Library Policeman — and yet, this was the first time I stayed up all night, too scared to sleep, terrified of what might be lurking in my closet, or under my bed.

Included in Four Past Midnight, Viking, 1990

‘Through the Tunnel’ by Doris Lessing

I shouldn’t like this story: its metaphor (a boy swimming through an underwater tunnel as part of a dare and comes out on the other end a changed person, the coming-of-age trope personified) is too on-the-nose. But as soon as the “young English boy” in a foreign land jumps into the water at the end, the effect is overwhelming. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that ever since I nearly drowned as a child, water has terrified me, so this may not seem as anxiety-inducing to you all who enjoy swimming. But there is something about the short, clipped, sentences almost forcing the reader to take shallow breaths, making the panic experienced by the boy actually felt in the prose.

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 1955. Collected in The Habit of Loving, Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1957. Story can be found online here

‘Scenes from the Life No. 23: Parental Advice’, by Janice Galloway

Galloway’s novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing was the single most important book that I ever read. It was the novel that made me want to be a writer, and it was the novel that showed me the possibilities of the form beyond the rather staid 19th Century French stuff we were made to read in class. Les Rougon-Macquart and La Comédie Humaine, which I may appreciate now more than I ever did then, seemed outdated, indicative of a reality that was no longer. Galloway’s broken text and wild mix of literary (and non-literary) genres felt more real to me than anything I had ever read.

I immediately set out to read everything she’d written, and found a copy of her short story collection ‘Blood’ at the WH Smith’s on the Rue du Rivoli. Except, rather than finding it on the ‘literature’ shelf between Gaddis and Gass, the book was on a shelf labelled ‘women’s fiction’. Having spent years reading horror and only gradually making my way into the macho lit that was popular at the end of the 90s (your American Psychos and Fight Clubs) I was confused by the fact that the author I found more emotionally devastating than anything I’d read, was relegated to stand beside pulpy romance novels.

The story I remember most vividly is this short piece, written as a play, like the other “scenes from the life” that are scattered across the collection. Here, a (single) father named Sammy feels that he needs to make sure that his son, Wee Sammy, can stand up for himself, as he is about to start school. He makes the son sit on a mantelpiece, and tells him to jump off, that the father will catch him, and keeps telling him “would I let you fall?”, “don’t be feart, this is your da talking to you”. But of course, when the boy jumps, Sammy steps aside, letting the boy hurt himself.

“Let that be a lesson to you son: trust nae cunt,” is the story’s final line.

But what really stays with you is the detail that comes just before that: the father choking back a sob.

Included in Blood, Secker and Warburg, 1991

‘The Balloon’, by Donald Barthelme

A giant balloon appears in New York, inflated by our narrator, stretching from 14th Street to Central Park, although the narrator “cannot tell us the exact location” of its beginning point. A “spontaneous autobiographical disclosure”. I love the reactions to the balloon, the mixed reviews it gets in the press, the way that the people of New York begin to locate themselves in relation to it, how the lack of advertising seems perplexing.

I remember when I was reading this for the first time there were rumours that Coca-Cola were planning to project their logo on the moon for Y2K, a project ultimately scrapped because the lasers would need to be strong enough to “cut planes in half” for it to work. Somehow, that seemed perfectly logical to me, as though of course a brand would project itself on the moon. The balloon, however, has no visible purpose, and is all the more confounding to the story’s characters because of it.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1966, collected in Sixty Stories, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981. Can be read online here

‘Mister Squishy’, by David Foster Wallace

I am frequently confused by literature’s seeming lack of interest in corporate life. We work constantly, in the industrialised west, answering emails on our holidays, checking our phones just as we wake up, but so much fiction seems to be interested only in the stuff around work. ‘Mister Squishy’ shows how you do it, the entire story taking place in a focus group where they are testing reactions to a new chocolate snack, the narration switching between corporate jargon and acutely observed characters who are struggling to fit the moulds that capitalism requires them to fit.

Oblivion was the first time I really got David Foster Wallace, having tried (and failed) to read Infinite Jest and having thoroughly disliked Girl with Curious Hair. I found this at one of those bookstores that has more Moleskines on display than actual books, and since I saw very little else of interest, I thought I would give Wallace another try. I am glad I did: if there is one story I wished I had written, this would be it.

First published in McSweeney’s #5, 2000, as ‘Mr. Squishy’ under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, collected in Oblivion, Little, Brown, 2004

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

(I could just as easily have chosen ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, to be honest.)

I was sitting on a Southern train in London, with this paperback edition of Labyrinths, one of the many books I’d spent my meagre salary on at Foyles, and the parafictional genius of Borges washed over me, making me want to reach out to my fellow passengers to discuss just what Borges was accomplishing, how mind-bending and wickedly funny it all was, coupled with the dizzying sense of unease at not knowing how much of what he is writing actually comes from real sources.

When I got back to my aunt’s house where I was staying I remember going on Twitter to see if anyone had tweeted about this weird boy on the Surrey train cackling to himself.

first published in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1939. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962. Can be read online here

‘The Wavemaker Falters’ by George Saunders

Eventually, I got tired of Saunders’ schtick. By the time Tenth of December came out, I was thoroughly bored with the weird amusement parks, the experimental prisons and labs, the coy ad-speak. It was as though every story fit one of four moulds, that Saunders kept re-iterating again, and again. It’s sometimes hard to remember, then, just how much I loved his first collection, when this was all new to me, when I couldn’t yet see the seams of what he was doing and instead was weeping at all the lost souls. Perhaps nobody’s life broke me harder than the narrator of ‘The Wavemaker Falters’, a man in charge of a wavemaker at a weird amusement park (check) whose negligence leads to the death of a young boy, and of his attempts at living with what he had done. (His love-life mirrors that of the character in the Söderberg story as well, I note now that I am writing this.)

Re-reading the story for the first time in over a decade in preparation for this Personal Anthology, I feel as though I’d found a long-lost love letter from someone with whom it ended in tears. George and I may be through, but we will always have Civilwarland.

First published in Witness, November 1993. Collected in Civilwarland in Bad Decline, Random House, 1996

‘A Real Doll’, by A.M. Homes

I spent the summer of 1998 in Iraqi Kurdistan, after having suffered a sort of teen meltdown that made me need to get away from everything and everyone I knew. So I went to stay with family for the summer, ostensibly to “improve my Kurdish”. At the time there was no way to communicate with the outside world other than madly expensive satellite telephones, and the TV channels at my disposal consisted of news in Arabic and not much else. That short, three-month absence from European pop culture led to me returning to school the following fall, having completely missed the weird euro-bubblegum pop phenomenon that was Aqua. I could not believe that ‘Barbie Girl’ was a real song, that people were actually listening to, and felt a little unmoored at the vast radio-wave conquering assault of this ridiculous tune, as though the world I had returned to after three months was not the same world I had left.

When I read A.M. Homes’s ‘A Real Doll’ during a bed-ridden Christmas in 2008, the same feeling of disconcertedness re-appeared, but where the sexualisation of Barbie in the Aqua song was just a silly gimmick, in Homes’s fiction it is deadly serious, a thorough look at an adolescent boy’s psycho-sexual attraction to his sister’s Barbie, whom he dates, three times a week, while the sister is at dance class. He later also has a homoerotic moment with Ken, much to Barbie’s imagined dismay.

After having read it I texted my sister, saying that I had a vague recollection of torturing her dolls, charring their plastic against a spinning bicycle wheel. Homes’s story brought a memory to the fore that I had suppressed, and doubted the veracity of even as it was too specific to be anything but true. The three dots indicating a response in the making pulsated on my phone’s screen for a moment. Then the reply: “Not sure tbh.”

Collected in The Safety of Objects, Daedalus Books, 1990. Can be read online here

‘A Romantic Weekend’ by Mary Gaitskill

There’s something so human about the brutality in Gaitskill’s short fiction. It’s never cruel for cruelty’s sake, but rather manages to touch at something vulnerable, easily bruised. ‘A Romantic Weekend’ tends to get the short shrift when compared to the collection’s other BDSM-themed story, ‘Secretary’ which was made into a so-so movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it’s ‘Weekend’ that gets to the heart of how we try to please one another, without really knowing why we want them in the first place.

I remember this bit of dialogue so vividly, when the pair are still on the plane, yet to commence the weekend that will be everything but romantic:

“Some old people are beautiful in an unearthly way,” she continued. “I saw this old lady in the drugstore the other day who must’ve been in her nineties. She was so fragile and pretty, she was like a little elf.”

He looked at her and said, “Are you going to start being fun to be around or are you going to be a big drag?”

She didn’t answer right away. She didn’t see how this followed her comment about the old lady. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think you’re very sexual,” he said. “You’re not the way I thought you were when I first met you.”

She was so hurt by this that she had difficulty answering. Finally, she said, “I can be very sexual or unsexual depending on who I’m with an in what situation. It has to be the right kind of thing. I’m sort of a cerebral person. I think I respond to things in a cerebral way, mostly.”

“That’s what I mean.”

Collected in Bad Behavior, Simon & Schuster, 1998

‘White Square’ by Brian Evenson

The story begins: “The black square on the table is meant to represent Gahern’s estranged wife; it is presented as such at Gahern’s request. The gray square beside it stands in for the black square’s new husband, also presented as such at Gahern’s request. Though Hauser has offered him the full gamut of shapes and colors, Gahern insists upon remaining unrepresented. Nothing stands in for him.”

I can’t even begin to describe where it goes from there: it’s absurd and philosophical at the same time, a murder-mystery reduced to two-dimensional shapes. It both destroys and reaffirms any faith that you have in fiction’s ability to have purpose. I missed a train because I was so engrossed in this book, costing me over $80 to catch the next one. It was worth it.

First published in Post Road Magazine, F/W 2001. Collected in The Wavering Knife, University of Alabama Press, 2004. Can be read online here.

‘A Thousand and one Knives’, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright

It’s a miracle that we have Blasim: an Iraqi writer who cannot get published in his native Arabic (there was an attempt in Lebanon, but the book was banned very quickly thereafter), but instead posted his stories online which we now have in excellent translations courtesy of Jonathan Wright. His stories are absurd mishmashes of Kafka, Borges and Bolaño, but incorporating both ancient Arabic culture (this story owes more than a little to the Arabian Nights, as the title makes clear) and contemporary Iraq. These are some violent, brutal short stories.

In ‘A Thousand and One Knives’ a paraplegic has the magical ability to make knives disappear. He is then captured by terrorist. It does not end happily. The bleakness of Blasim’s stories doesn’t seem nihilistic, however, as much as it demonstrates the dark realities of war, where happy endings are few and far between.

(Other stories that I read fairly recently but which may in time become as important to me as the above include: ‘Virgin’ by April Ayers Lawson, ‘Spins’ by Eley Williams, ‘Track‘ by Nicole Flattery and ‘Femme Maison’ by Joanna Walsh.)

First published in The Iraqi Christ, Comma Press, 2004