‘The Owl Who Was God’ by James Thurber

‘The Owl Who Was God’, as a title, is good enough on its own to qualify as an excellent short story, which is true of many of the choices I’ve made in this selection. A story’s title, maybe given the brevity of the form, maybe given the context in which the decision to read a particular story might be taken (the contents list in an anthology), carries a special force: of course you read the one with the weirdest title first (that or the shortest). For many of these stories, the title feels somehow of equivalent weight to the narrative, as though the story and its title might be interchanged. ‘The Owl Who Was God’, which is accompanied by one of Thurber’s own great, manic illustrations, tells a fable-like narrative about the imputation of enormous gravitas, even godliness, onto the deeply stupid. (Any resemblance to current events is, of course, entirely coincidental.) By asking an owl a sequence of questions it can only answer in its own call (‘“Can you give me another expression for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely’?” asked the secretary bird. “To wit”, said the owl’), a group of woodland animals are convinced of the truth of the story’s title, with hilariously tragic consequences.

First published in Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated, Harper Brothers, 1940, and included in The Thurber Carnival, Hamish Hamilton, 1945, and available online here, but without the illustration, so don’t bother

‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore

Choosing a single Lorrie Moore story is a problem. Choosing a single Lorrie Moore sentence is a problem. Take out all of her descriptions, for example, in this masterpiece (it’s a masterpiece), of blank facial expressions, assemble them into a short paragraph, and it’s still one of the best stories you’ve read. ‘Blank as a vandalised clock.’ I imagine the title sort of answers itself: this is how.

Available online here. Collected in Self-Help, Knopf, 1985, now also Faber Modern Classics, 2015, and Collected Stories, Knopf/Faber, 2008

‘Where the Door is Always Open and the Welcome Mat is Out’ by Patricia Highsmith

The title is a promise whose unravelling, during a familial visit, is what drives the story forward, but isn’t what makes it linger. A young woman, living in a tiny New York apartment, rushes to prepare for a visit from her sister from Cleveland. Highsmith’s mastery of building tension out of absent-mindedness (did she leave the eggs on the stove or not?) is as enjoyable here as it is in any of her novels, but it’s the moment when Mildred, the city-dwelling sister, rails, mildly and politely, against her sister’s haughty assessment of New York’s unfriendliness that the story’s generosity breaks open. The description of her watching a police parade in the rain is a very beautiful moment: “Why, they even call them New York’s Finest!”

Included in Nothing that Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories, Bloomsbury, 2005 and Selected Novels and Short Stories, Norton, 2010

‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’ by Vladimir Nabokov

This story, written in 1937 and set in a parallel Germany of enforced leisure and institutional bullying, might easily be passed over as a straightforward political allegory, were it not for the fact that it’s by Nabokov, and is therefore studded with precise observations that remind us of his greatness as a comic writer: the cigarette butt Vasili is made to eat, for instance, or the lacquered nose of the trip’s leader. Vasili, the somewhat Pnin-like central character who’s clearly an authorial avatar – he’s introduced at the beginning as “my representative”, and at the tale’s end, “of course, I let him go” – is obliged to take a tiresomely upbeat journey with a bunch of grotesques who first won’t let him read in silence, then chuck his prized cucumber out of the train’s window. On the trip, Vasili sees the scene of the story’s title, which looks, in the mind’s eye, a little like a Claude landscape, whose transcendent beauty is the source of the story’s spring of joy and horror. The title’s cadence and rhythm captures that imprinting of a sight upon the memory. It stays with you as though it’s your own.

First published in The Atlantic, June 1941, and collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, 1995, and available online here

‘The Musicians of Bremen’ by the Brothers Grimm, retold by Philip Pullman

“The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage.” This is from Philip Pullman’s introduction to his great book of Brothers Grimm retellings. His ‘The Musicians of Bremen’ is, then, built to be embellished, localised, extended or truncated, but, thanks to his brilliantly economical characterisation of the animal characters, it’s not nearly as flattened as fairy tales are (by his own reckoning) supposed to be. A donkey, a dog, a cat and a cockerel, all recently laid off, form a band and decide to move to Bremen to make it in the local music industry. They never make it to Bremen nor launch their musical careers, but live happily ever after in spite of – or perhaps because of, since they’d have been hounded, sorry, out of the city had they made it there – the title’s suggestion. There is a bronze statue in Bremen of the four animals, stacked on top of each other, which is quite an odd choice for a public sculpture if you’ve read the story.

Included in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Penguin, 2012

‘Diary: Morrissey: My Morning’ by Craig Brown

Not that parodying Morrissey’s prose style is itself a great challenge – it mostly does that by itself – but Craig Brown’s Morrissey diary manages to build a world of grandiose self-pity that is almost as affecting as Brown’s evocation of Princess Margaret in ‘Ma’am Darling’. A bottle of champagne “chilled as an unborn baby’s grave”. A royalty cheque falling out of an envelope like “a fallen soldier of the Somme, sent out to die on a foreign field by the uncaring upper classes”. Tears falling “like so many sad people from the top floor of a skyscraper onto the unforgiving ground below.”

Published in Private Eye, October 2013, available online here

‘The Impresario of Human Drudgery’ by Ben Katchor

Ben Katchor’s short comic strips (for lack of a better term) take place in a parallel Manhattan of fleapit cinemas and bizarre small businesses, which, as in Nicholson Baker’s fictions, pay homage to the act of attention itself: there are strips on liquid soap thievery, an opium den-style ‘Nail-Biting Salon’, the romance of the take-out menu. Katchor’s nervy, scratchy line is part of his work’s focus on the shabbily pre-owned, as is, somehow, his arcane, lovely prose. “The faint odor of a month’s worth of wanted posters under glass taints the otherwise thrilling scent of yet-to-be-delivered mail.” “A number of dramatists have turned to the sightseeing tour bus as a unique and affordable method of realising a theatrical spectacle in the midst of a depressed economy.” “The milk of human kindness, condensed into a dented sixteen-ounce can, turns up on a shelf outside the men’s room.”

Included in Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, Little, Brown, 1996

‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ by Amelia Gray

The amount of time it will take for me to describe exactly what makes this story so great could be much better served actually reading it, because nothing need be explained: you will read it and know, almost straight away. It’s also full of brilliant, oddly-phrased and very precise details that open up avenues of thought that will make you want to read it again, almost straight away. Go.

Included in Gutshot, FSG Originals, 2015, and available online here

‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover

It’s over before you know it. That might be a criticism of the short story form. It might imply something else, though. Coover’s story pits form against content, rattling through a character’s life as though against his will, with nothing but Kewpie dolls and crutches to cling to. If the short story form is about compression (and maybe it is, sometimes), Coover’s is like a car crusher, squeezing its poor protagonist, who only wanted a beer, into a helpless cube.

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 2011, and available online here. Collected in Going for a Beer: Selected Shorter Fictions, Norton, 2018

‘On the Marionette Theatre’ by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Idris Parry

Two friends meet in the park, and, because it’s early 19th Century Germany, they immediately launch into philosophical chat. The conversation, which is really a sequence of anecdotes, is about the idea of grace: a condition found, according to one protagonist, not in humans per se but in human surrogates – statues, animals, puppets. What emerges is a kind of horror story about human consciousness, which is of course not about early 19th century Germany at all, but about right now, whenever you happen to be reading it.

First published in German in The Berliner Abendblätter, December 1810 and available online here. Collected in Selected Writings, Hackett, 2004, in a translation by David Constantine

‘The Laughing Man’ by JD Salinger

Many if not all of the stories I’ve chosen for this list are themselves about stories and storytelling, and the way in which such things operate within a person’s life. The young protagonist of ‘The Laughing Man’ is a nine-year-old member of an informal group called the Comanche Club, which meets every schoolday afternoon to play various sports under the watchful eye of their leader, the 22 or 23-year old law student The Chief. After each session, The Chief tells a long, improvised adventure story called The Laughing Man. (The transformation of The Laughing Man, and of The Chief, and of the protagonist, is what’s happening in the story, and all are woven together). I can’t imagine a more perfect argument for why stories matter than this story, this part especially: “It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub.”

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 1949, and included in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953

‘On The Town’ by Helen de Witt

Out-of-towner moves to the big city and on his first day sees Harvey Keitel eating pancakes in a diner. “Dude!!!!!!!!! I saw Harvey Keitel eating pancakes!!!!!!!!!”, he says to his indifferent flatmate. This and many other delights awaits the reader of Helen de Witt’s story, which, like everything written by Helen de Witt (and there isn’t much, and it’s all excellent), slinks in and out of languages (the institutional, the technical, the corporate) to find previously unexplored areas of human dumbness and desire. Gil, the out-of-towner, wows feckless New Yorkers with his competence in DIY, speaker installation, PowerPoint, data visualisation. It is, as Sheila Heti says in her introduction, a parable that “one simple man might swoop in and make order out of the chaos and stupidity of the world”, which, if you think about it, is actually the greatest story ever told!!!!!!!!

First published in Electric Literature, June 2018 and available online here and in Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, New Directions, 2018