Introduction

It’s often said that words are slippery things. Sometimes, though, even the most evanescent words — spoken in an instant, then falling away into silence — are stickier than might be intended, with consequences that far outlast the utterance. Sometimes, words that are written down for posterity end up giving permanence to transient things they capture inadvertently, and sometimes, as fleeting as they may be, they are able to revive the presence of people who were lost a long time ago. Each of these dozen stories pivots on the very particular use of words: not just to represent or respond to the world, but instead to reshape it.

‘The End of Something’ by Ernest Hemingway

A boy. A girl. A lake, a boat. A conversation that doesn’t strike at the heart of the things that really matter, and then a single spoken phrase that brings everything crashing down. With just five short, devastating words, the boy destroys his relationship with the girl — spits on the affection she shows him — and the damage he inflicts is all the more brutal given how calmly he speaks to her. ‘The End of Something’ is a masterpiece of understatement, of reticence, and of compressed structure: everything that precedes those five words gives them an incredible charge, so that, despite their brevity, they send shockwaves through the entire story and bring the drama to a turning point. And that’s not all. After the girl leaves him, the boy comes to feel that he has done wrong, and he convinces himself that he can win her back. He makes plans to apologise, to return their relationship to the way it was before he spoke. But the story knows more than the boy does. Look at the title. It’s definite and final. There will be no new beginning. The words the boy can’t see — words that are given only to the reader — suggest the unwritten aftermath of the story, the unavoidable consequences of the words the boy chose to speak.

from In Our Time, Boni & Liveright 1925; reprinted in The First Forty-Nine Stories

‘We’ll Both Feel Better’ by Dylan Nice

A young man. A young woman. An airport, then Australia. ‘We’ll Both Feel Better’ is a sentimental evocation of ‘The End of Something’ — it is set almost a century later, yet it shares much the same spirit — and it pulls the neat trick of giving the young man a genuine chance to make amends but having him screw it up a second time. Here, the two characters have flown from their homes in the United States to Brisbane, Australia, to study abroad. “She moved and talked in ways that made me feel smaller than I was,” the young man says of his companion, with whom he is not quite in a relationship. “I told her embarrassing things about myself. I thought saying them made them less true.” At the end of one embarrassing story, he makes a self-deprecating admission: “I was clueless.” The young woman’s response — not spoken seriously — is: “You still are.” The young man stews on it and then decides to admonish her. “The rest of the trip I’d prefer not to be condescended to,” he says. But he is the condescending one, and he knows it, even if he’ll never admit it — and even if, at the end, he ends up destroying their relationship by refusing to acknowledge, in words, that he was in the wrong.

from Other Kinds, Short Flight/Long Drive 2013

‘Rare Birds’ (Part 3) by Luke Carman

Luke Carman just might be the best Australian writer that nobody outside Australia has heard of. In this stretch of his long story ‘Rare Birds’, he performs the miracle of transforming a tawdry situation into something unexpectedly tender, then ripping the tenderness apart with even greater ferocity than Hemingway and Dylan Nice. The young man of the book’s title lives in the western suburbs of Sydney. One day, there’s a knock at the door and he finds a young woman looking for him. “[S]he blushed at my gaze,” he says, “and we fell in love on the doorstep like only two desperate twenty-year-olds can do.” They spend months working lowly jobs to scrape together enough money to buy a car, escape the suburbs, drive around Australia. The first days and weeks of the journey are blissful. Then the rot sets in. Eventually they arrive at a spectacular sight which, for the young man, has the feeling of a climax to an odyssey. It is sublime, it moves him profoundly and awakens in him “a strange awe,” and he turns to the young woman to gauge her reaction. No expression on her face, only a “pale look of indifference.” He wants to speak of the unnamable emotions he feels, but she has nothing to say about what she sees. He wants to search for words that are adequate to their situation, but she has none to offer him. “Motherfucker,” he spits at her. That’s the beginning of the end of something. The end itself arrives when the young woman speaks words that echo those of the boy in Hemingway’s story.

from An Elegant Young Man, Giramondo 2014

‘The Woman With Too Many Mouths’ by Cathy Sweeney

The narrator of Cathy Sweeney’s Kafkaesque story is an aspiring novelist whose ambition to “write [a] great novel” is successfully realised and absolutely inconsequential. “Years passed,” he says at the end. “I wrote my great novel. I could write a hundred pages about writing my great novel, but no one would read it. My novel was published. … And then nothing. What else is there?” Well, there’s this, his brief account of his relationship with “the woman with too many mouths”: far fewer words than you’ll find in his great novel, but these words are the more significant ones, particularly because he’s trying to find words to speak about a woman who has more than one mouth and can’t really speak at all. “The woman with too many mouths was almost ugly,” he says; “her beauty depended on the angle of the moon, her perception of my perception, and so on.” As he repeatedly reminds his readers, looking back on the relationship long after it has ended, the woman had too many mouths and strange things happened when she opened them: she spat out rain, she breathed out hay, and at one point, the narrator says, “moths, not two but twenty, the ones you think are butterflies until someone says otherwise, flew out of the woman’s mouth and around my bathroom.” He meets her again after they split up, he reignites their romance, and then things become violent — at her insistence. The narrator’s great novel, which is all that matters to him, doesn’t matter at all in the retelling. All that matters are the memories he can’t shake about his union with that unearthly woman, and this story is his attempt to find the few words that will cleanse his mind of them.

from The Stinging Fly, Issue 19, Volume 2, Summer 2011; read it at The Lonely Voice here or listen to it read aloud by Kevin Barry here

‘Words and Things’ by Jon Raymond

If Jon Raymond is widely known at all, it is thanks to his collaborative work with the filmmaker Kelly Reichhardt. Reichhardt’s first two films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, were based on stories in Raymond’s Livability, and Raymond wrote the screenplay for Reichhardt’s neo-Western gem Meek’s Cutoff. In ‘Words and Things’, Raymond traces the development of a relationship between an art critic, David, and a practising artist named Jen — a relationship that starts off fraught, blossoms into romance, and then begins to collapse. What’s special about the story is not its depiction of the relationship itself, but the way the dynamics between the two characters play out via the incompatibilities between their chosen art forms: “words” for David, “things” for Jen. The drama rises steadily as the two characters think they have found a common language in which to communicate, only to understand that they can’t really reach one another after all, and the final pages of the story bring them to a point of artistic unity but interpersonal distance. Jen arrives home after an event at a gallery where David was also in attendance. There’s a message on her answering machine. She listens to it and hears David’s voice, David’s words, describing Jen’s physical presence in the gallery, while he was watching her from across the room. “It was strange how David’s words had waited for her like that,” Raymond writes, “how they had been preserved in the telephone like actual objects with weight and texture.” Then the machine clicks off. Then there’s silence. Then there’s just the sound of the world around Jen, a world without David’s presence, but with his words able to be summoned up again at the touch of a finger.

From Livability, Bloomsbury 2009

‘Miss Lora’ by Junot Díaz

“Years later,” it begins, “you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it?” Done what? Fallen in love with Miss Lora. “It was 1985,” says the narrator, Yunior. “You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced… that the world was going to blow itself to pieces.” The prospect of death is everywhere. Yunior’s brother, Rafa, is dying, and is long dead by the time Yunior starts telling the story. The story is ostensibly about Yunior’s sexual education by Miss Lora. She is his neighbour, older than him, a teacher at a local school, and much more experienced. She awakens in him a knowledge of his own sexuality, although, far from pleasing him, this knowledge only leaves him confused and angry. But really, indirectly, the story is about Rafa, and about Yunior’s search for words to fill the space opened up by his absence. Miss Lora is ancillary to this exercise: Yunior knows that Rafa would show only confidence if he were to take up with Miss Lora, and part of Yunior’s retelling involves trying to use Rafa’s language to reanimate his brother’s spirit, to convince himself that he can feel what Rafa would feel in his situation. Ultimately, though, words fail everyone. The relationship turns sour, and the final pages unfold like a slow apocalypse of refusals to speak and of spoken words that lack the power to change things.

From This Is How You Lose Her, Penguin 2012; read it at The New Yorker here

‘Circulation’ by Tim Horvath

Few things demand an act of writing like the death of a parent. The death itself is one that can’t be controlled, but the writing at least gives the writer the feeling that the aftermath can be made manageable. In ‘Circulation’, the narrator recalls the life and death of his father, but with a double twist. First, he describes his father’s presence through the way the man’s idiosyncratic worldview survives in the memories of his descendents: the title implicitly refers to the movement of the ideas the father expressed while he was alive, ideas that now circulate through the family like the lifeblood of a human body. Second, the narrator anchors his father’s worldview to the contents of the great book that the father spent a lifetime compiling: a book that itself investigated the histories accumulated by objects as they circulate around the globe. But the book was never fully composed and doesn’t really exist; its subject was too unwieldy, too unmanageable, for the father to actually put it together, word by word. In writing down his father’s life story, however, the narrator doesn’t experience the same failure, in large part because he doesn’t dwell on the absence of his father’s body; he focuses instead on the words his father left behind, inscribed as they now are in the minds of the people around him.

from Understories, Bellevue 2012

‘Grammar Questions’ by Lydia Davis

Whereas Tim Horvath’s narrator portrays his father as having departed this life, Lydia Davis zeroes in on the transition between life and death, the drawn-out process of departing. The result, ‘Grammar Questions’, reads superficially like a series of dispassionate inquiries into the appropriateness of diction and syntax in a series of statements about a dying man. “Now,” she begins, “during the time he is dying, can I say, ‘This is where he lives’?” But there’s anguish burning beneath the surface of every sentence, and by the end of the story it’s clear that there can be no better illustration of the slipperiness of language as the narrator repeatedly falls into the fissure between the words she speaks and the truth of what she sees with her eyes:

When he is dead, everything to do with him will be in the past tense. Or rather, the sentence ‘He is dead’ will be in the present tense, and also questions such as ‘Where are they taking him?’ or ‘Where is he now?’

But then I won’t know if the words he or him are correct, in the present tense. Is he, once he is dead, still ‘he,’ and if so, for how long is he still ‘he’?

The story is also a companion piece to Davis’s equally excellent ‘Letter to a Funeral Parlor’ (from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant), in which the narrator takes issue with the description of her father’s cremated remains as “cremains”. The two stories work together beautifully and poignantly, the one using bitter humour to offset the bereft grammatical analyses of the other.
From Varieties of Disturbance, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; reprinted in The Collected Stories)

‘Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog’ by Stephanie Vaughn

“When I was twelve years old,” the narrator, Gemma, begins, “my father was tall and awesome.” But her father ends up far from his vigorous younger self — reclusive, depressed, an alcoholic drinking himself to death — and her story revolves around her fondest memories of the man at the most difficult time in his life, essentially representing her efforts to breathe some life back into a soul misrepresented by those who survived him. “In the eulogy” at his funeral, she says, “he was remembered for having survived the first wave of the invasion of Normandy.” Among the funeral attendees, however, he was instead admired “for having been the proprietor of a chain of excellent hardware stores.” Gemma tries to find words to reanimate the man who she knew as someone between those two extreme versions of himself — between the dashing wartime hero and the buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era shopkeeper — and she takes her lead from the words her father gave her when she was a child. The clue is in the title; the meaning of the words is a bond between parent and child and, through the child’s recollections in adulthood, between a man misunderstood by the world and the man he really was.

from Sweet Talk, Random House 1990; listen to it read aloud by Tea Obreht here

‘The Aquarium’ by Aleksandar Hemon

This is a true story and it is devastating. What could be more harrowing than the death of a parent and the dissolution of a family? Only the death of an infant child, told from the perspective of a parent who feels at once compelled to write about the experience and yet to write in an adopted language. Aleksandar Hemon was granted asylum in the United States when war broke out in his native Bosnia in 1992, and he began publishing in English a decade later. In 2010, however, his nine-month-old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare type of brain tumour, and after a series of awful interventions she died in hospital before her first birthday. In his retelling of her death, Hemon pins extraordinary hopes on mastering a language he doesn’t understand — medical terminology that carries the false promise of a firm diagnosis with a fixed course of treatment — until the catastrophic moment brings him to a point at which language escapes him and he falls back on just two words of incredible, raw emotion. The story is simultaneously a testament to the inadequacy of language in the face of death and a declaration of faith in the capacities of language to make survival bearable.

From The Book of My Lives, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013; read it at the New Yorker here)

‘Migration’ by Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel is the Christine Schutt or Diane Williams of twenty years ago, a disciple of Gordon Lish whose only contemporary rival, sentence for sentence, is Gary Lutz. ‘Migration’ is an unsettling story of family tensions in a version of the nineteenth century American frontier:

“This was in the time of the Indian corn tied tight to doors with dry stalks. The doors had mats of husk. Dark jars filled the cellars. … Men were in pursuit.”

Women and girls, meanwhile, are left at home to await whatever might befall them. The story casts glances at two girls in particular (it would be wrong to say that the story is about them) and the girls’ names are abstract nouns which, when spoken, sound like commands to do something. So it is that the girls have words with known meanings affixed to their identities, and when their names are called they can’t be sure if they are being summoned or receiving instruction. Death arrives at the door, new life arrives in the frontier house, and the family takes on a new configuration. By way of these events, those individual words — the girls’ names — acquire startling new significance.

from In the Year of Long Division, Knopf 1994

‘The Razor’s Edge’ by Rachel Cusk

Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, since Aftermath is a memoir, not a collection of stories. But most of its pieces can stand alone, granted that they all share the premise of depicting events involving Cusk and her daughters after her marriage fell apart. In ‘The Razor’s Edge’, Cusk retreats to the countryside with the two girls, striking out for “a picturesque country town near Dartmoor” only to end up in a run-down B&B, “a dank-smelling labyrinth of corridors”. Her aim is to make time to write the book she’s working on, while the two girls are out taking horse-riding lessons. But she hasn’t reckoned on the woman she calls “the witch”. The witch is the owner of the B&B, a one-legged intruder who wears “rainbow-coloured draperies in chiffon and velvet” and moves around on “a pair of crutches strapped to her arms… with which she occasionally gestures, [as if they are] the forelegs of some gigantic insect.” She’s a writer, too, although she publishes pseudonymously, and she’s thrilled to have someone like Cusk in her house. First, though, the witch displaces Cusk and the girls from their rented room because it is needed by another family — a real, intact family, not a family riven by divorce — and then, to make amends, she offers them refuge in her private home, a hovel of broken furniture and rot. Needless to say, Cusk doesn’t manage to do any writing there. She can’t even summon the words to excuse herself from the witch’s presence. She flees silently, under cover of darkness, and after escaping she stumbles across one of the witch’s novels. Reading the novel gives her a new and heartbreaking understanding of the woman she maligned, and reveals vast reservoirs of pain beneath the woman’s bullyish impositions. One writer has many words to write but no opportunity to compose herself; the other has composed herself in the flesh so as to mask the words she writes under a false identity. Neither woman easily inhabits the world, and ‘The Razor’s Edge’ records the way they overlap on the page despite the distance between them in life.

From Aftermath, Faber 2012)