I’m grateful to Jonathan for asking me to contribute, though it was inevitably an agony choosing only twelve favourite stories, as much as it would be choosing twelve favourite films, albums or sandwiches. In the end, I went for some stories that have been important and inspirational to me during my life, and others that I’ve recently read and enjoyed.

‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

I first read Dubliners in school, so I must have been about 14 or 15; it was a cheap paperback with some chintzy illustrations in it, and every week we went through the stories in great detail. On reflection, this was one of my first proper experiences of close reading, and as the weeks went by, I got more and more absorbed in the lives of these characters. I latched on to that volta of disappointment that Joyce detonates in each story, often a depiction of the rising and falling of an evening which begins in hope and ends in the revelation of an unflinching reflection of oneself. I could have picked any of these stories, but I chose ‘A Painful Case’, a story of a man who lives at something of a distance from himself, because of its clarity and its ruthless pity. The opening sketch, which describes Mr Duffy’s “odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense”, is as perfect a distillation of character as I’ve read. But the real dynamite in this story is the closing sequence, in which Duffy stands purgatorial in the evening above Dublin, his lover abandoned and dead by his own neglect, the copulating couples below him wishing him gone, and the wormlike train winding its way out of his sight. Even then, in the nearest moment that he comes to realisation, he stands at a protective distance from himself; his thoughts remain behind the barrier of “he felt”; his epiphany is complete but abstract, on the other side of the glass. The final sentence – “He felt that he was alone” – is devastating.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

‘The Mother’ by Lydia Davis

The girl wrote a story. “But how much better it would be if you wrote a novel,” said her mother. The girl built a dollhouse. “But how much better if it were a real house,” her mother said. The girl made a small pillow for her father. “But wouldn’t a quilt be more practical,” said her mother. The girl dug a small hole in the garden. “But how much better if you dug a large hole,” said her mother. The girl dug a hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.

I find that once I’ve read more than, say, five Lydia Davis stories in a row the effect is akin to eating an entire box of chocolates; this, for me, is testament to the complexity and intricacy of Davis’ craft. I’ve always pictured the tone of Davis’ stories as occupying a zone between a sort of humorist register – a sort of middlebrow unpacking of everyday foibles, best exemplified in the ‘letter’ stories – and an acidic shock of the kind that might accompany the downing of a shot of spirits. I come back to ‘The Mother’ again and again because of the vein of passive cruelty that culminates in that breathtaking final line, but the more I read and teach it, the more I’m aware of its strangeness. Why is she making a pillow for her father? What does the daughter’s muteness – or the muteness of everyone else in the story but the mother, for that matter – indicate? Is this a story about the perceived ‘uselessness’ of the art life? About the endpoint of practicality, as opposed to whim, as a life pursuit? And of course, being Davis, despite its brevity a whole world is conjured and dispelled in seconds.

Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Michael Hofmann

Picking ‘The Metamorphosis’ out of Kafka’s stories feels a bit like saying your favourite Beatles album is The Best of the Beatles, but I chose it because I had a transformational experience on my second reading. I first read it in my teens, when I understood this to be the ne plus ultra of young alienation, and I didn’t like it. The story was too long, the central horror of the transformation felt somehow undetailed, and what seemed to be the most compelling element – Gregor’s transformation – became increasingly sidelined in favour of the family’s troubles, culminating in a final scene, in which Gregor’s sister Grete stands up on a tram, that seemed utterly inconsequential to me. Some years later, I returned to the story and it was a revelation. Some of my most enduring experiences with art have involved a work that I’ve disliked on first impression; the experience of understanding its complexity or tone on a second reading seems to double the pleasure. When reading again, I realised that it was a mistake to assume that Gregor was the centre of the story’s gravity, and that Kafka’s bone-dry humour is easily missed. The final scene – where Gregor’s pupal sacrifice precedes the butterfly-like opening up of Grete – clicked into place, and the beauty and sadness of the story came into focus. And then I read all the Kafka I could find.

First published in German, as ‘Die Verwandlung’, in Die Weißen Blätter, 1915. Widely translated in English. Hoffman’s translation is from Metamorphosis & Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015

‘The Candidate’ by Kathryn Scanlan

One of the things I like about Scanlan’s stories is the permanently shifting ontologies of the central characters, be they animal or human. This is achieved within a broadly realist form, but those fuzzy edges bring an omnipresent sense of threat and contingency to her stories. I first read ‘The Candidate’ on a plane at night, and in the gloaming between sleep and waking at nothing o’clock in the morning I convinced myself that it was actually about a dog, whereas on the second reading it was clearly about a child. But I love that the story could make me think that, and I think that quality of uncertainty of being is there in all her work, similar to the way that, say, Joy Williams can set out a familiar scenario and then flip the table over. Scanlan’s stories are so short and sharp that they sting; they leave you spinning.

First published in The Daily Telegaph, May 2020, and available to subscribers to reader here. Collected in The Dominant Animal, MCD x FSG Originals/Daunt Books, 2020

‘Good Old Neon’ by David Foster Wallace

‘Good Old Neon’ might represent the apex of Wallace’s fiction for me. It’s perhaps the clearest distillation of what he was trying to do; to work within a register of generational irony in order to transcend its form. Wallace’s best work is affecting before it is smart, and ‘Good Old Neon’ holds the metafictional tricks at a distance, letting them percolate throughout the story before they emerge, finally, in a transformative way. The story is narrated by a dead man, a suicide, who considers how communication after death is not bound by time or space, but also how that transcendence cannot necessarily obviate a sense of failure. Many of Wallace’s hobby horses – Wittgenstein, Derrida – are here in some form, though the main influence on this story appears to be Buddhism; the protagonist, Neal, is so fixated on the binary of success or failure that he remains trapped in the bardo-like space of the story and needs someone to pull him out, which they (sort of) do in unexpected and quite beautiful fashion at the story’s climax.

First published in Conjunctions 37, Fall 2001, and collected in Oblivion, Little, Brown, 2004

‘Vertical Motion’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Can Xue constructs stories that cleave entirely to their own internal logic – it’s what I imagine experiencing an alien civilisation would be like, where everything is taking place due to a prescribed set of laws that you have to learn simply through the process of being immersed. Her stories teach you to read them as you read them. That’s not to say she doesn’t have influences – parts of this story seem to have been written in the margins of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ – but her style and world-making is completely hers. ‘Vertical Motion’ might be about insects – though that is the protagonist’s own word for their civilisation, so for all I know they could be anything – who are either buried underground or in a place that we don’t have words for. Can Xue doesn’t seem particularly focused on analogy; her stories might mean something other than what they mean, but of primary importance is that the world within the story operates as a world, with its own logic buzzing away somewhere, half-glimpsed. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to translate this work, but Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping do a stunning job.

First published in English in Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011. Available to read in The White Review online, here

‘The Growing State’ by Vanessa Onwuemezi

I like it when I sense that I haven’t fully got my head around a story, that it contains some dormant quality still waiting to be found. I feel this way about Vanessa Onwuemezi’s first collection, Dark Neighbourhood; that it contains multitudes that I’ve not yet discovered. All of these stories seem to occupy some sort of wormhole-y relation to one another, a kind of dreamlike web threaded through with things that emerge periodically; moments of fear or realisation, names and vocations, heat and claustrophobia. I could realistically name any story from this collection, but this one was where I started to see what Onwuemezi was doing, and where the ambition of her vision became fully clear to me, while at the same time remaining gauzy and out of sight.

First published in Dark Neighbourhood, Fitzcarraldo, 2022

‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ by Gerald Murnane

It’s up for debate whether this is a short story at all, just as it’s up for debate whether any of Murnane’s individual works constitute separate entities or are instead components of one gigantic ongoing work of literature. This is the first part of Murnane’s book Landscape with Landscape, which I’m currently reading. I’ve tried to explain Murnane’s writing to recommend it, and every time I find myself at a loss to describe what he does. I could say this is a story about a man sitting on a committee and imagining conversations with the other members after the meeting has finished, which makes it sound supremely dull. And, of course, this does no justice at all to the way in which Murnane quietly and carefully makes and unmakes time, conjuring possible scenarios built on the bones of others, none of them collapsing even though at every second you expect them to do so. There is a moment in this story where the narrator imagines a woman to whom he imagines speaking reading the hypothetical thing that he will write about his speaking to her, and her reaching the exact same line that the reader has reached at that moment; I felt dizzy, pitched over by the audacity of it, as if I were viewing the page from a great height.

First published in Landscape With Landscape, Norstrilia Press, 1985/Penguin, 1987; the book was republished by Giramondo Press, 2016

‘Industry News and Review No6’ by Françoise Mouly

A perennial hobby horse of mine is that Françoise Mouly doesn’t get enough public credit for being one of the key postwar figures in graphic fiction and comics; she’s heavily responsible for the introduction to America of numerous international artists in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as for physically printing and distributing the brilliant and influential Raw magazine. She’s best known now for her design, and for being art editor at The New Yorker, but she did produce one short single-page, seventeen-panel comic, Industry News and Review No6, which depicts a frustrated printer, barely visible in the margins of the images of the printing plant, wondering if she will ever be able to focus on her own art. At the climax of the page, the art she has been working on is revealed to be the cover of issue 6 of Industry News and Review, which has been drawn from the images of her life we’ve seen previously, and which forms a semi-closed metatextual loop from which her art emerges. It’s such a brilliant conceit, and I think it’s the only comic to which she ever put her own name. 

In Raw Issue 1, 1980. Available to view here

‘The North London Book of the Dead’ by Will Self

This was a very important and formative story for me in my middle teenage years, and I came to it via an episode of The South Bank Show that was dedicated to Self and his writing. The conceit of the story – that when someone dies they just go to live, undead, in another part of London – was the first time that I’d encountered nominally realist fiction that deliberately bent the boundaries of reality – not magical realism, but a kind of grubby and recognisably British weirdness. It was one of those moments where you say ‘I didn’t know you could do that!’ and your world shifts slightly in what seems possible. After that, the short fiction I’d been writing started to change, and in many ways this laid the early groundwork for the kind of writing I’m doing now. If I’d been older, I might have encountered Angela Carter or J.G. Ballard or Alasdair Gray first, but it was this story that opened up that tradition for me, and through that door there was Borges, Lispector and all that other glorious crew.

First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury, 1991

‘Only Skin’ by Joanna Newsom

I’m cheating a little here, as it’s a song. But I include it because not only is it structured like a short story and takes as long to listen to as it does to read a short story, but also because I was present at one of its earliest public performances. There were maybe 300 of us in a field behind Baskerville Hall, and a tiny stage. She began her set by saying ‘I’m going to play mostly new material tonight’, a phrase which usually elicits gasps of horror from an audience, and then she began to play this song, solo. 

And there was a booming above you
That night, black airplanes flew over the sea
And they were lowing and shifting like
Beached whales; Shelled snails
As you strained and you squinted to see
The retreat of their hairless and blind cavalry

It lasted for nearly twenty minutes, and no one in the audience had heard it before, so we had the privilege of experiencing it together. At times, singing and playing, she seemed close to tears, at others almost laughing in sheer joy. No-one could quite believe what they were hearing. When the song finished, there were five full seconds of silence before the crowd erupted. It made me retrospectively realise that the conditions for experiencing new art are rarely collective and public; there’s usually some medium that pre-empts it, or it’s a private moment, in a reading chair or in the dark of a theatre or cinema. But it is different to undergo what you might call a joint epiphany, to catch the eyes of people around you and exchange a look of disbelief at what you’re all going through. It remains one of the great art experiences of my life.

Performed live at Green Man Festival, August 2005. Available to watch here