‘Dance in America’ by Lorrie Moore

A brief dip into the life of a family who reside in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch country’, ‘Dance in America’ is the best example of what Moore does exquisitely – conveying how happiness and joy must exist amidst trouble and sorrow. The family’s young son has cystic fibrosis, and when the narrator, a dance teacher, spends the night at theirs whilst working in the area, she dances with him and his parents. She herself has her own troubles, having been recently left by her partner – a seething undercurrent to the evening. When they dance to a Kenny Loggins song, and Eugene, the son, runs out of breath, the narrator goes to sit with him before they get up and – fuck it – dance again.

As Eugene rallies the body given to him by fate, she says angrily:

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space. This is what life’s done so far down here – this is all and what and everything it’s managed – this body, these bodies, that body – so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

The dance at the end of this story is one of my favourite moments in any story – I love seeing such joy and sympathy on the page. Moore reaches beyond the limits of domestic realism not through show-offy similes or wild allusions, but simply by showing both the beauty and anger in a quiet evening of people gathered together.

First published in The New Yorker, Jun 1993, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Birds of America, Knopf/Faber, 1998, and The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, Knopf/Faber 2010

‘The Fliers of Gy’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

I could fill this list with Le Guin stories, but ‘The Fliers of Gy’, in Changing Planes, a later short story collection, is my favourite. So many of Le Guin’s stories have an anthropological lens; in ‘The Fliers of Gy’, the people observed by the visiting narrator ‘have plumage, not hair’, but she notes they are ‘staid, steady’ and ‘traditional’. Amongst them, shunned, misunderstood and yet occasionally revered, are the winged people, those who can grow fully-fledged wings on their backs and fly – analogues of anyone who is chosen by fate to stick out in their society and lead, irrevocably, a different life. 

Those with wings move between ecstasy at their ability and terror of it, especially because soaring above the earth is not without its perils – while you can sleep as you fly, you might also experience a wing breakdown, fall to earth and die. I’ve always loved this story because it’s about whether you answer the call of fate. If you choose not to, you avoid risk, danger and failure but you also lose the superpower of flying, the dreaming and the dizzy heights. And what does Le Guin think? She plays her cards close to her chest here, but seems to suggest the risk is worth it.

First published in Changing Planes, Harcourt, 2003/Gollancz, 2005, and collected in The Unreal and the Real, Gallery, 2016

‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro

Munro was the first writer I found who described romantic relationships with the accuracy I needed – she gave me words with which to understand my own experiences. I have found more writers like this since, thank god, but she remains far and away the best. If I ever do a PhD, it’ll be on her. In ‘The Beggar Maid’, Patrick, a young, handsome academic falls in love with Rose, the protagonist, who loves him back sometimes and at other times can’t stand him. Rose’s inner life and the dialogue feel so truthful, and it’s this which makes me always come back to Munro. She sees the complexities of relationships so clearly, and the intensity of her characters’ emotions is never misplaced. Everything feels absolutely real. She’s a genius and I think one of the best writers to read if you want to learn to write relationships properly. Give her the Nobel. Oh, wait.

First published in The New Yorker, June 1977, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Who Do You Think You Are, Macmillan, 1978, and also in No Love Lost, 2003 and Selected Stories Vol 1, Vintage, 1997/2021

‘Paradises Lost’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

‘Paradises Lost’ is one of the most compassionate and humane of Le Guin’s short stories, but if you’re snobby about sci-fi you’ll never see this because you won’t want to read about generation ships and interplanetary voyages. It’s a perfect example of how science fiction can be full of heart and expand one’s universe, whilst also being a great vehicle for asking questions about, in this case, our planet’s future. The children on this generation ship voyage only know Earth from virtual reality tapes – they have been on-board the ship their whole lives, heading towards a new habitable planet. But there’s a cult on the ship who don’t want to arrive at the new planet; they believe the journey itself is the purpose and want to cut off all connections to a terrestrial existence. For them, the voyage is life itself; life on Earth or other planets is a danger, or even illusory. This is just great plotting, and I wish someone would adapt it for television. There are conspiracies, propaganda, a love story, the question of what kind of home humans need and deserve – and just all-round brilliance. Put your genre snobbery aside and give it a try.

First published in The Birthday of the World, Harper Collins, 2002

‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ by ZZ Packer

It was hard to pick one from this legendary collection – I shuffled between a few before settling, as I’d known I would, on the title story, ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’. This must be one of the best college stories in existence; like I said about Munro, what gets me here is the emotional truth of it. Newly arrived at Yale, Dina says, “if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver,” an excellent comment from any narrator, which also wins her a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling. She becomes close to another student, and although the friendship ends badly, its growth and unravelling are brilliantly written. It’s been over twenty years since it came out and I still remember the scene of Dina spraying her friend with the squirt gun she uses as a dining hall dishwasher, and what Dina realises in that moment. I still love the image, too, of her friend Heidi soaked in water, in the canteen after hours, “turned over and over like a large beautiful dolphin, lolling about in the sun.”  

First published in The New Yorker, June 200, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead/Canongate, 2003

‘Baptizing’ by Alice Munro

In Munro’s first short story collection, Lives of Girls and Women, Del Jordan, wildly bright and stuck in rural Ontario, is trying to win a scholarship to college: “I got A’s at school,” she says, “I never had enough of them”. In one of the final stories, she falls for a boy, the excellently-named Garnet French, and it’s love at first sight. Munro’s version of love at first sight is far sexier than I’d have guessed before reading her; it is something to lose yourself in. At church, Del and Garnet’s hands touch and she is in ecstasy: “I felt angelic with gratitude, truly as if I had come out onto another level of existence.” This story of sexual awakening is perfectly done: “Sex seemed to me all surrender… not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith” – but of course it ends badly. There’s a bittersweet pain, facing the end of love and an uncertain future, but Del makes the best of it, understanding that what’s happened is part of growing up. She knows, as she says, that “real life awaits”. I can’t think of anyone who writes better than Munro about this transition from naïve adolescent to shrewd young woman.

First published in Lives of Girls and Women, 1971, Vintage

‘At Hiruharama’ by Penelope Fitzgerald

I have in the past written at length about Fitzgerald, and called her “the greatest novelist of the 20th Century” (which I still stand by). She published her first novel at sixty-one, and wrote The Blue Flower, her masterpiece, when she was eighty. Her only book of short stories, The Means of Escape, was published in 2000, the year she died. ‘At Hiruharama’ is a perfect example of her greatness within just a few pages – she transports you to a different time and place; in this case New Zealand at the time of the first English settlers. 
The story is framed as a flashback, and the shifts in perspective – from Tanner, one half of the couple who have started a life in the remote New Zealand countryside, to their nearest neighbour, who comes the nine miles distance’ for dinner the night Tanner’s wife is giving birth – are just brilliant. Fitzgerald never wastes a word, and the world is built up detail by detail, like Tanner driving into town to buy rock salt and a sack of millet, and a book taking a year to arrive from England by post. If you’re looking for somewhere to start with Fitzgerald, I could recommend about four of her books, but if you only want a short story, then go for this.

First published in the anthology Infidelity, Chatto & Windus, 1993. Collected in New Writing 4, Vintage, 2004 and The Means of Escape, Flamingo, 2000. Listen to AS Byatt read it here

‘Purim Night’ by Edith Pearlman

What’s so good about ‘Purim Night’ is that it’s such a sweet story, and yet it’s set in a dismal place – a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947, populated by war refugees, concentration camp survivors, and former prisoners of war. One of the characters even recounts the deaths of her husband and best friend, her time in concentration camp, her “one rape and many beatings” – and yet I’d still call this story ‘sweet’. I think it’s partly because there’s a glimpse of a beautiful love story in it, an easy but miraculous love, and a surprise for the reader. 

It’s also because despite the fact the camp is impoverished and improvised, there’s an unusual sense of warmth in it. These people, celebrating Purim, have survived annihilation, and they are celebrating in the very land this was meant to happen in; their TB hospital was not so long ago a Wehrmacht stable. The ending is difficult; the woman who has lost her husband and best friend is fixated on going to Israel – there, she is sure, she will be saved. The sad naivety of this, her need for this hope, and the awful reality of such dreams today makes for a gruelling moment – which is, I’m sure, exactly what Pearlman intends. 

First published in Binocular Vision, Pushkin Press, 2014

‘Paper Lantern’ by Stuart Dybek

ZZ Packer picked this story on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and I listened to it on a long, windy walk. I stood in the street for its final few minutes rather than switch it off and knock on my friend’s door; I didn’t want to leave it (though also it doesn’t end how I’d want it to). It starts as a story of a bunch of scientists, working on a time machine – I’d forgotten this detail – and when they break for lunch, they go their favourite local Chinese restaurant. At some point the narrator takes us back in time to when he was having an affair with a woman, a long matryoshka doll flashback which ends with her trying to give him a blowjob while he’s driving and the car behind is furiously, inexplicably on their tail. Dybek’s themes are memory, what you can and can’t keep, and people you’ll never see again but still think about – but aside from all this, it’s just completely beautiful.

First published in The New Yorker, November 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, and The Start of Something: Selected Stories, Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Cape, 2016. Listen to ZZ Packer read it here

‘Fialta’ by Rebecca Lee

It’s shameful to say the reason I love this story is because it’s set somewhere I’ll never get to go, and would love to – an architectural residency, the equivalent of somewhere like Yaddo or MacDowell for apprentice architects. It’s run by Nostbakken, an enigmatic, legendary architect, who seems, the narrator says, “more substantially of the past than anybody I’ve ever met,” and because it’s that kind of place, the narrator is also in charge of its barn animals. Honestly, I love the setting so much that it hijacks my critical faculties and I’m unable to care about anything else here, even the fleeting love story. I’m there for the pancakes, coffee and snow, and for the milking of cows whilst thinking about architecture.

First published in Zoetrope, 2000, and collected in Bobcat and Other Stories, Text Publishing, 2014

‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’m aware that Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t fashionable these days, but her stories weren’t built to be fashionable – ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is about a dad who goes to stay with his daughter and then, like, he mows the lawn. When I first read it years ago, I was struck by two things – first, Lahiri’s even-handed, neutral narration and second, the sheer amount of detail about domestic lives. Both these things would suggest something beyond boring but instead, they make way for real depth of emotion. There’s bravery in being able to go full pelt for forty pages with the interactions of two or three people in suburban Seattle. I have to admit, I’m not sure how it would hold up to a revisit but when I first read it, almost fifteen years ago, I found it incredibly impressive.

First published in Unaccustomed Earth, Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2008. Excerpted here in the New York Times

The Chet Baker section in But Beautiful, by Geoff Dyer

It’s not cheating to include this – Dyer wouldn’t care! I was going to pick that Wells Tower story everyone loves, but I kept coming back to But Beautiful. It’s a book about jazz, looking at the lives of famous jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, and it’s considered ‘genre-defying’ because it dips in and out of fact with striking nonchalance. Dyer calls it “imaginative criticism”. I remember pouring over this book with a pencil back almost twenty years ago, trying to figure out how Dyer wrote (and how I could copy it), even though now I think he could have toned it down here and there. 

The Chet Baker section haunts me the most. We all know Baker’s story – how a baby-faced, beautiful young man was ravaged by heroin addiction. As Dyer says: “Staring back at him was a face whose features seemed controlled by some internal gravity that pulled everything inward”. Dyer really goes for it with Baker’s destruction here, as well as his total shittiness to women. He was the king of ghosting, but the enjoyment here doesn’t come from this smart, knowing portrait of him, it comes from the flashes of beauty in Dyer’s writing. After all this time, I still love, “Chet’s face had the look of water swirling down the drain”, and “he was staring into the dead pool of coffee, ceiling lights glinting in it like a glimpse of bright fish”. You could write these lines into any story and they’d work fine, but here they just serve to pull you deeper into But Beautiful’s unforgettable, dream-like world.

Abacus, 1991