Short Story Land wouldn’t be a nice place to live: tragedies abound, trauma and misery are rife, everybody’s lonely and the body count is high. Happy marriages do not exist; neither do happy endings. A few years ago, I realised I was drawn to stories that manage to transcend these wretched parameters; stories that offer some sort of redemptive moment, that keep characters alive and offer second chances. I’m interested in moments of connection and compassion – difficult to do well without being saccharine or disingenuous. But as Flannery O’Connor states: “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored”.
These selected stories are hymns to the persistence of life, from Levi’s uplifting memoir sketches to Ruth’s acknowledgement in ‘Romantic’ that “One thing in my favour is I am alive”. This has become more important to me than ever over the last few years, when I have begun to read for therapy as much as for research or pleasure. I like authors who astutely nail the subtle tectonics of relationships, both between people and the relationships with ourselves, as exemplified by Grace Paley and Lucia Berlin. The desire to be truly seen or known, to have a voice, to be loved against the odds.
These stories made me a more compassionate writer. My characters used to die all the time; they were voiceless, vulnerable, weird, and the world hated them. But now I keep people alive and let the surprise of kindness in. As Paley says, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the destiny of open life”.T
‘Oh man in the very center of your life, still fitting your skin so nicely… why have you slipped out of my sentimental and carnal grasp?’
If I could only read one short story writer it would be Paley, whose stories, rooted in the immigrant experience of life in the Bronx in the 1970s, explore (as her obituary stated) “what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow’s men loved and left behind”. Many centre on a loose alter ego, Faith Darwin; in ‘Listening’, the last story Paley wrote, Faith’s sons are growing up (“trying the find the right tune for their lives”), her marriage is going through difficulty, she is involved with writing and activism, and is debating a new baby. The story presents the range of life choices opening up to people in the ‘70s and how this was both liberating and overwhelming – decisions on when to commit suicide, how to be a father, which arty sandwich to choose. Faith watches a young man cross the road and muses about his vitality. Her friend Cassie dismisses him as just a “bourgeois on his way home”. Faith responds: “To everyday life, I said with a mild homesickness”.
Her contagious, funny, beautiful prose is organic and highly personal; Paley was suspicious of plot and craft, preoccupied instead with how to be a good person, a good woman, a good citizen. The story ends with Cassie launching into a bitter rant at Faith that seems to suggest Paley did not feel successful in this quest: “Why don’t you tell my story? Where is my life? Where the hell is my woman and woman, woman-living life in all this?” Cassie owns the last line – “I do not forgive you” – not just the final line of the story and the collection, but revealingly, the final line Paley ever wrote.
In The Collected Stories (Virago Press, 1994)
“Why should you hurry even through ugliness? You should come among beauties very gradually. I like climbing rivers at their vilest, to see where they began.”
Constantine’s stories offer a tender documentation of tiny unquenchable moments of compassion, in all its many intangible forms. He speaks of humanity’s capacity for kindness amidst cruelty, of the symbiosis of care and survival. ‘Romantic’ is the only story that makes me cry. It describes the ebb and flow of Ruth and Morgan’s relationship as they both strive to accommodate his tides; Ruth lets her troubled lover come and go, knowing that he needs to be on his own, walking the rivers, with faith he’ll come back – “It’s not a promise that binds me to you”. I love this story for its portrayal of the subtleties of mental health and of the prevailing power of faith in human connection, both between the two protagonists and between Morgan and strangers he encounters on his walks: “They tell me their life stories, they look at me as though I know what they should do next. They only tell me things because I’m passing through… nothing they say, however intimate, is binding.” It is about the pilgrimages we make with one another and the implicit rules we create and subscribe to, no matter how absurd they might seem to others. There are so many tonal layers to this story and my respect for it deepens with every read.
In Tea at the Midland (Comma Press, 2012)
Surely the greatest ‘Fuck yeah!’ moment in all short fiction, I cannot read this story without getting totally and breathlessly sucked in, turning the pages in horror even though I have read it so many times, getting to my feet as the gallant mother gallops across the surging waves, her white hair wild behind her. At the climax of the story, she describes everything stopping ‘like a clockwork tableaux in a glass case’ before action recommences, ‘as though a curious child pushed his centime into the slot and set it all in motion’. Carter herself is the curious child with the centime in the slot and this story is her at her indomitable best. In redefining our bloodiest myths, she inadvertently creates new myths for the psychotherapy generation: that your happiness, like that of the young protagonist, depends on a lover that unconditionally ‘sees’ you and a mother who telepathically ‘knows’ you.
In The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz, 1979)
‘We sense everything between us, every ripple, existent and non-existent; it is tiring.’
It’s not a feminist choice, and it’s a severely flawed story, but I return to this quiet little four-pager again and again. It’s an intimate second person sigh of a story that I can read as both beautifully tender and offensively misogynist at the same time, and not have a problem with both those things being true. Updike paints a portrait of family life: the husband (unnamed, but presumably Richard Maple) goes out to get Sunday night MacDonalds (presented as a Neolithic hunt), which the parents and two children eat around the fire while the baby sucks his bottle. Later the protagonist is disappointed when his ‘cunning’ wife falls asleep before sex. The next day brings work stress, child chaos and marital resentment; but a surprise toothpastey kiss ends the day, “moist and girlish and quick”. Yes, it’s about a selfish, unlikeable 1960s typical Updike man; but there is something searingly real in his depiction of the subtle marital pendulum, where things that are insufferable can be redeemed by a nice family evening.
The story is an indulgent elegy to language (“Once my ornate words wooed you”); an unashamed paean to Joycean playfulness (“smackwarm”), contrasted with his son for whom “language is thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can”. There is a cutting third person shift in the final passage, where an abrupt cruelty descends (“I feast on your drabness, every wrinkle and sickly tint a relief and a revenge”) and we are back in familiar territory of the unhappy Updike man, trying on different male archetypes (the jouster, the hunter). Ending with the kiss returns us full circle to the opening words – “Oh my love. Yes.” – echoing the wonky circuitry of marriage that sustains itself, for better or for worse, so that “seven years brings us no distance to the same trembling point of beginning”.
In Too Far to Go (Penguin, 1979)
‘I once met a man with a 40-litre monkey.’
Those nine words, perhaps the best opening sentence of any collection, were life-changing for me. I had been writing, badly, and then I picked up Marek’s Instruction Manual and read the first story in one gulp in the bookshop and thought: “Stories can be like that?” Smart, funny, spawned from Marek’s characteristically wicked imagination and his preoccupation with weird science, the story takes us to a pet shop with a greasy, over-fed, award-winning secret in the cellar. We are taken downstairs to meet Cooper the baboon (the only character with a name) and forced to bear witness to his sinister weighing, colluding with the atmosphere of simmering abuse and controlled threat that Marek conveys so well. I like stories that irrevocably change an otherwise normal life experience and this one certainly changed pet shops (and Vaseline) for me forever.
in Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Comma Press, 2007)
‘I flip the vacuum on, lie down under the piano with a rag clutched in my hand just in case. I lie there and hum and think.’
This story is a detached, first-person account of the everyday life of a 1970s cleaner, taking endless cramped, wet, late, vomit-infused buses house to house, dealing with different kinds of women in different kinds of homes. The narrative is created by an overlapping series of domestic vignettes; internal dialogues with her deceased lover Terry; glimpses of street scenes from the bus window; and lists of household objects, bus routes, advert slogans. It is a tense and fragile patchwork of private thoughts existing within public structures, punctuated by advice in parentheses to other cleaners. Berlin gives us a chorus of textual connections, from Braille to billboards, unintelligible notes, TV screens and neon signs, in sharp contrast to the voicelessness of the narrator – when she tries to talk to the children of the house, her boss snaps at her; in the final home where she finds a missing jigsaw piece and says “I found it”, her boss corrects her, claiming “I found it”. Berlin’s stories are full of second chances and moments of redemption. She infuses her characters, often invisible in society, with great dignity and strength. I like the different ways of seeing she presents and the inherent class hierarchies that imbue those ways of seeing and being seen: the poor seeing the poor, in laundromat windows, in television reflections, in the cocaine mirrors of the rich, while the wealthy are as unseeing as “the lazy blind eyes” of the fish head in the carrier bag, waiting to be soup.
In A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador, 2015)
‘The longer I stood there, the longer I had to stand there. It was intricate and exponential.’
Miranda July is my guilty short story pleasure. At first I snobbishly felt she wasn’t challenging enough; no puzzles to solve or complex narratives to decode. But then I realised stories can just give you joy. July specialises in presenting imperfect interactions between awkward people in a warm, judgement-free way that makes social apocalypse funny. In ‘Roy Spivey’, an ordinary woman – a self-confessed ‘pushover’ with anxiety issues – ends up sitting on a plane next to a ‘Hollywood heartthrob’. She watches him sleep, he spills gossip about his famous wife, he Febreezes her when she gets sweaty, they spend the flight having ‘the conversation that is specifically about everything’ and then, at his initiation, they bite each other. They hold hands as the plane lands. He gives her his private number, which she never calls, until it’s too late (“I looked at the number and felt a tidal swell of loss. I had waited too long”). The audio version of this, read by David Sedaris on the New Yorker Podcast, is perfection.
In The Book of Other People (Penguin, 2007)
Levy presents the endemic identity crisis like no other writer. She is a whole-world writer, a time traveller, a pigeon-hole-defying storyteller with an intimidating intelligence and a greater interest in questions than answers. Her stories bristle with emotional complexity; they constantly surprise and exhilarate; they revel in the not-known and never-known. She is bold and fierce and I once cringingly held her hand and said nothing, in an empty room, before awkwardly reversing reverently away.
In this story, a successful advertising man with “an incredible facility to wade through human shame with no shoes on” takes his colleague’s girlfriend out to the Polish Club to conduct drinking research for a new vodka; only this being Levy, the man has a small hump on his back, the woman is an archaeologist, and the floor of the Club transforms into a primeval jungle when he drops his fork. They share a cab and kiss in the rain, but typical Levy, we are left without any sweeping denouement; perhaps the man, who always saw himself as lost property, remains an outsider “waiting to be claimed”.
There is a paragraph in this story that I have pinned to my desk as a kind of manifesto: ‘There is so much of the world to record and classify, it’s hard to know how to find a language for it. So I’m going to start exactly where I am now. Life is beautiful! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.’
In Black Vodka (And Other Stories, 2013)
‘I often asked myself what kind of humanity was massed behind their symbol, and have regretted that none has told his story’
If stories are a vehicle for human connection and compassion, then few can be as important as Levi’s scenes presenting his time in Auschwitz. This moving series of vignettes and character studies, plainly and quietly told, infused with humour and humanity, often depict turning points where life could have changed. In ‘The Juggler’, former street thief and acrobat Eddy catches Levi with paper and pencil, risking his life to write a letter home. Eddy’s shrewd quick-thinking, along with his capacity to move on from Levi’s offence, saves the author’s life; although he receives a less positive ending himself. Levi’s succinctly rich illustrations of the tenacity of the human spirit provide compelling evidence for Frankl’s logotherapy theories and the human search for meaning.
In Moments of Reprieve (Penguin, 1986)
This is a quietly devastating story with an inevitable crescendo of consequences. When 51-year old Granny Lin is made redundant from the factory, her neighbour matchmakes her with an ill widower. Granny Lin ‘tends his body with motherly hands’, the blood away after insulin shots and repeats the myth, started by his children, that his dead wife will be home soon – only to be left penniless two months later when she is blamed for his death. She takes a job as a laundry maid in a boarding school where she strikes up a close bond with rejected six-year old Kang; she tells him stories and “tucks him in, the unfamiliar warmth swelling inside her. She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.” When Kang’s secret obsession with stealing girls’ socks is discovered, he is bullied, taking his shame out on Granny Lin and running away. Fired from her job, she walks into town where “All the people on the street seem to know where their legs are taking them. She wonders when she stopped being one of them.” Her bag is stolen and the story ends with her facing an uncertain future.
This human demise, full of logic but void of compassion or accountability, reminds me of Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ or Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘A Real Durwan’ – the descent of an elderly female servant against the backdrop of rising modernity, where clinging to the daily rituals of care and servitude cannot protect the vulnerable from the force of changing times.
In A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Fourth Estate, 2006)
‘Then she clung to her husband’s neck, screaming like a real madwoman.’
This is the first short story I ever read. I had an inspiring teacher at school who introduced me to Marquez. It felt like the first time I had read ‘in colour’. This story, however, is as dark as it gets. A woman is accidentally admitted to a sadistic psychiatric hospital where the consultant persuades her husband she is too dangerous to ever leave; something the woman herself begins to believe the longer she stays. Marquez is famed for his fantasies, but having worked a lot in mental health, the most terrifying thing about this story is its chilling proximity to the truth.
In Strange Pilgrims (Penguin, 1992)
‘My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.’
A prejudiced, bitter, stoned narrator is asked by his blind guest, a friend of his wife, to draw a cathedral. Their hands both holding the pen, the guest says: “‘Go ahead, bub, draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” It leads to an emotional moment of catharsis and transformation for the narrator ‘like nothing else in life up to now’; he keeps his eyes closed and keeps drawing even when he doesn’t have to. Early Carver includes stories I like a lot, including ‘Fat’ and ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, but they always seem to be written outside of his own skin. I find the Carver brand of nihilism somewhat distancing. This story was the first Carver I read where it felt he was writing with real feeling – he had stopped drinking, had re-evaluated life and in his own words, “was in a period of generosity. The story affirms something” as a result.
In Cathedral (Vintage, 1983)