Introduction

Forgive me, I suspect some of these aren’t even short stories. I can’t say I’m at all sure about what a short story is – any more than I’m certain about what a novel is. The (definite article, capital letter) Novel is different, of course, I know what that is. And whatever short stories are, I can’t help but think they’ve flourished partly by dint of not being pressed into service as a repository for something else entirely (national identity, masculinity, human frailty, even) and then endlessly handwrung about in a similar way. In any case, collecting these together has made me think that the novels I like most all aspire somehow to the status of short stories: little hothouse miniatures that say hardly enough, or too much too quickly, or both. If you’d asked me before doing this what kind of short stories I liked the most I would’ve had myself pinned as a fan of the “epistemological thriller” – I’d have had no qualms about calling them that either. It seems clear, looking down this list, however, that what I really can’t get enough of are stories about quiet desperation.

‘Self Portrait on Christmas Night: Year 1961 age 19 almost 20; Homage to George’ by Joe Brainard

Oh, Joe. You’re pure as anything.

There’s no genre called “rumination”, but I think perhaps there should be. This little fragment of gorgeous juvenilia is a big gush of worry about daring to disturb the universe – so wise and so Tiggerish. I was going to write “in a manner that only those aged ‘19 almost 20’ can muster”, but that’s an absolute lie.

From The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, The Library of America, 2012

‘Tropisms I’ by Nathalie Sarraute, translated by Maria Jolas

These little fragments are ur-short stories, really, for how they name and give slimy, botanical form to all that’s unspoken and not-quite-speakable, those “movements that are hidden under the commonplace, seemingly harmless instances of our everyday lives.”

First published in Tropismes in 1939, by Robert Denoël. First published in English in 1963. New Directions edition produced in 2017

‘The Balloon’ by Donald Barthelme

I first read this printed on the bible paper of Volume E of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It was the first year of my English degree, and I was too tight and too skint to buy my own. Luckily, a flatmate in my halls of residence jacked in the course after the first week. She left her full complement of Nortons stacked on our kitchen table, with a note instructing me to “take these – or burn them, whatever”. Anyway, I’m not one for memorising anything but, I think if challenged I might be able to recite whole swathes of this off-book. Every time I read it, I get the distinct impression that these lines have been running in my head all the while.

First published in The New Yorker in 1961. Collected in Sixty Stories, 1984, and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume E, Norton, 2002

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

I bought the big doorstep of collected stories a few years back and wolfed the whole thing right down, fully agape, all in one go, so that my belief got totally suspended and for a few days everything became Davisworld:  totally deadpan and credulous.

I pressed this copy on a friend and never got it back and I was happy, actually, just with the impression that these stories had left. But then just recently I found a different collection of hers at my boyfriend’s house and I dipped into it one morning while he was making coffee and somehow it wasn’t the same at all. It seemed flat and puny, not at all like the stories I’d been carrying around with me all this time. So, I bought another copy of the collected stories just to check, but I’ve been too wary to open it until by chance I heard this one read by a kind American voice (a Judy Blume voice, a Sesame Street voice) on the radio a few weeks back and there I was all agape again.

First published in The Paris Review. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. Also in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davies, Penguin, 2009. Hear ‘Break it Down’ read aloud here

‘Morning, Noon & Night’ by Claire-Louise Bennett

How can I recommend just one banger in a book that is absolutely chock-full of bangers?

I bought Pond on the strength of this interview, in which Claire-Louise Bennett seems like quite an extraordinary kind of human being – absolutely singular and perverse, exactly the kind of human who should be rendering consciousnesses on behalf of the rest of us.

But then ‘Morning, Noon & Night’ is the second story in, and as I started reading it I got a little bit concerned that we might be venturing into the territory of the lyrical or even the picturesque, and I wasn’t having any of that – but, no fear! That’s not what this story is at all.

From Pond, Stinging Fly/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015, Riverhead, 2016. Read it online here

‘Living on the Box’ by Penelope Gilliatt

I sometimes wish I had half the icy-smooth scathing of a mid-century woman writer. Here, Gilliatt turns it on the pomposity of nature poets, and she’s absolutely lacerating. I love the way she scarcely bothers to finish the story, just whips the whole diorama away as if to say: come on now, don’t be daft.

First published in The New Yorker in 1964. Collected in What’s It Like Out? Virago Modern Classics, 1990