Introduction (a lockdown Personal Anthology)

I’ve long wanted to submit my own Personal Anthology but, as I hope previous contributors have found, where to begin? Where to end? How to choose twelve stories that highlight the best of what short fiction can be? 
At the moment I’m in lockdown away from home: safe, comfortable, but separated from my own and personal library. Knowing this might be the case for a while, I took a small selection of books with me, mostly ones I had yet to read, but one or two I didn’t want to be without or else because the urge to read them simply struck me. I’ve since added to this selection, resisting the temptation to buy books I already own but which happened to not be to hand… It may not be the Personal Anthology I might have written, but it’s the one I’ve got.
Of course, the internet abounds with good fiction and perhaps an alternative anthology could be made of the best of an online library, but I liked the Oulipian approach outlined above. Some of the stories discussed here were new to me, but they all – I think, hope – have something to recommend them, both in and of themselves, but also the rest of their authors’ works, something I’ve found the best Personal Anthologies have always done.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges

This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility.
Dr. Stephen Albert 

Every other Personal Anthology seems to include a Borges story, which suits me because as far as I’m concerned, he redefined what short fiction could be and transcended that same definition. I could choose any one of his stories and be happy, but I’ve gone with ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ because, as far as I can remember, it was the first Borges story I ever read.

It contains his usual preoccupations: philosophy, time, labyrinths, but it also manages to be a spy thriller, almost cinematic in parts, and makes me wonder if anyone might be brave enough to adapt it in some way. Borges’ stories have everything. They contain, not multitudes, but infinities. 

First published in English in Fictions, 1962. Now available in Fictions and Labyrinths, Penguin Classics, 1999

‘Seven Floors’ by Dino Buzzati

I think I’d read Buzzati before – I vaguely remember ‘The Falling Girl’ – but it didn’t ‘click’ just then. Probably I wasn’t listening carefully enough. Regardless, I heard the click this time. ‘Seven Floors’ is a Kafkaesque tale (but more deserving of that epithet; Buzzati has a style all his own) about Giuseppe Corte, a mildly feverish man admitted to the highest floor of a sanatorium where he is told his stay will be brief, the lower floors being reserved for the progressively worse.
Corte observes the ground floor with a gloomy fear. Certain circumstances prevail and he is required – only temporarily, he is assured – to be moved to the sixth floor, to the fifth, to the fourth…, the doctors soothing his anxieties each time. That the reader can see what will happen long before Corte does is partly what makes the story. He ends up, inevitably, consigned to a darkened ground floor room. There could be no other ending.
(As a side note, there is another story in this collection about an influenza virus contracted by people who are disloyal to the government, but perhaps that’s a bit too close to the bone for these times.)

From Catastrophe and Other Stories, Alma Press 2018

‘My Life Is Awesome! And Great!’ by Elizabeth Crane

Elizabeth Crane’s stories reminded me that writing could – and should – be fun. A fan of George Saunders, her work wears her influences clearly but is its own thing too. ‘My Life Is Awesome! And Great!’ is as good an introduction to her as anything: five-and-a-bit pages of exclamatory, hyperactive enthusiasm:

You would love my life too if you had it, but you don’t, because I do! Am not trying to say that I don’t ever cry! Who could say that? No-one but a very repressed person! That is why I would never say that!

Elizabeth Crane is one those authors whose books I buy – unsolicited – for others. ‘Here!’ I say to friends. ‘Read this! And then understand why it is that I am saying this to you in this way! You’ll thank me later!’ As the narrator herself puts it. ‘This is the truth! Believe it!’

From You Must Be This Happy to Enter, Akashic Press, 2008

‘A Father’s Story’ by Andre Dubus

Last year, on the strength of a second-hand copy of We Don’t Live Here Anymore, I bought Godine’s three-volume reissue of the collected stories of Andre Dubus. I wanted to learn how to write better, longer fiction, but couldn’t afford the fees for the course I was interested in, so I decided to homeschool myself.

Dubus excels at the long-short form (plenty of other writers do too, of course. Deborah Eisenberg springs to mind, but I didn’t pack her Collected Stories). In ‘A Father’s Story’ we read an account by Luke Ripley of his marriage, the years after it ended, his friendship with a priest; faith, gifts given and mistakes made. 

It is not a simple or easy story, but in it Dubus offers the reader hope, which is also a gift, the kind that might get you through a rough patch, however short, however long…

It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand.

There is a similar passage in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so close to the sentiment I can’t help but wonder if he stole it. I admire, with a kind of wonder, writers like Dubus, who seem to surgically dissect their characters, remove their innards, smear them over the page and still produce beautiful prose. It is a skill, an art.

From The Collected Short Stories & Novellas, David R. Godine, 2018

‘Grass’ by Carrianne Leung

“1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves” is the opening line of ‘Grass’, itself the first and foregrounding story in a linked collection about a neighbourhood in Toronto and the impact a series of suicides has on its residents, told from the perspective of the young narrator.
June – youngest child of Chinese immigrants – acknowledges the wider cultural events of the era: the Happy Meal is introduced, Khomeini returns to Iran, Michael Jackson releases Off the Wall, but these historical touchstones can’t compare to the suicides, which are her – and her peers’ – first experiences of death.
The neighbourhood is still new, the promises of suburbia still fresh, and even the adults start wonder what went wrong. Carolyn Finley’s father shoots himself in the head. Georgie’ Da Silva’s mother ingests bleach. Larry Lems’ father drinks himself to death, which counts because, “sometimes killing yourself is slow and takes time”.
There are more such deaths as the collection unfolds, and with no explanation because how does a child even begin to do that? Besides, June and her friends have other concerns: their approaching adolescence for a start and all which that entails, only the suicides are always there, in the background and the possibility of more ever-present. The children begin to look for warning signs in their parents: a usually well-groomed father wears a creased shirt to work; a mother forgets to put garlic in the moussaka. The tiniest change could be an ill-omen.
The darker side of suburbia – and the neighbourhood-as-microcosm – is well-explored, but Leung’s stories (which are not all dark, not all despair) cover so much ground – family dynamics, class differences, racial division – so artfully, that they are a welcome addition to the canon, refuting the persistent idea that certain and particular modes of living are sure-fire routes to happiness. As one of the adults is heard to lament, ‘But it had all been going so well!’

From That Time I Loved You, Liveright, 2019

‘Land Deal’ by Gerald Murnane

Like a number of people, I’ve only recently been introduced to the work of Gerald Murnane through the efforts of And Other Stories. ‘Land Deal’ is almost Borgesian (there are shades of ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’) but again, there is something else, something original in this tale of dreamers dreaming of dreamers.

‘Land Deal’, is collectively narrated by a group of Indigenous Australians who are offered material goods and tools by strangers in exchange for land. They are familiar with the ostensibly alien items because they have dreamed of them, but have long distinguished between the possible (dreams) and the actual (reality). That the possible is being offered to them sets up the hypothesis that they are in fact dreaming. The vagueness of the men’s actions and motives, the perfection of their tools, confirms their hunch.

But the matter is considered further and the narrators come to see that it is in fact the men who are dreaming of them. In the dream in which they are the subject, the narrators come to be cognisant of their dream status, and through this cognisance see both constraint and liberty. The men’s aim – possession of the land – is final proof. Dreams are absurd; the division and ownership of the land similarly so.

The land deal is thus approved, for it can only have consequences in the possible dream world, and not the actual real one, although there remains disagreement between the narrators as to how to perceive events. Some still hope that they will wake to find the possible become the actual, but others…

…insisted that for as long as we handled such things we could be no more than characters in the vast dream that had settled over us—the dream that would never end until a race of men in a land unknown to us learned how much of their history was a dream that must one day end.

From Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020

‘Tobias Mindernickel’ by Thomas Mann

My introduction to Thomas Mann was through his early short stories, and as much as I enjoy his novels, it’s the former that love the most. Even Mann was moved to say that the short form was his ‘own genre’ and that he had more confidence in it than his longer works.

I have a particular inclination toward the deeply sad ‘Tobias Mindernickel’. Tobias is an outcast who lives alone and is the butt of the neighbourhood jokes. Children mock him in the street and he avoids the company of others. He is unhappy, but does not seek to change this, except that one day a chance opportunity for charity gives him insight into his caring, nurturing side, and it is transformative:

His eyes looked larger and brighter, he looked squarely at people and things, while an expression of joy so strong as to be almost painful tightened the corners of his mouth.

In short, kindness has made Tobias happy. This small act changes him and he seeks out its rewards further, adopting a dog – who he names Esau – upon which he can dote. But Tobias has misunderstood what love is. He desires it only for what it can bring him and when Esau does not behave in a way that is pleasing, there are unpleasant, then tragic consequences.

I don’t know why I like this story so much, if I’m honest. It’s not a pleasant read (but who said stories have to be?) but there is something about it, something so unbearably sad, that it remains in the head, the heart, long after I’ve read it.

From Death in Venice and Other Stories, Penguin, 1999

‘Thunder Thursday On Pemberton Grove’ by J.A. Mensah

‘Thunder Thursday…’ takes place for the duration of a real-life and still-recalled storm of 2012, and opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche:

Invisible threads are the strongest ties.

Becca wakes up with a hangover; Jermaine lays in bed battling with struggles with grief; Emma heads home after her shift at the Newcastle General; Samira frets about a dispute with a neighbour; the same neighbour hasn’t quite come to terms with the loss of his wife. Mensah’s story is that of small community sometimes suspicious of one another, other times at odds, but ultimately –unavoidably – connected.

As a northerner living in the south, I would have bought this anthology regardless, but as we’re all – supposedly – avoiding non-essential travel, it has been a comfort to be transported home in some way.

From The Book of Newcastle, Comma Press, 2020.Eds. Angela Readman & Zoe Turner

‘Świętokrzyskie’s Castle’ by Colette Sensier

Klara Świętokrzyskie is a Polish widow living alone in London. Her son Josef is a sporadic visitor and her daughter Gabriela is busy raising her own family. Klara keeps to herself, but is far from lonely as she has an active life in MagiKingdom, a World of Warcraft-esque game.
As Wladyslawa, she wanders the corridors of her castle accompanied by her paid-for-IRL accoutrements, including a leopard: a gift from the divorced Bernard, who occupies the castle opposite hers and with whom she has struck up a friendship. They have much in common: Bernard has known loss – his daughter lives on the other side of the world – as has Klara, who has named her avatar after her other – deceased – daughter.
Bernard is also a secret: neither Josef nor Gabriela know of their mother’s second life. How they find out comprises the second part of the story, which incorporates family dysfunction, grief, the dispersal of the digital in the post– of a person’s death and the online afterlife that we unintentionally inhabit when we’re gone.

From Best British Short Stories 2016,  Ed. Nicholas Royle

‘Flowering Judas’ by Katherine Anne Porter

Porter is one of those authors who, on reading their work for the first time, leads me to wonder why it’s taken me so long to find them. ‘Flowering Judas’ is the story of Laura, a young American teacher who has joined the Mexican revolution and finds herself the subject of three warring agitators’ attentions. Although she is desired by these men, ironically, her commitment to the cause is doubted as one of her suitors says that he…

cannot understand why she works so hard for the revolutionary idea unless she loves some man who is in it.

Meanwhile, Laura fears that she is becoming as corrupt as they are. She runs errands for the men but is haunted by the knowledge that her actions may have led to some person’s undeserving death. She is a romantic, disillusioned by the vanity of the so-called revolutionaries and the life she has ended up with. A sense of disaster stalks her, which manifests in the form of a dream, one in which the man whose death Laura believes herself complicit in haunts her. Her ideals are as dust; it is the way of all things…

Some day this world, now seemingly so composed and eternal, to the edges of every sea shall be merely a tangle of gaping trenches, of crashing walls and broken bodies. Everything must be torn from its accustomed place where it has rotted for centuries, hurled skyward and distributed, cast down again clean as rain, without separate identity. Nothing shall survive that the stiffened hands of poverty have created for the rich and no-one shall be left alive except the elect spirits destined to procreate a new world cleansed of cruelty and injustice, ruled by benevolent anarchy…

From Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Penguin Classics, 2011

‘The Unmapped Country’ by Ann Quin

I owe the discovery of Quin to the conjunction of an interest in B.S. Johnson and an article by Lee Rourke, although as the editor of this collection, Jennifer Hodgson, has said, the  association of Quin – and other writers of the period – with Johnson may be loose at best. 

Better known, if known at all, for her debut novel Berg, the stories and fragments collected in The Unmapped Country show the work of a writer adept at a range of styles. The contents were written in the sixties and seventies, so certain details are necessarily of their time, but the writing itself feels intensely modern. 

In the titular story, Sandra finds herself in a psychiatric ward following a breakdown involving what sounds like a dissociative episode. Her lover, Clive, visits briefly and even then, only from a sense of duty. Sandra’s days are filled with interactions with the other residents and the doctors, with whom she is at odds, a situation made clear from the outset:

‘Good morning and how are we today?’
‘Bloody rotten if you must know.’
‘Why is that – tell me more?’
 Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man.

Sandra’s antipathy is reasonable. In the ward her activities are scheduled like a schoolchild’s; the nursing staffs’ manner with her and the other patients is similarly infantilising and their prescribed treatment has damaged an essential part of her:

Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language, and that of those who attempted communication… Had ECT done that – damn them?

As well as a critique of institutional care at the time, ‘The Unmapped Country’ is a model of what the short story can be: experimental yet accessible, funny and sad, everything and more. Quin herself once wrote to her publisher, ‘The short story medium is something new, exciting…’, much like the stories that make up this collection.

From The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. ed. Jennifer Hodgson

‘Builders’ by Richard Yates

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is the perfect album of short story collections. ‘Builders’ is the final story and is the ideal bookend to the preceding ten. It takes on the cliché of the failed writer and forms from it something true.

Bob Prentice is a young romantic, a Sensitive Writer backed by his wife Joan, who discovers an unusual personal ad for a freelance writer. In responding, Bob meets Bernie Silver, a New York hackie who’s looking for a ghost writer to work his homespun anecdotes into a bestselling book. Bernie is no writer himself, but he has a grand theory that he wants Bob to follow – a story is a house: start with the foundations, add the walls and the roof and don’t forget the windows.

It’s not quite a scam: the intent to defraud doesn’t seem to be there anyways, but it’s far from what Bob’s enthusiasm – and vanity – leads him to initially believe. But he gives it a go and the Prentices become friendly with the Silvers, for a short time at least. Bob starts with the foundations of Bernie’s stories  and builds adequate-enough houses with them, but the bestseller list remains elusive.

There is something of the delusional about Bernie Silver: sweet, but pitiful, and his friendship with Bob falters; perhaps the foundations simply aren’t strong enough. The same could be said for Bob and Joan’s marriage, which falls apart under the weight of itself in the end. The story ends on a melancholic note, signing off on the tone of the preceding ten preceding stories.

And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows, Bernie; God there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.

From Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Vintage, 2006