‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ by Chris Power

There is more than one summer-themed story in Chris Power’s sparkling debut collection. I could just have easily picked ‘Innsbruck’, the second of the three linked stories about a woman called Eva that give the book not just its spine but also its central nervous system – but I’ve gone for ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’. Power splits the story between a recent family holiday (his unnamed narrator is married, with two young children) and a long-distant one, when he was ten years old. There are delicately sketched pen-portraits of the various family members, and a couple of luminous ‘spots-of-time’ moments that suck the story into them like a whirlpool*, but what I really love is the elegant way it unpacks itself at the end, making this the perfect story for our autofictional times. It doesn’t matter how closely Power’s ‘real’ life and experiences might happen to align themselves with his narrator’s fictional ones; what matters is how deftly he teases away at that border, and the conundrum it poses, which is where we seem to be looking, most often and most closely, for our meaning in literature just now.

* One of these moments, serendipitously enough, makes direct reference to another story picked in this summer special. You’ll have to read it to find out which.

In Mothers, Faber, 2018. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Read Jonathan’s Personal Anthology here

‘Christmas Fugue’ by Muriel Spark

I suppose I should really be including Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales as my seasonal selection, as that’s the book that comes out with the decorations every December, with its wonderful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, but I couldn’t resist this weird late intervention by Dame Muriel. ‘Christmas Fugue’ has a British woman called Cynthia flying home from Australia to the UK on Christmas Day, having just split up with her boyfriend. There is a weird atmosphere on the half-empty plane, and Cynthia gets chatted up by Tom, a co-pilot on the flight with seemingly not much to do. Unusually for Spark characters, they have sex (during a stopover in Bangkok): “They made love in a beautifully appointed cabin with real curtains in the windows – unrealistic yellow flowers on a white background. Then they talked about each other, and made love again.” That last line, to me, is utterly characteristic of Spark’s writing. To read her is to find yourself, over and over again, teetering on the brink of an abyss that opens up without warning between the reader and the characters they have been tricked into believing in. She induces vertigo, is the best way I can think of to put it. Tom proposes to Cynthia on the flight, but when she gets back to the UK there is more than one surprise waiting for her. Not Christmassy in the usual sense, but very in tune with the weird out-of-time spirit of the time of year when you’re not in the bosom of your family.

First published in Country Life in 2000. Available in The Complete Short Stories, Viking, 2001. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs

‘Heavy Weather’, by Helen Simpson

In a way this was the story that launched me into adulthood, that gave me, aged 21, an idea of what being a grown-up might be like. It’s as bald a piece of domestic fiction as you could imagine: a couple (Jonathan – ha! – and Frances) are on holiday in Dorset with their two young children. They, Frances especially, are battered by tiredness: tired through lack of sleep, tired with each other, and tired with the limitations placed on selfhood by the mere fact of having children. This all comes to a head when Frances discovers that Jonathan, sent out on a food shopping trip in the car, has pulled over in a layby to read a few pages of their beloved Hardy. “’You’ve been reading!’ said Frances accusingly. ‘When did you read?’” The story is funny and brutal about the trials of parenthood, but ends on a moment of affirmation that manages not to seem cheap. I now have three children, and have lived out pretty much everything that happens in this story. It’s just possible that Simpson, sublime proselytizer of the everyday, is to blame.

(first read in the second Granta Best of Young British Novelists. Also available in the collection Dear George and in Simpson’s selected stories, A Bunch of Fives. Available to Granta subscribers here)

‘Dance in America’, by Lorrie Moore

If I had to choose a favourite story – the one that is closest to my heart – then this would be it. I often set it for Creative Writing students, to see how they cope with its sentimentality, for although Moore majors in irony, she can also tip over into the whimsical. This story walks the line between the two with grace and ease. If ‘Heavy Weather’ is pro-family propaganda that would have made de Gaulle proud, then ‘Dance in America’ cheerleads for the virtue of art – although it takes an interesting route to get there. Its narrator is a dance teacher (single, no children) who drops in on an old friend, Cal, and his wife, and their son, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis and is likely to die young. Moore gives precocious Eugene most of the best lines, though Cal has the best line of all. ‘“The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”’ Looking at the narrator, with her failing career, her chronic self-absorption and self-deprecation, it’s hard not to agree. But Moore shows how art – and art of the most homely and pedestrian kind – can pay its way, even if she can’t resist stealing the narrator’s happy ending out from under her.

(read in Moore’s collection Birds of America, also in her 2008 Collected Stories. You can hear Louise Erdrich read and discuss it on the New Yorker fiction podcast here)

‘Sredni Vashtar’, by Saki

If my first two stories were classic literary fiction, replete with the tropes and trappings of the genre, then this is different: short story as ritual incantation. It’s a dark little parcel of viciousness dressed up in the scantest narrative and characterisation. There is no weight to the set-up (sickly boy, living with his strict female older cousin, worships a pet polecat he keeps in the garden shed), no moral strength to the pay-off beyond its own pleasure in destruction. Another story I loved as a child was Kipling’s ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (brave mongoose saves human child) and this is its evil – and better – twin, a fever dream of violence and revenge.

(read in an old hardback Saki given me by my grandmother. Available in any number of editions and anthologies, and online, including here)

‘Loon Man’, by John Edgar Wideman

I read this story in a book of Wideman’s stories I was sent to review for my student newspaper. I’d never heard of Wideman, and his name isn’t much mentioned today. Although I eventually lost my copy, or gave it away, a couple of its stories have stayed with me over the years, especially one I remembered as ‘Loon Lake’: a haunting thing set somewhere in rural North America – the heart of the heart of the country – with the calls of loons (divers) echoing around remote shacks at night. I reunited myself with the collection via the internet, and although there are other stories in it I now think are better (‘Across the Wide Missouri’ for instance), it’s ‘Loon Man’ that belongs in my anthology, for the way it lodged in my consciousness and coloured my thoughts for more than twenty years. “On full moon nights the loons howl like crazed dogs.”

(first published in the U.S. in All Stories are True; the same title was used for his Picador UK collected stories, which is where I read it)

‘A Horse for the Sun’, by U.R. Anantha Murthy

I read this story when I was studying with Amit Chaudhuri – who edited the anthology it comes from – at the University of East Anglia, and I found it moving then, as I find it moving now. It’s an enquiry into modernity and authenticity, and into the possibility of ever ‘going back’. The narrator is an Indian writer, thoroughly urbanized, who visits his childhood village and bumps into an old schoolfriend, Venkata. Always a clown as a youngster, Venkata has grown into a holy fool, a village idiot who acts as a herbalist, amateur nurse to the ungrateful sick, and butt for his exasperated wife and volatile son. His forte is the oil bath, an intense Ayurvedic massage, which the narrator submits to with embarrassment. “Is he a madcap or a hypocrite or a scraggly-bearded saint?” he wonders, as Venkata dances around him, anointing him and drumming out intricate rhythms on his head and body. As with Simpson’s story, the epiphany is minor key, and doubtless temporary, but it is enough to make the reader squint anew at their own assumptions. The title refers to the Kannada name for a grasshopper.

(read in The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature, where it is translated from the Kannada by Manu Sherry and A.K. Ramanujan.)

‘The Cows’, by Lydia Davis

In which Davis (or her narrator, though it matters not a jot) presents a series of statements and questions about three cows that live in a field near her house. At times it seems like an exercise in Wittgensteinian philosophy, at times like a children’s book for adults, at times like the painful birth throes of nature writing. All three possibilities, devolve, of course to the simple, stringent testing of words against the world that is Davis’s stock-in-trade. Not a story by any of your usual parameters, but utterly beguiling.

(first printed as a chapbook, but I read it in Electric Literature Vol 2; also collected in Can’t and Won’t)

‘Caterpillars’, by James Lasdun

The figure of the Bad Dad turns up pretty frequently in literature, though often in the form of an apologia: it’s hard, being a Bad Dad; Bad Dads are misunderstood. Or else their badness is somehow resolved into comedy. Sometimes, however, you come across a Bad Dad story that you can’t look away from, that you have to read through your fingers. This is one of those. There is no redemption for Craig when, out on a walk with his mopey son and increasingly uncertain new girlfriend, he takes umbrage at a group of people who aren’t playing by his personal Countryside Code, and sets a trap for them that backfires horribly. The horror and punishment is so subdued you might not think much of it if you hadn’t already seen the like of it at close hand. At very close hand, if you see what I’m saying.

(First read in Granta 104: Fathers. Also collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt. Granta subscribers can read it here)

‘The Eggy Stone’, by Tessa Hadley

An exquisite short story – exquisite in its shortness, and its completeness. Hadley gives us the famous short-storian “glimpse” (c.f. VS Pritchett, David Miller), only here it is a glimpse into the past, a shutter opening onto childhood and then abruptly slamming shut again. A school camping trip to the seaside leads to a brief, intense friendship between the narrator and the Cool Girl of the class – a friendship entirely predicated on the Eggy Stone, picked up at random from the beach and turned by the two girls into a small-scale cult. They sing to it, sleep with it, and pass it between them like a talisman. There is something sinister in all this: the story, you think, could easily end up like ‘Shredni Vashtar’, with an act of terrible violence, but it doesn’t. The cult of the Eggy Stone ends as suddenly as it started, and the friendship melts away like snow in springtime, leaving nothing behind.

(in Sunstroke, also available on the Guardian website here)

‘Octet’, by David Foster Wallace

This is Wallace at his po-mo-est. It takes the form of a series of ‘Pop Quizzes’ sketching out scenarios for unrealized stories, complete with fatuous pop-psychology questions for the reader. It has footnotes. Sometimes very long footnotes. And it conducts a commentary on its own performance that takes up-its-own-arse-ness to a whole new level. But it shows what makes Wallace so essential as a writer: his immense psychological acuity – and I mean immense to the point of freakishness. No writer since Muriel Spark has been so adept at putting her characters on a skewer – the thinnest, sharpest, most surgically precise skewer imaginable – (and of course the author is just as much a character as anyone). That said, Wallace does it with more compassion than Spark. And he does it even when the characters have none of the heft and texture expected in literary fiction, or fiction of any kind. They don’t even have names. All they have is their problems. No, the pyrotechnics are smokescreen. The story is all about the pain and nausea inherent in self-consciousness.

(in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men)

‘Hugh Lomax’, by Bridget Penney

“Let me tell you about something that happened a few years ago.” This is how Penney’s story begins, and I’ll say as little about the rest of it as possible. It’s one of those oblique, autumnal stories that work best on their own, subtle and unhurried terms: subtle and unhurried, but no less sly for that. It will help if your relationship to books and book people – ­– horrid term – is a sympathetic one. If you’ve never lingered over secondhand book stalls (“Desolation Angels sells, and I replace it with Carlos Castaneda”), if you’ve never read to the end the obituary of a half-forgotten writer you never knew in the first place, if you’ve never listened to and loved a Backlisted podcast, then this might not be the story for you. But if you have, then it might be, and perhaps we could be friends.

(in Gorse 6)

‘The Horla’, by Guy de Maupassant

A great short story; a great horror story; a great depiction of madness, as good as ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. But what I love about ‘The Horla’ is its ending. Short stories, perhaps even more than novels, like to tease the reader with the idea that the story goes on after the narrative ends, that the characters have an afterlife of sorts, in some hypothetical literary realm belonging to neither reader nor author. Maupassant gives this homily a swift kick up the jacksie by leaving its greatest horror for that – terrifyingly attenuated – aftermath. After ‘The Horla’, Maupassant is telling us, no hypothetical continuing narrative, no more story, no more stories at all.*

(first read it in the Melville House Art of the Novella series [a travesty: it’s not a novella!] Again, available in plenty of editions and anthologies and online, including here)

* Last night, at the launch of his collection Darker with the Lights On (in conversation with Joanna Walsh and Chris Power), David Hayden talked eloquently about stories as ‘biomes’, a biome being a term in ecology for a large community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat. It is a space you can enter, which is in some sense self-sufficient – like a smaller-scale version of the Gaia theory, I suppose – and nurturing, and it can, it is implied, nurture anyone who enters and adapts themselves respectfully to the habitat – the reader, in other words. It’s a lovely idea, and it offers another way of explaining why ‘The Horla’ is so particularly devastating as a story. Maupassant’s story does operate as a biome, a complete world unto itself, that draws the reader into it and closes them off inside – but it’s a diseased habitat, and when the crisis and disaster happen, the reader finds they’re still stuck inside, with no means of egress. The biome is a bio dome, fatally contaminated but effectively sealed. The forked paths of this particular garden are one-way only.

‘The Garden of Forked Paths’, by Jorge Luis Borges

What to say about Borges that hasn’t been said? Well, for me, his utter wonderfulness, and the reason I couldn’t imagine an anthology of short stories without him in it, is not so much in the brilliance of his conceits, as in the often unexpectedly prosaic settings he gives them. At the heart of ‘The Garden of Forked Paths’ is the idea of a novel that splits into multiple variants at every juncture, to give an infinity of possible stories (hello, quantum mechanics! hello, the internet!), but Borges chooses to bury it in a World War One spy story that John Buchan might have tossed out. I recently fulminated on Twitter about Aaron Sorkin’s wrongheaded comment that “the most powerful delivery system ever invented for an idea is a story”, but look here: the idea and the delivery system in Borges’ story are entirely mismatched, thrown together seemingly at random. Or are they? However many times I read it, I can’t find any link between the cover story and what the author smuggles in under it, any reasonable explanation for why he chose to write this story that way. And so I go on reading…

(In Fictions and Labyrinths, but not, surprisingly, in the self-selected A Personal Anthology itself. Available online here)