Twelve you say—how can that be? Such a small amount of water and the pool is so big. To narrow it down first I had to remember, and then I had to read and re-read. Such exquisite pleasure. Such exquisite pain.
A good short story is like an arthouse film or a poem; you jump straight into the action and step off lightly at the end. Nothing is resolved. There is no neat summing up or resolution. The reader is made to work—imagining what came before and what could happen next. The stories that interest me usually focus in some way on the complexities of human interaction—the ways in which we misunderstand, mislead and are cruel to one another. I like stories that are rooted in everyday life—but explore the dark undercurrents.
These twelve are stories that stayed with me long after reading them. Stories I have found myself thinking about in the supermarket queue or in bed at night. They are stories that trouble me or disturb me, stories that have changed me in some way.
My son sometimes eats four meals in a row. The same thing, four times in a row. He walks up to the counter and yells, “Thanksgiving dinner!”
The protagonist exists in an absurd kind of afterlife where everyone remains the age they were when they died and there is nothing to do but relive key moments of your life and eat—one can eat any meal as long as it is something you ate in your lifetime. The result is both comic and strangely profound as the narrator comes to realize that even those happy moments in life are never as untroubled as they may first appear.
From Godforsaken Idaho, Little A, 2013
My mother and my daughter and my former wife. That’s three people on the payroll right there, not counting my brother. But my son needed money, too.
It was hard to choose just one Raymond Carver story but this is the one that has stayed with me the longest, perhaps because of the hopelessly unfair situation the narrator is in. He works long hours in a dead-end job in order to support various family members whose demands become increasingly unreasonable. Carver perfectly captures the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that the narrator feels. Yet despite this he still manages almost angelic moments of optimism and good will towards the world and even his hapless and predatory relatives.
Published in The New Yorker, June 9, 1986 and collected in Elephant and Other Stories, The Harvill Press, 1988 and Where I’m Calling From, The Harvill Press, 1993. Read it online here
An in-your-face story about the friendship between two teenagers—the narrator, Kathleen and the volatile Manda. Kathleen is fascinated by Manda and her family. There are dark undercurrents and a sense that violence is always in the wings waiting to erupt.
That’s why we were all afraid of her. That’s why her name went before her — Manda Slessor — and if you heard it said in a room you felt ill at ease, you felt things shift out of the way for its coming into the conversation. Everyone knew she was hard. It was the first thing ever they knew about her. It was her pedigree.
From The Beautiful Indifference, Faber and Faber, 2011
One of those stories where less is definitely more. It is as much about what is not said as what is said. Every time read it I think it is about something different. Could be compassion, friendship, death, loss, fragility, the minutiae, could be the whole fucking lot of it. Exquisite.
My five-year-old, gleeful weirdo, stands at my knee gnawing on the elephant we keep telling her not to gnaw on. There’s rain in my hair still. I have so much and am so bereft.
First published in Bull, Read it here
I have a huge soft spot for Ellen Gilchrist, who I first came across when I was 18 or 19. She never shies away from showing the nastier sides of her characters. Set in 1943 in the Mississippi Delta, the narrator of the story is Rhoda Manning, aged 10—a thoroughly unpleasant, foul-mouthed and narcissistic child whose family refer to her as “dear sweet little girl.” When her cousins and brother build a broad-jump pit and won’t let her play because she is a girl, Rhoda gets increasingly more and more angry.
I began to pray the Japs would win the war, would come marching into Issaquena County and take them prisoners, starving and torturing them…
From In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Faber and Faber, 1981
Several of the stories from this outstanding collection by Jon McGregor got under my skin. This is a quietly disquieting story about a mysterious woman who comes to stay with a vicar and his wife but doesn’t give much away about what she is doing—not even her name. Michael (the vicar) is nonchalant about the whole thing whilst the narrator (his wife) becomes more and more spooked.
From This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, Bloomsbury, 2012. Read it here
Jayne Anne Phillips was the writer who first turned me onto short stories. I randomly came across her collection Fast Lanes in my local library. ‘Home” is a deeply uncomfortable story about a woman in her twenties who returns home to live with her mother when she is broke. It explores the tensions (old and new) that arise between them, tensions that are compounded when the narrator brings an old lover to stay the night.
From Black Tickets, Faber and Faber, 1979. Extract available here
Fundamentally a story about loss and trying to hold on to something. After their daughter is bought home by police her parents decide to take their children to Paris for the summer to keep them away from danger. Best laid plans etc. Absolutely stunning writing.
From Thunderstruck and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 2014
A story about loss and the weird ways that each of us deal with our own personal grief. This story stayed with me not only because the loss suffered is so huge, but because of the detached, almost analytical way the main characters think about it. The weeks of rituals and customs surrounding death in Japan further compound the sense of oddity and alienation. And although the characters appear detached the prose is elegant and poetic.
Memory sometimes makes hours run side by side for us, or pile one on another.
From Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, Penguin, 1966, download it here
I hesitated about having two stories by the same author in my top twelve—but not for long. Not many stories can hold a candle to this disturbing tale by George Saunders. A kind of horrific and futuristic keeping up with the Joneses, which touches on immigration, slavery, prostitution and many other uncomfortable things that we would probably rather not think about. Saunders always leaves the reader something to reflect on and this story has it in spades. Saunders manipulation of language is masterly.
Last night, after party, found Eva sad in her room. Asked why. She said no reason. But in sketch pad: crayon pic of row of sad SGs. Could tell were meant to be sad, due to frowns went down off faces like Fu Manchus and tears were dropping in arcs, flowers springing up where tears hit ground.
From Tenth of December, Bloomsbury, 2013, first published in The New Yorker, 2012. Read it here