I’ve noticed that my list, which I didn’t labor over, is entirely North American. I chose the first twelve great stories that came to mind, on the theory that the stories that had resonance enough to come to mind would make a good list, and would avoid the twin troubles of orthodoxy and right thought, which is fit for a genre meant to disturb and endure under the constraints of brevity.
It’s worth asking, though, why the stories that come to mind were likeliest to be by North American writers. I tried the same exercise with the novel, as a means of comparison, and found a much more international range (spanning six continents, if you must know). And certainly there are many writers of short stories from other continents whose work has meant much to me (Angela Carter, Yasunari Kawabata, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Anton Chekhov, Doris Lessing, and William Trevor, for starters.)
One answer might be that I’m an American. Another might be that there is something about the short story form that seems to appeal to contemporary American writers, who are more likely to commit to it for more of their careers, or maybe that there is something about the American education system that encourages more American writers to give more of their best energies to the short story.
I read through the anthology stories again after choosing them, to see if there might be any things they have in common which might reveal something about my inclinations as a reader. One is formal dexterity. Very few of these stories are traditional single-movement stories that pledge allegiance to the Aristotelian Unities. Another is clarity. The writer is doing the heavy-lifting with regard to the management of information and the forward motion of the story, which leaves the reader to the more interesting task of living for a while in the heads of these characters, and trying to understand alongside them the big mysteries stories often complicate and clarify but seemingly never reduce enough to fully solve:
Why did it happen? Why did it happen like that? Why did that do that? Why did I do that? What do I do with it, now that it’s done? What was all that? What was his life? What was her life? What is my life? What is life?
A fever dream narrated through the altered consciousness of a young woman suffering through the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. Some of the most value-added, special sentences I have ever read anywhere. ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ is also the title story of a book-length three-story sequence that is probably Porter’s best work, alongside her shorter story ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,’ which pursues a not-dissimilar narrative strategy.
from Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Harcourt Brace, 1939; also Penguin Modern Classics, 2011
This story comes from The Dew Breaker, a cycle of stories about generational connections between pre- and post-Duvalier Haitians in Haiti and, later, in exile in Lakeland, Florida, and Brooklyn, New York, in the wake of the dechoukaj uprising and the abuses of the Tontons Macoute terror squads.
‘Seven’ is kind of an outlier in the collection. It’s a quiet ‘he said/she said’ concerning a man and woman who meet and marry at Carnival, then reunite in their new country after seven years of separation. It’s about the silences required to sustain what passes for love and devotion.
After I read this book, I read all of Edwidge Danticat’s other books. Then I spent a lot of time in Haiti for a while and mostly read Haitian literature and history for a couple of years. One comes to understand that Haitian history is, as I think I remember Junot Diaz saying, a kind of shadow history of the United States. I should take this opportunity, while we’re here, to recommend a few other Haitian writers: Dany Laferriere, Lyonel Trouillot, Marie Vieux Chauvet, and Rene Philoctete. And a few writers of Haitian history: Laurent Dubois, Michael Deibert, CLR James, Bernard Diederich, Mary Renda. Also Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s great novel of Cuba (with its great impossibly old narrator) The Kingdom of this World. Also, for writers, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously, which is rather countercultural to many contemporary literary conversations about what literature is for, and what writers can risk and do, and which is worth reading for the time it spends on Camus and on Laferriere’s I Am a Japanese Writer alone. (Also worth reading, if you like Create Dangerously: Ha Jin’s The Writer as Migrant.)
First published in The New Yorker, October 2001. Collected in The Dew Breaker, Knopf/Abacus, 2004
The story of a decades-long marriage, in eleven sections anchored by a recurring object, a series of beds in which husband and wife slept together or didn’t sleep together or slept with others. It is a feat of formal compression. I’ve never seen a story that does so much in such a small space.
From Texas Heat, UT Press, 2005
“HAGS” was published as poetry, but it’s mostly prose, and it reads like a 500-page novel compressed into a 17-page story written in the form of a lyric essay. It’s about being a woman, a young woman, a daughter, a member of a family, an immigrant in New York, an Asian person in an American context, a politically-engaged person, a person who can wield language to match anyone else’s wielding, a consumer and critic of multiple cultures and pop cultures, a reader, a worker, a thinker. Everything about the story, especially the way it is written, is more interesting than the way I’ve just described it. Jenny Zhang’s fiction is in some ways the fulfilment of the promise made by William Goldman, when he described The Princess Bride as an abridgment, with only the good parts left in. Except that William Goldman was aiming for wish-fulfillment, and Jenny Zhang is aiming straight at the ugly and the true.
Originally published as GUILLOTINE Series Chapbook #7 in 2014; out of print but available as a PDF here
An old man’s story about the world of his youth, now foreign in its rules and social codes, a world now passed away. And this is no doubt for the best, although the mysteries of others persist. Re-reading this story now, one is reminded how we all are destined to become older, and we all must make some accommodation with the way the cultural rules change, with the problems that attended to the culture that raised us up, and the ways in which we were complicit in all of it, when perhaps we should have known better. In this way, this quiet story is frightening.
First published in The New Yorker, May 1974. Collected in The Old Forest and Other Stories, Doubleday, 1985
This story, which I first read in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, later became a chapter in O’Brien’s uneven late novel July, July. It is among the most elegant very short stories I’ve ever read. It concerns a group of friends and their preoccupation with a couple among them who married, divorced, and then continued to love each other forever. It is a story in part about the impossibility of knowing the people who come in and out of our lives, and the wonder and mystery that attaches to trying.
First published in Esquire, 2002. Collected in July, July, Houghton Mifflin, 2002/Flamingo, 2003
Baldwin wrote ably in just about every form available to the writer. To my taste, the stories in Going to Meet the Man represent his greatest accomplishment as a fiction writer. The more famous story (rightly) in the collection is ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ which is a long lament by an upright schoolteacher, or a kind of history of his long love for his heroin-addicted jazzman brother.
‘Going to Meet the Man’ is a riskier story. I think of it as being in conversation with Eudora Welty’s ‘Where Is the Voice Coming From?,’ which appeared just a little earlier, and might well have been written around the same time. Both stories do a thing that was unfashionable then, and which is even more unfashionable now, which is to inhabit the point of view of the person who is monstrously wrong. In Baldwin’s case, the protagonist is a small-town Southern sheriff fresh from another day of violence in the ongoing work of suppressing the forward motion of the Civil Rights movement. It is a tale of sexual repression, racial violence, and scary marital power dynamics. Baldwin is unflinching and unsentimental, and the story, which leaves the reader icy cold, gets there in the most scorching manner possible.
from Going to Meet the Man, Dial Press, 1965/Penguin Modern Classics, 1991
I have never read a story quite like this. It begins like this:
The trouble: You want Thing A but you are stuck with Thing B.
The you the story posits, which is almost maybe the reader himself or herself, now must go to the Thing Exchange to try to barter for Thing A, which “shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus”.
We’re in the realm, of course, of a story about what happens when desire becomes acquisition, or when what is nearby isn’t valued quite like what might be nearby. The reader pretty quickly substitutes What for Who, and Acquisition for Relationship, although the story doesn’t require any such one-to-one correlation.
from The Era of Not Quite, BOA Editions, 2013. Available to read online here
This story, which pretends for a while to a kind of staid rural middle-Canadian domestic story of manners, suddenly opens out onto a recontextualizing, explosive endingthat connects the story of the present to a long-ago story an ocean away, and the reader is confronted with the terror of the cause-and-effect chain that history has enabled but the present has obscured, a situation common to all of us when you come to think of it.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1990. Collected in Friend of My Youth, Knopf/Vintage 1990 and Selected Stories, 1997
I first read ‘Train Dreams’ in O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, edited by Laura Furman, the same place I first read ‘What Went Wrong’ and a half-dozen other truly great stories I’ve never quite forgotten. The only single-year anthology volume I’ve ever read that is the rival of O. Henry Prize Stories 2003 is O. Henry Prize Stories 2002, edited by Larry Dark. These two books were so adventurous and so varied it seemed like American short fiction had no limit and no ceiling, and although I guess that’s still true, I don’t know that there will ever be another two-year run like that one.
‘Train Dreams’ the long story became Train Dreams the short novel in 2011 without making any changes except in how it was typeset and bound. Famously, it was one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2012, the year the Pulitzer board was so befuddled by its choices (which also included Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King) that they refused to give any fiction prize at all.
‘Train Dreams’ is befuddling, but not in the way the Pulitzer board was thinking. It’s a very strange story, written in a strange point of view that lands somewhere between history and fable, and which concerns a person whose life seems to wash over him, tide-like, and then, at the end, wash away. In our hyper-self-conscious age, I haven’t met many people like the protagonist, but as a child, in the trailer where my grandfather (who did not finish the eighth grade) lived, I met plenty of people who seemed in some way like the protagonist of ‘Train Dreams,’ and their lives were mysteries that from the outside seemed almost as magical as the affect Denis Johnson creates in this wonderful, long, oddly-shapen story work of art.
Train Dreams, FSG, 2011/Granta, 2012
If you were worried, as U.S. Supreme Court watchers worry about the advanced age of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that Margaret Atwood will retire or otherwise leave us without an heir to carry the mantle of the strange, the malformed, the sophisticatedly allegorical, the fantastic, the formally inventive, etc., be advised: Carmen Maria Machado is on the job.
This story, ‘The Husband Stitch,’ has many layers, many revelations, many revulsions, a lot of love on offer, but it saves its greatest, most shocking revelation for its end, and when you get there, you’ll have to rethink everything you know about women and men and marriage and all the social contracts we’ve undertaken or received, and whether love is always worth the price lovers might want to exact in the name of devotion.
From Her Body and Other Parties, Graywolf/ Serpent’s Tail, 2017. Available to read online here