Choosing twelve stories was enormous fun, and got me thinking about our impulse to carve experience into slivers of narrative. We hear stories – more or less true – in jokes, political speeches, TV ads. And if we could listen in, we’d overhear them in therapy lounges, confessionals, beds where lovers lie.
I thought about pointing to this heterogeneity by including ‘Raised on Robbery’, Joni Mitchell’s story about an attempted seduction via story. Or ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’ by the band Okkervil River, a retelling of the poet John Berryman’s suicide (which a popular streaming service tells me I listened to an appropriate 77 times last year). Or one of Adrian Tomine’s graphic stories from Killing and Dying, or a short film from Kieslowski’s Decalogue. Or, at a stretch, James Wood’s critical essay ‘Serious Noticing’, a story about re-reading which, I confess, I’ve always preferred to the Chekhov tale it’s largely about.
Which is all to say that – although there are books about three- and five-act narrative structure, and the seven basic plots – the faculty that allows us to tell and understand stories is surely innate, and can be found wherever you look.
So even though I finally decided to stick – with two exceptions – to the established literary genre known as the ‘short story’, thinking about narrative as an inborn instinct helped me understand why I love these pieces. It’s not that they’re the greatest stories ever written: I’d be willing to contend that some of them are, but that list would have to include ‘The Dead’, ‘Metamorphosis’ and something by Alice Munro. Are they my favourites? It would depend which day you asked me. It’s just that, when I read them for this piece – even when I couldn’t easily articulate why I found them so moving, or funny, or beautiful, or disconcerting – they seemed the work of born storytellers. They just landed somehow, and made me want to tell you about them.
For the evocation of sheer atmosphere, try reading (and rereading) the perfect opening paragraphs of Bowen’s wartime story. Early-hours London is in blackout, and moonlight “drenched the city and searched it”, not unlike the bright beam of the author’s prose. There’s no noise except that of the underground and, as we watch a young woman and an off-duty soldier head towards a confused almost-tryst, Bowen helps us hear every subterranean rumble emanating from their battened-down night-time hearts.
First published in 1942. Collected in The Demon Lover, Jonathan Cape, 1945, and Collected Stories, Vintage Classics, 1999
Rhys was approaching the end of a tumultuous life when she wrote this story. A woman living alone in a remote English town receives a visit from a man she’s only met once before. She wonders how things might have turned out in a different time and place. And so do we: it’s impossible not to think of the author’s early novels and their doomed, wrenching affairs. This time, nothing much happens. The action is all in the opening and sudden closing of the woman’s heart as she contemplates where one last voyage in the dark would surely take her: “The abyss. Despair. All those things.”
First published in Sleep it Off, Lady, André Deutsch, 1976, also in the Collected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2017
Nobody writes about sex – its passion, pathos and comedy – better than Gaitskill. A man and a woman set off for a planned weekend of sado-masochistic lovemaking. But they barely know each other, and everything goes wrong. They can’t stick to their pre-assigned roles: the supposedly dominant man is needy and petulant, and the supposedly submissive woman is inconveniently assertive. Gaitskill’s wry, benevolent gaze captures every nuance of the shifting power dynamic as the couple fumble towards each other through the exchange of several different kinds of pleasure and pain.
Collected in Bad Behavior, Simon & Schuster, 1998
Perhaps my favourite short story. The sequence of events leading to the separation of a married couple is traced from the beginning of life on earth. To say any more would be to ruin it, and I wouldn’t know what to say in any case. No matter how many times I read it, I can’t quite put into words why this single-paragraph, two-page miracle of prose has such a devastating hold on me.
Collected in Fly, Already, Granta, 2010
There are too many brilliant things in this story for me to do it any justice, so let me just draw your attention to what Hazzard sees when she raises her eyes, and her writing, upward. Of a character holidaying in Tuscany, she tells us:
He had never experienced such a sky. In England, where heaven is a low-hung, personal affair, thoroughly identified with the King James Version, a sky such as this would not have been tolerated for a moment. It was a high, pagan explosion of a sky, promising indulgence for all kinds of offences to which he had not the slightest inclination. He felt, beneath it, exposed and ridiculed…
There’s so much in the air here: the man’s ambivalence about judgment and pleasure; his longing for, and shrinking from, freedom. In one glance we see more than a page of exposition could reveal. And some of us would simply have written that the sky was bright, or blue.
First published in The New Yorker, September, 1961and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Cliffs of Fall, Knpof, 1963. Now available as a Virago Modern Classic, 2005 and 2011
A theory: the contemporary short story is defined by the opposing poles of two genius writers. Alice Munro is the great expansionist, Lydia Davis the great minimalist. It’s hard to choose one of Davis’s stories: they somehow work on you together, like the notes of a lovely dissonant chord. For instance the page-long ‘What I Feel’ – which teases a thought about solipsism almost to death – is enriched when read alongside the somewhat longer ‘Therapy’ and the even shorter ‘Head, Heart’. The best way to read Davis, I think, is to start one of her collections – or, even better, the Collected Stories – at the beginning and to finish, flushed and exhilarated, at the end.
First published in Conjunctions 17, Fall 1991, and available to read here. Collected in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009
The psychotherapy case study genre was invented by Freud, but it was perfected by Yalom in the collection bearing this story’s name. The narratives by which we live – and evade life – are the subject of this weird, unsettling tale. An ageing woman comes to a therapist and tells him about her passion for a much younger man. We begin to see she’s trapped in a delusion, and the therapist realises it’s his task to set her free by murdering her love – that is, destroying her fantasy. We listen in on this most private and painful of conversations, rapt. Strictly speaking this is nonfiction: it’s an account of a real-life encounter from Yalom’s own psychotherapy practice. But only an expert writer could bring to life all the drama that takes place when two people sit together in a single room.
First published in Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, Bloomsbury, 1989
Take this as a vote for the whole of Jesus’ Son, a book of linked stories about a sleazy, damaged drug addict called Fuckhead. Johnson rips the skin off Fuckhead’s life to reveal the beauty and anguish beneath the surface. In the justly famous opening story, the protagonist hitches a ride with a family on a dark, wet night, ominously telling us: “I’d known all along exactly what was going to happen.” After several readings I’m still at a loss to pin down how Johnson succeeds in being so transcendently gritty, so brutally compassionate. It helps that he’s one of the great prose stylists, as he proves from the opening sentences to the shocking conclusion, when the narrator seems to swivel from the carnage he’s just described to look us dead in the eye: “It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”
From Jesus’ Son, 1992, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Psychic torment is to Wallace what the Tuscan sky was to Hazzard. Here the protagonist is not only in “terrible and unceasing emotional pain” but feels that “the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror”. So Wallace, as he often did, invented a new prose style – affectless, paranoid, recursive – to imitate the inner workings of his character’s mind. The result is at once a story about the limits of expression and an act of expression that in its virtuosity is almost joyous.
First published in Harper’s Magazine, January 1998, and collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999, and The David Foster Wallace Reader, Little, Brown, 2014
A number of Dylan songs – ‘Hurricane’, ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, ‘Brownsville Girl’ – are feats of narrative brilliance, but this is my favourite. It’s a song of close encounters and miscommunication set against a backdrop of impending apocalypse. If you doubt Dylan deserved his Nobel, try listening to (and reading) the opening verse, with its bravura lyrical scene-setting:
Up on the white veranda
She wears a necktie and a
Her passport shows a face
From another time and place
She looks nothing like that
And all of the remnant of her recent past
Are scattered in the wild wind
She walks across a marble floor
Where a voice from the gambling room
Is calling her to come on in
She smiles, walks the other way
And then there’s the final verse, which casts the action in bathetic relief, like one of Munro’s telescopic epilogues. No other writer has ever made storytelling sing like this.
First released on Desire, Columbia, 1976
A failed actor returns to her home town to live with her parents and work an unglamorous job in a garage. Her manager has an optimism of the “terrifying, impenetrable variety” that “could burn through entire periods of history”. The garage contains “three tin cans of indiscernible origin” and a “feeling of forever melancholy”. The narrator feels as though “anyone could step in and play me, if they were supplied with the correct expression of anguish, the sluggish reactions of someone baffled by their own poor choices”. Any one sentence could almost belong in a world of skewed naturalism, but taken together they are like staring into a funhouse mirror of desperate, hilarious surrealism. Literary critics call this technique ‘defamiliarisation’. I call it an embarrassment of bizarro genius from one of the most exciting young writers at work anywhere.
First published in The Stinging Fly, Summer 2016, and available to read here. Collected in Show Them a Good Time, Stinging Fly/Bloomsbury, 2019
Erskine’s protagonist is used to clearing up after other people. One day in the course of her work as a cleaner she finds a young girl alone in a house after a party. Deciding she has no choice, she takes the child home, hoping to locate her mother. But as the story progresses we come to suspect the mess she’s attempting to fix was made long ago, somewhere else entirely. I wondered if Dance Move, the soon-to-be-published collection which this story opens, could possibly surpass Erskine’s debut Sweet Home. It does: by the end of ‘Mathematics’ my eyes were wet. Like all twelve of my choices it made me feel, as Shirley Hazzard writes in one of her several perfect stories, “a momentary sensation that the world had come right; that some instant of perfect harmony had been achieved by two minds meeting.”
First published in Dance Move, Picador, 2022