These are stories that made me want to write. I don’t mean they made me want to write in a grand, ‘story of my life’ way. I mean they made me want to pick up a pen and paper as soon as I finished them and start scribbling. There is something infectious about them, something in each of them that surprises, that gets under your skin and doesn’t come out again.
Category: Max Sydney Smith
Max Sydney Smith is the author of the flash fiction pamphlet Without Seeming to Care at All (Rough Trade Editions, 2019), which was longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2020. His novella I, Nerd, a funny-sad tale about tabletop wargaming and friendship, is out now as part of the Open Pen Novelettes Series Two (Open Pen, Feb 2022).
‘The Yard Boy’ by Joy Williams
The yard boy was a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labor actually.
There is so much to love in the opening lines of this bizarre, beautiful story from Joy Williams. The bold statement, the sense of the yard boy’s earnestness, the narrator’s gentle mockery.
Meanwhile the rich characters who hire the yard boy to do their gardening are torn apart effortlessly. Mrs Wilson, who names her son Tao, “is wealthy and can afford to be wacky.” Jonny Dakota is “into heroin and intangible property.” And the has-been illustrator Mr Crown, infuriated by the construction across the street which blocks his view of the sun, opens fire on the builders with a shotgun.
First published in The Paris Review, Winter 1977 and available to subscribers to read here; collected in Taking Care, Vintage, 1982, and The Visiting Privilege, Vintage, 2015
‘The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists’ by Lydia Davis
In this race, it is not the swiftest who wins, but the slowest. At first it would seem easy to be the slowest of the motorcyclists, but it is not easy, because it is not in the temperament of a motorcyclist to be slow or patient.
This slip of a story may seem like nothing more than whimsy. And yet like so much of Davis’ work, the image of the motorcyclists crouched on their powerful motors, seemingly motionless as the sun moves over their heads, concentrating with Zen-like stillness and intensity on moving as slowly as they can, will stay with you for years.
First published in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997; collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009
‘The Swim Team’ by Miranda July
A woman recounts a time when she gave swimming lessons to three elderly people in Belvedere. Since there are no bodies of water and no pools in Belvedere, she trained them in her flat, using bowls of water to practise breathing underwater, and jumping from the chair onto the bed to practise diving. It’s painfully funny, as you would expect from Miranda July. And yet beneath the mad, slapstick energy is a depth and sadness – I think it is that contrast which explains why I can come back to this story again and again and still find it so funny.
First published in Harper’s, 2007, and available for subscribers to read online here. Collected in No One Belongs Here More Than You, Canongate, 2007
‘Marriage and the Family’ by Diane Williams
Like many of Williams’s short stories, this one is very short, at under three pages. The sentences are so compressed, the meaning is somehow packed tightly between them.
It begins with the conceit that Williams cannot distinguish between several sisters who run a stationery shop. As she describes them collectively, this quickly becomes absurdly funny. She writes: “Two or three of the sisters may be married.” And then later, “A mother of a sister called in once, and she was spoken to sweetly by one of the sisters.”
From there the narrator works herself up into a rage, describing furiously things she had definitely not said to the sisters. And just when you think you have a good handle on where the story is going, the story turns abruptly and takes us somewhere completely different.
From This is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time and Fate, Grove Press, 1990; collected in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2019
‘Finishing Touch’ by Claire-Louise Bennett
I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soiree. I have so many glasses, after all.
The narrator spends almost the entirety of this story going over in agonising detail what might or might not happen at the party she is about to throw. What will people bring to drink? What will she say when people ask what the party is for? Will she go upstairs with people when they look round the house? And which, oh which of the guests will sit on the Ottoman?
The story is a fraught anticipation of a story. Why write about something that has happened, or is happening, when you can write about anticipating something that is about to happen?
First published in Stinging Fly 29:2, Winter 2014, and available to read here; collected in Pond, Stinging Fly, 2014/Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015
‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ by Wells Tower
This is a story about a Viking, Harald, who takes a holiday from domestic life to go raiding along the coast of Lindisfarne.
You could say that those people on Lindisfarne were fools, living out there on a tiny island without high cliffs or decent natural defenses, and so close to us and also the Swedes and the Norwegians, how we saw it, we couldn’t afford not to come by and sack every now and again. But when we came into the bright little bay, a quiet fell over all of us.
The most striking thing about this story for me is the unfussy, contemporary directness of Harald’s voice. How can a voice encompass such a wide range of vocabularies so seamlessly? How can Harald talk about settling into his ‘domestic groove’ one minute and then hydras and dragons the next? How can he create compounds like “flint-edged” here and then “grab-assing” there? He calls his children jits (US prison slang) and then describes the wind bellying the sails in elegiac prose. You start thinking, with the right voice, maybe a story can encompass anything?
First published in Fence, 2002 and collected in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Granta, 2009, and available to read online here
‘101’ by May-Lan Tan
I remember this blowing my mind when it came out and I still go back to it today. Why did it blow my mind? Mainly for its brevity and sexiness. With a cover quote from Gordon Lish, it was in retrospect no surprise to find such clipped, perfectly crafted sentences. But the sexiness – my goodness!
I’ve given this to so many people as a gift and each time it feels somehow improper and yet each time they come back to me and say they loved it and my god wasn’t it sexy. They are all right.
The sunlight looked like powder as you shoved me back onto the hood of the car. My shirt was off, and the metal was so hot the paint felt sticky.
First published in The Reader, and collected in Things to Make or Break, CB Editions, 2014, and in a new edition, Sceptre, 2018
‘Simon Tegala’s Heart in Twelve Parts’ by Deborah Levy
This is the story of a relationship told in twelve distinct fragments. The fragments do not exactly fit together. Certain scenes are told in part, and returned to. Some of these scenes include: a father with Parkinsons, a queue for visas at the American embassy, an infidelity. It is a puzzle of a story.
What if you write a story and then you cut it up and rearranged all the pieces? What if you took some of the pieces out and binned them? What if you chopped up sentences as well?
Read this for surreal sentences that mash up the intimate and the abstract, the cerebral and the erotic: “He knew that her lips were the only country he wanted to be in.”
First published in Pillow Talk in Europe and Other Places, Dalkey Archive, 2003, then in Black Vodka, And Other Stories, 2013)
‘Memories of a Personal Computer’ by Alejandro Zambraq
This is a story of a chapter in a man’s life told through his personal computer.
It begins when he is twenty three, and buys the computer to type up his poems. Then he starts going out with a woman, or we should really say a woman starts using the computer. She plays minesweeper and solitaire while he sleeps. When they move in together, the computer moves neighbourhoods. They upload pictures of their almost-honeymoon. Later when they argue, letters fall off the keyboard.
Perhaps in summary this reads like a creative writing class exercise (write a story from the perspective of a household object). But in the reading it is infused with Zambra’s magic: the funny-sad way he has of capturing messy relationships, the life of work and being tired after work, his character’s sour opinions of those around him.
From My Documents, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2015
‘Orphan Stories’ by Margaret Atwood
How swiftly the orphans set sail! No sooner does the starting gun fire than they’re flying! Their yachts are slimmer, their lines trimmer than ours – than our stodgy barges.
Like all the pieces in The Tent, ’Orphan Stories’ is somewhere between an essay and a story, possibly a prose poem, or perhaps a journal note or sketch made up of broad, confident sentences. If you read or write a lot, or think about words a lot, you can sometimes feel bogged down. Every time I go back to it, this story feels like throwing open the doors and windows in a musty room. Read it! Let the air in!
From The Tent, Bloomsbury, 2006
‘The Bones of the Earth’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
Set in the fantasy world of Earthsea, this fable of teachers and pupils, of surrogate fathers and sons tells the tale of how an old wizard and his young apprentice stop an earthquake.
Le Guin writes fantasy like no other. Mythic wisdom? Le Guin has it in spades. But sometimes it seems she is not that interested in the fantasy part. For so much of this story the characters are concentrating on household chores: tending to the goats, cleaning the kitchen.
For this reason it is hard to find a single quote that does the story justice. The writing on every page is clean and beautiful. Such as in this moment just before the climax, where the logic of the words descends into doubt as the old wizard descends into the earth:
He had time to regret the sunlight and the sea wind, and to doubt the spell, and to doubt himself, before the earth rose up around him, dry, warm, and dark.
From Tales From Earthsea, Harcourt, 2001/Orion, 2002
‘And a Kinder Egg For the Kid’ by Christos Ikonomou, translated by Karen Emmerich
Hunger woke him. He’d had a pain in his belly all night. He had his son with him too. His son was sleeping beside him in the bed with his mouth open and his fingers gripping the edge of the blanket as if had fallen asleep afraid that someone might try to take the blanket away.
Ikonomou’s story begins with these short, brutal sentences, and it doesn’t let up. This is a story about a man who lost his job. It is Easter and he goes out to find money to buy some food for his son. He paces the streets of the city. He has a plan to ask his daughter for fifty euros. He is ashamed to be asking but he is desperate.
Ikonomou and Emmerich capture his hunger, his desperation and his pent up violence in stripped-back, wolf-like prose.
Marketed internationally as writing from the Greek financial crisis, this story – like the others in the collection – is actually about Piraeus in the decades before that. Read it. It will stay with you for decades after, as well.
From Something Will Happen Here, You’ll See, Archipelago Books, 2010