Introduction

Confession: the only thing I enjoy less than writing non-fiction is writing non-fiction about writing.

I like making stuff up. I don’t like thinking about how or why made-up stuff works. Especially stuff made up by other people.

My favourite line about anyone, ever, is when art historian Michael Levey said of the painter Paul Cezanne that “his peasant-stubborn secretive nature made him detest theorising talk”. When I read that I thought “yep, me too, Paul”.

Also: when I went back and re-read what I thought were some of my favourite short stories in preparation for writing this piece – stories that I particularly remember being struck by, or moved by, or amazed by; stories that, in some cases, I hadn’t re-read in twenty-five years – I found that I didn’t even like half of them any more.

They were too overwritten, or too obvious, or too flashy, or too dumb, or too clever, or too long, or too specifically written by Raymond Carver.

I didn’t go back and re-read Angela Carter either, but that’s just because she’s already been done to death in this series. Obviously, I adore Angela Carter as much as the next rabid Angela Carter fan – and would, in fact, have been amenable to writing (badly) about Angela Carter’s short stories and nothing else for this piece.

I did go back and read one Ernest Hemingway short story, but only because I’m going to mention him in the context of Joanna Walsh, so I reckon we’ll be okay.

My second favourite line ever, by the way, is when art historian Michael Levey said of the painter Paul Cezanne that “his own efforts to overcome an inherent clumsiness and force himself on in pursuit of the significant made him largely indifferent to the work of others painters”.

I’m not altogether indifferent to the work of other writers, but I am inherently clumsy.

So: discounting the short stories and/or writers I don’t like any more, and mostly discounting the ones I adore but which/who have already been written about extensively in this series (and by better writers than me), I’m left with a bunch of stories about which I don’t have anything theoretical – possibly not even anything interesting– to say.

Certainly I don’t have anything anywhere near as interesting to say as the stories themselves do.

I think somebody once suggested that short stories, in the way that we encounter them, experience them, remember them, even forget them, are like love affairs. Or it might have been that novels are like love affairs, and short stories are more like sexy/exciting/disastrous one-night stands. Or maybe that was poems. I’ve likely mis-remembered the whole thing. It’s possible I made it up just to make a point.

Either way, is there anything potentially more boring than listening to someone tell you about a love affair/one-night stand that they once had?

Yes, there is. It’s listening to someone tell you about twelve love affairs/ one-night stands that they once had.

And so here, in no particular order, are mine.

‘Millionaires’ by Michael Chabon

The One You Spent Years Getting Over:

It’s possible that I wasted at least half my twenties being obsessed by this short story from Michael Chabon’s first collection – wanting to permanently inhabit its nostalgic, winter-afternoon mood of doomed and unnecessarily complicated young relationships, wanting to meet and fall in love with a woman as magnificently over-romanticised as its damaged and gloriously-named heroine Kimberly Ellen Donna Marie Trilby, wanting to somehow one day write a story exactly the same as it.

Harry was my best friend, but millionaires have squandered their fortunes, and men have lost their minds, and friends have tracked each other down for less than the sight of a lovely woman in nothing but a sweater.

Re-reading the story now I’m embarrassed by who I was then, and even more by who I wanted to be (it’s not for nothing that someone once wrote a paper on ‘The Short Fiction of Michael Chabon: Nostalgia in the Very Young’), but, my God, Chabon writes some beautiful, beautiful prose. And knows better than anyone how and when to leave stuff out.

I’ve also realised that the best story in that debut collection is actually not ‘Millionaires’ at all, but ‘The Lost World’ (there’s that nostalgia again), a much lower-key, coming-of-age piece that recreates with astonishing grace the exact moment when adolescence tips you out of childhood and into an unknown new country.

You should read them both, though.

(First published in The New Yorker, 1990. Collected in A Model World, and Other Stories, William Morrow/Sceptre 1991)

‘Engineer-private Paul Klee Misplaces an Aircraft Between Milbertshofen and Cambrai, March 1916’ by Donald Barthelme

The One You Don’t Want to Share with Anyone:

It’s not just this Donald Barthelme story that I don’t want to share with anyone – it’s allof them. I actually get upset, and jealous, and angry when other people talk about how much one of Barthelme’s stories mean to them. Because, really, how could they know? They weren’t there. 

Yes, Barthelme’s stories can be so playful – with their insistence on deconstructing structure and style and technique and everything else – that sometimes they topple over into glibness. They can come off cold. A lot of them were first published in ‘The New Yorker’, after all. They’re never completely silly, though. Never daft for the sake of it (which is what a lot of his imitators miss). There’s always a logic there.

And when there’s a heart, when Barthelme’s games accidentally uncover a moment of resonating, delicate emotional depth, almost in spite of himself, it’s lovely.

And so it is with this story of the painter Paul Klee, observed by omniscient the secret police, who comes up with an artistic solution to the loss of a plane.

To my surprise and dismay, I notice that one of them is missing. There had been three, tied down on the flatcar and covered with canvas. Now I see with my trained painter’s eye that instead of three canvas-covered shapes on the flatcar there are only two.

But what I’m saying iseven if, after reading this story, or all the ninety-nine other stories spread across this collection and its companion ‘Sixty Stories’, even if you think you get Donald Barthelme, trust me, you don’t. Because he’s mine.

(First published in The New Yorker​, 1971. Collected in Forty Stories, 1987. Available to read online here)

‘Spar’ by Kij Johnson

The One About Sex That Wasn’t Just About Sex:

A woman has sex with a shapeless alien. Lots of sex. Weird sex. Disturbing sex. Sex that goes on for months or possibly even years, as the pair are trapped together inside a tiny spaceship lifeboat. There are cilia and tendrils and muscle and slime, and piss and shit and snot, and bleeding and gagging and internal things breaking and worse.

It penetrates her a thousand ways. She penetrates it, as well.

The first time I read this (multi-award winning) story I almost fell over on a packed tube train. That’s how powerful it is. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know where to look, or exactly how to feel.

“It’s deeply unpleasant… offensive on many levels,” Johnson has said of the piece, “this is a story I love without liking it at all”.

However, it’s also a beautiful, brutally honest meditation on grief and anger and boredom and loneliness in relationships, and on the ways we fail to communicate (and not just with aliens).

Okay, maybe beautiful is going too far. Tendrils, though.

(from At the Mouth of the River of Bees, Big Mouth Press, 2012. Read online here)

‘Fucking Martin’ by Dale Peck

The One That Taught You an Unexpected Lesson:

Like me and all other right-thinking people, you are obviously well aware that there are no ‘rules’ to what a short story should be or do or aim at or look like – and you know that anyone who says different is a liar and a crook who has no love for the format, or writing itself, or the world, or the two of us.

But.

But if I, or you – if either of us – were ever forced to talk about examples of short story writing ‘craft’ or ‘technique’, about pacing, and narrative tricks, and all those sorts of sneaky things? Well, we could do a lot worse than make people read Dale Peck’s short ‘Fucking Martin’, which, like Kij Johnson’s ‘Spar’, is about sex and grief and personal erasure, but which also has a one-line reveal/ reverse (if that’s the right name for it) toward the end that’s so powerful that I can still remember, twenty-some actual years later, the feeling of being punched in the stomach the first time I read it.

I don’t want to say anything else in case I spoil the effect for first time readers, but if you want to borrow my copy give me a shout.

(Read in Cowboys, Indians and Commuters: The Penguin Book of New American Voices, 1994. Also collected in Martin and John/Fucking Martin, St Martin’s Press/Chatto & Windus, 1993)

The One You Wish You’d Written: ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ by Lydia Davis

I’m ashamed (or maybe a bit proud) to say I’d never read any Lydia Davis until a couple of years ago when I accidentally Won a Short Story Competition that I don’t like to talk about at every opportunity, and Lydia Davis’s was one of the names mentioned by someone trying to describe my Award Winning Short Story. And then I read ‘The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis’, and went “of course!” and “I am not worthy!” and also, sometimes, “what?”

Davis is usually ranked with Barthelme (that’s my Barthelme, remember) in the Whirlwinding Cavalcade of Fizzing Idea Fireworks! genre, which is fair enough because they are and she does and it is. But she’s less glib than The Donald, more rooted in real, complicated emotions and reactions to things (Davis does quite irritated better than anyone else I can think of).

And, like me, she loves, subtitles.

‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ is a story I wish I’d written, and one I’d have loved to write: a deadpan reconstruction – based on actual letters – of the real Philip Yorke, Viscount Royston’s 1806 tour of the Russian Empire, including his accidental death, full of delicious local colour and detail, told like an epic historical novel in miniature.

With the Help of Some Bark:
Over the Caucasus

As soon as he can sit on a horse he takes leave of his Georgian friends, and rides out of town. The snow and ice on Mount Caucasus, along with the help of some bark he gets from a Roman Catholic missionary, restore him to perfect health and strength as soon as he beings ascending the mountain.

Etc.

Is it a parody? A commentary? A narrative experiment? What does it mean?

Enough with the theorising talk, and shut up: it’s just a great story.

(In Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997 and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, 2009)

‘Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains’ by AL Kennedy

The One with The Devastating Ending:

Everyone knows that, line for line, AL Kennedy is the best prose writer in the English language (including non-fiction; read her book ‘On Bullfighting’). This story was the first thing I ever read of hers, and ever since I’ve carried around the phrase “the good weight of him” as an example of how to get things perfectly, exactly right.

It all felt very pleasant. The good weight of him, snuggled down there, the smell of his hair when I kissed the top of his head. I did that. I told him I could never do enough, or be enough, or give enough back and I kissed the top of his head. I told him I belonged to him. I think he was asleep.

Kennedy deals with small, specific things. With the important details – of relationships, and train timetables, and the way couples arrange themselves together in bed. She’s the opposite of flashy, of show-offy writing, of fireworks. This story is about the importance of small lives, of the everyday, and of the awful, awful fragility of it all.

(in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, Polygon 1990)

‘Strawberries’ by Joseph Roth

The One That Got Away:

If you haven’t already read ‘The Radetzky March’ go away, do that now, then come back and thank me. Actually you should probably read ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ while you’re at it, too. But then, then read this.

The first 1,000 words or so are available here, but that’s only an extract from the much longer piece, which is itself only an extract of a planned novel that Roth never finished before his death, and which is very much our loss.

The story, or what there is of it, describes life in a small town very much like the one where Roth grew up, on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century – a town so criminal and insane that it feels like a cross between Franz Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I don’t think anyone had papers where I came from. There was a law court, a prison, lawyers, tax offices—but there wasn’t anywhere where you had to identify yourself. What did it matter who you were arrested as, if they arrested you? If you paid taxes or not—whom did it drive to ruin, and who derived any benefit from it?  The main thing was that the officials had to live. They lived off bribes. That’s why no one went to prison. That’s why no one paid taxes. That’s why no one had papers.

There’s the construction of a gigantic, unnecessary hotel, and some digging for buried treasure, and a money-making scheme involving the rope from a hanging, and scenes from the narrator’s childhood, all told in Roth’s ironic, laconic style, and it all doesn’t come together, at all, and it’s wonderful.

What it might have been, had Roth ever finished the book, I have no idea.

Somebody should write the rest of it. There’s an idea for you.

(In The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth, Granta, 2002)

‘Ventimiglia’ by Joanna Walsh

The One That May Represent Some Sort of Platonic Ideal:

Officially, this is an extract too, but the first time I read it was as a standalone piece, so I’m going with that.

I used to think Hemingway’s ‘Canary for One’ was my favourite short story: the way it describes a train journey – initially along the French Mediterranean coast – via the landscapes flashing by outside the window, the way it talks about relationship ending without really talking about the relationship at all…

Then I read this, which starts by travelling the same geographical territory, but heading East rather than West, and also talks about/ doesn’t talk about a relationship ending, and is more perfect, more right, word for word, than anything has a right to be.

I won’t go on about how great Joanna Walsh is because you already know – you, of all people – and also because I’m not qualified to do so, and I detest theorising talk, but if I had to come up with some sort of example of how I wish I could write then it would look a lot like this.

(Available to read on Granta.com. Officially part of Break.up, Serpent’s Tail, 2018)

‘The Elephant’ by Slawomir Mrozek

The One with the Inflatable Elephant: 

You’ve obviously already read this classic short story because you’re smart and literary as well as being gorgeous to look at, but I’m still going to talk about it because it’s perfect (just like you).

When a provincial zoo in communist Poland is allocated an elephant, the ambitious zoo director instead suggests exhibiting a fake, inflatable elephant in order to save money. But the keepers tasked with inflating the model elephant decide to save time and effort by attaching it to a gas pipe…

In the morning the elephant was moved to a special run in a central position, next to the monkey cage. Placed in front of a large real rock it looked fierce and magnificent. A big notice proclaimed: “Particularly sluggish. Hardly moves”…

Totalitarian regimes are always ripe for satire, but Mrozek’s deadpan (there’s that word ‘deadpan’ again, hmm) stories are more like fairy tales than straight allegories. There’s always something else going on – the anarchic joy of anticipation as we wait for the inevitable disaster, the ‘astonished monkeys’ watching the elephant fly away, the brief mention of children turned into drunken hooligans by the horror of what they’ve witnessed…

(in The Elephant, 1957)

‘Blood Rites’ by Daisy Johnson

The One with The Sense of Place: 

I could have chosen just about any story from Daisy Johnson’s magnificent debut collection ‘Fen’ and it would be a textbook example of How Your Short Stories Should Have a Sense of Place, but this one is (just about) my favourite.

Three women (Vampires? Monsters?) flee Paris and move into a wrecked house out on the fens, where they start seducing and eating the local men. But it turns out that ‘fen men were not the same as the men we’d had before. They lingered in you…’

Johnson’s story (and the others in the collection) is full of tastes and smells, of earth and dirt and meat, of land and weather and sex. There are echoes of Angela Carter, and Dylan Thomas’s gloriously ripe early short stories, but Johnson is already very much her own writer.

And she writes landscape and place as well as, if not better than, just about anybody.

(In Fen, Jonathan Cape 2016)

‘Elvis: Fat, Fucked Up Fool’ by Simon Crump

The One Which Makes Most Sense in Context: 

Broadly, I don’t have much time for realism in short stories. To be honest, I don’t have much time for it in real life either. I get why a novel might need to be, to some extent, grounded. To follow certain, accepted rules of character and plot. You’re asking people to invest a significant amount of their time and attention, you don’t want to take the piss. But when you’re only borrowing 10 minutes of someone’s day, why not shoot for the moon? And when you collect a bunch of short stories together into a themed collection…

‘My Elvis Blackout’ is a very odd book about fame and celebrity that manages to find something new to say about one of our most overexposed and exhausted icons (Crump pulled the same trick with 2007’s ‘Neverland’, about Michael Jackson), via surreal weirdness, extreme violence (some of it featuring Chris de Burgh), dark comedy (some of it featuring Chris de Burgh), and surprising moments of pathos.

Sometimes it wobbles, and you almost, almost think Crump is just taking the piss, but then…

His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly. He took handfuls of jewels and cash into the backyard at Graceland and buried them – little treasures to call upon should he suddenly find himself penniless. The guys would watch Elvis digging in the dark. He cut a pathetic figure as he grunted and sweated over a growing heap of earth, and they would laugh to see his white jump-suit soiled with mud, and thy would laugh as this very sad, but nevertheless highly entertaining creature trying to ward off his worst nightmare, and the would laugh and laugh and laugh until the tears ran down their bloated piggy faces and down their fat pink cheeks and into their fancy silk shirts which Elvis had brought them all from Lansky Brothers, because he loved them so…

(in My Elvis Blackout, Bloomsbury, 2001)

‘The Berg’, by Richard Smyth

The One No One Else Can Read (Yet):

I know, I know, this is cheating – but sometimes you read a story that’s so good you want to simultaneously jump for joy and quietly give up writing, and this was one of those times. Smyth has known what he’s doing for a while. He’s a fantastically sharp nature writer, and a great short story writer (he was a finalist in last year’s Galley Beggar short story competition), and he gets Narrative Voice better than just about anybody – and in this story, the details of which I won’t give away unless anyone steals it, he combines all three.

It’s beautiful and funny and sad and daring AND YOU CAN’T READ IT YET. But hopefully you will soon…

Theres a Cormorant comeing by us off the larbord bow. A black and ragged looking Bird flying bearly above the waive tops. Like somone threw a hand rake. Devilish harty apetites they have. There was a pickture of a Cormorant in a boke I had as a boy. The boke was Millton I beleive and was an Alegory but weather the Cormorant was Christ or the devil I cant recal.

The Penguine makes a croke.

Hallo I say.

The pore thing chafes at its chane.

He is the propety of our Biscayan a fello named Ineko or similar who got him in New-found-land while hunting Whales he sayes. The Penguine is as big as a goos tho’ like all of us he is Thin. He has the look of a Gillimotte such as we see at Flamboro’. Black and wite and a beke like a Cleaver. He doesnt have a Name. He is onlie the Penguine.

(Unpublished)