shoving at the thing from all sides
to bring it down.
Writers, critics and others dream-edit a personal anthology of their favourite short stories
Rob Kiely is a writer living in London. His chapbooks include How to Read (Crater, 2017) and Killing the Cop in Your Head (Sad, 2017). He has also written ‘The Elephant in the Womb’ (published in Sure Hope), ‘On the Relative Immortality of American Teeth’ (published in the Cambridge Literary Review), and ‘A Saddening Bore.’ His critical work can be found here, here, and here, and a book is forthcoming from punctum in 2018. He sometimes retweets things.
I first read this in 2013 and it has been important to me ever since. I read it again near Kwai Chung dock in 2016. This throws me back to the student movement of 2010 and the uprising of 2011 and my two years in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The text is a dense, quasi-collective bildungsroman and allegory. The narrator and the angel Nuriel have a discussion in Kwai Chung, while workers demonstrate in the background. Nuriel predicts that change is coming, and the discussion turns to social “atoms” as the setting turns to defeat. Valves punched out of the poet’s nose deliver the counter-argument. Their debate is a necessary read for any contemporary writers who hope to grip the unity that our separation must entail. At its end, the narrator descends into the hell of the present.
In People, Mountain Press, 2013
The setting is Ireland, during the War of Independence. A small flying column has become too friendly with their English prisoners; the narrator (Bonaparte) notes that like weeds they take root wherever they are put. The flying column justify the impending execution to their prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins. Hawkins pleads, offers to join the Irish cause, defiantly claims that he won’t be killed because his Irish “chums” are not “tools of any capitalist.” But neither pleas nor denial work. Hawkins is shot, and then the other guest of the euphemistic title, Belcher, notes that he isn’t properly dead yet, so requests that Hawkins is shot again. Then Belcher is “plugged.” However fatigued I might be with the idea of an epiphany™ or the equally glib mirror-image, the negative-epiphany™, something of that affect overcomes me on reading this story and its brief sketch of violence in an anti-colonial struggle.
First published in 1931. Collected in Classic Irish Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1985
I first heard this story read by the author at the launch of Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble (2017) at the Horse Hospital in London. It struck me then for its humour and tenderness and the effortless way it knitted us together as an audience. For Williams, language and love are never far apart (and that is probably already a commonplace in Williams Studies), and a love-object will always be mediated through language and seduced by that rather than, say, gesture. To read this is to entangle word and world. While the narrator overthinks a (what other’s might describe as a mere) kiss in cascades of rhythmic prose, the loved-one has leaned in and done it without thinking. You can find Williams’ Personal Anthology here.
…my hand a melting tessellation could feed you crushed Oreos and moon parings, my hand not quite in yours, but not yet quite out, the starting track at a race track when a white flag means surrender and Black Flag means punk bands formed in seventies California and I cannot tell whether you or I are leaning nor if the attendant is approaching…
First published online in The White Review. Collected in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017
A man on a fishing boat contemplates the scenery in the context of a recent and indeterminate sexual encounter. The crew are fishing by Fastnet rock. I grew up near the sea in Cork, so its appeal is personal. It is simple: a man becomes captain of a fishing boat, another man retires. What defence can one have in the face of such compelling plainness? There are a number of quasi-accurate responses, but one of those is none.
It was very dark. Everything was huge and shapeless. Anchored as she was, tethered besides, clumsy with the weight of dripping fish-spangled net coming in over the gunwale, the nobby was tossed and slapped about with a violence that surprised him; flakes of wet brightness were being flung everywhere from the one lamp bound firmly to the mast. Yet the night was almost windless, the sea apparently sluggish: there must be, he thought, a stiff swell beneath them.
Collected in Classic Irish Short Stories, ed. Frank O’Connor, Oxford University Press, 1985
In ‘the river,’ brown creates a story that advocates for socioeconomic equality and social justice movements, with a strange agent of justice – waves from the river which selectively targets gentrifiers and the upper echelons of society. The entire collection is worth checking out – no-one can afford to overlook Octavia’s Brood.
In Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, ed. adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, AK Press, 2015
This story is important to me because it is one of my first experiences of intractable, strategic difficulty. Beckett is an influential writer for so many people that I won’t go into it here, but his early work (this was published in 1934) is somewhat under-read. I’ve made some notes to assist readers here. I restrained myself to one story from Beckett, but The Lost Ones (1970) and Imagination Dead Imagine (1965), which is described on first publication by Calder and Boyars as “Mr. Beckett’s first essay into a new kind of science fiction,” are also extremely important short works.
In More Pricks than Kicks, First published by Chatto in 1934. Now available from Faber, 2010
Aylett’s prose is startling, and his science fiction is worth reading for its dizzying mental pirouettes and its mastery of one-liners, rarely falling foul of glibness. This story is a series of ship’s log entries by one Samuel Light Sebastian in 1808 and an introduction penned by Mr. Aylett, who bought the logs off a man in Bristol – he observes that it is “the most undisciplined voyage in maritime history.” Shipmate Harker pees into the sea throughout the entire voyage. Other entries include:
“Albatross for dinner. Bad omen.”
“Hazlitt fired harpoon at surfacing anchovy.”
“John Conk passed by, kneeing himself in the groin.”
In Smithereens, Scar Garden, 2011
With cutting irony, this describes what most people would call a well-intentioned white couple’s interactions with a young black man. Hughes dramatizes the liberal attitude to “negroes” and the ways in which Black Art is valorized over Black Life. I love this story for its confrontational simplicity: everybody should meet it.
In The Ways of White Folks, Vintage, 1971
Kruk’s work is vital and important. This short story is a portrait of Martha, a woman who has a skin condition. Her mother has recommended daubing herself with urine and buttermilk, but it is not helping. The story’s language loses words as the protagonist’s skin flakes off, alternately verbless (“under it the face and body of Martha”) and subjectless (“At the table pours black pepper on the shapelessness”). Kruk is better known as a poet and the language displays this, pared down to an unrivalled intensity and ending in an oblique crescendo. Something about its quiet and fizzing energy has stayed with me.
In Gone Lawn 8, 2012
I first heard this story in summary during a performance of Lucy Beynon and Lisa Jeschke’s amazing David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife Songs, performed in Cambridge around 2013 or ’14. Pavel tells the play’s protagonist a version of this story. Kohlhaas leave two horses as collateral with an official of a certain nobleman. He finds out that this collateral was totally arbitrary, and demands the return of his horses. When he arrives at the castle of said noble, he discovers that the horses have been over-worked and his hired man, who protested against the mistreatment of the horses, has been beaten. Kohlhaas sues the nobleman for the cost of medical treatment for both. Due to political machinations, he is unsuccessful. Kohlhaas resorts to criminal means, beginning a snowballing vendetta worthy of Kafka. The problem is that “everybody forgot about the original horse-abuse.”
First published in 1810. Collected in The Marquise of O – And Other Stories, Penguin, 1978
Written in November 1976, this is a compelling meditation on the ways in which money changes ideas of gender in the genre of Fantasy. But perhaps it is better described as a parable, or a philosophical disquisition draped in dialogue and faux-anthropology. Delany is the kind of author who sets himself investigative tasks and works them out through story. ‘The Tale of old Venn’ describes the education of the girl Norema. Norema comes up with little theories about gender and gender roles, and Old Venn critiques them. Venn describes her experience of living with the Rulvyn, and their “rults” (worn only by men) and the ways in which theories and ideas about rults alter people’s behaviour, especially after one man develops a theory of rult-envy. Norema grows up, and in one of the most powerful sequences, a red ship with an all-female crew and an allegedly male captain (or is he some kind of pet? the narrative suggests as much) is burned down by heteronormative townsfolk who cannot accept or even conceptualize the ships presence as anything other than an abomination.
Adulthood is that time in which we see all human actions follow forms, whether well or badly, and it is the perseverance of the forms that is, whether for better or worse, their meaning.
In Tales of Nevèrÿona, Wesleyan University Press, 1993
This is a wonderfully written story and a harrowing cry for change. In the near-future, as precarity becomes ever more pervasive, our protagonist Narnia encounters a cruel irony. Diagnosed with cancer, working freelance selling motion-captures of herself to pay her bills – oh, not healthcare bills, just food, travel, childcare etc. – Narnia finds that the avatar animating her rejection for cancer treatment was modelled by herself at the beginning of the story in her motion-capture rig. Narnia’s cryptocurrencies take the shape of a frog and then a pig, allowing for an extensive meditation on money’s physiognomy beyond mere number. The plaintive call for an end to free-market ideology at the text’s close rams a brand-new anterior insular cortex up your nose before delivering a near-fatal bear-hug:
It just gets worse. We really have stop. It just gets worse. It’s not even the dying that’s the problem. […] Something else happens soon, and I can’t even get into it. […] It’s all to do with the Childcare Commons. Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Childcare is no exception. Please. We have to stop. This has to stop. We can do better. We will. We have to stop this. This has to stop. This story starts with us.
In The Long and Short, 14th July 2016)