An eclectic list of my favourite stories. Sorry for the Will Self overdose.
Self remains my favourite short story writer. ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ depicts an eccentric academic who invents the conceit that there is a fixed quota of insanity in the world, and therefore that “if you provide efficient medication for manic depressives in the Fens, there are perceptible variations in the number of agoraphobics on the South coast”. I think I was initially drawn to Self’s writing because he writes about madness so well. ‘Quantity’ – both the story and collection – captured the quiddity of my father’s illness (schizophrenia), far better than many stories/novels which aimed to portray the illness in a more direct and obvious fashion. It’s the tone of the story that resonated: the wonderful mixture of the banal and the bizarre, the comic and the tragic, and the swirling schizoidy colours of Self’s imagination. It’s also the first of Self’s stories, I believe, that introduces Dr Busner, the Laingian psychiatrist who became a recurrent figure in Self’s fiction.
First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury 1991
Leonora Carrington was a lifelong lover of animals. I remember reading that as she child she was so fond of her horse that for a time she believed she was a horse too. Horses and hyenas often feature in her magnificent Surrealist paintings and short stories. In ‘The Debutante’, the female narrator is a frequent visitor to her local zoo. There she befriends a hyena, who turns out to be very intelligent – “I taught her French and she, in turn, taught me her language.” Keen to avoid playing the debutante and going to a ball, she and the hyena plot to swap places. This involves killing her maid Mary, so that the hyena can nibble off her face and adopt it as a mask. The prose is clean and simple, and the merry tone of the story makes the sudden swerve towards violence even more blackly comic and disturbing. Whilst the hyena goes to the ball, the debutante is able to stay in and enjoy reading Gulliver’s Travels. The hilarious, satirical twist at the end explores how difficult it is to maintain masks, especially when young women are expected to play feminine and nice; the hyena certainly can’t keep up the pretence for long…
First published in 1940 in André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humour.Collected inThe Debutante and Other Stories, Silver Press 2017
My father is a Catholic and I attended a C of E school; my mother was an Indiophile and so I grew up reading The Vedas, which I took to more than the Bible. Vasisthya’s Yoga, written around the 6th century, is a spiritual epic which explores the nature of reality and the path to enlightenment. It is also a treasure trove of gloriously imaginative cosmic stories that can be enjoyed for their literary value, regardless of the reader’s interest in the spiritual. ‘The Story of Śikhidhvaja and Cudala’ is a feminist one, and the oldest story I know that explores gender fluidity. Śikhidhvaja and Cudala are a King and Queen who rule a kingdom; Cudala becomes enlightened before her husband, who wanders off into the forest seeking liberation, only to find himself lost and confused. Cudala turns herself into a brahman who offers to educate him (though, conveniently, s/he informs him that due to a curse s/he turns into a nymph by night, allowing them to make love once their daily instruction is over). What follows is a tale structured like a matryoshka, stories nestled within stories, as Cudala coaxes him towards enlightenment. It is playful, witty and full of twists and turns, but interspersed with profound reflections on the nature of life.
Included in Vasistha’s Yoga, University of New York Press 1993, p.422
One of the finest stories I’ve read exploring war and its aftermath. It’s very different from the playful magic realism of Ingalls’ novel Mrs Caliban. Ingalls was inspired to write it after seeing news footage of the 1990s Balkans War. A family return to their home after an unnamed war, finding it wrecked and soiled and slashed and ruined. The father, shellshocked by his experiences as a soldier, finds solace in simple, unexpected pleasures – plucking a small apple from a remaining tree in his garden and remembering his boyhood, when he was “unbroken”, when the trees “brought the loveliness of spring up to the windows and its honey breath into all the rooms”. For the most part, however, this is a harsh, bleak story depicting societal breakdown as the townsfolk struggle to repair their lives. Ingalls captures their descent into desperate brutality in sparse, sober prose.
First published in Days Like Today, Faber & Faber 2000
Sostène Zanzibar, a successful novelist based in Paris, is suffering a midlife crisis and struggling with creative inspiration. When the journalist Loren Ipsum comes to interview him, they embark on a love affair that ends in humiliation for Zanzibar, who then descends into crisis. The prose is beautifully crafted, the story a wonderful mixture of literary satire, erudite references, superb puns and zingy one-liners, and jokes that made me laugh out loud – Zanzibar’s ex “publicly pooh-poohed his cunnilingus technique, comparing the result as a series of ‘indecipherable chicken-scratch squiggles’”. As the story progresses, there is a shift in tone from comic to poignant and the ending is dreamy and bittersweet.
First published in The White Review, and available to read online. Collected in We’ll Never Have Paris, Repeater Books, 2019
“Some people lose their sense of proportion; I’ve lost my sense of scale.” So begins Self’s hallucinogenic, 15,000-word tale of a morphine addict, a divorcee living in Beaconsfield in a cramped bungalow next to the Bekonscot Model Village. As the narrator descends in breakdown, he muses on motorway culture, failed fatherhood and his attempt to write a crime novel called Murder on the Median Strip. Burroughs and Ballard are clearly strong influences, as well as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll and Claude Lévi-Strauss in his play on size and scale. Self has stated that “my scale shtick goes right back to childhood scale”, when “I assiduously collected trolls, doll’s house furniture and tiny books such as Langenscheidt dictionaries – little things that I would arrange into tableau.” Self blends all these elements in the melting pot of his warped genius to form something wonderfully peculiar.
First published in abridged form in Granta 43: Best of Young British Novelists 2, 1993, and available to subscribers to read online here; collected in Grey Area, Bloomsbury, 1994; also published as a standalone Penguin 60, Penguin, 1995
Full disclosure: Dodo Ink have published the ebook edition of Other Rooms. But I’m not here to attempt to sell books (though I won’t be offended if you do buy it…) Hesterglock were the first to publish Turner’s triptych of stories and I am envious of them because he is a special talent. Ballard’s influence is evident, though M John Harrison has praised them as “perhaps ‘Ballardian’, perhaps something altogether more human, softened, quotidian.” ‘Meridian’ begins with a funeral, the grief-stunned narrator attempting to right himself by walking all day in a straight line along 0 degrees longitude – “not to delineate a route or line in the landscape, but to register an un-movement; one that wouldn’t highlight the route’s presence in the world of experience, rather carve out its absence.” Like many of Turner’s stories, it explores how environments can be faint shadows of thoughts and relationships before people are fully conscious of their subliminal worlds.
First published in Other Rooms, Hesterglock, 2018. You can read an extract at Minor Literatures
This is Self’s funniest story: an aspiring anthologist called Janner, based at university in Reigate, wins a bursary to study the Ur-Bororo, a mysterious tribe living in the Paquatyl region of the Amazon. When Janner returns from his mission, he has suddenly become adept at making small-talk, for the Ur-Bororo have rubbed off on him. It transpires the tribe are “relentlessly banal”, their language possessing a number of different inflections which describe various states of boredom – boring hunting, boring gathering, boring fishing, boring sex. In a deliciously satirical ending, Janner marries a member of the tribe and they settle in England, where she fits in perfectly with British society.
First published in The Quantity Theory of Insanity, Bloomsbury, 1991
This Paradise is one of my favourite short story collections of recent years. When I was a judge for the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize, I wanted to champion her book for the long/shortlist – but unfortunately Boiler House Press were disqualified from entering, since UEA were the prize’s sponsor. Like many of Cowling’s stories, it wrongfoots and disorientates the reader. It starts out as a satire on our dependence on gadgets, focusing on a busy mother who has succumbed to technology and is able to switch her children on/off when they become too demanding. On a trip to a supermarket, she finds the switch no longer seems to work, perhaps due to overuse. In her subsequent panic, she wonders if it ever existed at all, so that we’re left uncertain whether we’re reading a sci-fi satire or the account of a mental breakdown.
First published in Wasafari, 2017 and available to read here; collected in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019
Danny, a drug dealer with a gentle disposition, is framed for a paedophilic murder. Incarcerated in Wandsworth prison, Danny discovers literature – ‘reading burst through his mental partitions, partitions that the crack had effectively shored up, imprisoning his sentience, his rational capacity, behind psychotically patterned drapes’. When a literary competition for prisoners called The Nonce Prize is announced, he seeks redemption in writing. There are plenty of Self’s characteristic literary fireworks on display here; as well as being a fine piece of satire, this is also an unexpectedly touching story. While Self’s early work demonstrates a lack of interest in character in his preference for ideas and an energetic style, this story suggests a maturing and new subtlety in his writing, for Danny is unusually well-rounded and sympathetic.
Included in Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, Bloomsbury 1998
It’s hard to pick a favourite from Cosmicomics. In this one, the narrator Qfwfq explores the scientific fact that the moon was once close to the earth. It bobbed just above the sea so that men rowing beneath it feared they might bang their heads if they stood up, and regularly visited it to collect the creamy, curdy milk that collected on its surface, which needed to be filtered due to the pollution of “fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb.” A mad, vivacious tale that fills me with joy every time I read it.
First published in Italian in 1965. First published in English by Jonathan Cape, 1968. Now available from Penguin Classics, 2010
The story is set in Turin in 1938, narrated by a young journalist called Paolo Corbera. One evening he strikes up a friendship in a café with an elderly man called Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies. The pair return to the café on a nightly basis to share stories of the past and debate the present day. La Ciura reminisces on a romance he had in his youth which still haunts him, a tryst with a mermaid named Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Her voice was irresistible to him, “a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides” – and so she became his first and only love. A meditation on loss, love and time, this is a bittersweet story which possesses the dreamlike, enigmatic feeling of a Fellini film.
First published in Italian by Feltrinelli 1961; first published in English in Two Stories and a Memory, Collins and Harvill, 1962, translated by Archibald Colquhoun. The Stephen Twilley translation is in The Professor and the Siren, The New York Review of Books Classics 2014