For most of high school, I hated short stories. It might have been the kind of stories we were taught—at an all-boys school, a certain kind of masculine New Zealand short story was favoured—but in class we always approached the form as a kind of puzzle, an allegory where, if you worked out the right symbolism, the story would spit out the ‘correct’ answer. Then, in my final year, I had a brilliant teacher who gave us the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Reading ‘The Garden Party’ for the first time, I realised stories could be like poetry—emotionally and syntactically complex—and at the same time, do all the storytelling work of a novel… just in a smaller, denser, more powerful package.
Mansfield remains a touchstone for me, both as an Aotearoa New Zealand writer whose professional life was centred in the UK, and as an example of the way the best stories gesture outwards, refusing a simple, allegorical answer.
First published in Saturday Westminster Gazette, February 1922. Collected in, amongst others, The Collected Stories, Penguin 2007. Read it online here)
It wasn’t until university that I would find confirmation of my “short story as poetry” theory, in the transcript of a talk given by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar published as ‘Some Aspects of the Short Story’. Here, Cortázar describes the short story as a “snail of language, a mysterious brother to poetry in another dimension of literary time.” More persuasive than Cortázar’s theories on this front, though, are his stories themselves. Shadowy figures take over a family house, a tiger stalks a countryside villa, a man slowly metamorphoses into an axolotl: these were not the realist fictions of the nineteenth-century, not even the poetic intensity of Mansfield—these stories were transporting, fantastic, and true.
‘Letter to a Young Woman in Paris’ shows both of Cortázar’s major strengths to their best advantage. The conceit of the story balances the surreal with the convincing in a way few other writers can manage. And the narrative itself is perfectly paced, with voice and structure pulling you towards the precipice you both crave and hope never to reach.
Included in Blow-Up and Other Stories, Pantheon 1967. For another translation online, see here
‘Candy Glass’ stands out amongst the dazzling stories in May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break for two reasons. One is formal: unlike the other stories in the collection, which look fairly standard, ‘Candy Glass’ is presented as a script (it’s fitting—the story follows the relationship between an aging actress and a younger stunt double).
The other is stylistic. Tan handles long stretches of time superbly. Her dialogue is at its sharpest and most knife-edge in this piece. And I suspect that, if you were to re-edit this as a conventional story, the language would still stand out as almost filmic, it is so beautifully, immersively visual
In Things to Make and Break, CB Editions, 2014. Now also published by Sceptre
Before I read any of Paul Bowles’ stories, I had the vague impression his works were like dark, more adult versions of a Tintin story, replete with white travellers in exotic lands who meet sticky ends. Certainly this is how his contemporaries viewed him in the 1950s: as an adventure writer first and foremost.
And if you wanted to read this kind of ‘Paul Bowles,’ there are plenty of stories you could choose. But Bowles’ best works are psychologically and emotionally rich: claustrophobic and twisted, with protagonists pushed to the brink, on the verge of collapse. Like Cortázar’s story, ‘Pages from Cold Point’ uses an epistolary form—here the diary, rather than a letter—to slowly ratchet up the narrative tension. And though, like many great short stories, this hinges on a turning point, where the reader only belatedly sees they have misunderstood the relationship at the heart of this story, the revelation is not a gimmick, but the dark truth essential to Bowles’ vision of the world.
Collected in The Delicate Prey, Random House 1950; Ecco Press 1972. Note: this story was omitted from the first British edition of Bowles’s stories, on advice from Somerset Maugham that it might lead to censorship or prosecution
I am constantly surprised that Jane Bowles’s fiction is less well-known (and less regarded) than her husband, Paul’s (though, like many readers, I came to her by way of Paul). This is in part a matter of scale: Jane’s published stories number less than ten to Paul’s excess of one hundred (though the collection Everything is Nice brings together fragments, sketches, and an excised section of her novel, Two Serious Ladies, that works brilliantly as a self-contained narrative). But where Paul is inconsistent, each of Jane’s stories is a perfectly formed strangeness, a queered, compelling insight into small, daily actions that give way to yawning depths.
Her descriptions of the waterfall in ‘Camp Cataract’ showcase her ability to summon the sublime not through poetic description but brief, alienating observations. And though the characters in this story might superficially resemble the outsider-protagonists of Carson McCullers’ stories, I am inclined to agree with Bowles’ assessment: that McCullers’ “freaks aren’t real”—at least, they aren’t as real as Jane’s isolated, unconventional women.
Collected in Plain Pleasures, Peter Owen 1966, and republished in Everything is Nice, Sort of Books 2012
Maybe it’s the old trope that novels tell the story of a community, short stories an individual. Maybe it is the way the brevity of a short story throws small details into greater focus. Whatever the reason, I’m always surprised by how bodily so many short stories are. Margarita Garcia Robayo takes this tendency towards the haptic and corporeal, and amplifies it: the bodies in her short stories and novellas are disobedient, abject, and frequently unpleasant. She is a master at tracing how we are undone by ourselves, how bodily cravings and rebellions thwart our plans and ideals. But through an alchemy she seems to have perfected, her stories transmute these flawed bodies into things beautiful and dignified. I could have chosen any of the pieces from her first collection in English, but ‘Like a Pariah’ always stays with me, thanks to its final line, rendered Carver-esque by Coombe’s excellent translation: “I’m perfectly alright.”
Collected in Fish Soup, Charco Press 2018
A short story is not a tableau or static image; by definition, it tells us a story. It goes somewhere. But because the short story is defined by its brevity, the most powerful stories often gravitate around a single, dominating image that gives the rest of the events their structure and meaning. Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Diving Pool’ is a twisted and complex story about Aya, the only girl in a house of orphans who is not an orphan. It traces her relationship with her parents, the orphaned children they raise, and with the house—the Light House—in which they live.
At the same time, the story revolves around a single, recurring image: Aya sitting in the bleachers beside the local pool, watching her foster-brother Jun climb the ten-metre board and dive, again and again. Ogawa is a virtuosic writer, and not all of her fiction is so creepy or emotionally murky, but it is in stories like this, where the possibility of danger or imminent collapse is always present, where every turned page threatens new cruelty, that she really excels.
First published in Zoetrope 11.2, 2007. Collected in The Diving Pool, Picador, 2008