Introduction

One of my flatmates at college was a timid philosophy student. I never heard her enter a room or walk down the corridor, and was convinced she floated around in ballet slippers, yet when I consulted her footwear, it comprised of the typical student menu of Doc Martens and Converse. Every few weeks, we’d have a party in the flat, invariably with a theme, and whilst she never expressed a wish to attend, she didn’t indicate a desire to forego it either. Although I guess it was hard not to attend a party that was taking place five metres away from your bedroom.

She always appeared at these gatherings, but I could never calculate how long she stayed, nor discern precisely when she had entered or exited the room. She left little trace; neither ate nor drank, but she observed intensely, and occasionally made an insightful remark. She removed one of the most trying characteristics from friendship: expectation. Whilst most of us spend our mid-twenties drunk on people-pleasing, she’d no desire to participate in it, nor to offer others a complete picture of how she carried herself in the world. We can often mistake this behaviour for evasiveness, hostility or even failure on our part. When another flatmate complained that she was difficult to get to know and asked me to describe her personality, I said that she was like a short story.

‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace

When David Foster Wallace writes in the imperative, you stop and listen. You accept his personal as universal in the story ‘Forever Overhead’ because he’s gifted it to you in such an airtight condition, that you don’t feel a single draught when you read it. It’s spiked with the usual DFW arrangements, which are filtered through the punch of the present tense. While the focus is on a boy about to dive into a pool, it’s the process rather than the result that’s tested out here. It’s a disservice to pathologise every bit of text that DFW wrote, and to relate this piece directly to his mental health. The process of thinking and its consequences need not always be understood in a clinical context; it can be more interesting to reach for an alternative. Thinking is both a gift and a curse in ‘Forever Overhead’. One of the most impressive things in this story is how the narrator’s thoughts order and manipulate time. You can see that this was achieved through utter graft and witness the energy it must have taken to capture anticipation so accurately: “There’s been time this whole time. You can’t kill time with your heart. Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Little, Brown, 1999. Can be read online here

‘The Thirtieth Year’ by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Michael Bullock

I read that our brains (see Robert Sapolsky’s Behave) don’t fully develop the capacity to tolerate strong divergences from our opinions until around the late-twenties. With this in mind, I recommend you wait until you’re over thirty to read this story. It has the similar effect on one’s morale as Philip Larkin’s poem ‘On Being Twenty-Six’ although Larkin’s ‘source-encrusting doubt’ has hardened to a mouldy loaf by Bachmann’s ‘The Thirtieth Year’. Like ‘Forever Overhead’, this story takes place almost entirely in the mind of the narrator, with some cameos from the outside world. The speaker surveys his life as he enters his thirtieth year, and begins to regard the previous years as probationary. Expectations are lamented upon, as is the wodge of irritations manufactured simply through the passage of time. The most objectionable of irritants is touched upon too, that of unsolicited advice. “The Thirtieth Year” reads like a throat-clearing, not without some significant coughs, but it stresses the comfort we might find in self-clarity.

Collected in The Thirtieth Year, 1987

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges

We zoom out from the apertures of lens ‘13’ and ‘30’ and consider a lifetime. The life of Funes is recalled through the narrator’s memory in an insecure way, and the infrequency of their encounters is stressed (‘I never saw him more than three times.’). Frequency does not necessarily inform intensity. Some of the people I love most in my life I’ve have met no more than ten times face-to-face. Borges knew that you can see someone three hundred times in your mind. Perhaps the architecture of them that you’re building in your head is erroneous, and incomplete, but does that make it worthless? Funes is chronometrical and can tell the time without consulting a clock (a method later adapted and adopted by the character, Crocodile Dundee). It’s easy to feel shame when reading this story as it highlights human negligence and ignorance. It shows how complicit we are in the hierarchisation of life. Simone Weil described attention as the ‘purest and rarest form of generosity’ and the story of Funes extends the hand of kindness to memory and leaves us to contemplate its destructive and creative nature.

First published in La Nación in 1942. Collected in Fictions, various editions. Can be read online here

‘The Encyclopaedia of the Dead’ by Danilo Kiš

Strangely, I read Danilo Kiš before I ever read Borges. I have no defence. Kiš, like his literary hero, is a masterful archivist of experiences. The story opens with a reference to the Vasa warship, itself a repository of many lives and objects lived, and subsequently preserved. Kiš was a remarkable stylist and literary critic and deplored identity-literature as he felt it made the single story somehow acceptable to the reader. Kiš shows us that there’s more than one way to present and re-present a life; there’s a curriculum vitae or a biography, but there’s also the wine stain we leave on a carpet or the fact that we may clandestinely listen to Drake on repeat. And for a little while, we are the containers for these things. They are in us because wherever we go, we ‘bear our grief within ourselves’.

Collected in Encyclopaedia of the Dead, FSG, 1997, translated by Michael Henry Heim, republished by Penguin Modern Classics, 2015, translated by Mark Thompson. Can be read online here

‘The Kiss’ by Anton Chekhov

James Wood’s description of ‘The Kiss’ in his book The Nearest Thing to Life is pitch-perfect. It relates to his theory of ‘serious noticing’ and he writes of how hypervigilance can transform our relationship to time and experience. The story exists also as an instruction of how to tell a story. Ryabovich becomes obsessed with a woman who erroneously kissed him in the darkness. He did not see her, only sensed her. If someone made a film-short of ‘The Kiss’ now, I’d put my money on Richard Linklater for the role of director. Experience isn’t as faithful to time as we think. Certainly not after it’s been fed through our brain repeatedly. Ryabovich is masterful at synthesising the experience in his head, but not in his life, and this is a common theme in the stories that I admire. We can all relate to the comfort found in projected experiences rather than lived ones.

Read in Short Stories from the 19th Century, selected by David Stuart Davies, 2000 and widely collected. Can be read online here

‘The Necklace’ by Guy de Maupassant, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

It’s depressing how human behaviour doesn’t evolve. Well at least that’s what it feels like after reading the desolate short story, ‘The Necklace’. This plot has the flavour of a Kanye & Kim vignette (but not April 2018 moral philosopher Kanye). Not least because it involves jewellery in Paris. Whilst I did not grow up poor, I grew up in a materially precarious environment. Nothing was taken for granted and luxuries were speculative and mostly realised through bank loans. The longest relationship I’ve ever had is with debt. Why? Because I also wanted what I didn’t have. I wanted to live in a city I was not born in and then in a country I was not born in. I had an idea of the life I should be living, and whilst it didn’t involve jewellery or designer handbags, I had a sharp sense of entitlement. ‘The Necklace’ highlights how odious an trait entitlement is and how recklessly we can mistake imprisonment for escape.

Collected in The Necklace & Other Tales, 2003. Can be read online here

‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I worked in mental health for nine years. For double that time I’ve had a mental illness that I felt was best managed by working in mental health settings. It is not hyperbolic to say that no encounter with a therapist, as a patient, nor with a patient, as a practitioner, helped me understand mental illness so much as ‘Signs and Symbols’ by Vladimir Nabokov. I recently read a relative’s psychiatric records from the 1950s and the main symptom the doctor was concerned about was the patient’s bibliophilia. They recommended that he read less. Nabokov knew acutely the experiences of plenitude and penury. It was key that plentitude came first. Had Nabokov just kept his associations in his head, and not on the page, then his life experience would have been markedly different. There’s a type of mania called apophenia, which involves the sufferer making incessant spontaneous connections between unrelated phenomena. Nabokov takes a brand of this, and describes the condition more solipsistically as ‘referential mania’. This story reminds me again of how obsessed we are with functionality. I once stood in a boardroom where graphic designers discussed for hours the shape of a bird’s tail that was due to appear on a book cover. Transplant that conversation to a bus stop, give it no outcome and witness how it’s interpreted. The world puts us in our boxes and in our little jars. The boy that the parents visit at the asylum in ‘Symbols & Signs’, who has made several attempts on his life, wants to ‘tear a hole in his world and escape’. But for me, the fissures are already there. Human beings are the tears in the world. And it is the categorisations that make this story heartbreaking. A tear can be seen from both sides of the surface. There is a confluence to it but Nabokov shows us how looking out from the tear and looking into it are essentially two different languages.

First published in The New Yorker, 1948 [as ‘Symbols and Signs’], and collected in Nabokov’s Dozen, 1958 and Collected Short Stories, 1995.

‘Foes’ by Lorrie Moore

In her collection Bark, you can also read ‘Referential’, a beautiful modulation of Nabokov’s ‘Symbols & Signs’ with some accidentals thrown in. Remember when we used to do our barking in real life and not on Twitter? Moore captures the dinner-party barking perfectly in another story from the same collection, ‘Foes’, which was originally printed on the eve of the 2008 US election. Like all the stories I’ve listed, the author draws attention to the irresistibility of hierarchisation. It’s as if we shouldn’t just be born with a ribcage and skin, but also a me-shaped box, labelled to save time. This story is also reminiscent of the lethargy that sets in at around 35 when you simply don’t want to talk to anyone you don’t know anymore in social settings. Age does not bring clarity to either interlocutor. ‘Foes’ is one of the most vivid portrayals of how artists and creative types are generally treated at public functions, which is to say that they are usually invited there to be performing monkeys. I guess the thought being that if you earn very little money, the least you could do is be very interesting. This story is also fantastic at capturing what it was like to live during the George W. Bush era, where trauma didn’t seem to be an opportunity for transformation, rather cementation.

First published in The Guardian, 2008. Collected in Bark, 2014

‘Vitalie Meets an Officer’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug translated by Kari Dickson

She loved the sentences in them. The way the sentences presented themselves as if what they said had actually happened.

Anna Bae the Younger is reading a biography of Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud didn’t give a fuck and that really appeals to Anna. It’s hard to separate the generosity with which Anna treats her objective world, from how she considers the life of Rimbaud. They bleed into one another. The ‘Vitalie’ of the story is Rimbaud’s mother and the narrative circles around precarity and chance. How Vitalie somehow managed to encounter a French soldier in 1852 fascinates Anna because the biography acts as evidence: yes, a counter-biography is possible. One can sit at home, adhering to routine and yet be interrupted by the unexpected. A companion story is crafted by Anna on her sofa while reading the biography and thinking about a Nick Cave song. Anna, like Ryabovich and Madame Loisel in ‘The Necklace’, is busy preparing for a life alternative to the one she’s living.

Collected in Knots, FSG, 2017

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka

As ‘Symbols and Signs’ helped me understand the paradoxes of mental illness, ‘In the Penal Colony’ clarified for me the hypocritical nature of the law. I first read it in a college German Literature class, and because I had quite ropy German, I was sure that I’d misunderstood most of the vocabulary and plot. I bought an English translation and was completely shocked to have my reading of the story affirmed. This story actually made me change my academic track and I dropped German to focus on criminology and penology, eventually going on to work in prisons and forensic hospitals. I learnt from this story that identity seems to be forged more strongly through differentiation rather than association. That discipline is spoken and written before it is acted upon. That we are complicit in our spectator role in society, especially how we desire that lawbreakers be physically removed from our daily life. We value the opinion of an acceptable person over an unacceptable one, and this perpetuates our obsession with categorising human beings and their behaviour.

First published in 1919. First translation, by Eugene Jolas, published Partisan Review, 1941. Collected in The Complete Short Stories and elsewhere in various translations. Can be read online here

‘Stanville’ by Rachel Kushner

Kushner offers us a bifocal view of a female prison. The first perspective is given by Gordon Hauser, a creative writing teacher at the Stanville facility. The secondary viewpoint comes from Romy L. Hall, a female inmate. It documents the naivety of the well-intentioned and how they feel they somehow irrevocably transform those who encounter them. I’ve seen it a lot in my previous work, and used to cringe when I heard writers who occasionally teach in prisons speak of how ‘powerful’ or ‘vital’ the creative work of prisoners is. They take on the role of a host there to discover the validity of the prisoner’s existence, as if it couldn’t be activated until this alchemical teacher-student exchange. I’ve occupied the position of a non-security staff member in a prison, which is a liminal zone where you carry keys but spend your time emphasising your exceptionalism with both your body and your voice. Depending on the individual circumstances of the prisoner, they usually don’t occupy a materially rich existence. The only thing they truly own are the stories that happened to them before prison and how they choose to tell them. It’s common to receive redacted biographies and to be told versions of the truth. A prisoner once told me that he was convicted of motor offences, when he was serving a sentence for rape. But it was true: he had also committed driving offences. Orientation of the truth is not something that happens to other people and Kushner expertly presents us with two characters that struggle with this navigation. She paraphrases Nietzsche towards the story’s conclusion, to highlight our varying capacities for verity: “The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”

In The New Yorker, 2018

‘Wandering-Standing’ by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

When I first read ‘Wandering-Standing’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, I wanted to throw the book against my living room wall. I wanted nothing to do with such astounding writing. The strongest association with the collection I could tolerate would be the dent the book left on the wall before I had removed it from my life altogether. I’ve since revised my opinion and let it move back in. Krasznahorkai lives (and no doubt thinks) in a different time signature to the rest of the planet. If he gives you music, it will always be a deceptive cadence. He labours over not just the remoteness and propinquity of experiences, but over the space-shaped spaces in between each moment. He describes desire as ‘the yearning of a person not only to be transported to the greatest distance from his present position, but to the place of great promise’. He focuses not on general streets but the shape the street makes on your shoe. There is so much security to be found in Krasznahorkai precarious methods… you can trust him and you really should.

Collected in The World Goes On, New Directions, 2017. Can be read online here