This story begins in medias res, as if, like Pegman on Google’s Street View, the reader is dragged and dropped into the narrative on a sizzling Japanese beach, “…and so my timing was thrown off. And so a space opened in my emotions.” These are the summers we all can’t quite remember – the summer of our burgeoning sexuality, of our changing bodies in our brand-new swimsuits, of our crushing crushes and fizzing desires, of being stung by jellyfish, burned by the sun and scorched by first love.
Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016) was the daughter of the extraordinary Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai (check out his No Longer Human in all its Japanese existential autobiographical angst). Her father had left the family home to live with his mistress and, just after Yūko’s first birthday, he and his lover had committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Aqueduct. There is a lot of water in Tsushima’s work, a lot of death, a lot of missing fathers, and her fiction concentrates on abandoned woman fighting their way in a misogynist society, a feminist viewpoint against a male-dominated society.
The story has similarities to Yukio Mishima’s ‘Death in Midsummer’, which also concerns sunburns, sandcastles, the sea, death, fathers and also has a character called Keiko. Tsushima’s work is sparse and incandescent, dreamlike while dealing with real problems. For further reading, go to Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, both Penguin Modern Classics. Another of her summer stories I could have chosen – ‘The Watery Realm’ – is in the pocket-sized Penguin Modern series along with ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.
First published in the short story collection Watashi (I), 1999. Its only English translation is online at Words Without Borders. Chosen by Steve Finbow. Read Steve’s Personal Anthology here
The stories in my anthology made me laugh, gave me the willies, or plain blew my mind and made me think about the form of the short story, about literature and therefore about life.
This is a story of paranoia, obsession and guilt, of post-Sophoclean horror and pre-Freudian psychosis.
True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
This is the first short story I remember reading that stayed with me, that I copied out to see how it was done, that – at the pretentious age of seventeen – I decided to turn into a play and got as far as ‘casting’ it. I disagree with Henry James who wrote, “An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection. Baudelaire thought him a profound philosopher… Poe was much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.” Bitch.
First published in The Pioneer, 1843, and widely available in Penguin Little Black Classics, 2015 and online here)
Waldo Jeffers had reached his limit. It was now mid-August which meant he had been separated from Marsha for more than two months. Two months, and all he had to show was three dog-eared letters and two very expensive long-distance phone calls.
At an even earlier age, this song transfixed me with its mixture of a short story (written by Lou Reed, read by John Cale) and feedback rock. This was experimental music and an experiment with the form of the short story. From this point on, both noise music and experimental literature would interest me, and still do. I could have chosen other examples of the short story as song – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Black Diamond Bay’, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘Holland, 1945’ and Current 93’s work with Thomas Ligotti. Reed’s mixture of humour (rare for Lou) and suburban horror blends and contrasts with Cale’s mellifluous accent and the raucous noise of his fuzz bass, Sterling Morrison white-hot guitar and Maureen Tucker’s power percussion.
Born five years after the death of Jonathan Swift, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) – as Camille Pagila argues in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (snappy!) – is best categorised as a satirist rather than a pornographer. Sade would have denied both and all forms of literary taxonomy. Iconoclastic, anti-clerical, revolutionary, Sade even contradicted his own psychopathic sexuality. In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the terms sadism and masochism (after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) to describe active and passive sexual pleasure derived from pain. If anything, taking as clues Sade’s sexual preferences in his novels, the Divine Marquis was a masochist. In this masochistic and funny short story, Sade attacks everything – the Church, the State, marriage, literature, himself and finishes with Carry On-like ribaldry. The Crimes of Love and The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales (both Oxford World’s Classics) act as literary foreplay to the longer philosophic prose orgies.
In De Sade Quartet, Peter Owen, 1963. Online here
Probably my favourite Japanese author, well, the one I return to more than others, Akutagawa is best known for his short stories ‘Rashōmon’ and ‘In a Grove’ – Akira Kurrosawa’s Rashomon is based on the latter and not the former tale. For a take on Akutagawa’s troubled life and writings, read David Peace’s fictional biography Patient X. This story details the slow disintegration of Akutagawa’s mind, faith and life. It recalls the doubles in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky and looks forward to the doppelgangers in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Ursula K. Le Guin. Akutagawa walks through the streets of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, much as Poe’s William Wilson had done in Stoke Newington one hundred years earlier. In this Tokyo, still devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, Akutagawa encounters people we are not quite sure exist, friends say they have met him in bars when Akutagawa wasn’t there and he becomes obsessed with the strange workings of his mind and memory. Other Japanese authors I could have included are Kanoko Okamoto, Osamu Dazai, Kenji Nakagami, Mieko Kanai, Yūko Tsushima, Yōko Ogawa and Mariko Nagai.
First published posthumously as ‘Haguruma’, 1927. Translated by Jay Rubin in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, Penguin Classics, 2009. Online here
Paul Bowles’s works are disturbing. Not in the sense of a Stephen King or a Clive Barker but in that overused term “psychological”. I’m not one to divulge the storyline in a review, as I’d like the reader to enjoy (if that’s the word) the creeping sense of disquiet, the horripilation, the quickening of breath as the story unfolds. Bowles is sometimes grouped with the Beat Generation writers (he happened to be living in Tangier when William S. Burroughs moved there, later being visited by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso) but Bowles is a better and more subtle writer than all of them (even if Burroughs is the more experimental and influential). Bowles’s novels and short stories are full of violence and depravation – both actual and inferred – and infused with the desert’s silence and darkness. This is a North Africa where European/Americans are out of their depth, however much they feel integrated.
First published in Partisan Review, January–February, 1947. Collected in Collected Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Online here
In 1969, in his essay ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, Michel Foucault claimed that, “Perhaps one day this century will be known as Deleuzian.” Let us allow Gilles Deleuze the 20th century and strike a claim as early as 2018 for the 21st being Ballardian. Of course, Ballard owed much to earlier speculative fiction, to Kafka (the two main characters in this short story are called Franz and Gregson), Jorge Luis Borges, and even to Philip K. Dick. But Ballard’s “inner space”, his domestic dystopias and his triumvirate of doctor, desirable woman and psychopath (or an amalgamation of all three in different personae) circumscribe personal and narrative loci while synchronously shattering our given ideas on family, sex, violence and society. To add an autobiographical note, I grew up five miles from where Ballard lived – Old Charlton Road in Shepperton – so I knew Ballard’s topography, cycled its roads, watched planes land and depart, walked around the reservoirs. I think I was about eighteen when I summoned up the courage – or had quaffed enough pints of lager – to phone Mr. Ballard (his number was in the book) to ask him for an interview. He was very polite but declined, saying that he had a deadline – no doubt with a large glass of scotch and soda. So I took to walking past his house with its yellow door and overgrown front garden, hoping to catch a glimpse through the dingy net curtains of Jim or at least his reproductions of Paul Delvaux’s ‘The Violation’ and ‘The Mirror’, apt descriptions of Ballard’s prose with its doubles and perversions, its violence and psychological/pathological reflection. ‘The Concentration City’ is a very early Ballard story and on re-reading it I was struck again by its dystopian vision of an over-populated and extensively built world, a premonition of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and Planet of Slums, but saw anew how it prefigured William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy.
First published, under the title ‘Build-Up’, in New Worlds volume 19 number 55 in January 1957. Collected in The Disaster Area, Jonathan Cape, 1967, and The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 1, Fourth Estate, 2014. Online here
Taking a cue from this author, I will be brief. This three-sentence short story is all things Bernhardian – concise, cruel and funny. The reader may also enjoy Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon.
From The Voice Imitator, University of Chicago Press, 1997. Originally published as Der Stimmenimitator, 1978. Online here
At the end of the eighteenth century, the German Romantic poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel wrote, “a fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” This is a more apt description of the short story, a fragment implies that there is something missing, that it is a surviving part of a whole, that it eludes to something more complete – I’m thinking of Sappho, Sophocles and Antimachus; whereas the short story (at least the ones I enjoy) are small, prickly, perfect in their own haecceity, and slightly humorous. Sukenick was one of the founders of the Fiction Collective (later Fiction Collective Two), a radical publisher of experimental short fiction; its authors included Mark Amerika, Chris Mazza, Fanny Howe, Samuel R. Delaney, Curtis White and Mark Leyner. This story, set in the queue for the Uffizi Gallery, is an absurd take on tourism, racism, sexism, cultural appropriation and misunderstanding. I’ve not had much luck visiting galleries, in 1993 I had been in the Uffizi fifteen minutes when there was a bomb threat and the building was evacuated. I’ve not been back. In 2004, in Berlin, I planned to visit the huge MoMA exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie, only to find the line stretching for what seemed like miles along the Potsdamer Strasse. On the approach to the entrance, there was an illuminated sign informing us of the wait time – twenty-eight hours.
Collected in Doggy Bag, University of Alabama Press, 1994. Online here
I can’t find an online link to this short story, so I’m going to quote the opening page as evidence of its brilliance…
i was an infinitely hot and dense dot so begins the autobiography of a feral child who was raised by huge and lurid puppets an autobiography written wearing wrist weights it ends with these words: a car drives through a puddle of sperm, sweat, and contraceptive jelly splattering the great chopsocky vigilante from hong kong inside, two acephalic sardines in mustard sauce arc asleep in the rank darkness of their tin container suddenly, the swinging doors burst open and a mesomorphic cyborg walks in and whips out a 35 Ib. phallus made of corrosion-resistant nickel-base alloy and he begins to stroke it sullenly, his eyes half shut it’s got a metal-dioxide membrane for absolute submicron filtration of petrochemical fluids it can ejaculatc herbicides, sulphuric acid, tar glue, you name it at the end of the bar, a woman whose album-length poem about temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) had won a grammy for best spoken word recording is gently slowly ritually rubbing copper hexafluoroacetylacetone into her clitoris as she watches the hunk with the non-euclidian features shoot a glob of dehydrogenated ethylbenzene 3,900 miles towards the arctic archipelago eventually raining down upon a fiord on baffin bay outside, a basketball plunges from the sky, killing a dog at a country fair, a huge and hairy man in mud-caked blue overalls, surrounded by a crowd of retarded teenagers, swings a sledgehammer above his head with brawny keloidal arms and then brings it down with all his brute force…
There are more ideas in a Mark Leyner short story than in most 900-page novels.
In My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, Harmony Books, 1990. Also included in Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk & Postmodern Science Fiction, ed. Larry McCaffery, Duke University Press Books, 1991
I’m not sure that this is a short story but then Kathy Acker probably didn’t know what it was either. “THE LAND IN ALGERIA IS PINK LIFE IN THIS AMERICA STINKS” is how it begins and any literature so bold grabs my attention. And where are we with this “story”? We’re in Algeria and New York, in an orgy of origination and borrowings, of sex and violence, of torture and text. Acker’s going through a re-evaluation. Forgotten for a decade or so, there is now a biography by Chris Kraus, a re-issue of Blood and Guts in High School in Penguin Modern Classics and another biography will be published next year. The trouble with Acker is her life overshadows her writing, the post-punk poet, the princess of plagiarism, the tattooed postmodernist who was all textuality and sexuality. But read her books – if you can get hold of them – Acker takes Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method and shoots it full of deconstruction, she doesn’t even bother to cut up the source material, she just lobs it in like a fragmentation grenade, the narrative littered with smithereens of Georges Bataille, Pierre Guyotat, Jean Genet and Stephen Barber. But what Acker’s writing does for these “borrowed” texts is unleash an energy, an untapped source of reference and drive. Let us hope her other works are re-published.
Aloes Books, 1984. Also included in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, eds Chris Kraus & Sylvère Lotringer, Semiotext(e), 2001. Online here)
Vollmann is the ultimate maximalist writer, from his unfinished Seven Dreams series to his most recent non-fiction No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternative: volumes one and two of Carbon Ideologies (1,400 pages), Vollmann produces a lot and then produces some more. But he is also a consummate short story writer. ‘The Prophet of the Road’ is his usual mixture of reportage and fiction. Vollmann is a brave writer and this story exemplifies his syncretic style.
In The Atlas, Viking Penguin, 1996. Online here
The Ccru were a collective of students, theorists, writers, artists and musicians formed through the philosophy department of Warwick University in the 1990s. Founded by Sadie Plant and then guided by Nick Land, Ccru’s experimental philosophy, writing and performance art influenced artists and thinkers as diverse as Ray Brassier, Howard Slater, Mark Fisher, Hari Kunzru, Jake and Dinos Chapman and the trending theories of accelerationism and hauntology. This short story, in the form of a games manual, riffs on H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu mythology, Dick, Burroughs, cyberpunk and Post-structuralism. But it’s also funny in its hyper-arched all-too-aware hipness.
Published in Writings 1997-2003, Urbanomic Media, 2017, and online here