The closest writing gets to rock n roll is deciding the running order of stories in a collection. Like putting together an album, what goes where is important; and nothing is more important than the opening salvo. A great opening story informs the reader of the kind of fiction they are likely to expect, while giving them a good reason to keep going. They should also be able to be read independently, and lose nothing from the experience.
The following opening stories all fulfil this credo, or at least they do for me. I hope they lead you to the stories, as well as the collections they so admirably head up.
The opening story in Heker’s selected stories Please Talk to Me, is indicative of the sharpness of her fiction; of its careful balancing of expectation with subversion. There is a laceration in the way she approaches fiction, and ‘The Stolen Party’ cuts like a switchblade. We know that the party nine-year-old Rosaura is to attend will end badly for her. We know how precarious her happiness is. But the suspense – the tension between innocence and experience – keeps building until its conclusion, which is as expected, yet somehow much worse than we could have foreseen.
First published in Spanish as ‘La fiesta ajena’, in Las peras del mal, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982. Collected in English in Please Talk to Me, Yale University Press, 2015
Oh, the voice! Bambara does things with voice few writers have ever accomplished. The aural pleasure of the way her sentences are constructed and built is only matched by the insight and intelligence of her stories – and this is just one of her best. Sexy, stylish, fierce, and wise, ‘My Man Bovanne’ is a blast of heart and fire.
From Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1972
The story I have read most often – and in the most detail – ‘Fat’ is a deep dive into the dumper truck of sadness. It has moments that still make me shiver even having read it hundreds of times. To think, this was the first story in his first collection! For me, it remains the high watermark of Carver’s art, and perhaps his most affecting.
First published in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? McGraw Hill, 1976. Currently available from Vintage Classics, 2009. Also collected in Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic/Harvill Press
If you wanted a way into the warped worlds of Cortázar, then ‘Axolotl’ provides it. I was utterly arrested by the opening paragraph (go find a copy, read it and tell me you don’t immediately need to know what happens next) and when I need something a little odd, a little fractured in my life, this is where I turn.
First published in Spanish in Litereria, 1952 and collected in Final del Juego. First published in English in End of the Game, Pantheon, 1967 and collected in Blow Up And Other Stories, Pantheon, 1985
The most liberated of all contemporary story writers, Helen Oyeyemi does exactly as she pleases, breaking rules and hearts along the way. This twisted story of keys and locks and love and flowers is a pulsating, yearning and utterly captivating narrative that swerves and feints until it arrives at a beautiful, superbly wrought ending.
First published on Granta.com, November 2014, and available to subscribers. Collected in What is not yours is not yours, Picador, 2016
The life that lives behind all of Paley’s stories shines through in every sentence, every fragment – and this is so apparent even in this first story in her first collection. Sixty years have passed since it was first published and it still rings a bell of truth as soundly as it did then.
First published in The Little Disturbances of Man, Doubleday, 1959. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 1994
Irenosen Okojie and I were lucky enough to judge the 2019 ALCS Tom Gallon Short Story prize, and our unanimous and clear winner was Dima Alzayat’s ‘Once We Were Syrians’. Her first collection opens with ‘Ghusl’, a shattering, yet restrained story of grief, memory and family. Look out for the collection when it’s published in May.
from Alligator and Other Stories, Picador, May 2020
Nicole Flattery is more intelligent and a lot funnier than most writers; this fact is writ large in her wonderful debut collection. ‘Show Them a Good Time’ is one of her best stories – against some stiff competition – and captures a sense of our times in a way that is contemporary, clever, but not faddish. A singular writer and a singular story.
First published in Show Them a Good Time, Stinging Fly/Bloomsbury, 2019
In my edition of Julia and the Bazooka, the blurb calls it ‘a classic of drug literature’, but I think that’s to do it rather a disservice. Drugs feature – heroin mainly, and specifically in this story –however, I think Kavan shows us more what it feels like to be other, to not feel part of the mass on the street, not to trust even oneself. The end of the story is the end of every junkie story, but still manages to bring new notes to the score.
First published posthumously in Julia and the Bazooka, Peter Owen, 1970. Reissued in 2009
The first book I ever bought based on a newspaper review, Drown remains one of my most treasured collections. It wasn’t like anything I’d read before; it remains strangely new now, despite the number of times I have read it.
First published in Drown, Riverhead Books/Faber, 1996
One of my favourite of all collections, and one of my favourite stories, ‘City of Boys’ hypnotises with its clear eyed and oddly circuitous story of a love affair that might be unpicked at any time. It is one of those stories that inhabits a life and a situation so utterly, you feel bereft at its conclusion. That this is her only story collection is a travesty – how I would love to read a new collection from her!
In City of Boys, Knopf, 1992
Something of a cheat, this one, as it is a posthumous collection and one that the author knew nothing about. Oh, and that the opening story isn’t really a story at all, but an autobiographical fragment. But what a fragment, and what a collection! For this we should give thanks to the diligence and tenacity of Jennifer Hodgson.
Collected in The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018