‘Axolotl’ by Julio Cortázar

I love the way Cortázar writes the horrifying – in this story, a person becomes an axolotl; in another, people are sequestered in increments to a smaller and smaller area of their house by unspecified intruders – with a sparseness and rationality of tone. The first paragraph of ‘Axolotl’ is three sentences. The first is, “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls.” The third is “Now I am an axolotl.” I’m not going to attempt to pathologise the story – if it was easily reducible, then it wouldn’t be nearly so good – but I do think it’s doing some beautiful things about the relationship between obsession and transmutation, literal or psychological.  

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

‘all the boys’ by Thomas Morris

It’s a simple premise: a stag do in Dublin. The story is clever in how it uses the homogenising refrain of ‘all the boys’, as well as the kind of searing satirisation of a familiar genre of person – “He’ll take the piss out of Caerphilly’s clothes shops, and say David Beckham wore a pair of shoes just like these to the Iron Man 3 premiere. And that will be it: Peacock will be called Iron Man Three for the rest of the trip.” – to obfuscate from what is occasionally very tender and nuanced characterization.
The real excitement of this story though, is that it’s written entirely in the future tense. Something I love about short stories is that their brevity seems to facilitate and encourage risk-taking, formally. I think a real measure of innovation, though, is when it’s done so deftly it recalibrates your thinking while reading it, until its innovations seem entirely natural. The way the story is written gives it a real propulsion – the future tense implies intent, I guess, which carries a forceful momentum, especially as the events of the story veer from the bathetic to the prodigious – while also disorientating the reader through its gentle dislodging of temporality. 

First published in We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, Faber & Faber, 2016, and anthologised in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, ed. Philip Hensher, 2018

‘if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that, don’t you think’ by Helen Oyeyemi

I’m an absolute fiend for the second person. In this story it’s so well utilised because it ties in with how short fiction doesn’t need to atone for or justify its own internal logic, provided that logic holds together for its duration. In this story, the strangeness and unknowableness of the narrative extends not just to us, the reader, but also to its protagonist. If we imagine the space between the page and the reader’s eyes as a kind of proscenium, the second person allows a character to reach out, through and beyond, to create a shared experience. In this story, the shared experience is one of not fully understanding what’s going on. It’s also a really beautiful piece of writing about intimacy and cruelty. 

First published in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Picador, 2016, and anthologised in The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, ed. Philip Hensher, 2018

‘How to be an Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore & ‘How to talk to a Hunter’ by Pam Houston

More second person-ers. The second person can manifest in different ways, but often there is the implication that this is a person who has been fractured, made to feel their sense of agency is reduced. ‘How to be an Other Woman’ explores the protagonist’s relationship with a married man, a relationship that causes her increasing feelings of impotence and estrangement.

“In store windows you don’t recognise yourself,” the voice says. “Wonder who you are.” “Gaze into a mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours.” Similarly to Houston’s story, there is the sense that the events are happening to the protagonist, rather than something in which she is an active participant. The story is dominated by imperatives: “Feel grey, like an abandoned locker room towel.” Instead of a kind of manual for life, this onslaught implies inevitability – the sonorous thrum of it seems to catch and hold the protagonist in its grip.

As the protagonist, Charlene, commences list making – an attempt to emulate the man’s wife and her proclivity for lists – she loses more of herself, and the futility of the exercise is demonstrated when she gives herself three options – “rip open the front of your coat”; “go into the bathroom”; “go downstairs and wave a cab for home” – but chooses none: “He puts his mouth on your neck. Put your arms timidly around him.” 

In Pam Houston’s ‘How to Talk to a Hunter’ there is a similar inactivity:

When he says “Skins or blankets?” it will take you a moment to realise that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. 

Both stories’ characters have an explicit desire for empathy. In Moore’s, Charlene seeks a unity of experience with her coworker, Hilda: “Over Reuben sandwiches ask her if she’s ever had an affair with a married man,” while in Houston’s the protagonist tries to diagnose her feelings as a larger symptom of womanness: “He’ll give you a key, and just like a woman, you’ll think that means something.” 

Houston’s choice of future tense interacts interestingly with the second person; combined with the litany of “you”s the effect is one of prophecy. However, the incompleteness of knowledge betrays this implied omniscience. The prophetic style might promise comfort – this is what will happen; this is certain – but the speculation and gaps that permeate the voice betray a lack of clarity. The speaker can promise the “you” nothing beyond relayed experience, and it is the distance between speaker and listener, between the self and the self, not even supplemented by third-party insight, that makes this so uncomfortable to read. 

First published in Self-Help, FSG/Faber, 1985 and then in the Collected Stories, FSG/Faber, 2008

First published in Quarterly West, 1989 and collected in Cowboys are my Weakness, Washington Square Press, 1992. Also in Best American Short Stories 1990, Houghton Miffin, edited by Richard Ford

‘You are the Second Person’ by Kiese Laymon

After this I’ll shut up about the second person. In ‘You are the Second Person’ the protagonist ignores mounting health concerns in their ambition to become a published author. The power dynamics at play are racially driven ones; an editor, Brandon Fraser, abuses the protagonist’s trust and manipulates them, repeatedly employing the terminology “a real black writer” as a catchall term for someone willing to subjugate their individuality and commercialise their blackness. Towards the end of the novel the protagonist capitulates to Fraser, and abandons the manuscript they’ve devoted years to. The protagonist sits down, weeps, and begins something new. The new work begins, ‘“Alone, you sit on the floor…”’ and upon questioning their choice of the second person, the voice of the story says, ‘You are the “I” to no one in the world, not even yourself.” This, I think, is the most succinct way of describing the reason behind, and the effect of, the second person. As a means of addressing trauma, the second person can draw a reader in, inveigle them in this exposition of powerlessness, while simultaneously detaching a speaker from themselves. 

First published in Guernica in July 2013, and available to read online here. Collected in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Scribner, 2013

‘A Snake Stepped On’ by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Lucy North

I’ve been a fan of Kawakami’s since reading Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is just a beautiful and careful mediation on intimacy. This story, which is fairly lengthy, as short stories go, is a forkloric tale about people becoming snakes and snakes becoming people. It’s eerie, and haunting, and retains all the excoriating insight of Kawakami’s  more realist fiction: 

“Have you ever been betrayed, Hiwako, dear?” she asked, looking up at me seductively. 

To be betrayed, you probably first have to be deeply involved. Had I been deeply involved with anything in my life?

First published in Japanese in 1996. First published in English in Record of a Night Too Brief, Pushkin Press, 2017

‘Runaway’ by Alice Munro

This is a story about an unhappy relationship, but also about cowardice and dishonesty and delusion. It’s also about a goat. In this story Munro has created characters that are fully knowable in their flaws, deeply recognizable, but also injects into the narrative moments of strangeness and absurdity that make the story so memorable.

First published in The New Yorker, August 2003 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Runaway, McClelland and Stewart, 2004, and now available from Vintage, 2006

‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

I return to this story again and again. Honestly, I feel completely ill-equipped to attempt explaining why it’s so good. It’s primarily dialogue, but the dialogue is working to conceal all that actually needs to be said by the characters – it’s the finest portrayal of how people can dance around a subject, circumnavigating candour, resorting to repetition and dogged enquiry, constantly expressing but failing to adequately express. The female protagonist sums it up perfectly: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” she says. The mise-en-scène is a small corner of the world, narrow and claustrophobic, but behind it there’s a whole conceptualised world, shimmering with the elided pain of the characters. 

 “I said we could have everything.” 
“We can have everything.” 
“No, we can’t.” 
“We can have the whole world.” 
“No, we can’t.” 
“We can go everywhere.” 
“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.” 
“It’s ours.” 
“No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.” 
“But they haven’t taken it away.” 
“We’ll wait and see.”

There are gestures to finality, and loss, but the finality of what? The loss of what, precisely? The exact nature of the pain is never explicitly stated, and although the reader can decipher the unsaid conflict, it’s going unsaid makes it more nebulous, more pervasive, more deeply, deeply sad. To conjure pain without explicitly writing pain is something I am never not in awe of.

First published in transition, August 1927, and collected in Men Without Women, Scribner, 1927. Now available in The First Forty-Nine Stories, Arrow, 1995 and available to read online here

‘The Hanging of the Mouse’ by Elizabeth Bishop

This is going to make a hypocrite of me. 
I once encountered, in a book of criticism about Bishop, the critic referring to ‘The Hanging of the Mouse’ as a short story. In an essay I was writing at the time, I went to great lengths to absolutely rinse this critic: ‘It’s not a short story, it’s a goddamn prose poem,’ I screamed at the sky. I haven’t changed my opinion about that, but I do think it’s so clever in how it approaches genre that neither me, nor the critic, had the right to classify it in simple terms. The piece is, I think, an incredibly interesting exploration into genre subversion. Like how Rimbaud’s ‘Conte’ (another ostensible prose poem) plays with narrative expectation through syntactic dismantlement, Bishop plays with narrative expectation through the assumption of a familiar tropes: in this instance, the tropes used are those of the fable. In the story-cum-poem, animals gather in a square to witness the public execution of a mouse. What do we expect from a fable? Some sort of didacticism, I guess, possibly wrapped up in folksy cuteness. The last two lines are: “It was all so touching that a cat, who had brought her child in her mouth, shed several large tears. They rolled down onto the child’s back and he began to squirm and shriek, so that the mother thought that the sight of the hanging had perhaps been too much for him, but an excellent moral lesson, nevertheless.” The punchline is that there is no moral lesson: we never find out the reasons for the mouse’s execution, and the mouse itself is a quivering, plaintive, sympathetic creature. The whole piece works to deceive us with its trappings. 
(I also think much of the language and turn of phrase used is Bishop exploring her own anxieties about the writing of poetry, but that’s something for me to go on and on and on about another time.)

First published in The Complete Poems, 1969