‘Ghosts and Empties’ by Lauren Groff

This was pressed on me by a different writing teacher, Derek Palacio, a fine novelist and generous teacher I was lucky enough to spend time with recently at the University of Michigan. How he anticipated my mood quite so precisely would be worrying if every parent hadn’t felt like Groff’s narrator at some point. Suffice to say, her unnamed mother opens by saying she has somehow become a woman who yells, and, because she doesn’t want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, she laces on her running shoes instead and heads out after dinner for a walk. And if that doesn’t have you immediately clicking on the link, or heading to buy her collection, which is jammed with other joys, then you probably aren’t a parent, which is fair enough, except doesn’t everyone yell, parent or not? Through the narrator, we meet an entire neighbourhood, studied, at a distance, as the woman paces the streets. Groff’s language is visual, her images striking. It’s a story to read and re-read and then read again.

First published in The New Yorker, July, 2015. Collected in Florida, Cornerstone Digital, 2018. Read it online here

Introduction

“A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.” This one-liner, by the great Joy Williams, master of the form and seductress of the page, explains why I wasted so much of my reading life ignoring short stories, deterred by their haughty high-handedness; they didn’t need me, so I didn’t need them.

What a fool. I could blame my English teachers, or the school syllabus of the early 1990s, but if I hadn’t been so short-sighted I could have picked some up for myself. After all, that’s why I avoided an English degree, and nearly didn’t do English A-Level, figuring I didn’t need to study books to read books.

It took a story by Mary Costello, an Irish writer with a new novel out, handed out at an evening writing class, for me to come to my senses, and now I approach the form with the zeal of a reformed smoker. I press collections on friends, silently judging those I can’t sway with my choices before remembering I don’t really like recommending books; reading is too personal, each plot appealing in different ways at different times in someone’s life.

This will be my excuse if you don’t like any of the following stories, but if you do I am here for book chat over coffee or something stronger even, or especially, when I should be doing something else.

P.S. Being reminded how much I love Alice Munro this week made me feel bad for not including her, but it’s just too hard to pick one story. So I’ll cheat and point you to a bonus collection instead, Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage, although everything she’s written is genius.

‘Luxury Hour’ by Sarah Hall

Another mother seeks escape in ‘Luxury Hour,’ this time at her local lido, paying a babysitter so she can grab a swim. “Luxury Hour, Daniel called it, as if she was indulging herself, but it was the only time she had without the baby.” On a sunny day, at my own lido, I can’t swim without remembering how Hall’s “light filaments flashed and extinguished in the rocking fluid”.  This story is simpler than many of Hall’s, which often veer towards the fantastical, but it cuts to the quick of life as a new mother trying to ignore her midriff in the changing room mirror as she searches for a snatch of the person she once was. A chance encounter with an old lover adds a flick of Hall’s trademark eroticism; we learn her name is Emma and that she cheated on her then boyfriend, now husband. We know she feels trapped.

Collected in Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017

‘The Wadden Sea’ by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

I should probably pick Nors’s first story for the New Yorker, ‘The Heron’, because then I could link to it. That’s the one with “young women with their stony faces and big baby carriages. They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another, so none of them will even look at you when you walk past”, which you’ll remember every time you see group of buggied mums in a park. But I’m going for ‘The Wadden Sea’, which closes Nors’s collection, Karate Chop, for its sheer, devastating bleakness. A mother, escaping depression, alcoholism, fear of life, moves to Sønderho, miles from Copenhagen, with her young daughter, for the pure air and authenticity of the Wadden Sea. But it turns out that “fear of life” managed to get on the train from Copenhagen, sail on the ferry, knock on the door, and refuse to leave. “It crawled into bed with my mother and went to the store for new supplies each day and then shut itself in and piled itself up in the shed so that after a few months I had to call my grandmother.” After six, sparse pages, I’m still not sure what happens at the end, which would bother me more if Nors herself, who I interviewed for the erstwhile Independent on Sunday, hadn’t told the Paris Review that the story’s last line – “She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.” – was a puzzle.

Collected in Karate Chop, Pushkin Press, 2017

‘Family Physics’ by Catherine Lacey

Bridget, the main character in ‘Family Physics’, is someone who gives up on marriage after three months and once walked out of college and drove around the US for so long that her family presumed she had died, personifying the drifters that populate Lacey’s collection. In this story, Lacey’s dig at the absurdity of family obligations is both funny and sad. Of all her deft snapshots, this, about how Bridget’s sister had become someone she no longer recognised, stands out. 

And, sure, people always disappear into new people, and no one can stop the way new versions of people overtake the old versions of people, but something about the new Linda was so menacing that it made me suspicious of what she’d done with the old Linda.

You leave the story none the wiser about how the next decade of their family dynamics will pan out, which might sound frustrating but actually renewed my appreciation of the genre in a way that reminded me of Joy Williams’s dictum – that a short story doesn’t care what you think about it. Let’s face it, short stories usually leave you (well, me anyway) hungry and vaguely unsatisfied, making them far more realistic than novels, which try and con you into thinking you’re getting the complete picture. 

First published in The Sewannee Review, Spring 2018. Collected in Certain American States, Granta, 2018. Read it online here

‘#36 DEAREST’ by Joy Williams

With some stories you’re smitten from the first sentence, which is just as well when it’s from 99 Stories of God. Each story is less than a page long, some just a couple of paragraphs. I could write out the whole of ‘#36’ and probably still hit my word count. It’s about a house owned by Penny, a house Penny never liked but her tenants adored. They want to buy it but she takes against them. “Penny found them irritating in any number of ways – they were ostentatious, full of self-regard, and cheap. They also did not read.” That I read this after a short-lived stint as a landlord with tenants I also came to loathe might have everything to do with why I love the story so much if it wasn’t also perfectly written. Penny is both a normal person and, in her own way, God. Find the collection; there are 98 other gems as well as this one. 

Collected in 99 Stories of God, Tuskar Rock Press, 2017

‘Vuotjärvi’ by Sarah Hall

There’s a watery theme emerging but I make no apologies. Nor for choosing two by Sarah Hall. There is more swimming, more sensual evocation of time with a lover, and plenty more of Hall’s brilliant wordsmithery in this story about an unpronounceable Finnish lake. Air is glutinous, silence “benthic”, and no, I’m not ashamed to say I had to look that up. (“Of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water.’) Even the mosquitoes get painted with care, “their legs floating long and dusty behind them”. A sense of doom builds from the opening two lines: “She stood on the pontoon and watched him swim out. His head above the lake surface grew smaller and more distant.” Another story that will haunt any lake swimmers among you. 

Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2011