‘Low Energy Meeting’ by Ben Pester

This story is a delight. An over-caffeinated line manager has brought treats to the meeting to counter everyone’s low energy. There’s been a slime leak and Raj has grown a third eye but the manager keeps himself peppy with Maltesers – full of brio and childhood confession. I’ve heard Ben read it aloud twice and I’m thinking of recording him just so I can listen to it whenever I want.

First published in Am I in the Right Place, Boiler House Press, 2020

‘Prosinecki’ by Adrian Duncan

This story is about a journeyman footballer and the shocking potential for violence and beauty in his line of work. It leaves you with a crystal-clear sense of what it is like to do a job in front of baying crowds, the ideals and principles at football’s rarest heights, and the magical way Duncan describes manipulating the spaces of a football pitch.

Listen to Wendy Erskine’s amazing reading of it (on The Stinging Fly podcast here).

First published in The Stinging Fly 38:2, Summer 2018, and collected in Midfield Dynamo, Lilliputt Press 2021

‘Compartment’ by Ursula Scavenius, translated by Jennifer Russell

I could have chosen any of Ursula’s stories from her hallucinating-with-anger collection but this one has the unshakeable image of the three grown-up siblings travelling in a train carriage to Hungary, the three of them sat with their mother’s coffin.

It has been adapted into an excellent film by Maj Rafferty. 

First published in English in The Dolls, Lolli Editions, 2021 and online at Granta

‘Let Nothing Come Between a Man and His Kite’ by Avee Chaudhuri

There’s hardly any friction in Avee’s stories, things just slip wondrously to their natural and erm… unnatural conclusions. The shootings, lapdances, beating-ups and politics of kite-flying administration all operate with a perfectly drunken logic. 

First published in Electric Literature, April 2020, and available to read here

‘Memento Mori’ by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is the most consummate book of short stories I know. Just as there is no out-of-place word in each story, there is no weak story in the collection. I only singled out this one for the image of the hedge outside Gillian’s house and what people want it to mean. The temptation is to bang on and on about it, but anything other than Wendy’s telling is a waste of pixels.  

First published in Dance Move, Picador 2022

‘Demolition’ by Fiona McFarlane

This is an edifying, exhilarating, perfectly-formed thing. It feels less ‘written’ than ‘orchestrated’. Eva is interviewed by a journalist about Paul Biga, her old neighbour – a psychopath it turns out – while over the way his family house is pulled down. The interviewer’s questions are strangely inapplicable; Eva’s memories of the house are less about the murders and more about the unacknowledged lusts and loves of living amongst people. 

First published in The New Yorker, May 2020, and available to subscribers to read here

‘Maintenance’ by Sussie Anie

Kwesi works in the Loop, a Chinese-run biotechnology laboratory in Ghana. He tells everyone tall tales about what happens in it, until the stories spread further than he would like. When the tensions between the Loop’s super-modernity and the poverty of his neighbourhood meet, he finds himself at its focal point. This story flipping terrifies me. I don’t think it’s even meant to be a scary story; it’s just the unannounced way the macabre arrives. 

First published on The White Review, May 2020

‘Wild Gestures’ by Lucy Durneen

Ailsa Cox recommended Lucy Durneen’s writing to me a couple of months ago. I’ve only read this story of hers so far but it is brilliant. It is written in the second person. You are in love with a man you shouldn’t love. You are so hyper-aware you can see the various possibilities of everything you both say and don’t say.
The prose is lithe and fleet – every sentence is not the one you’d expect, the cumulative effect of which is like being in a sidecar to a missile. 

First published in Litro Magazine, December 2014, and available to read here. Collected in Wild Gestures, ReadHowYouWant, 2017

‘Reunion’ by John Cheever, as read by Richard Ford on The New Yorker podcast

I love Ford’s reading of this; his tone is fittingly impassive and resigned, and yet you can hear the narrator’s enormous vulnerability. The story is about the car crash that is his father, crashing increasingly hard in the bars of New York. It’s funny throughout and desolating afterwards…

“Kellner! Garçon! Cameriere! You!”

First published in The New Yorker, October 1962, and collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978

‘Baba’ by K-Ming Chang

It’s probably just accidental I put this story of a wayward father straight after the previous one. 

It’s a child’s account of her father, Baba, leaving home to live in another city for work. The swirl of all the different emotions is magical, her memory of his aggression dreamy and shocking: 

Baba watched the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the shots of buildings buckled like knees, schools shaken into loose sand, and among the wreckage, a child’s backpack, pink with a plastic bow on it. That could be yours, my father had said, pointing at the screen. You could be under there. I’d be the one digging you out with my own hands just to bury you again.

When Baba stops calling, the mother – with young son and narrator in tow – travels to find him.

First published in Gulf Coast Magazine and available to read online here

‘At Yankee Stadium’ by Don DeLillo

This is a magnificent coming-together of all the expressions of ‘normal’ Americanness with the alien uniformity of a mass wedding of Unificationists. Rodge and Maureen attend the wedding of their daughter, Karen, and the thirteen thousand others, all getting married in the same ceremony in the New York Yankees baseball stadium. 

It is weird to see but then, as the story goes on, we see it’s no weirder than any other attempt to live in the deafening hush of modern times, for example, from near the end (which is probably not a spoiler for a Don DeLillo story): 

People sit at desks and stare at office walls. They smell their shirts and drop them in the hamper. People bind themselves into numbered seats and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing there is something they’ve forgotten to do.

Which is probably about where this began, with Ben Pester.

First published in Granta, 34, Autumn 1990, and reprinted in Granta 147, Spring 2019 – and available for subscribers to read online here; also incorporated in Mao II, Scribner/Cape, 1991