Introduction

These are a few of the favourite and formative short stories that came to mind. Making this list has reminded me just how much short stories have been bound up in my day-to-day life: as a gateway into art and literature when I was a teenager, in my own more recent practice as a writer, and in having the privilege of publishing stories by others. The stories are presented here in the order in which I encountered them, and somehow I haven’t included a story – any story! – by the great Danilo Kiš.

‘In the Penal Colony’ by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

A traveller visits an island prison camp where he witnesses the enthusiastic demonstration of some elaborate instrument of punishment and re-education. I was on the Foundation course at the then West Surrey College of Art and Design in Farnham, and I had a cleaning job at the college. I enjoyed getting up early and sweeping the sculpture studio floors for a couple of hours before college started. One morning someone happened to have left a copy of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback of Metamorphosis and Other Stories on a workbench. I picked the book up and started reading. I did the same again the next day. The day after that I got fired. I was riveted and dumbfounded by these stories, which were like nothing else I’d yet read. ‘In the Penal Colony’ (which in that particular edition may be called ‘In the Penal Settlement’) seemed to exemplify something about the stories and how they worked that I found really fascinating, but couldn’t quite yet put my finger on. But it was something I recognised a couple of years later when reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, in a line on the opening page: ‘No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knitting into.’

First published as In der Strafkolonie, Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1919. Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 1967

‘War of Attrition’ by Joolz

A spoken word short story by Bradford-based poet, artist and novelist Joolz (now better known as Joolz Denby), who in the early 1980s was part of the Ranting poetry scene – a term coined by her fellow Bradford poet, the late Steven Wells. ‘War of Attrition’ was released on record in 1983 as the B-side of a 3-track 12” single. With a musical accompaniment by Jah Wobble, it’s a first person, present tense story about two young women leaving a night club and waiting at a taxi rank, hoping to get home safely this time, having been attacked the week before. Singled out for having pink hair, they are verbally abused and harassed by three drunk men and only narrowly escape the violence that seems inevitable because “two taxis come at once. You pull me in. I sit there shaking…”  It’s a great story, and Joolz’s killer timing makes for a spoken word masterclass: the way she can turn in an instant from wistful deadpan or a moment of comedy to righteous anger and analysis. All propelled by Jah Wobble’s adrenalin-fuelled electro-funk bass. There’s been a revival of interest in that early ’80s Ranting scene in recent years, too, thanks chiefly to London live poetry scene stalwart Tim Wells’s excellent Stand Up and Spit project. But ‘War of Attrition’could have been written in the early hours of this morning.

First released on Abstract Records 12”, 1983. Collected on Joolz 1983–1985, Get Back Records, 2014. Watch it online here

‘Chapman’s Bears’ by Myles na gCopaleen

Chapman found himself in rather poor circumstances and looked round for some means of making a living. Through the kindness of a friend, he got an option on two performing bears and managed to buy them cheap. He began to tour the country with these animals and naturally insisted that Keats should go along as a general factotum.

Keats and Chapman (who are occasionally joined by their friend Cortez, and one or two others) are a comic double act worthy of comparison with Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, or with the great Laurel and Hardy. The names of na cGopaleen’s hapless pair are (obviously) drawn from the world of Romantic poetry, specifically, John Keats’ and his sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, but there is nothing Romantic about the stories, which were written between 1940 and 1963 and at such a truly prodigious rate that it’s a wonder O’Brien had time to write anything else. Written under the pseudonym of Myles na cGopaleen for his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column in the Irish TimesThe Various Lives of Keats and Chapman are a constant joy. The stories are not only humorous – albeit in a strangely nihilistic way – but they are a true lesson in economy and wit. As with those other double acts, each story sees Keats and Chapman tackling some new circumstance – visiting the circus, perhaps, or being entrusted by the British Government with a secret mission to India, or advising on the protocol at a niece’s wedding – but the logic of each situation, however outlandish, will be pursued by na cGopaleen onlyso far as is needed – and no further, just far enough – to arrive at some hopeless pun as quickly as possible. And it sometimes seems, too, that the more terrible the pun, the better a tale it is. Some stories achieve this comic jouissance within the space of a paragraph, while others – ‘Chapman’s Bears’ among them – run to a couple of pages. But it will come.
First published in the ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’, Irish Times. Collected in The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and The Brother, Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1976)

‘RIF’ by Donald Barthelme

I still love the way that Barthelme’s stories played with form and expectation, and with the texture and appearance of the story on the page, colliding different kinds of language and illustrational forms within a single story. ‘RIF’ is a great example of Barthelme’s signature ‘dash-dialogue’ stories. These are improvisations, punctuated (as Barthelme scholar Jerome Klinkowitz puts it) in ‘The European style’, with each new line hanging on an M-dash, sansquote marks. The punning ‘RIF’ of this story’s title is a ‘reduction in force’, a workplace restructuring, and Rhoda is in line ‘to be riffed’, that is to be made redundant. I gather that Barthelme wrote these ‘dash-dialogue’ stories precisely because they could be improvised and thus were quick to write. In ‘RIF’, the back and forth conversation between Hettie and Rhoda is by turns whimsical and absurdist: there are sentimental reminiscences about pay-rises, and talk of a former partner being discarded ‘like an old spreadsheet.’ This is a good story to give to a short story class or workshop, because you can get a couple of volunteers to perform it aloud: one can be Hettie, the other Rhoda. They will discover quite quickly that there is a proofing glitch (at least there is in my 1988 Secker and Warburg hardback, but I wonder if this error has dogged the story its whole life). Two utterances on the second page are elided, which means that at a certain point Hettie becomes Rhoda, and vice versa.

First published in Forty Stories, 1987, first UK edition Secker and Warburg, 1988

‘The Secret Integration’ by Thomas Pynchon

In Mingeborough USA, a group of school age boys are hanging out and mobilising a secret society armed with random junk from the abandoned houses on the edge of town and data derived from the statistical observation of traffic. There’s Tim, ‘boy genius’ Grover, Hogan Slothrop, and Carl – who is black, and new to town. There are tantalising glimpses of Gravity’s Rainbow in the story: the name ‘Slothrop’, Grover’s fascination with statistical distributions and curves, an abandoned top-loading washing machine that is their imaginary space capsule. But this is the early 1960s, and Tim and Grover’s parents are making anonymous, racist phone calls. Before the Slow Learner collection of early Pynchon short stories was published, the only way of getting hold of ‘The Secret Integration’ – and his other early shorts – had been in the beautiful chapbook editions that were published by Aloes Books in London during the 1970s and early ’80s. Aloes Books were sold in radical bookshops like the former Compendium in Camden, and they had a totemic value; dispatches from a barely understood pre-punk counterculture. ‘The Secret Integration’ has a great collage on the cover, by the designer Jake Tilson: a man in an overcoat with a Polaroid camera for a head stands against a background texture of random Letraset characters and Expressionist jabs of ink. You might know Jake Tilson’s work now from his large-scale signage projects for the National Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre or the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, and I was lucky enough to work with Jake in 2012, when he designed the ‘melting’ logotype that was used on the cover of my Science Museum climate change novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South. But I love these rough and ready, inky and typographical collages that he made when he was at the Royal College of Art in the late 1970s.

First published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1964. UK chapbook edition published Aloes Books, London, 1977. Collected in Slow Learner, Picador, 1985

‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ by JG Ballard

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the publisher Semiotext(e) was publishing punky editions of critical theorists and philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. These ‘Foreign Agents’ paperbacks were pocket-sized, with black and neon covers, and you’d be more likely to find them reviewed in the books sections of the style press than the broadsheets. In 1989 Semiotext(e) published an anthology of science fiction short stories, and I was working as a bookseller in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, so ordered a copy. Of all the stories in Semiotext(e) SF, ‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ by JG Ballard is perhaps the most radical, and is striking for the insight it offers into Ballard’s process, the starkness of the transaction, and – unfortunately – the slightly predictable default sexism of its gender politics. A scientific account of a surgical procedure is augmented by Ballard’s substitution of the name ‘Jane Fonda’ for whatever anonymized subject designation (‘Patient X’?) had been used in the original of what appears to be an otherwise unaltered text. That’s it. That’s all, or appears to be all this story is: a single found text, altered only by the systematic addition of the name of a Hollywood star, transforming it into a kind of minimalist star vehicle.

Collected in Semiotext(e) SF, edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Robert Anton Wilson, Semiotext(e), 1989