‘Worsted’ by Garielle Lutz

A friend and I once joked about the eponymous adjectives that would describe our work once we had become famous writers. As the inheritor of a terminal vowel, I would find my options somewhat limited, but hers were wide open. Would she take the -ic suffix, as in Miltonic, the -ian as in Woolfian, or reliable old -esque? Years on from such nonsense, I am here to tell you that Garielle Lutz deserves not just an adjective but an adverb too. Her stories can pick up even the most exhausted discard of language—an adverb, say—and somehow, miraculously, Lutzily, startle me with it. Worsted is the latest collection in a body of work that includes the excellent (and excellently titled) Stories in the Worst Way and Partial List of People to Bleach. The title story might be read as a series of abortive attempts to explain a life. As with all Lutz’s writing, it hits me at the level of word-choice, the level of sound and rhythm, the level of what Lutz herself calls ‘intra-sentence intimacy’. Take the line: ‘The closest city had a sorrily statued traffic circle just barely in the glare. At a lunch counter we each ate a frankfurter served in a sheet of folded bread instead of a roll.’ It’s so rich with alliteration, rhyme and subtle half-rhyme (‘lunch counter’ and ‘frankfurter’, for crying out loud! The quiet little ‘shh’ at the end of ‘each’ being shunted forward to create ‘sheet’!) that it demands to be reread straight away, chewed over, considered. I think that push towards rereading is why Lutz’s language doesn’t come across, to me, as mere literary conjuring. The sentences contain their own drama, but they always remain in the service of the stories’ key qualities: deep humour and deep sadness.

First published in the South Carolina Review and available to read there online. Collected in Worsted, Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2021

‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ by Christine Schutt

In the above-linked essay, Garielle Lutz praises Christine Schutt for her sentence-level antics, and perhaps that’s what drew me to her also. Writers often talk about another writer having given them permission to do this or that in their own work, and at the risk of repeating that lazy phrase, yes, after reading this story I thought: Oh, okay, I’m allowed to do this sort of thing. I’m allowed to end stories in this way that’s part precipice, part digression, part musical coda.

Collected in Pure Hollywood, And Other Stories, 2018

‘The Postmaster’ by Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Utsa Bose

As an emigrant and an immigrant (not necessarily in that order), I find that stories about people leaving a place tend to do odd things to me. This one also makes me feel closer to my father’s culture, though we’re not Bengali. The plot is simple: a self-obsessed postmaster decides to teach his young servant how to read. But he soon loses interest, both in the servant and the village he’s been posted to. Partly, the story asks us to question our motivations for what we like to imagine are acts of disinterested kindness. It might also be read as a subtle critique of a colonialism that professed magnanimity while committing violence, or of the echoing voluntourism that continues to this day in India and many other countries. But the exquisitely sad ending of ‘The Postmaster’ takes the story beyond such concerns and into something more fundamental. You might compare it to Joycean epiphany (and incidentally, it came a couple of decades before Dubliners was published), but whereas I feel Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ focuses more on Gabriel Conroy as an individual and an ego, Tagore’s story is more general, a portrait of the nexus between two people, or all people.

First published in 1891. Collected in Stories From Tagore, Macmillan, 1918, and available to read online at Asymptote. You can also hear it read on the BBC iPlayer here

‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A preoccupation I consistently notice in my own fiction is the male friendship, and specifically how sexuality influences such relationships. This story is a masterclass on the subject, and it’s worthy of René Girard’s theory of triangular desire (essentially the urge to desire what someone else desires). Two men, friends, take an argumentative trip on a canal boat. After a third person unexpectedly joins them, unsettling things begin happening, both within the men’s friendship and along their journey’s route. The story builds quietly, as many of the best ones do, into the kind of ending that may well have you gaping astern and asking, How on Earth did we get here?

First published in We are for the Dark: Six Ghost Stories (a collaboration with Robert Aickman), Jonathan Cape, 1951. Collected in Mr. Wrong, Jonathan Cape, 1975 – more latterly Picador, 2015 – and in Three Miles Up and Other Strange Stories, Tartarus Press, 2003

‘Break It Down’ by Lydia Davis

Some years ago, somebody broke my heart. Perhaps this has happened to you. Perhaps you can still bring to mind the wasted, hollow feeling and the paralysing urge both to run and to burrow. Heartbreak is hard because it is acutely paradoxical; your greatest joy is causing you inexpressible pain, and you cannot even bring yourself to wish the pain away. At such times we cleverly turn to art, which, like god, we invented to help us cope with paradox. ‘Break It Down’ is a break-up story. In my case, it is also a story I discovered and enjoyed together with the person who ended up breaking my heart. It is dear to both of us, which made it all the more comforting/excruciating to reread in those hollow and wasted days. Much could be inserted here about Davis’s technical genius, about the effect of shifting from third into first and then second person, or the many exquisite images, or the particular line that may be the only time a short story has ever single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. But there’s no time to go into that, because I have to tell you what happened next. What happened next was that some time went by, and I met my girlfriend, Madeleine. And in the weeks after we met, I discovered during one of our long conversations that ‘Break It Down’ was extremely dear to her, too. So the story became part of the stories we told each other as we gradually unlayered ourselves in that way you do when you get to know someone special. I guess what I’m saying is that if one can be hoisted on one’s own petard, the opposite must also be true.

First published in the Paris Review 88, Summer 1983, and available to subscribers to read there. Collected in Break It Down, FSG, 1986. You can also hear James Salter read the story on the Guardian podcast, here

‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ by Gerald Murnane

I once heard Ben Lerner say that an interesting thing about parenthood was a sort of mise en abyme aspect to observing your child. You were observing them, but you were also observing your own parents looking down at you at that age, and observing yourself at that age looking up at your parents, this time with an adult’s consciousness. Many of the best short stories allow us similarly multiple glimpses: because stories are often wilier than longer prose when it comes to evading the drudgery of chronology, they can put us in several places at once. Here, a father watches a storm break as he waits for his asthmatic son to arrive home from school. But the loving father is also a young boy himself, years earlier, terrified both of lightning and his mother’s death. He is also the obsessive young teacher, concealing things from his pupils, and the teenage boy discovering his capacity for cruelty. These leaps through life, together with echoing phrases and images, accumulate into an at times dark exploration of sexuality and an era-spanning sense of melancholy.

Collected in Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020, and available to read online at And Other Stories

‘Conversation With My Father’ by Grace Paley

The first time I sent some of my own stories to my father, he messaged me excitedly about a week later, asking when we could talk. I went out into the library forecourt and untangled the white ear buds so I could pace around while we spoke, without having to hold the phone to my ear in that way that becomes uncomfortably warm after a while. This was the time in my life when I had happy access to the Eduroam wifi network. My father lived on a different continent, and it was already evening for him. He told me he had read my stories and that he had an idea about what to do with them. I would print them in a magazine, he said, and the magazine would run a competition among its readers to write endings for my stories. Because, he said, as it stood, my stories had no endings. The set-ups were fine, but then they just stopped. Plus, he hinted, the magazine competition could be a good money-making scheme. I think about that conversation with my father when I read this Grace Paley story, in which the narrator’s elderly dad asks his writer child to please, for god’s sake, write a simple story: “Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.” What makes the story interesting is that the narrator loves her father, and is willing to humour him, up to a point. The discussion that follows is about the nature of storytelling, filial and parental love, and whether people have the right to change, either inside or outside of fiction.

First published in the New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974, FSG, and Collected Stories, FSG/Virago, 1994. Hear Ali Smith read it on the Guardian podcast here

‘The Woman Who Looked Like Me’ by Felisberto Hernández, translated from Spanish by Luis Harss

It begins, “A few summers ago, I began to suspect that I had once been a horse.” The wonderful thing about Felisberto’s stories is that suspicions like that turn out to be well-founded. There is no line between memory and fantasy, or between the life of the mind and the territory of the story—why should there be? It turns out our equine hero was mistreated, escaped, got into scrapes, found love, was tickled in the most painful ways, committed murder, and so on. We spend the rest of the story firmly in the horse’s consciousness, but the opening line isn’t merely a framing device, an easy way to ease us into the fantastical. This remains an actual memory. As if to prove the point, the narrator pauses to inform us that, as a horse, he has just recalled eating some mints while he was still a man.

For anyone foolhardy enough to want to explain such a story, Piano Stories also contains the helpful ‘How Not to Explain My Stories’, in which Felisberto describes his work as being “on guard against the mind contemplating it when that mind suggests too many grand meanings or intentions.” If the story is true to itself, he writes, “it will give out a natural poetry it is unaware of.”

Collected in Piano Stories, New Directions, 2014

‘Train’ by Joy Williams

“Far away,” wrote railway enthusiast WG Sebald, “but from where?” And so it is with both trains and short stories. To be on a train is to be far from somewhere, a liminality that also lends itself to the story, whose ultimate concern is what takes place beyond its bounds, before it begins and after it ends.

Two ten-year-old girls, best friends, are travelling home to Florida after a summer in Maine. The journey takes place on an impossibly enchanting auto train, with bubble-topped observation cars, a car dedicated to board games, a bar-car in which parents can hasten the end of their marriage, and an all-violet interior, the girls’ favourite colour. Jane and Dan will likely not remain friends after the summer (and the story) ends. What will remain is Dan’s realisation that she is as good as alone in the world. Joy Williams’s stories portray life’s more desperate corners and I think the ones in her first collection, Taking Care, are among her best. 

Collected in Taking Care, Random House, 1982)

‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson

As with many of the stories in Jesus’ Son, this one seems so perfect that it could only have come into being by some sheer, incredible fluke. It spits on plenty of storytelling conventions, tricks you into thinking you can feel its contours, then it bursts through them, and you. Partly I think it’s the fact that Denis Johnson changes register with such alarming speed that I am always caught off guard no matter how many times I have read the story before, and that he puts such authority into his narrative voice that I will always willingly follow it. But partly it’s just some sort of magic. 

Collected in Jesus’ Son, FSG, 1992, available to read in Narrative Magazine here

‘The Indian Uprising’ by Donald Barthelme

I love listening to stories. I love reading too, but to paraphrase Ishmael: Being read to,—oh, sweet friends! What will compare with it? My first audiobook was a cassette copy of The Railway Cat (1983), which I would listen to under a blanket, and I have been moving in that general direction ever since. I first came across Donald Barthelme’s stories when I heard ‘The School’ performed on a podcast. After that I listened to the several readings of his stories on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, before borrowing an old hardback copy of Sixty Stories from the library and trying to work out what the heck was going on. Every time I read (or listen to) ‘The Indian Uprising’ I discover something new. It’s an intricate web of images, allusions, lists, repetitions. Is it about love? The Vietnam War? Genocide? The cruelty of children? The baseness of men? All of these and maybe none. Another interesting thing about listening to stories is that every reading is an interpretation. To hear writers (especially writers) read stories they love is to hear what they love about them in every pause and every bit of cadence or emphasis. I think Chris Adrian’s reading of ‘The Indian Uprising’ argues for it as an essentially sad story, an interpretation I agree with. A few years ago I was tempted by an audiobook of Sixty Stories, read by an actor. I found it to be oozing with unfortunate comedy, nothing like the Barthelme I know.

First published in the New Yorker, March 1965. Collected in Sixty Stories, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981, available to listen to on the New Yorker podcast here

‘Vor dem Gesetz’ (Before the Law) by Franz Kafka, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

One of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was that, at the age of eleven, I had the opportunity to learn German. One of the many ways in which learning a second language changed my life was that it introduced me to short stories, and German ones at that. As any language-learner knows, short stories are perfect classroom fodder: they’re brief enough to be assigned for homework and it’s usually easy enough to find one to suit a particular proficiency level. The stories I struggled through in high school, and later university, were probably the first short stories I ever read with care: Heinrich Böll’s ‘Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg’, Ben Witter’s ‘Das nächste Mal andere Blumen’, eventually Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist and Emine Sevgi Özdamar.

This six-inch Kafka parable was first published in 1915, and it went on to make a cameo in his novel The Trial. It’s so short that to give a precis would be to retell it. I don’t even have anything particularly insightful to say about it. I’m including it here because, after two decades of thinking about it, I’m still thinking about it.

Collected in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin, 2008, and available widely online in translations of varying quality