‘The Centre of the Story’ by Lydia Davis

This comes close to the end of the story as it is now, but she can’t really end with the devil and a train ride. So the end of the story is a problem, too, though less of a problem than the centre. There may be no centre. There may be no centre because she is afraid to put any one of these elements in the centre – the man, the religion, or the hurricane. Or – which is or is not the same thing – there is a centre but the centre is empty, either because she has not found what belongs there or because it is meant to be empty: there, but empty, in the same way that the man was sick but not dying, the hurricane approached but did not strike, and she had a religious calm but no faith.It was so hard to choose just one Lydia Davis story, because they have such an incredible cumulative effect. I chose this one because the ending of it – this paragraph – is taped above my desk. 

First published in Grand Street, Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn, 1989. Collected in Almost No Memory, FSG, 1997/Picador, 2001. Also in the Collected Stories

‘Reaching Rose’ by James Purdy

James Purdy specialises in purgatories (purdy-gatories). Mr Sendal spends his evenings in a bar, going back and forth to make phone calls, although there is never anyone at the other end. One night, tired of the performance, he realises that “the people he really cared for were all dead”. Richard the bartender’s comment the following night – that he admires Mr Sendal’s liveliness, the fact that he keeps so busy – sparks off a crisis. The personal exchange, a rarity in Mr Sendal’s life, terrifies him, because if the bartender knew the phone calls were fake, there “would be nothing”: “his world was merely this bar, was Richard, and most important of all the telephone booth; but all of them went together, the booth and the bar and Richard could not be disassociated”. Forcing himself to maintain the act, he remembers his “most important telephone number” – that of a woman called Rose: “a thing happened then, as though a message had been written in letters of fire over the bar mirror”. When he goes to call her, the story reaches hallucinatory heights, in a very mid-century, melodramatic way. There are few writers less afraid than Purdy of confronting loneliness at its most eviscerating. 

First published as a standalone story individually in English and Dutch, by Avalon Press, 1994. Collected in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, Liveright, 2013

‘Heads of the Coloured People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology’ by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

I think about the opening of this story a lot. It just unfolds perfectly. In second person, the narrator introduces us to Riley, who is on his way to a cosplay convention. He has blue contact lenses and bleached hair and ‘he was black. But this wasn’t any kind of self-hatred thing’. From there, Thompson-Spires sets out all the way he might fit into a reader’s conception of being ‘authentically’ black while also pointing out that none of those make the story about ‘about race or “the shame of being alive” or any of those things’. By constantly pre-empting the assumptions of the reader about Riley, Thompson-Spires creates a kind of negative space which makes us in danger of not seeing him, his own attempt at self-definitionThen the narrator acknowledges ‘there is so much awareness in these two paragraphs that I have hardly made space for Riley’. It is only later that we realise that this careful picture of Riley – and his preferences – serves a particular purpose, which might be guessed from the subtitle of the story. There’s an extract here. 

First published in Story Quarterly 49, 2016. Collected in Heads of the Coloured People, Simon & Schuster/Chatto & Windus, 2018

‘To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing’ by Diane Williams

Reading Diane Williams is like understanding another language in a dream. There’s suddenly a whole new way of seeing things. I chose this story because the first line is an all-time favourite: ‘People often wait a long time and then, like me, suddenly they’re back in the news with a changed appearance’. Who are the kind of people who wait to end up back in the news? Why were they in the news in the first place? Is the changed appearance just a matter of course? Does ‘changed’ mean they’re completely unrecognisable? Listen to Deb Olin Unferth (another absolute hero), introducing the story here.

Published in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, McSweeney’s/CB Editions, 2016. Available to read online, with an introduction by Deb Olin Unferth on Electric Literature here.

‘I am not Jackson Pollock’ by John Haskell

In John Haskell’s story, an unnamed narrator inhabits the persona of Jackson Pollock, who himself did not feel like the Jackson Pollock. We’re suspicious of the narrator’s pop psychologising, even as we’re compelled by his depiction of the internal struggle of being Jackson Pollock (which is analogous to the narrator’s struggle of pretending to be Jackson Pollock). On re-reading, I’m struck by the boldness of Haskell’s attempt to enter the mind of such a famously inarticulate icon. The artful imprecision of the writing captures a kind of yearning:

Two opposing impulses dominated [Pollock’s] life: the desire to reach out into the world and touch some thing, and the desire to keep that thing away.

We’re retold seemingly formative episodes, such as the loss of the tip of his index finger and his first meeting with Rita Kligman, but none of them explain this schism. And it doesn’t matter in the end. In 2006, Peter Schejedahl wrote of Pollock: ‘Sometimes a new, renegade sensibility really takes hold only when somebody is seen to have died for it’. The story captures the gap between his violent death and its abstraction:

The tree didn’t move so he died. And that was the end. It wasn’t the beginning. You could see that he was dead, and the girl in the backseat was also dead. That was the end. You’d have to be looking from some very great distance to see that was the beginning.

First published in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Canongate, 2006

‘The Excursion’ by Joy Williams

We first see Jenny as a young girl:

She lies a little but it is not considered serious. Sometimes she forgets where she is. She is lost in a place that is not her childhood.

We move between seeing her with her loving and patient parents, to her adult life in a shadowy apartment with a strange older man. The structure powerfully enacts the lurch and teeter of memory. Child Jenny goes to her parents’ room after a nightmare, there are marigolds on the dresser; in the next paragraph, the man she is with “likes flowers, although he dislikes Jenny’s childishness” – the man puts “flowers between her breasts, between her legs”. A call of another mother to come and play remains unanswered because, in the following paragraph, Jenny is “propelled by sidereal energies. Loving, for her, will not be a free choosing of her destiny. It will be the discovery of the most fateful part of her”. 
 
I found, on returning to ‘The Excursion’ after five years or so, that it’s become more opaque to me, even though I’m still overwhelmed by its innovative structure. Was it always going to turn out like this for Jenny? There is something fated about the situation, that sits uneasily with the image of the young girl, sombre as she is. The contrast isn’t for sentimental effect. Williams seems to give Jenny an autonomy often lacking from stories where a child becomes a mirror of the parents’ anxieties, but this very consistency – the lies, the secret later life – is deeply unnerving.  

Published in Taking Care, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985. Also in The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Knopf, 2015

‘The Strange Career of Raju Gopalarajan’ by Rajesh Parameswaran

When I first began compiling this anthology, the stories that sprang to mind divided neatly between high-concept or ‘influenced by Gordon Lish’. I didn’t feel that was representative anymore, but this story has depths that I only appreciate now. Gopi Kumar, married to the ever-patient Manju, predictably gets laid off from his job at a computer shop and sets up as the eponymous doctor, specialising in ‘women’s difficulties’.  He tends to nearby construction workers and almost successfully passes, before Manju, on making a horrible personal discovery, decides to visit. The story unfolds deliciously, but avoids neatness with a brilliantly ambiguous ending: is his wife’s final decision an act of faith in a man who no one else believes in or is it an act of revenge? It’s both, probably. Narrated in first person plural by the desi community that Gopi wants to impress, the story takes on a tragic feel that belies its dark, comic premise. According to the author Rajesh Parameswaran, this kind of thing “happens about once a year and usually ends very badly”. 

First published in Published in I am an Executioner: Love Stories, Bloomsbury, 2012

‘Small Knot’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated by Kari Dickson

Kåre came into this world with an umbilical cord that no one could cut.

Another high-concept tale. Kåre spends his life tied to his mother, who seems resigned to spending the rest of her life trailing him. In the process, his father leaves, and then in adulthood, Kåre’s wife leaves. Unable to face cutting the cord after his mother’s death, he asks to live in the graveyard with her body. From the window of his small dwelling next to the grave (‘he didn’t have much room to manoeuvre in any case, now that the umbilical cord had been shortened by six feet’), he watches out for a woman who regularly attends funerals in the graveyard. This is a cartwheel in short story form, light and romantic against the odds. 

First published in Norwegian in Knutar+, Kolon Verlag 2012, and in English in Knots, FSG Originals, 2017

‘Jasmine’ by Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee skewered the good immigrant trope in her short stories, long before it was even named. The eponymous Jasmine is an ambitious, stylish young Indo-Trinidadian woman who makes her way to Detroit via smugglers to work in a cheap motel run by the Daboos, a family from the island who had ‘gotten in before the rush’ and made good. On a drunken college reggae night in bougie Ann Arbor, she meets Bill and Lara, a professor and a performance artist, who hire her as a live-in housekeeper and nanny.  Jasmine finally begins to feel she is leaving Trinidad behind (‘a nothing place’), even as the couple’s affectations amuse her. Bill tells her about camping (‘Jasmine didn’t see the point of sleeping in tents, the woods sounded cold and wild and creepy’), Lara says ‘things like, “We’ve finally obliterated the margin between realspace and performancespace”’. Mukherjee’s largely exposition-free writing is initially disorienting. Like Jasmine, you’re in the midst of it all, trying to navigate these deftly depicted worlds. The ending of the story makes us fear for Jasmine but somehow also affirms her own sense of freedom, even if that freedom is to make potentially terrible choices: ‘She was a bright, pretty girl with no visa, no papers and no birth certificate. No nothing other than what she wanted to invent and tell. She was a girl rushing wildly into the future’. 

Published in The Middleman and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1989

‘A Bright Green Field’ by Anna Kavan

I love Anna Kavan’s cold, burning prose and the intensity of her focus. Every line in this story is loaded with allegorical intent. The field of the title ‘always’ confronts the unnamed narrator on her travels. The grass is a luminous green and grows at a supernatural rate. On one sighting, she sees that the grass is cut by chained humans who resemble ‘struggling flies caught in a spider’s web’. A passing stranger explains that this form of employment – not a punishment, as the narrator imagined – is highly prized and that the workers’ ‘spasms and convulsions’ are ‘mainly just mimicry, a traditional miming of the sufferings endured by earlier generations of workers before the introduction of the present system’. Despite her horror, the narrator concludes by understanding why the grass needs to be cut: ‘That poison-green had to be fought, fought; cut back, cut down; daily, hourly, at any cost’.  It is possible to read so much into the field – climate change, some kind of prophetic comment on capitalist realism, an externalisation of the paranoia that drives her narrator from place to place.  

First published in A Bright Green Field and Other Stories, Peter Owen Publishers, 1979. Collected in Machines in the Head, Peter Owen Publishers, 2019

Introduction

The closest writing gets to rock n roll is deciding the running order of stories in a collection. Like putting together an album, what goes where is important; and nothing is more important than the opening salvo. A great opening story informs the reader of the kind of fiction they are likely to expect, while giving them a good reason to keep going. They should also be able to be read independently, and lose nothing from the experience.  

The following opening stories all fulfil this credo, or at least they do for me. I hope they lead you to the stories, as well as the collections they so admirably head up.

‘The Stolen Party’ by Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel

The opening story in Heker’s selected stories Please Talk to Me, is indicative of the sharpness of her fiction; of its careful balancing of expectation with subversion. There is a laceration in the way she approaches fiction, and ‘The Stolen Party’ cuts like a switchblade. We know that the party nine-year-old Rosaura is to attend will end badly for her. We know how precarious her happiness is. But the suspense – the tension between innocence and experience – keeps building until its conclusion, which is as expected, yet somehow much worse than we could have foreseen.

First published in Spanish as  ‘La fiesta ajena’, in Las peras del mal, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982. Collected in English in Please Talk to Me, Yale University Press, 2015

‘My Man Bovanne’ by Toni Cade Bambara

Oh, the voice! Bambara does things with voice few writers have ever accomplished. The aural pleasure of the way her sentences are constructed and built is only matched by the insight and intelligence of her stories – and this is just one of her best. Sexy, stylish, fierce, and wise, ‘My Man Bovanne’ is a blast of heart and fire.

From Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1972