‘Going for a Beer’ by Robert Coover

What I love about this one is its speed. Skipping with bravura comic energy from one half-apprehended event to the next, ‘Going for a Beer’ tells the story of a life in a little over 1,000 words, and in the time it might take a drunken man to tumble down a flight of stairs. The unnamed central character keeps deciding to take control of things and then being swept along in the opposite direction, usually into a bar. There are many beers and not too much logic: 

…he has no desire to commit adultery, or so he tells himself, as he sits on the edge of her bed with his pants around his ankles. Is he taking them off or putting them on? He’s not sure…

By the end, “After a few more beers and orgasms”, he is lying in a hospital bed and his adult son arrives to say goodbye. “It’s probably for the best. For the best what? he asks.” The form itself, with its skips, hiccups and lacunae, represents the experience of an unexamined life. 

First published in The New Yorker, 14 March 2011. Collected in Going for a Beer, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. You can read it here or listen to Joshua Ferris read and discuss it on a New Yorker podcast here

‘Lord Royston’s Tour’ by Lydia Davis

In this long and detailed story we follow a nineteenth-century British merchant, Lord Royston, as he travels around Scandinavia, Russia and central Asia. Lord Royston falls ill and then recovers. Various members of his party die. Finally he meets up with his friends Colonel and Mrs Pollen and they embark on a sea voyage back to England via Scandinavia. When I first read the story it reminded me of Mary Wollstonecraft’s account of her travels in Sweden or even the letters of Lady Wortley Montague. It’s a picaresque. But the last four pages move into a much more detailed account of the journey by sea and here the pace quickens. Their ship starts to take in water, and threatens to run aground fifteen miles outside Memel. An English sailor declares the captain to be incompetent. Tensions builds. The situation gets more and more desperate. And then the story ends. In the acknowledgements, it says that it’s based on a book published in 1838. The style, though, is all Lydia Davis’s: cool, dry and controlled. It’s the ending that has stayed with me, over-turning my expectations. 

First published in Almost No Memory, FSG/Picador, 1997. Collected in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, FSG/Hamish Hamilton, 2009

‘The Prussian Officer’ by D. H. Lawrence

I couldn’t leave D.H. Lawrence out of a collection about sex and death. This is the story of an aristocratic army captain’s growing obsession with and bullying of his conscript manservant. It was first published in 1914, more than fifty years before the legalisation of homosexuality. In some ways its themes of shame and violent repression feel out of step with our times and yet as a story it remains powerful. The atmosphere of claustrophobia is intense. Although they are surrounded by other people, no one can help either of them. I particularly love the contrast between the beautiful landscape – fields of green rye and golden corn with blue mountains in the distance – and the lonely tragedy that unfolds.

First published in The Prussian Officer and Other Stories, Duckworth 1914, restored text based on Lawrence’s manuscripts, typescripts and corrected proofs republished by Penguin Modern Classics in 1995. Read it here

‘She Murdered Mortal He’ by Sarah Hall

This is a brilliantly unsettling story. A young British couple are staying in an otherwise deserted luxury camping resort on the wild coast of southern Africa. They’ve driven up from South Africa and the local language is Portuguese so presumably they’re in Mozambique, but the country is never named. Their relationship is unravelling and the woman has stormed off for a walk on the beach. She is stunned and confused by the sudden shift between them. How could he talk like this when only that morning they’d had such good sex? “Sex is not rational”, he replies. As she walks, she churns through the events of recent days. She feels both safe and unsafe in Africa. Danger is everywhere: “close to the surface, or rupturing through”. Turning back, she sees a white shape in the distance. She hopes it’s her boyfriend coming to find her but it turns out to be a large white dog, a female with a distended belly and long black teats and eyes that are “very, very bright”. The interaction between the woman and the dog is beautifully delineated, moving from blind terror to a kind of playful companionship. After drinking alone in a bar in the nearby town, the woman returns to the hotel along the beach in the dark, meeting the dog again. The way the story ends is truly shocking. The horror isn’t supernatural but Hall manages to suggest the power of unconscious drives, which is somehow even more disturbing than the idea of monsters or ghosts. The writing itself is both restrained and lush and always beautifully precise.

First published in Granta 117, Horror, 27 October 2011. Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber & Faber, 2012. Read it here

‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever

Neddy Merrill lounges with his wife and friends beside a swimming pool, a golden creature, no longer young but slender and handsome. “He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one.” In a fit of whimsy, Neddy decides that he will make his way home by swimming through all the pools in the county. His journey begins in a spirit of delight. People welcome him. But gradually the tone grows more sombre. The Welchers’ house is for sale and the pool is empty. The Sachses say they have given up drinking since Eric’s operation. When Neddy gets to the Hallorans they say that they’re sorry for all his “misfortunes”. The Biswangers are having a party but they snub him and the bartender is rude. Neddy starts to feel cold. There are autumn leaves on the ground. When at last he gets to his own house it’s dark and locked and the rooms are empty. He has swum to the end of the river of life. Cheever planned this as a novel and had carrier bags full of notes on each of the households but in the end he boiled it down to this single glorious sweep of a short story. 

First published in the New Yorker, July 18, 1964. Print version here. Collected in The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf 1978, various UK editions including Vintage 1990. Listen to Cheever himself read (rather haltingly) here or Anne Enright here

‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a story I like to use when I’m teaching. It’s so funny and acutely observed. It’s about a writing workshop, but beyond that it’s about the power plays that go on between men and women. We follow Chioma, a young Nigerian woman, as she arrives in South Africa to take part in a residential workshop for African writers run by the pompous but well-connected Edward. The other participants are referred to throughout by their countries: “the Tanzanian”, “the Ugandan”, “the Zimbabwean woman”, “the Kenyan”, “the Senegalese woman” and so on. Chioma’s judgements are mercilessly sharp. She thinks she might like the Zimbabwean woman “but only the way she liked alcohol—in small amounts”, and Edward looks “as though God, having created him, had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face”. The account of the workshop is intercut with the story that Chioma writes while she’s there, a story full of pain and rage, about a young woman whose father has left the family to live with his mistress. The mother’s business begins to suffer without her husband’s contacts and the girl is unable to find a job so in the end she is forced to swallow her pride and go to her father for help, but the job he gets her involves sitting on the laps of rich businessmen to get them to keep their bank accounts with her employers. Meanwhile, in the workshop, Edward preaches to them about what’s African and what isn’t and ogles Chioma’s breasts until she finds the courage to put him in his place. It’s a story for the #MeToo generation, which seems like a good place to end.

First published in Granta 95, Loved Ones, October 2006. Collected in The Thing Around your Neck, HarperCollins 2009. Read it here

Introduction

Let’s start by getting real. I’m approaching this anthology as a conscious exercise in avoiding nostalgia. By which I mean: new(-ish) shit only. Asked at a different time, and this selection would’ve consisted of the short stories that both shaped me as a writer and shifted my reading into a different gear. I’m thinking of the time when an introduction to Paula Fox’s ‘Cigarette’ changed my life, and in no small part altered the trajectory of a novel I was working on. And many years before that, early 90s, picking up a copy of Cheever’s Collected Stories from NYC’s legendary Gotham Book Mart and devouring them back in my seedy hotel room off Broadway and 10th, which was dealer, travelling salesman, hooker central. By which I mean: deeply romantic. Considering our current moment, you might feel that a spot of romance is in order – needed, even – but I’m leading you down a different path here, highlighting stories from writers that challenge and inspire me. I need that more than I need a beautifully turned Elizabeth Taylor sentence right now (virtually any line in ‘Hester Lilly’.) We all know that Paris is beautiful, so what is there outside of Paris? I’m over getting misty-eyed thinking about William Maxwell penning a heartbreaking short story in between sending letters and rose cuttings to Eudora Welty. Those are all nourishing moments, but in the midst of our turbulence I’m fuelled by anger and need the wisdom of those working around me to clear that mist (powerful, addictive, debilitating). I look for stories that make me feel smarter, hotter, which energise my beaten spirit, and most of all, give me hope. This is where I am, now, and these are the stories. Hope you feel them.