Few things demand an act of writing like the death of a parent. The death itself is one that can’t be controlled, but the writing at least gives the writer the feeling that the aftermath can be made manageable. In ‘Circulation’, the narrator recalls the life and death of his father, but with a double twist. First, he describes his father’s presence through the way the man’s idiosyncratic worldview survives in the memories of his descendents: the title implicitly refers to the movement of the ideas the father expressed while he was alive, ideas that now circulate through the family like the lifeblood of a human body. Second, the narrator anchors his father’s worldview to the contents of the great book that the father spent a lifetime compiling: a book that itself investigated the histories accumulated by objects as they circulate around the globe. But the book was never fully composed and doesn’t really exist; its subject was too unwieldy, too unmanageable, for the father to actually put it together, word by word. In writing down his father’s life story, however, the narrator doesn’t experience the same failure, in large part because he doesn’t dwell on the absence of his father’s body; he focuses instead on the words his father left behind, inscribed as they now are in the minds of the people around him.
from Understories, Bellevue 2012
Whereas Tim Horvath’s narrator portrays his father as having departed this life, Lydia Davis zeroes in on the transition between life and death, the drawn-out process of departing. The result, ‘Grammar Questions’, reads superficially like a series of dispassionate inquiries into the appropriateness of diction and syntax in a series of statements about a dying man. “Now,” she begins, “during the time he is dying, can I say, ‘This is where he lives’?” But there’s anguish burning beneath the surface of every sentence, and by the end of the story it’s clear that there can be no better illustration of the slipperiness of language as the narrator repeatedly falls into the fissure between the words she speaks and the truth of what she sees with her eyes:
When he is dead, everything to do with him will be in the past tense. Or rather, the sentence ‘He is dead’ will be in the present tense, and also questions such as ‘Where are they taking him?’ or ‘Where is he now?’
But then I won’t know if the words he or him are correct, in the present tense. Is he, once he is dead, still ‘he,’ and if so, for how long is he still ‘he’?
The story is also a companion piece to Davis’s equally excellent ‘Letter to a Funeral Parlor’ (from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant), in which the narrator takes issue with the description of her father’s cremated remains as “cremains”. The two stories work together beautifully and poignantly, the one using bitter humour to offset the bereft grammatical analyses of the other.
From Varieties of Disturbance, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; reprinted in The Collected Stories)
“When I was twelve years old,” the narrator, Gemma, begins, “my father was tall and awesome.” But her father ends up far from his vigorous younger self — reclusive, depressed, an alcoholic drinking himself to death — and her story revolves around her fondest memories of the man at the most difficult time in his life, essentially representing her efforts to breathe some life back into a soul misrepresented by those who survived him. “In the eulogy” at his funeral, she says, “he was remembered for having survived the first wave of the invasion of Normandy.” Among the funeral attendees, however, he was instead admired “for having been the proprietor of a chain of excellent hardware stores.” Gemma tries to find words to reanimate the man who she knew as someone between those two extreme versions of himself — between the dashing wartime hero and the buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era shopkeeper — and she takes her lead from the words her father gave her when she was a child. The clue is in the title; the meaning of the words is a bond between parent and child and, through the child’s recollections in adulthood, between a man misunderstood by the world and the man he really was.
from Sweet Talk, Random House 1990; listen to it read aloud by Tea Obreht here
This is a true story and it is devastating. What could be more harrowing than the death of a parent and the dissolution of a family? Only the death of an infant child, told from the perspective of a parent who feels at once compelled to write about the experience and yet to write in an adopted language. Aleksandar Hemon was granted asylum in the United States when war broke out in his native Bosnia in 1992, and he began publishing in English a decade later. In 2010, however, his nine-month-old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare type of brain tumour, and after a series of awful interventions she died in hospital before her first birthday. In his retelling of her death, Hemon pins extraordinary hopes on mastering a language he doesn’t understand — medical terminology that carries the false promise of a firm diagnosis with a fixed course of treatment — until the catastrophic moment brings him to a point at which language escapes him and he falls back on just two words of incredible, raw emotion. The story is simultaneously a testament to the inadequacy of language in the face of death and a declaration of faith in the capacities of language to make survival bearable.
From The Book of My Lives, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013; read it at the New Yorker here)
Dawn Raffel is the Christine Schutt or Diane Williams of twenty years ago, a disciple of Gordon Lish whose only contemporary rival, sentence for sentence, is Gary Lutz. ‘Migration’ is an unsettling story of family tensions in a version of the nineteenth century American frontier:
“This was in the time of the Indian corn tied tight to doors with dry stalks. The doors had mats of husk. Dark jars filled the cellars. … Men were in pursuit.”
Women and girls, meanwhile, are left at home to await whatever might befall them. The story casts glances at two girls in particular (it would be wrong to say that the story is about them) and the girls’ names are abstract nouns which, when spoken, sound like commands to do something. So it is that the girls have words with known meanings affixed to their identities, and when their names are called they can’t be sure if they are being summoned or receiving instruction. Death arrives at the door, new life arrives in the frontier house, and the family takes on a new configuration. By way of these events, those individual words — the girls’ names — acquire startling new significance.
from In the Year of Long Division, Knopf 1994
Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, since Aftermath is a memoir, not a collection of stories. But most of its pieces can stand alone, granted that they all share the premise of depicting events involving Cusk and her daughters after her marriage fell apart. In ‘The Razor’s Edge’, Cusk retreats to the countryside with the two girls, striking out for “a picturesque country town near Dartmoor” only to end up in a run-down B&B, “a dank-smelling labyrinth of corridors”. Her aim is to make time to write the book she’s working on, while the two girls are out taking horse-riding lessons. But she hasn’t reckoned on the woman she calls “the witch”. The witch is the owner of the B&B, a one-legged intruder who wears “rainbow-coloured draperies in chiffon and velvet” and moves around on “a pair of crutches strapped to her arms… with which she occasionally gestures, [as if they are] the forelegs of some gigantic insect.” She’s a writer, too, although she publishes pseudonymously, and she’s thrilled to have someone like Cusk in her house. First, though, the witch displaces Cusk and the girls from their rented room because it is needed by another family — a real, intact family, not a family riven by divorce — and then, to make amends, she offers them refuge in her private home, a hovel of broken furniture and rot. Needless to say, Cusk doesn’t manage to do any writing there. She can’t even summon the words to excuse herself from the witch’s presence. She flees silently, under cover of darkness, and after escaping she stumbles across one of the witch’s novels. Reading the novel gives her a new and heartbreaking understanding of the woman she maligned, and reveals vast reservoirs of pain beneath the woman’s bullyish impositions. One writer has many words to write but no opportunity to compose herself; the other has composed herself in the flesh so as to mask the words she writes under a false identity. Neither woman easily inhabits the world, and ‘The Razor’s Edge’ records the way they overlap on the page despite the distance between them in life.
From Aftermath, Faber 2012)
I’ve noticed that my list, which I didn’t labor over, is entirely North American. I chose the first twelve great stories that came to mind, on the theory that the stories that had resonance enough to come to mind would make a good list, and would avoid the twin troubles of orthodoxy and right thought, which is fit for a genre meant to disturb and endure under the constraints of brevity.
It’s worth asking, though, why the stories that come to mind were likeliest to be by North American writers. I tried the same exercise with the novel, as a means of comparison, and found a much more international range (spanning six continents, if you must know). And certainly there are many writers of short stories from other continents whose work has meant much to me (Angela Carter, Yasunari Kawabata, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Clarice Lispector, Anton Chekhov, Doris Lessing, and William Trevor, for starters.)
One answer might be that I’m an American. Another might be that there is something about the short story form that seems to appeal to contemporary American writers, who are more likely to commit to it for more of their careers, or maybe that there is something about the American education system that encourages more American writers to give more of their best energies to the short story.
I read through the anthology stories again after choosing them, to see if there might be any things they have in common which might reveal something about my inclinations as a reader. One is formal dexterity. Very few of these stories are traditional single-movement stories that pledge allegiance to the Aristotelian Unities. Another is clarity. The writer is doing the heavy-lifting with regard to the management of information and the forward motion of the story, which leaves the reader to the more interesting task of living for a while in the heads of these characters, and trying to understand alongside them the big mysteries stories often complicate and clarify but seemingly never reduce enough to fully solve:
Why did it happen? Why did it happen like that? Why did that do that? Why did I do that? What do I do with it, now that it’s done? What was all that? What was his life? What was her life? What is my life? What is life?