Highlights from a year spent reading short stories: Donald Barthelme, Lorrie Moore, Etgar Keret, Jennifer Egan and more...
With this list comes an apology for my absence this year: In February I moved to Wellington to do an MA in Creative Writing and in doing so misplaced my duty to The Punch. You probably didn't notice - I left you in terrific company, after all.
Since then I've given birth to a collection of short stories, which has mostly served to confirm my suspicion that I'll be a terrible mother one day (I never want to see it again, feel only disappointment when I spot it under my bed, and instead of picking it up and brushing the dust off its jacket, I nudge it further beyond view and pretend it never happened). On the upside, I hope to be a happy MA MA soon (dad joke. I hate myself).
Laboured metaphors aside, it's been a formative year and I spent a lot of it reading short stories. It's a rewarding form, and one that's surprisingly difficult to work with. You think it'll be easy, but no. First you trip over the 'short' part, and by the time you reach the 'story', everyone in class is asking with carefully concealed frustration, "What were you trying to achieve here?"
Alice Munro describes the short story as seeing the world in a 'quick glancing light', though it takes talent to shine it in the right place. When it does happen, its incredible. It can be as transportative and transformative as any novel, an uppercut to the jaw dealt in a few thousand words. I've come to admire the form intensely, and so, in no particular order, here are ten short stories I enjoyed this year:
Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby - Donald Barthelme (1973)
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him. Colby argued that just because he had gone too far (he did not deny that he had gone too far) did not mean that he should be subjected to hanging. Going too far, he said, was something everybody did sometimes. We didn’t pay much attention to this argument. We asked him what sort of music he would like played at the hanging. He said he’d think about it but it would take him awhile to decide. I pointed out that we’d have to know soon, because Howard, who is a conductor, would have to hire and rehearse the musicians and he couldn’t begin until he knew what the music was going to be. Colby said he’d always been fond of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. Howard said that this was a “delaying tactic” and that everybody knew that the Ives was almost impossible to perform and would involve weeks of rehearsal, and that the size of the orchestra and chorus would put us way over the music budget. “Be reasonable”, he said to Colby. Colby said he’d try to think of something a little less exacting.
Finding Barthelme was a revelation. Like a more energetic and outrageous Kafka, he deals with the bleakness of the human condition in ways that are absurd and delightful in equal measure. Be warned: he's one of those writers you have to be cautious of loving, because there's a seeming effortlessness to his style that makes you want to emulate him in bad and embarrassing ways (see also: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver).
It had been a year since Rafe kissed her. She sort of cared and sort of didn’t. A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: choosing the best unhappiness. An unwise move and, good God, you could squander everything.
The summons took her by surprise. It came in the mail, addressed to her, and there it was, stapled to divorce papers. She’d been properly served. The bitch had been papered. Like a person, a marriage was unrecognizable in death, even when buried in its favorite suit.
Earlier in the year I had a heated debate over the merits of Miranda July, who I stubbornly defended against claims of being worthless and twee. I like her. I like her socially inept cast of characters and the big and unorthodox steps they take to make meaningful connections with others. I like the decisions they make, the way they surprise you in a way that feels real. But then I found Lorrie Moore.
I often describe Moore as a more intelligent and sharp-witted Miranda July, which does her a disservice, but the similarities are there: The overarching sense of aimlessness. The weird yet likeable characters. But Moore goes beyond. Her characters have psychological depth and her prose is so rich it feels decadent. And by god she's funny. That's what strikes you the most about her stories: the sharpness of her insight, the one-liners that make you pause in admiration.
Also highly recommended: Birds of America (the collection), You're Ugly, Too (from Like Life) and How to Become a Writer (from her first collection, Self Help)
Mr. Head had once had a wife and daughter and when the wife died, the daughter ran away and returned after an interval with Nelson. Then one morning, without getting out of bed, she died and left Mr. Head with sole care of the year-old child. He had made the mistake of telling Nelson that he had been born in Atlanta. If he hadn't told him that, Nelson couldn't have insisted that this was going to be his second trip.
"You may not like it a bit," Mr. Head continued. "It'll be full of niggers."
The boy made a face as if he could handle a nigger.
"All right," Mr. Head said. "You ain't ever seen a nigger."
"You wasn't up very early," Nelson said.
"You ain't ever seen a nigger," Mr. Head repeated. "There hasn't been a nigger in this county since we run that one out twelve years ago and that was before you were born." He looked at the boy as if he were daring him to say he had ever seen a Negro.
"How you know I never saw a nigger when I lived there before?" Nelson asked. "I probably saw a lot of niggers."
"If you seen one you didn't know what he was," Mr. Head said, completely exasperated. "A six-month-old child don't know a nigger from anybody else."
"I reckon I'll know a nigger if I see one," the boy said and got up and straightened his slick sharply creased gray hat and went outside to the privy.
I don't find O'Connor's stories all that satisfying, but I do think she's important considering when and where she was writing. The Artificial Nigger is a great example of her work: A damning commentary on the racism of her time, it's an unflinching portrayal of human stupidity and cruelty that leaves you crestfallen due to its sense of historical reality.
Also recommended: Everything That Rises Must Converge (though it suffers from the lightning bolt ending she's so prone to employing).
Finances - Lydia Davis (2002)
If they try to add and subtract to see whether the relationship is equal, it won’t work. On his side, he is giving $50,000, she says. No, $70,000, he says. It doesn’t matter, she says. It matters to me, he says. What she is giving is a half-grown child. Is that an asset or a liability? Now, is she supposed to feel grateful to him? She can feel grateful, but not indebted, not that she owes him something. There has to be a sense of equality. I just love to be with you, she says, and you love to be with me. I’m grateful to you for providing us, and I know my child is sometimes a trouble to you, though you say he is a good child. But I don’t know how to figure it. If I give all I have and you give all you have, isn’t that a kind of equality? No, he says.
When I first started reading Lydia Davis I felt both surprise ("This is a story?") and excitement ("This is a story!") which was mostly because of the genre she was writing in. That is to say, it's near impossible to classify, unless you define it vaguely as postmodern. Each story is a little joke, an essay, a scrap from a notebook. They're tight and they're fun. I've cited Finances mostly because it's the only full-text story I have handy, but it gives you an idea of her style. If you're going to read her I'd recommend starting with the collection it's from, Samuel Johnson is Indignant. It showcases the psychological acuity of her humour and the experimentalism of her writing in a way that's still easily accessible.
Also recommended: Story from Break it Down (1986), an intoxicating account of romantic obsession and sexual envy.
Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Allison Blake - Jennifer Egan (2010)
Is this cheating? Probably. But while we're talking about exciting uses of form, this chapter from Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad, was incredible. Through the medium of powerpoint she achieves an unexpected emotional and narrative depth, packing a punch in a short series of slides.
Also recommended: the rest of the book
The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market. He had sandwiches, beer, whiskey. He saw the car in the driveway and the girl on the bed. He saw the television set going and the boy on the porch.
"Hello," the man said to the girl. "You found the bed. That's good."
"Hello," the girl said, and got up. "I was just trying it out." She patted the bed. "It's a pretty good bed."
"It's a good bed," the man said, and put down the sack and took out the beer and the whiskey.
"We thought nobody was here," the boy said. "We're interested in the bed and maybe in the TV. Also maybe the desk. How much do you want for the bed?"
"I was thinking fifty dollars for the bed," the man said.
"Would you take forty?" the girl asked.
"I'll take forty," the man said.
He took a glass out of the carton. He took the newspaper off the glass. He broke the seal on the whiskey.
"How about the TV?" the boy said.
"Would you take fifteen?" the girl said.
"Fifteen's okay. I could take fifteen," the man said.
The girl looked at the boy.
"You kids, you'll want a drink," the man said. "Glasses in that box. I'm going to sit down. I'm going to sit down on the sofa."
The man sat on the sofa, leaned back, and stared at the boy and the girl.
I always worry about including Raymond Carver in any top ten list because in my mind he's in every top ten list ever, so long as the list-maker has taste. I re-read most of his stories this year, and the two that stayed with me this time were Why Don't You Dance and The Compartment. Why Don't You Dance is quintessential Carver. Minimalist and haunting, it's precisely what you want when you turn to him. The Compartment, on the other hand, was a surprise. Nestled a third of the way in his collection Cathedral, it was startling because it was so raw in its emotion. Usually in his stories, everything simmers below the surface. You intuit them, but the narrator won't take you there. This story - wow - was overwhelming by comparison. It follows a man on his way to meet his son, who he's been estranged from for eight years. As they're approaching Strasbourg - the place he's arranged to meet him - he gets up to splash water on his face, and when he returns he finds that the expensive wristwatch he bought his son has disappeared from the pocket of his coat. The irrational transference of rage that ensues makes for a great story, but more than anything, it jolted me out of the suppression of emotion that you're so used to with Carver. It reminded me a lot of Kafka's The Judgement, actually.
See also: Hills Like White Elephants and Indian Camp by Ernest Hemingway and A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger for other wonderful but predictable top tens.
Moral Something - Etgar Keret (2008)
(I can't find the original version online, but here's a previous incarnation at The Paris Review)
They said on TV that the military court handed down a death sentence to the Arab who’d killed the girl soldier, and they had all kinds of people come into the studio to talk about it, and because of that the evening news went on till ten-thirty and they didn’t show Moonlighting. Dad got so pissed off about it that he lit his smelly pipe in the house, even though he’s not supposed to because it stunts my growth. He shouted at Mom that because of her and lunatics like her who voted right wing the country is just like Iran, which is where all the Persians came from. Dad said it was going to cost us, and that besides what it’s done to our moral fortitude—which is a word I’m not sure I understand—the Americans weren’t going to take it lying down either.
The next day, they talked to us about it at school, and Tsion Shemesh said that if you hang a guy his dick gets hard like in the porn movies, so Tsilla, our homeroom teacher, kicked him out, and then she told us that when it comes to the death sentence opinions were polarized, and no matter how good the arguments were, for or against, it is really all in the heart. And Tsachi the moron, who’d been left back twice, laughed and said it was really all in the heart of the Arabs but their heart would stop beating anyway when they hang by the neck, so Tsilla kicked him out, too. Then she said she wouldn’t listen to any more inane reactions and she was just going to teach us our regular subjects—and she got back at us, with a ton of homework, too.
After school, the older kids had an argument about if when you hang somebody and he dies, it’s because he chokes to death or because his neck gets broken. Then they took bets on cartons of chocolate milk and caught a cat and hanged it from the basketball hoop, and the cat screamed a lot, and in the end its neck really did break. But Mickie wouldn’t pay for the chocolate milk, and he said it was because Gabi had pulled hard on the cat on purpose and that he wanted to see it again with a new cat that nobody touched. But everyone knew it was because he was a cheap-ass, and they forced him to hand over the money. Then Nissim and Ziv wanted to clob-ber Tsion Shemesh because he was a liar and the cat’s dick didn’t get hard at all. And Michal, who’s probably the prettiest girl in the school, happened to pass by and said we were all disgusting and like animals, and I went and threw up on the side, but not on account of her.
My supervisor recommended Keret and it took me six months to track him down. Boy, did I regret not doing it sooner, and for not realising he was the same guy Joe had recommended months before. Verdict: He's great. Surrealist writers often trade in psychological truths, but what Keret has up his sleeve are a series of truths about the world today, a lot of them relating to the political climate in Israel. The playfulness of each story becomes underscored by this darker reality, imbuing the act of both writing and reading with a genuine need for escapism.
The Kiss - Pip Adam (2008)
Lennon was the last to come through the double doors, his mother was there. His girlfriend ran to him, grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him on the mouth. She looked odd. He'd forgotten about her. He'd seen her name on the letters she sent, called her a couple of times. He'd mentioned her name and had her name mentioned to him in strip bars and mess tents but he'd forgotten about her - the her that stood in front of him now, smiling broadly and wiping tears away like something he was sure she'd seen on television. She was something waiting for him - what could be done with her now? He kept his distance. Lennon wasn't frightened of anything but he kept his distance, unsure of what she could tell or smell or sense. He smiled at her carefully from beside his mother. Wyatt and Knight came over, said something about a party in the afternoon. Wyatt was going to have breakfast with his family and Knight said he was going to have sex with one, or more, of the women. They left.
I read this in Sport 36 and didn't think much of it, but when I was still thinking about it a week later I realised I was only kidding myself. A good ending, as Chekhov once said, will shift the centre of gravity to provoke maximum thought. The ending in The Kiss does exactly this, in a way that seems benign but then continues to tug at you long after you've read it.
Retreat - Wells Tower (2009)
Stephen spent his inheritance on music school, where he studied composition. What I heard of his music was gloomy, the sound track you might crave in an idling car with a hose running from the tailpipe, but nothing you could hum. When no orchestras called him with commissions, he had an artistic crackup, exiled himself to Eugene, Oregon, to buff his oeuvre and eke out a living teaching the mentally substandard to achieve sanity by blowing on harmonicas. When I drove down to see him two years ago after a conference in Seattle, I found him living above a candle store in a dingy apartment that he shared with a dying collie. The animal had lost the ability to urinate, so Stephen was always having to lug her downstairs to the grassy verge beside the sidewalk. There, he'd stand astride the poor animal and manually void its bladder via a Heimlich technique horrible to witness. You hated to see your last blood relation engaged in something like that.
I've cited Retreat not because it's my favourite story but because of this idea of revision. Tower actually published an earlier and drastically different version of this story in McSweeney's 23. The story centres around the relationship between two brothers, and how that dynamic plays out when the younger brother visits. In the McSweeney's version, it's told from the point of view of the younger brother, but in the collection, we see the events from the older brother's perspective. It's a completely different story, and the fact that he embarked on this process post-publication fascinates me. It served him well. The new version reads a lot better, and seeing it from the jerky older brother's point of view lends the story an added pathos, but you know what? It was good to begin with. It says a lot about the importance of revision, though mostly it makes me wonder if anyone is ever happy with anything they write.
Argentina - Breton Dukes (2011)
They went out of the camping ground, across the railway lines and into the town. There wasn't much to see. Outside the church a tall man was using a lawn mower.
"Is that him?" said Todd.
"Who?" said Rainey.
Todd had never been in love before, but Rainey had. In her last year of high school she'd been in love with a basketball player. Todd swaggered in a circle around her, dribbled, then aimed a shot at a street sign. Rainey watched but didn't say anything. He faked to one side and then went past her. "Slam dunk for the big man," he announced.
But she wasn't watching anymore; she was looking up and down the road. The day before, the sky had been high and blue. It had looked like it was stretched so tight that a sharp point would cause it to burst, exposing all the stars and the moons and the endless galaxies. When Todd said that to her she'd laughed and said, "That's clever. I love the way you look at things." Then she'd moved close to him and put her hand under his t-shirt.
As they walked back from the church the sky was grey and low and though he thought hard, Todd couldn't think of an interesting way to describe it.
I initially bought Bird North to send up to a friend in Auckland, but while waiting at the bus stop I made the inevitable mistake of flicking through it. It's a great collection, and Argentina was one of the stories that stayed with me. There's a sense of quietness in this one, a tension that builds and dissipates in tiny unrelenting waves, threatening to spill onto the page.
He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment. Which was full of Kewpie dolls, the sort won at carnivals, and they made a date, as he recalls, to go to one. Where she wins another—she has a knack for it. Whereupon they’re in her apartment again, taking their clothes off, she excitedly cuddling her new doll in a bed heaped with them. He can’t remember when he last slept, and he’s no longer sure, as he staggers through the night streets, still foggy, where his own apartment is, his orgasm, if he had one, already fading from memory.
I read only two of Coover's stories this year, Going For a Beer and Matinee, both published in The New Yorker, both fun, experimental pieces. In Going for a Beer, Coover condenses time in such a way that it exists not sequentially but at once, capturing an entire life in a one-page story. It's absurd in the Sisyphean sense, a life of ever-repeating patterns, cycles of behaviour, the same lines spoken again and again. The other story, Matinee, begins with a woman going into a movie theatre that's playing her favourite film, but when the projector breaks down half-way through, the woman stands up to leave. As she does she notices a man a few rows down, and she knows in that instant that they'll bump into each other in the aisle. The story then cross-fades to another man watching the same film. Cross-fade. I know it's a filmic term, but it describes precisely what Coover achieves in this story. It's so seamless you almost don't notice it at first. Even better, things start getting meta. This beginning scene is later described as a film someone has watched, but the character thinking of this film is herself a character from a film that somebody in a previous scene has described, and so forth, and so forth. Scenes repeat. Characters repeat, and it's so effortlessly weaved that it never feels too clever.
It was really nice coming across Coover this year: He was a reminder of what you can do with the short story form. It was reinvigorating reading him - he was to structure what Gertrude Stein was to language. I mean that in the good way.
His Father's Shoes - William Brandt
Discontinuous Lives - Barbara Anderson
You Are Now Entering the Human Heart - Janet Frame
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.