This is the third year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September; see also my 2016 and 2017 performances. (I actually finished Sarah Hall’s collection in late August, but I’m going to cheat and include it anyway.) That makes for four volumes in total read recently. Surprisingly, I had my best luck with two that were published back in the early 1990s.
Like many devoted novel readers, I struggle with short stories because they can feel fragmentary or open-ended, and it takes that much more effort to keep up with multiple settings and groups of characters. Yet I also get frustrated when the narrative voice and themes are too similar across a whole set of tales.
However, when done well short stories can be marvelous, of course. I enjoyed K.J. Orr’s article on short stories in the September 7th issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Among the virtues of the short story, she lists the following:
- “the capacity to stoke questions of definition and instability, resolution and irresolution … ; to deliver its conundrums to the reader in a state of compression”
- “The unpredictability involved means that picking up a new short story always feels to me a moment full of possibilities.”
- “The short story can combine complexity and uncertainty with ebullience and humour. It can take on subjects and situations that risk seeming clichéd and open them to wonder. It can put the familiar and the strange in conversation.”
And yet sometimes the quality of the writing, or at least the intensity of my engagement, can vary wildly within a story collection, which often makes the books difficult to rate and respond to as a whole. That’s what I found with these first two.
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall (2017)
Three corkers; two pretty good; four been-there-read-that. My favorites were the first and last stories, “Mrs Fox” and “Evie” (winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 and shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2013, respectively). Both concern a fairly average marriage derailed when the wife undergoes a transformation. In the former Sophia literally turns into a fox and her husband scrambles for a way to make the relationship last. In “Evie,” Richard’s wife develops a voracious appetite for sweets and sex, and starts talking gibberish. This one is very explicit, but if you can get past that I found it both painful and powerful. I also especially liked “Case Study 2,” about a psychologist’s encounter with a boy who’s been brought up in a commune. It has faint echoes of T.C. Boyle’s “The Wild Child.”
“Wilderness” focuses on an intense episode of fear of heights during a trip to South Africa. In “Luxury Hour,” a new mother meets up with an old lover near the swimming pool they used to frequent and wonders where and why their lives diverged. This one reminded me of the first chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Transit.
As for the rest? “Goodnight Nobody” was completely forgettable, and the other three are in the vague speculative/post-apocalyptic vein that’s been done to death: “Theatre 6” = Red Clocks; “Later, His Ghost” = The Road et al.; “One in Four” = Station Eleven et al. I admire Hall’s writing in general, but The Wolf Border remains the best thing I’ve read by her.
The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell (2011)
Based on the first six stories, I was planning a 5-star rating. (How can you resist this opening line? “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.”) But the second half of the book ended up being much less memorable; I wouldn’t say it wasn’t worth reading, but I got very little out of four of the stories, and the other two were okay but somewhat insubstantial. By contrast, the first two stories, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones” and “Uncle,” are gritty little masterpieces of violence and revenge.
I also particularly liked “Black Step” and “Night Stand,” about traumatized soldiers back from war (Woodrell himself was a Marine). Each has a creepy segment where the veteran gives sarcastic answers to the unspecified typical questions they always get; we have to infer that these are: How many people did you kill? What’s it like to kill someone? and What do you do with the bodies? There’s a nice balance between first- and third-person voices; lyrical and unlearned prose; and speech marks and none. I will definitely read more by Woodrell.
I thoroughly loved these next two debut collections. In each case I’d read one or two previous books by the author and not been wild about the writing (White Houses; In-Flight Entertainment and Cockfosters), but these two have convinced me to try more of their work.
Come to Me by Amy Bloom (1993)
Bloom was a practicing psychotherapist, so it’s no surprise she has deep insight into her characters’ motivations. This is a wonderful set of stories about people who love who they shouldn’t love. In “Song of Solomon,” a new mother falls for the obstetrician who delivered her baby; in “Sleepwalking,” a woman gives in to the advances of her late husband’s son from a previous marriage; in “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” adolescent Susan develops crushes on any man who takes an interest in her. My favorite was probably “Love Is Not a Pie,” in which a young woman rethinks her impending marriage during her mother’s funeral, all the while remembering the unusual sleeping arrangement her parents had with another couple during their joint summer vacations. The title suggests that love is not a thing to be apportioned out equally until it’s used up, but a more mysterious and fluid entity.
Linked short stories can be a useful halfway-house for readers who prefer novels and are still unsure about reading stories. Happily, then, the heart of this collection is five pieces that orbit around the same characters. In “Hyacinths” we meet David as a boy in Manitoba and get a glimpse of him as an adult. In the next story we encounter his second wife, Galen, and her lover, Henry. “Silver Water” is about a mental health crisis with David and Galen’s daughter, and the next two stories are about Henry, his wife Marie, and the other bonds they form.
Although I read the book quickly while on holiday and so haven’t marked out any particular quotes, convincing dialogue and insightful observations are on almost every page. I was reminded most of short stories I’ve read by Elizabeth McCracken and Carol Shields.
Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1990)
Simpson won the inaugural Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for this in 1991. Her protagonists are women disillusioned with the norms of marriage and motherhood. They ditch their safe relationships, or carry on brazen affairs; they fear pregnancy, or seek it out on their own terms. The feminist messages are never strident because they are couched in such brisk, tongue-in-cheek narratives. For instance, in “Christmas Jezebels” three sisters in 4th-century Lycia cleverly resist their father’s attempts to press them into prostitution and are saved by the bishop’s financial intervention; in “Escape Clauses” a middle-aged woman faces the death penalty for her supposed crimes of gardening naked and picnicking on private property, while her rapist gets just three months in prison because she was “asking for it.” (Nearly three decades on, it’s still so timely it hurts.)
I loved “The Bed,” a kind of fairy tale about a luxurious bed solving all a woman’s problems; “What Are Neighbours For,” in which each woman cattily plans what she can get out of the others; “Labour,” a brief five-act play set in a hospital delivery room; and “Zoë and the Pedagogues,” about a woman learning to drive who has two very different teachers (perhaps inevitably, this recalled Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors). “An Interesting Condition,” which takes place in an antenatal class, is like Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Bad Latch,” while multiple stories reminded me of Shena Mackay, especially “Send One Up for Me,” about a woman tiptoeing around her boarding house and trying not to anger the landlady.
I enjoyed these two books so much that I plan to keep reading the short story collections I own through the autumn and winter.