In a recent edition of its weekend books supplement, the Guardian published a list of fifty recommended short stories. The saints were there (Flaubert, Chekhov, Joyce), as were the modern greats (Alice Munro, William Trevor, Yiyun Li). There were discoveries, such as James Baldwin’s short fiction, and a Polish writer, Tadeusz Borowski. In short, it was a stand-up list, a primer. The margins of the list were filled with clever illustrations of sushi topped by books instead of raw fish. What is one to conclude? Short stories are – healthy? Cold? Unexpectedly filling? Non-sequential? Stylishly composed? Expensive? Why not compare them to oysters: short stories can be decadent and imprudent. (More importantly, why compare them to food at all?) Yet, like a vegan issue of a food magazine, the list assembled risky pleasures for sceptical carnivores.
The list was titled, ‘Quick, punchy, easily shared...is the short story the form for our times?’ I wondered if the composer of that headline had read Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ (recommended on the Guardian’s list). Short stories can feel – for their duration – eternal and, however constrained by space, they trade in stocks of waste and disappointment. I’d wager my lunch money that whoever wrote the header was thinking of Kristin Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’. Published by the New Yorker at the tail-end of 2017, ‘Cat Person’ went viral and it remains one of the only short stories I’ve ever forwarded to friends who don’t read short stories. Forwarding a link, however, does not give it staying power. ‘Cat Person’ describes with remarkable commitment the vacillations of arousal, narcissism, and uncertainty in the lead up to and aftermath of a failed sexual encounter, but its language is vague and inattentive.
Nor, I would argue, is the work of the short story to make people talk about it, although that understandably matters to publishers. Short stories do not, as a rule, encourage publishers. They do not, as a rule, win the Booker and sell more than 10,000 copies. Is the consequence of ‘Cat People’ the creation of a reading public hungry for short stories, so long as they are short stories about something? When asked in an interview what one of his books was trying to say, Martin Amis apparently replied, ‘It’s not trying to say anything. It’s saying itself for four hundred pages.’ The short story says itself in thirty pages, in ten pages, in a paragraph.
Three recent collections show that the short story is a broad church. There is room for realism, the well-wrought whole, the meandering narrative, the short-short, the fragment, the image, the line, the gap. If the Guardian’s list shows that the short story still has to demand its readership, it has also earned its monuments.
There’s nothing sushi-like about the fiction of Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004. Though rawness appears to be the quality of her fiction on first reading, Berlin is a masterful craftsman. Evening in Paradise: More Stories (Picador, 2018) lacks the coherent heft of The Manual of a Cleaning Woman, the posthumous collection published to critical acclaim in 2015, and the first stories of this second offering threaten slender promise, an editor scraping the bottom of a barrel. The volume is arranged chronologically, beginning with memories of childhood and ending with an older woman’s visits to France and Mexico. The central character is called Lucha or Maya or Claire, with several boys and a taste for Hardy. While men talk about art and poetry in these stories, women cook on difficult stoves, wash babies, listen to their husbands. Husbands appear in the same order: the artist, the pianist, the addict. Berlin herself was married three times – to a sculptor, a pianist, an addict – and was the mother of four boys. It is perhaps tempting to equate personal history with a lack of art; poetry once called ‘confessional’ suffered from the same mistake. Yet, throughout this collection, Berlin shows a sharp observational eye. In the first story, ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, sailors stretch out on wooden benches, ‘hats folded over their eyes, like parentheses’. In ‘My Life is an Open Book’, a lover has ‘a Civil War face’. Several lines – ‘His cheekbones shone amber above a bebop beard’ – are good enough to scan. One could rifle through the collection and pull out good lines, but there is a larger shaping intelligence here too. In ‘Andado: A Gothic Romance’, Berlin takes on Turgenev. Her protagonist, Laura – like Berlin, the daughter of a mining inspector-turned-diplomat – visits the Chilean country estate of a former ambassador to France. The reader senses the danger in the story as fourteen-year-old Laura dresses for a party: ‘She looked at least twenty-one, pretty, and a little cheap.’
Flowering yellow aromo comes and goes as a highly ambivalent object correlative. With an accented shrug and sentences that catch the ear differently, ‘Andado’ has the air of fiction in translation (‘It had snowed in the mountain all week, but look, now it’s clear’). Berlin’s dialogue tightens. When Laura sees the estate and says to its master: ‘In an American movie this is where you would say, “All this is mine”’, her host replies, ‘But it’s a black-and-white movie. I can only say that all this will soon be gone’. Under the gaze of such an aristocrat, American naïvité becomes a liability. Laura disappears into a world of train carriages with red velvet interiors, personal maids, excursions on horseback, rich fiancées, and lower-class mistresses. When one drama comes to a head, Berlin stages an exquisite still-life:
From the stables they could see Don Andrés and Xavier at the kitchen door. Pheasant feathers shone iridescent purple green in the sunlight. Dolores smiled; she held the dazzling birds. Xavier stroked her black hair. Behind them, Teresa came into the kitchen, stood transfixed in the darkened room. Her pearls glinted; the teapot was white on the waiting tray. Teresa smashed the pot on the bright floor and left the room. Xavier’s hand remained frozen on Dolores’s black hair.
Transfixed is the key word. There is no confession here, only control. Elsewhere in the collection, Berlin’s best tool, her rangy voice, is given freer rein. ‘Marjorie made everything pink’, observes one narrator of a friend as they knit for their unborn children, ‘which was too bad, because [the baby] came out Steven’ (‘Lead Street, Albuquerque’). ‘I never saw the Mona Lisa’, says another. ‘There was always a line in front of her and she was behind a window just like they have in liquor stores in Oakland’ (‘Lost in the Louvre’). Even in the collection’s less polished fictions, Berlin’s stories are like loquacious drinkers you happen to share a table with. You stay to hear what they make of themselves. You stay because of their casual riskiness, their lack of regret, their appetite for life, and their acceptance of life’s taxes. Berlin’s characters know that freedom looks like squalor. They make stained glass windows out of the reflections from dusty broken bottles in the light of a setting sun and a local smelting plant.
Where Evening in Paradise is made up of the remnants of Berlin’s oeuvre – one-paragraph sketches as well as stories like ‘Andado’ which verge on the novella – Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck is My Duck (Ecco Press, 2018) is the careful accumulation of ten years. In the opening story, which shares a title with the collection, an artist is invited to stay on a rich couple’s estate in a foreign country. Her hosts are beautiful and fractious: the husband is attended by a retinue of accountants and lawyers, while his wife wavers between numbness and hysteria. Meanwhile, crops burn, donkeys die, and a fellow guest, a visiting puppeteer, finds his subject. Elsewhere in the collection, a memoir reunites a circle of aging actors to revisit their golden years; a disinherited Princeton graduate tries to navigate the precariousness of life in New York; a Midwestern boy goes to his famous uncle’s funeral in London. These descriptions are absurdly reductive. Eisenberg’s stories branch into by-ways. Sudden loops of memory loom larger than the present. Characters age twenty years between paragraphs.
Rather than the vivid colours of Berlin’s Oaxacan palette, Eisenberg has more than a touch of Koons: a plastickey zaniness, a cartoonish gusto. Her characters ‘fish’ for pjs, ‘plunk’ omelettes on plates, and hearts thud ‘clumsily, like a narcoleptic on a trampoline’. In ‘Cross Off and Move On’, one woman undergoes a violent disorientation upon the discovery of her cousin’s obituary in the newspaper:
The tether snapped and I shot upward, wafting around for a moment outside of Earth’s gravitational pull, then dropped heavily back down into my chair next to my supper, cracks branching violently through my equanimity, from which my family, such as it was, came seeping.
This family, such as it is, includes a difficult mother and three aunts, the narrator’s ‘old allies’. It’s a story that could almost be by Alice Munro: Munro on spiked punch. The extremity of these feelings – this hyperreality – might be a match for our digital lives, in which a game offers the chance to ‘shoot the blobs, and if you hit one just right, it emits a shower of gold coins, and then new blobs zoom in to try to eat the coins before you shoot them, too’ (‘The Third Tower’).
Observations like these draw out Eisenberg’s kinship with George Saunders. In his advice on writing dialogue, Saunders observes that real conversation is conducted at cross-purposes, is inefficient and incomplete. Eisenberg’s characters produce full sentences like ‘I don’t really, I don’t know’. She knows that brevity does not necessitate a perfect performance. Even within short forms, we misspeak. This capacity to call language into question takes place more subtly in the middle of a sentence. In ‘Your Duck is My Duck’, for example, the painter drives into town to ‘spend most of the frisky money’ on art supplies. One is half-way through the next sentence before stopping to consider: frisky?
Two stories address the perils and perilousness of language directly. The first, ‘The Third Tower’, is a fable in which sensitivity to words is understood as maladjustment, if not a neurological disorder. The second, more substantial story, ‘Merge’, is prefaced by epigraphs from Chomsky and from Trump (‘I have all the best words’), and questions whether language is merely a failed tool which compensates its users with ‘lies, boasts, propaganda, fearmongering, advertising, derision, and outright threats’. The invocation of Trump may seem like a shot across the bow but the precariousness of the present moment isn’t forgotten in any of Eisenberg’s stories. Your Duck is My Duck is haunted by ghosts, aliens, and refugees, spectral presences which can’t – or aren’t allowed to – settle. Yet, Eisenberg extends the possibility of wonder – the speed of a photograph of the ‘world’s very latest moment!’ taken in London and sent around the globe – which, depending the reader’s position may feel saccharine and manufactured, or something to hold onto.
There is no chance that you’d make the same mistake with Diane Williams’s Collected Stories (Soho, 2018). Williams’s fictions are more like splinters of glass in a plate of spaghetti. Rarely longer than a page and a half, often just the length of a paragraph, these stories end in radically different places than they began. Unlike reading Berlin and Eisenberg, it is painful work to read one story after another. Give up the idea of curling up with this book and a bottle of wine, or taking it on the train. (At over 750 pages, it only fits in the sort of bag that will hurt your shoulders.) Take this example:
She is looking at me curiously. The natural thing is to act sympathetic to her, so I go ahead and do that. Meanwhile, down the hall, a girl is getting angry. She is looking at me curiously. I don’t know which horrible thing happens next in my real bedroom. The new carpeting is familiar. I know the bedspread. I know the room well, but I don’t remember a clock here that chimes. I remember mystery, suspense, and adventure. Even as I blot it out, I was dead wrong to summarize.
The kink is in the last sentence. Why was it wrong to summarize? Reading Williams is like reading the poems of John Ashbery: the words are common, daily, familiar. It’s the syntax that trips one up, the rift between one line and another. There’s a feral defiance to Williams’s sentences. Here’s the beginning of ‘The Uncanny’:
Her silver hair ornament was awfully big. I saw a great emerald-diamond ring. I saw the platter of steak tartare leave its position near me and then dive away into the party crowd on the back lawn. Then I saw my own husband having the meat on a Ritz cracker. I saw it in his hand next to his mouth.
The uncanniness lies in the unexpected self-possession of the platter of steak tartare diving. Never has the relation between hand, mouth, and hors d’oeuvre seemed so creepy. In his introduction to the collection, Ben Marcus described Williams’s prose as having a ‘Dick and Jane quality...if Dick and Jane had been forcibly drowned and then brought back to life, maybe starved for a while, induced with madness but warned, at pain of death, to conceal it’. One fellow critic, an Amazon reviewer, called the stories ‘wackdoodle mumblings’, a phrase which would surely delight their author. Williams’s narrators assert themselves; their conclusions seem erratically incorrect. In ‘The Nub’, a woman goes to a bat mitzvah, comes home and, telephoning her husband in the presence of her children, she begins to rub herself against the corner of her bureau. ‘What I was doing to myself, just so, was working for me,’ she says, ‘but nobody could appreciate what it meant to me, except for me. A child learns from this. Children can learn all by themselves, if they have to, not to show off.’ The sexual vitality in these stories is frequently disturbing. (In ‘The Dog’, the reader is not entirely sure if a woman is having sex with her husband or her pet.)
These are stories are for lovers of pickled herring, twelve-tone compositions, and vodka shots: people who aren’t put off by disagreeable sensations. Reading Williams can induce delirium, a feeling of failure that can trigger a kind of aggression. Despite their perversity, however, these stories make up a talisman against cliché. And, after some experience, one can better bear her fiction’s dissonance. One even craves it. The Collected Stories is made up of eight collections published between 1990 and the present, and the arc of her career modulates towards unsentimental tenderness. In ‘To Revive a Person is No Slight Thing’, the elderly narrator concludes of her relationship to her husband, ‘I must say that our behaviour is continually under review and any one error alters our prestige, but there’ll be none of that lifting up mine eyes unto the hills’.
If a clue to Williams’s method feels necessary, ‘Girl with a Pencil’ might provide one. In the story, a child draws a pair of legs beneath an orange skirt.
“And where is her head?” her mother said. “I see legs!” she pointed. “Shoes.” It was just a few words, but more than the child needed to consider. The child was handed more paper. And so was invented a kind of brute – a brunette with longish hair, who must love her enemies – who acts responsibly.
It’s hard not to see this as a meta-fictional comment. The realist mode, aiming at a fuller description, shames the writer into responsibility. Williams refuses to become such a brute.
I recently came across advice from the judges of the Mslexia fiction prize for hopeful practitioners of the short story, a community on the rise given the increasing venues not for publication but for prizes with entry fees. The judges recommended a ‘great beginning’, with no space wasted on describing the weather but rather ‘engaging the reader with a central character right at the start’. They also recommended a ‘clear conclusion’ without an ending that was ‘too final’. Thank God Berlin, Eisenberg, and Williams are here to raise the middle finger.
Artwork by Alex Haveron Jones
CHRISTY EDWALL is finishing her DPhil at New College and still spends too much money on books.