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Tag: short stories i consider kind of great

Short story: “A Simple Question”

“A Simple Question,” by Francine Prose

Appeared in Conjunctions:53, Fall 2009—Hybrid Histories, readable here; excerpt listenable here

4,948 words

Remarkable.

The opening is especially great. It mimics the feeling of waking up from a dream, and then you wonder why he’s dreaming of being interrogated, and then you realize it was an exam in school—except why should an examiner shine a light in a student’s eyes? On a reread, you understand that Vogel is afraid in the same way any human being can be afraid.

I admire the way this story makes Vogel sympathetic without giving him any real virtue or nobility. His detachment and his love of beauty and philosophy could be mistaken for virtues, but the story depicts them as mere qualities or quirks of his character.

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Short story: “Anything for Money”

“Anything for Money,” by Karen E. Bender

Appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Vol. 5, No. 3 in Fall 2001 (read the story online or subscribe); anthologized in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story 2

10,297 words

Easily my favorite story in this anthology.

I feel ungrateful when I talk about stories that I like a lot, because I’m suspicious of what makes me like them so much and I need to discuss them in terms of that suspicion. This story is cartoonish, far from realistic. Its tropes are pretty cliché: extreme game shows, ambition and greed as the handmaidens of emotional isolation, an isolated man moved by his relationship with a child. Regardless, when I bitch about literary fiction without emotional resonance, what I mean is I want more stories like this.

Short story: “Chicxulub”

“Chicxulub,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Appeared in the New Yorker, March 1st, 2004 (online here); featured in the September 2015 episode of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

4,463 words (my guess was 4,000)

This story reminds me of “Bullet in the Brain,” although it is more linear, and “Forever Overhead,” although it uses a different technique. I find it pretty impressive. Lionel Shriver reads it well—sort of coldly. To read it with too much emotion would kill it.

Shriver and Deborah Treisman talk about the strangeness of writing an experience you haven’t had, and seeing it move someone who has. Shriver takes it rather lightly. But how much of a compliment is it, really, if a stranger sobs over your story? Couldn’t it also be a condemnation? How much of other people’s pain belongs to the writer, and how much does not?

Short story: “Going for a Beer”

“Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover

Appeared in the New Yorker, March 14th, 2011; read by Joshua Ferris in the May 2015 New Yorker Fiction Podcast

1,083 words (My guess was pretty close: 1,000)

Unlike “The Babysitter,” this story is held together by its main character and a definite, if unconventional, chronology. It works much better for me. In fact, it’s beautiful in its unity and in its nightmarish power.

Edited to add that it’s worth a chart. Will add that later.


Section Word count
He goes for a beer 74 *

*

He dates the young woman 253 *

*

*

*

*

The wedding 73 *

*

Children happen 134 *

*

He goes for a beer, has an affair 106 *

*

The fallout 131 *

*

He doesn’t go for a beer, then does 205 *

*

*

*

Beers, orgasms 12
Deathbed, death 95 *

*

 

Short story: “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”

“A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

First appeared in the New Yorker, June 10th, 2002 (subscribers can read here); anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 (edited by Dave Eggers and a committee of high school students; Google Books); PDF here

7.5 pages long

Having read this piece over a decade ago in college, I found it again by googling stories with unusual punctuation and barely acceptable substitute and eventually, barely tolerable substitute. Jackpot.

The trick here is similar to the one in “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” expressing pain by refusing to express it. Words trail off into placeholders and other unspoken, unsayable things.

Short story: “Leg”

“Leg,” by Steven Polansky

Appeared in the New Yorker on January 24th, 1994 (subscribers can read online); read by David Gilbert for the excellent November 2014 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1995, edited by Katrina Kennison and guest editor Jane Smiley; reprinted September 25, 2013 as issue no. 71 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, thanks to J. Robert Lennon

4,926 words

An amazing story.

David Gilbert describes the main character’s choice as “incredibly passive-aggressive” and ultimately a mistake. I disagree on both counts. I see Dave’s sacrifice as inspired—by God or by his subconscious, it doesn’t matter which—and I think it does save his relationship with his son. On a rational level, it’s senseless, but on the nonrational level of mysticism or Oedipal tensions, it makes perfect sense. He’s chosen the small gate, the narrow road that leads to life.

For Gilbert, the idea that Dave’s pain can alleviate Randy’s is too heavy-handed, too pat, too “O. Henry-esque.” He sees the story as undercutting its central symbol. I take the symbol at face value. For me, it works because Dave’s sacrifice is so huge, so dark, and so ostensibly casual—almost disinterestedly casual.

One thing that complicates (and perhaps inhibits) my understanding of the story is that I identify completely with Randy. I don’t believe he’s “simply going through adolescence,” as Gilbert puts it, or “simply” anything. I feel that Randy needs to see his father debased (or cut down to size, or any other Freudian double entendre you like) before he can tolerate him. In the end, Randy has to choose whether he needs his father to actually die or just get symbolically castrated.

Maybe Randy will end up resenting having to make that choice. Maybe it ultimately hurts him more. For that matter, maybe Randy overheard Dave’s prayer about him; maybe Dave passive-aggressively let him hear it. I don’t know. I feel like everything may be okay, but I don’t know.

This is one of those stories where it’s possible for two readers to interpret it in completely opposite ways, and yet agree that it is a great, great piece, because it’s so well-made and so alive.


Edited to say how much I love the exchange that starts around here: “Randy began to drift in his father’s direction, up the line. Dave watched his unwitting tack with gratitude and wonder.” There are so many ways to interpret Randy’s behavior, for both the readers and Dave.

Short story: “Stavrogin’s Confession”

“Stavrogin’s Confession,” a series of chapters originally omitted from the novel Devils due to censors, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf (SWF / PDF), Michael R. Katz, and probably many others

About 65 pages in the Koteliansky/Woolf translation

I cannot help but read this section as a short story in itself, although I don’t know whether Dostoyevsky ever intended it to stand alone. It is a continuous and terrible dream.

Short stories I consider kind of great

So it looks like I’ve used this tag twenty-five times and counting. That’s a lot of stories that I admire and would like to imitate. I’m going to make a list so I can look at them all at once.

  • “The White Cat,” by Marjorie Sandor
  • “A Report to an Academy” (“Ein Bericht für eine Akademie”), by Franz Kafka
  • “Forever Overhead,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff
  • “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Man of the World,” by Frank O’Connor
  • “Brief Interview #20″ (among other titles), by David Foster Wallace
  • “Second Person, Present Tense,” by Daryl Gregory
  • “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” by J. D. Salinger
  • “Everything and Nothing,” by Jorge Luis Borges
  • “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor
  • “The Interior Castle,” by Jean Stafford
  • “Wife in Reverse,” by Stephen Dixon
  • “Deer at Rest,” by Thisbe Nissen
  • “Sredni Vashtar,” by Saki
  • “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “The Evolution of Knowledge,” by Niccolò Tucci
  • “The Laughing Man,” by J. D. Salinger
  • “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” by David Foster Wallace
  • “The Weeds,” by Mary McCarthy
  • “The Ring,” by Isak Dinesen
  • “A Hunger Artist” or “The Hunger Artist” (“Ein Hungerkünstler”), by Franz Kafka
  • “The Circular Ruins”  (“Las Ruinas Circulares”) by Jorge Luis Borges
  • “Departures,” by John L’Heureux
  • “The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges

Of these, I see that six are by women and nineteen by men; of the eighteen authors represented, six are women and twelve men.

More to come, assuming I don’t lose all taste for short fiction.

Edit: I did not.

  • “How We Got Mother Back,” by Valério Romão
  • “Stavrogin’s Confession,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • “Leg,” by Steven Polansky
  • “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • “Going for a Beer,” Robert Coover

These latest five, of course, are all written by men.

Another edit:

  • “Chicxulub,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
  • “Anything for Money,” by Karen E. Bender
  • “A Simple Question,” by Francine Prose

Short story: “How We Got Mother Back”

“How We Got Mother Back,” by Valério Romão, as translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar

From Granta 125: After the War, Autumn 2013 (story online here)

3,619 words

What the actual fuck?

I suppose I wouldn’t be shocked by the subject matter if it weren’t presented with such conviction and aplomb. I’ve certainly read stories of more bizarre events that affected me less.

Although the father doesn’t overtly show authority or control over the situation, his emotional abusiveness is obvious to an outsider. Here’s a bit of passive-aggression I especially like:

and father, head bowed, eating reluctantly, slowly stood up to leave the communal table, because for once those gathered around him had failed in their duty to cower before the eminence of his woe

The wig makes its first appearance after a drunken verbal fight, and it’s not hard to imagine that the aggressions and appeasements will continue to escalate in like fashion. At the end, the father is drunk again. The last line’s inevitable suggestion of sex is just light and understated enough to be hilarious.

A note on the formatting. It took me a reread or two to realize that those floating, indented paragraphs are basically parentheticals. The dialogue is formatted the same way, and without initial capitalization. No quote marks. I suppose unconventional formatting is a nearly universal signal that we’re somewhere unfamiliar.

Apparently, this story is also going to be a film. (Link is in Portuguese.) I look forward to it with morbid fascination.

Short story: “The Secret Miracle”

“The Secret Miracle” (“El Milagro Secreto”), by Jorge Luis Borges; the version I read was translated by Harriet de Onís

Collected in Labyrinths, probably anthologized all over; a version without translation credits in PDF

My current estimate is 2,500 words in English

I like this so much. On a reread, I notice that Hladík is not described as a remarkably good or hardworking writer. Up until that final miracle, he seems both mediocre and undisciplined. One of Borges’ witty throwaways demands to be quoted:

Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned.

Which makes his redemption (or whatever it is) all the better. Hladík is apparently nobody special, and neither he nor we can understand God’s motives for choosing him. Maybe it’s like humoring a child who wants you to check for monsters under the bed just one last time before going to sleep—God’s way of comforting someone who is beyond rational comfort.

Miscellanea:

  • Hladík’s torment as he waits for the appointed day is entirely believable. I wonder if Borges was thinking of Dostoyevsky.
  • Borges very logically makes his writer a formal-verse poet. A prose writer, or a writer of free verse, would have a lot of trouble trying to take advantage of this miracle, unless he happened to have Funes’s memory.
  • I like the epigraph here better than the one on “The Circular Ruins,” but that may be because I’ve never read the Koran. If it were as familiar to me as Through the Looking-Glass, I probably wouldn’t find this excerpt so strange and lovely.