One of the many myths about fiction writers is that, because we make things up, we must be pretty good at lying. My observation and experience is that most fiction writers are not only pretty bad at lying in real life but they do not like it much either. That said, the best writers have, for sure, what Hemingway called ‘a BS detector’ — they can spot a lie a mile off. And, in their fiction, while they make up structural details, the foundations and the glue holding everything together come from their deep, insightful perceptions and understanding of universal truths. William Trevor, the British writer, described short stories as being such explosions of truth:
I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.
One of the stories in this past month’s selection is from William Trevor. Additionally, we have stories by Haris A Durrani, Premchand, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley. None of these are newly-published, but the truths they embody will stand strong for a long time yet.
1. Forty-two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men in Black, Cyclon Overlords by Haris A Durrani (Buffalo Almanack)
I stumbled onto the story while browsing through this magazine’s excellent archives. The form is an interesting and tricky combination of both the second-person point of view and the listicle format. And, Durrani’s style in unfolding the narrative and his characters is interesting, ironical, and insightful. Also, this story is the prequel to his well-received novella, ‘Technologies of the Self‘, which is about a young American Muslim engineering student in post-9/11 New York City. Not much more I can say other than how well it deserved the magazine’s annual Inkslinger Award for creative excellence.
Reason Number One
She won’t call you Jihad.
No matter how many times you tell her, she can’t get it around her head that it doesn’t mean you’re going to strap dynamite to your balls, walk into Penn Station, and blow yourself so bad your head pops off your shoulders.
Truth is she doesn’t actually believe that bullshit, but the name does bother her. So she calls you Joe.
You don’t complain because everyone calls you Joe, including you. You don’t want to admit you’re experiencing a Black Skin/White Mask cultural inferiority complex, so you assume you’re also a spy sent to rat on your own self. You don’t know all the details yet. You’re like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel. You have no idea which you is the real you. You’re waiting for someone from the Impossible Mission Force to arrive with a secret task delivered in a knickknack that’ll self-destruct in five four three two one—BAM!—because, deep down, you really want to rock hot shades and ride fast cars and scale Burj Khalifas like Tom Cruise.
Jihad means struggle, but you’ve forgotten that.
I’ve been wanting to feature a Kelly Link story for some time now so this is a perfect opportunity.
Link is a Massachussetts author and this story is the official choice for the Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story program.
From the above link, you can download the PDF.
Here’s more about the selection:
Every year, after the story is announced, thousands of copies are distributed around the city for residents to read. Once the festival rolls around, the author is interviewed during a special session that’s orchestrated “town-hall” style, so plenty of people can attend.
The Faery Handbag” tells the story of a young woman whose grandmother’s handbag contains an entire village in it (as well as a few other things, depending on how you open it). There’s also a cameo by the Garment District.
Now, if you’ve read any of her work before, you will know that she writes weird and wonderful short stories that defy any genre classification. This a long story with a very distinctive voice and an interesting ending, as is the case with all of Link’s stories.
The faery handbag: It’s huge and black and kind of hairy. Even when your eyes are closed, it feels black. As black as black ever gets, like if you touch it, your hand might get stuck in it, like tar—or like when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness.
Fairies live inside it. I know what that sounds like, but it’s true.
Grandmother Zo a said it was a family heirloom. She said it was over two hundred years old. She said that when she died, I had to look after it. She said that it would be my responsibility.
This is a classic by one of India’s well-loved Hindi authors, Premchand, and translated by Frances W. Pritchett.
It’s a sad sort of story, really, about a father and son who are both such lazy buggers that they let the son’s wife die in childbirth and cannot be bothered to even give her a decent cremation.
Premchand’s stories often dealt with such social issues. His prose was never lyrical or expansive (as Bengali literature of his time tended to be), but it was always true to the lives, patois, and dialects of the poor and urban middle-class people he wrote about. There is a strong influence of Tolstoy, whose works Premchand translated into Hindi, in his stories of peasants and village life, which this story shows.
Ghisua fell prostrate on the ground, and said with tear-filled eyes, “Master, I’m in great trouble! Madhav’s wife passed away last night. All day she was writhing in pain, Master; we two sat by her bed till midnight. Whatever medicines we could give her, we did. But she slipped away. Now we have no one to care for us, Master – we’re devastated – our house is destroyed! I’m your slave. Now who but you will take care of her final rites? Whatever money we had at hand was used up on medicines. If the Master will show mercy, then she’ll have the proper rites. To whose door should I come except yours?”
Sometimes, I like to look up an author from my TBR list. Sometimes, I like to dive into a magazine’s archives to find gems I might have missed earlier. This story meets both of those criteria.
Nina McConigley showed up on my radar when her short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians was published and then won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award. She was hailed by some as the next Jhumpa Lahiri, though hers is a different landscape and demographic of East Indians from Lahiri’s typical East Coast intellectuals. McConigley’s voice and style are quite different too.
There are many things I love about this story. First, it takes me back to my times driving through and spending time in the American West. I miss those old mountains too. Then, there’s the intimate, wryly humorous first-person voice telling a story about her sister. And, there’s an Indian wedding with a white groom — always interesting to see how those turn out as each is unique in its own way.
I held off a while reading this story after scanning it the first time as it involves a daughter dealing with her mother’s death. My mother passed away in 2014 and it was so sudden that we, the family, did not get to say goodbye, did not get to consider properly the fact of her not being with us someday.
In the end, though, the story is about belonging — or, at least, trying to figure out where and how to belong. And, I love, most of all, the ending but I will not spoil it for you. Settle in and enjoy the read.
I didn’t know she would die later that day, but I knew the end was coming. I wanted her in those last moments to tell me something profound, something that would change my life. I wanted her to be my compass—to tell me where to go.
And what I wanted the most was for her to tell me to get the hell out of Wyoming. To go to India. To live a different life.
But instead, before she slipped off into a coma and her breathing became slow and almost non-existent, she told me one thing.
“Take care of your father,” she said this slowly, her eyes opening and closing.
And when you came right down to it, it was the most Indian thing she could say. Staying was the most Indian thing I could do.
Though William Trevor also wrote novels, he is most well-known for his wonderful short stories. It is difficult to pick one from the many that he wrote. So, I’m simply starting with the last one that was published by The New Yorker in 2013.
One of the things Trevor is known for is his portrayal of women. He writes them better than, I think, any other male short story writer of his time.
This story has three main women characters and the sympathy with which he depicts just the right balance of details — flaws and all — shows us his writerly craft and his humanity at its best.
I particularly like, also, how he shows the two relationships — the one between the two older women and the one between the daughter and father — changing due to the revelation of the one big event from the past and the key moments in the present. It is all so beautifully done. A masterclass in short story writing.
Growing up in the listless nineteen-eighties, Cecilia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all. Mr. Normanton was handsome and tall, with steely gray hair brushed carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be. His shirts and suits gave the impression of being part of him, as his house in Buckingham Street did, and the family business that bore his name. Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife—not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man—had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.
After these amazing stories, I am almost embarrassed to share one of my own because it cannot possibly match up. However, here’s ‘The Waiting‘, which was published over at Lunch Ticket in August 2016.
Till next month, then. Please do share your own favorite short stories or your thoughts on these.