[As mentioned earlier, for November and December, I am revisiting the top ten stories featured here throughout the year.]
One of the best recent essays I have read about the short story form is by Brandon Taylor. In ‘Against the Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes‘, he makes some excellent points. Here are just a few of them:
It (the short story) tells as much by saying as by not saying. There is as much revealed in the silences, pauses, and omissions as in the thrust of plot. How does one tell a story about what didn’t happen in a way that will make someone want to read it? That is the domain of the short story. Whispers. Caught shadows. The unbearable swell of the imponderables. Life at its most remote, the craggy divide between people. How does one discuss short fiction when short fiction is about the very material of life which is hardest to discuss in the form that is emergent from that material?
. . .
Sometimes, you read a story, and its meaning comes slowly, like the weather in certain parts of the world. The gradual accumulation of clouds and the carrying scent of moisture in the air. And then, suddenly, a bolt from the clear blue—the ringing in your ears. When you’ve understood a story, you know it, because it changes your very relationship to the world. A novel can do this too, it’s true, good novels change you. You leave a novel altered in some way. But see, a story works its way inside of you. You don’t walk out of it. You don’t get to leave. You carry it inside you. It’s beating there all the time like a second heart. A story isn’t quick. It takes time.
All of the short stories I share each month here are ones that, if we take the time to read them with attention and patience, will beat inside of us like second hearts. For December, we have stories (all free to read online, just click the titles) from these amazing writers: Lesley Nneka Arimah; John Cheever; Amy Tan; Karen Shepard; and Michael Cunningham. Enjoy.
1/ Light by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Granta — The Commonwealth Writers’ Winning Stories for Africa and the Pacific)
Here is another story about a father raising his daughter single-handedly — the mother is away studying in the US — so it is quite the role reversal already there. And, in the end, it is not the fathering that causes trouble but, well, you’ll see. All I want to say is that I hope there are more fathers like Enebeli here in the world and long may their tribe thrive.
When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts. Before this, they are living in Port Harcourt in a bungalow in the old Ogbonda Layout. Her mother is in America reading for a Masters in Business Administration. She has been there for almost three years in which her eleven-year-old bud of a girl has bloomed. Enebeli and the girl have survived much in her absence, including a disturbance at the market which saw him and the girl separated for hours while people stampeded, trying to get away from a commotion that turned out to be two warring market women who’d had just about enough of each other’s tomatoes. They survived a sex talk, birthed by a careless joke an uncle had made at a wedding, about the bride taking a cup of palm wine to her husband and leaving with a cup of, well, and the girl had questions he might as well answer before she asked someone who might take it as an invitation to demonstrate. They survived the crime scene of the girl’s first period, as heavy a bleeder as she was a sleeper, the red seeping all the way through to the other side of the mattress. They survived the girl discovering this would happen every month.
John Cheever is called the Chekhov of the American suburbs. Known more for his short stories than his novels, he wrote about the duality of things: the conflicts between wealth and happiness, inner persona and outer appearance, cultural/community traditions and modernism, and much more.
This story is frequently anthologized and taught. I like how it is about a journey through a familiar neighborhood but seen afresh as if for the first time. The main character is a typical Cheever fella — socially active, upper middle class, and with a Mad-Men-esque sense of entitlement and privilege that makes him blind to much of what his life is really all about. Neddy Merrill decides to swim through all the pools of his neighborhood on a summer’s day. Things begin well enough but take a rather dark, surreal turn, which I will not spoil for you. The beauty of the story is in how the various characters interact with Ned in surprising ways and what he realizes about himself and his life as he continues his quest. In many ways, this is Homer’s Odyssey set in 60s suburbia.
Cheever began this as a novel and, after 150 pages of notes, cut it down to a short story. There is a movie version with a rather well-toned Burt Lancaster in a pair of swimming trunks through most of it. Picture him this way:
Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man—he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth—and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest.
Tan’s novel includes sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American-born daughters. In this one, the immigrant mother, Suyuan, wants her American-born daughter, Jing-Mei, to develop an expertise in some skill so she can be a child prodigy like one of her friends’ daughters. They try various things unsuccessfully before Suyuan settles on the piano. Jing-Mei does not apply herself well enough during lessons and performs poorly in concert. When she stops playing entirely, Suyuan is devastated but not deterred and keeps the pressure on. There is a big mother-daughter showdown where harsh words are said by both and the daughter lands the sucker punch. The ending, though not surprising, is bittersweet.
What Tan does so well in this story, as she does with all these stories, is make us sympathize with both protagonist and antagonist. We understand the mother’s underlying desperation to be someone in America through her daughter and to make up for the horrific past she left behind in China. And we also see the daughter, fearful of her mother’s ambition and lacking the same confidence, wanted to just be herself.
My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
“Of course, you can be a prodigy, too,” my mother told me when I was nine. “You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky.”
America was where all my mother’s hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls. But she never looked back with regret. Things could get better in so many ways.
This is from a new collection of short stories called ‘Kiss Me Someone: Stories’. I had not come across Shepard’s previous work before I read this story. And I am definitely going to be looking into this story as well as her earlier novels.
The story is also about mothers and sons — both growing up and learning about getting older in their own ways. The mothers are learning how motherhood changes as your children become young men and women. And the sons, to hear the mothers tell it, are also learning how the rest of the world does not necessarily see them as special people like their mothers.
I am not a mother but, of course, I loved mine and still miss her daily. And there is something so immediate and intimate in reading about how these mothers are dealing with the raising of their sons. The sports analogies make the women sound both fierce and vulnerable and I particularly enjoyed reading those bits. And the ending — love how it leaves us with an image and a question. I think all short stories should end like that.
We are the mothers. Our names are Kim, or Linda, or Janice, or Sue. Sometimes Kristine, or Emilie, who grew up in Canada, but not Brittney or Ashlee with two e’s. We live in small New England towns known for their picturesque beauty, named after Native American tribes or founding fathers, ending in ville or field. Our houses are raised ranches or Capes or converted barns or former farmhouses. They’re in neighborhoods with bike-friendly roads, walking distance to the elementary school and playground. Or at the end of modest dirt driveways in an open meadow with partial views. We drive minivans or SUVs with bike racks on the back and Thules on the roof. Sometimes a pickup, if we’re Republican and borrowed our husbands’ cars. (We’re mostly Democrats, but avoid talking politics if we can. And religion, which most of us never had or have left behind, though some of us are still, shall we say, in the front pews.) Almost all of us are white.
This is a retelling of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and from Cunningham’s collection of revisionist retellings: ‘A Wild Swan: And Other Tales‘. Like the Donoghue and Carter collections mentioned above, this one is worth getting in its entirety because it is a real treat.
Cunningham discusses the story in this interview and how, in his version, the dwarf is driven by a longing to have a child rather than by greed, as in the original. Beyond that, he does something new and different with the ending. The language is careful and precise, as you might expect if you’ve read this author’s work elsewhere. The second-person voice brings us up close to the protagonist so we become him, in a way.
Then there is a moment—a millimoment, the tiniest imaginable fraction of time—when the Queen thinks of giving her baby to you. You see it in her face. There’s a moment when she knows that she could rescue you as you once rescued her, when she imagines throwing it all away and going off with you and her child. She does not, could not, love you, but she remembers standing in the room on that first night, when the straw started turning to gold, when she understood that an impossible situation had been met with an impossible result, when she unthinkingly laid her hand on the sackcloth-covered gnarls of your shoulder, and she thinks (whoosh, by the time you’ve read whoosh, she’s no longer thinking it) that she could leave her heartless husband, she could live in the woods with you and the child . . .