The First Person and Other Stories
Since I referenced it in the introduction to this bookshelf, I may as well begin with Ali Smith’s wonderful story collection The First Person and Other Stories, a book that takes as its theme—like much of Smith’s work—the story itself and the perspectives it can employ. There is no better story writer alive, and the stories “The First Person,” “The Second Person,” and “The Third Person” are brilliantly inventive (and even at times heartbreaking) takes on those phrases.
In Sum, Eagleman describes a series of fantastic landscapes in brief sections, except he isn’t cataloguing cities but rather various hypotheses of heaven. A neuroscientist by profession, Eagleman’s book is not a religious work, but neither is it mocking or cynical. Each piece is a humane consideration of the way we live, and how the promise of heaven (in all its infinite varieties) can be alluring in the abstract—but it may be wiser, as the saying goes, to find a little bit of it on earth.
The protagonist of Tom Rachman’s astonishing novel The Imperfectionists is an English-language newspaper in Rome. The novel is told via stories focused on different positions at the paper—the obituary writer, the editor-in-chief, the publisher, the correspondents—and interspersed throughout are quick expositions on the history of the paper itself. Though it is referred to as a novel (and “novel” is appropriate), the stories that make up The Imperfectionists are so wonderfully effective on their own, so funny and surprising and true, that even if they didn’t add up to a bigger picture (which they totally do), this book would still be worth reading.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
Ayana Mathis wrote many of the chapters of her debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the most prestigious and selective MFA program in the U.S. When she put them all together, she realized she had something of a novel: 12 stories following members of the same family, all stemming from the same woman, Hattie, and her legacy as shown through the lives of her nine children (plus twins who die needlessly). That these were individually crafted narratives is clear as one reads The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, but it doesn’t take away from its impact, as each child of Hattie, each tribe, has a poignant and heartbreaking story to tell.
Bret Easton Ellis
Comprised of stories Ellis wrote before his debut novel Less Than Zero, The Informers is only considered a novel because the words “A Novel” appear on the cover, but it’s probably best to think of it as a collection (albeit a collection of sort of interrelated pieces), because the sum total works less well than its parts. Taken each on their own, The Informers creates snapshots of the young, troubled drug addicts, the privileged kids, and the desperate wannabes of Los Angeles in the 1980s—but as a novel it fundamentally fails, mostly because the world it depicts by its very nature resists cohesion and invites discreteness. The Informers shouldn’t be a novel, as its characters are too self-involved to collaborate on anything outside of themselves.
Haunted is really nothing more than a fun way for Palahnuik to collect his disturbing short fictions, which, among other distinctions, have caused numerous fans to faint at readings. The framing device revolves around a group of people who attend a secret writer’s retreat in which they are locked up for three months until they complete a “magnum opus.” The 17 characters tell stories—a la the Villa Diodati of 1816, where Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein and John William Polidori came up with “The Vampyre,” the first modern vampire story—as their circumstances become increasingly dire and the air of competition heats up. Haunted is an unsettling tour through the mind of one of literature’s most deviant artists.
Tobias Wolff’s bildungsroman follows an unnamed boy through his school years at an elite boarding school. As an aspiring writer, the boy couldn’t be at a more appropriate place, as such literary luminaries as Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway appear in the novel to nudge the narrator along his path. Three of the stories appeared in The New Yorker before the book came out, and reading it feels a bit like Wolff’s collected memories of The Hill School in Philadelphia, where he went as a teen, but each story is so beautifully written, so lovingly and readably rendered, that by the end of Old School I hoped for more chapters, more exquisite tales from a first-class writer.
“A short story,” a character in an Ali Smith story observes, “is like a nymphomaniac because both like to sleep around—or get into lots of anthologies—but neither accepts money for the pleasure.” A funny quip, no doubt, but also one that sort of speaks for the status of short fiction today: the nymphomaniac’s incessant search for a partner with whom to sensually connect is not unlike writers’ persistent creation of story collections in an age when the only known demographic for such books are other story writers. As Smith observed, they aren’t even getting paid for them; they do it for a love that is not guaranteed to be reciprocated.
So, to celebrate National Short Story Month, we’ve rounded up innovative and unique story collections, the kinds that contain wonderful tales but also add up to a singular, cumulative experience. Instead of disparate narratives one after the other, these are stories as riffs, as meditations, as commentary, as thematic development, and collections as standalone works of art, which show that stories needn’t be isolated figures, like trees, but can become, in the right hands, forests and jungles—or better yet, they can be turned into houses, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t recognize the individual trees.
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