I’ve not read a lot of short story collections - but over recent years I’ve dipped into Hanif Kureishi, Anne Enright, Bernard Schlink, Ian McEwan, and Franz Kafka among others. Only two short story books have had any lasting impression on me - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Yann Martel) and The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter). At best I find I am no sooner getting involved in a short story before it has ended. I often find little connection between the stories in a collection and they appear randomly bundled together, with quite a few appearing as padding. At worst a story can read as little more than a writing exercise that should never have gone any further than the authors notebook.
My aim with Short Story Summer was to immerse myself more fully in the form and to try to break down my barriers to enjoyment. And I feel I have succeeded. And I think the shift has come due to my redefining what I hope to get from the stories. The best analogy is the album versus the compilation. I am a fan of both, but there is a time and a place for each. If I want a complete piece, which hopefully speaks as a whole and shows progression throughout I will opt for an album by an artist. If I want variety, and am willing to accept that some tracks will be great, others less so I would choose a compilation. And this is how the short stories have worked for me. Reading them alongside novels means that if I want a sustained reading session, picking up familiar characters and plot and places I will reach for the novel. If I want a quick fix of something new I will read a couple of stories. I’ve also learned to look for my own themes to tie the collections together, and once I’ve found these the stories have felt more satisfying.
I’m not done with my journey into the land of the short story - I’m halfway through Dave Eggers at the moment, but for now, these are the ones I’ve read -
Margaret Atwood - Moral Disorder
I broke myself in gently by reading a collection by an author I like. Atwood has also chosen to unite her stories by having them revolve around one central character - meeting her at different times and places in her life. Many stories focus on relationships with friends, lovers, parents, siblings, children and animals. I particularly enjoyed ones about houses lived in and the movements between them, her as a teenage literature lover, and reading the morning news. Atwood offers vignettes of a life - some are familiar to me as a reader some not so, but the way she portrays them allows me a level of access and recognition to each.
‘She was particularly apprehensive about doors, and about who might come through them.’
Andre Dubus - Dancing After Hours
This was the most striking of the three collections I read. Dubus writes with precise, tight prose. Sentences are sparing with each word carefully placed. The stories focus closely on people and particularly their feelings. Bodies thriving and failing featured often. He seemed especially strong when writing from the female viewpoint. Three of the stories feature the same character - as if Dubus can’t quite bear to let her go. The stories are fragile, heartbreaking, uplifting and poetic. Some of the stories feel as though they are written backwards - you know what the big conclusion is going to be from the start, but the pleasure is in seeing how you get there.
‘…feared scattered her grief: it lay beside her, hovered behind her. Shards of it stayed in her body; she could touch the places they pierced in her brain and heart.’
Gina Ochsner - People I Wanted to Be
There is unreality amid the everyday in these stories - the magical sits alongside the mundane. It’s almost supernatural but never in an intentionally scary way - Ochsner’s ghosts are household ghosts. Stories focus on the missing and the lost - and some people are lost even when they are firmly present. There is a sadness and a resigned tone to many of the stories. The eastern European settings and characters in some stories seems to reinforce this. Again there are repetitions in the collection as a whole - mostly in tone, but I couldn’t help but smile as for the fourth time I read about a fish being filled with oil - once in a bath, once on a bus.
‘In Archangel he’d gotten into a face-slapping contest with a priest. When a clear victor could not be decided, the priest has stabbed Niels in the hand with a holy bird feather carved out of ice.’