My mother was telling me this week that she has had a lot of ideas for short stories come to her, and was asking me for collections of short stories to read to update herself with the form. It was a coincidence as I’d just finished reading Miranda July’s No-one Belongs Here More than You (Canongate, 2007) which is a highly readable collection of odd, unsettling stories that were both challenging and compassionate. So there’s my first recommendation. I’ve talked about short story collections in other posts: James Joyce’s Dubliners, Jeremy Dyson’s Never Trust a Rabbit, but I thought I’d write a post specifically around this type of fiction, as according to Truman Capote, the short story is “the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing”. Good luck Maman!
Firstly, Sea Monster Tattoo and Other Stories by Ruth Thomas (1997, Polygon). This was Ruth Thomas’ debut, and it is a confident and varied collection of stories, some of which are only a few pages. “In Love” is one such story, an entire love affair described over 2 and half sides. Thomas is such an accomplished writer than the brevity doesn’t result in a lack of depth. Rather, she is able to create a sense of things distilled to their essence, but lightly, looking at the meaning of everyday occurrences. Sometimes her imagery is startling:
“In February her flatmate said, “I can’t stand the strain,” and moved out. Everything had ice on it, even eyelashes.”
This almost seems like a non-sequitur, then the meaning hits you, all the more forcefully for allowing the reader to connect the dots. Some of the stories read like that as a whole; Thomas takes snapshots of lives and then leaves you to find the meaning in the picture. The title story tells the tale of a group of girls travelling in southern Europe. Rather than a time of youthful exuberance, it’s an experience of dreary surroundings and small niggles. As the narrator feels distanced from her companions, we are brought alongside her thoughts:
“I’m thinking of the last time I was on a ferry, in Scotland. It was cold then too, at a strange time in the morning; I had got off some coach, woken up from some strange dream, and I think there were also sheep in a lorry. But I was much younger, travelling with my family. When we got on board there was a fruit machine and decks of cards sticky with beer. The crossing took over four hours. My mother tried to get me to sleep on an orange plastic sofa in the lounge but I just sat and stared out of the window at the sea , which was dark and wide and smooth as chocolate.”
The stories in Sea Monster Tattoo are full of such small observances, both of surroundings and of people. Through these details, Thomas shows great empathy and understanding, and just how much a short narrative can express.
Secondly, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry by Elizabeth McCracken (1993, Turtle Bay Books). Again, this was a writer’s debut, but I confess I read it after I’d read her first novel, The Giant’s House, because I’d loved it so much. I wasn’t disappointed. The things I’d loved about the novel: inventiveness, compassion, quirkiness, are all present in McCracken’s short fiction. In “It’s Bad Luck to Die”, a woman tells of her love for her tattoo artist husband. She’s six feet tall:
“Years later he told me how he was bowled over by all those square inches of skin, how I was so big and still not fat. “I fell for you right away,” he said.
[…] but he didn’t give me my first tattoo till a year later, the day after we were married: a little butterfly pooled in the small of my back. Five years later, he began referring to it as his “early work,” even though he’d been tattooing for twenty-five years before he met me. That didn’’t rankle me as much as you might think – I liked being his early body of work, work-in-progress, future. That little butterfly sat by itself for a while, but in five years time Tiny flooded it with other designs: carnations, an apple, a bomber plane, his initials.”
The tattoos are a living part of her, she almost expects to prick herself on a rose etched on her body. In the course of 22 pages McCracken portrays this couple and their method of communication that no-one around them understands with such delicate sensitivity that I was really moved by the story; I found the final line brought tears to my eyes. Proof that in the right writer’s hands, you don’t need a whole novel.
In the title story, McCracken’s offbeat humour is at the fore, with a tale of Aunt Helen Beck, who claims to be peoples’ aunt even though they don’t know her, and in this way travels around the country taking advantage of their hospitality. She is a forceful presence:
They went around back and walked into a bright kitchen, full of the sorts of long skinny plants Aunt Helen Beck had always distrusted: they looked like they wanted to ruffle your hair or sample your cooking. The boy followed them into the house…
“So,” she said. “what’s your name?”
“Mercury,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
Ford shrugged. “His mother likes planets.”
“I like vegetables,” said Aunt Helen Beck, “but I wouldn’t name my child Rutabaga.”
Aunt Helen Beck isn’t quite as morally upright and conservative as she likes to convey, and she and Mercury bond in what is a truly touching, unlikely friendship. I think this is McCracken’s great strength: her characters are always unusual but not self-consciously quirky, and her writing reminds us of all the ways human beings can reach out to each other across seeming differences.
Both these collections contain lots of little gems, great stories by accomplished writers with distinctive voices.
Here are the books with a pea, and any princess who’s had a sleepless night can attest to how powerful this small thing can be: