An excess of short stories in the later part of this year has led to a decision to return to the habit of more often devoting entire posts to collections rather than covering a variety in a single pass (last seen in Quarterly Stories: Autumn 2014)

Ellen Gilchrist Acts of God

Algonquin Books, 2014

Some of my favourite books of 2014 were collections, including K.D. Miller’s All Saints (2014), Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’Arabe (2014), and Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014), and chatter about those will appear in the coming weeks.

Along with the most recent collection of Journey Prize nominated stories (the 26th in the series, following the 25th), an assortment of Alice Munro’s stories, and some sojourns into magazines and literary journals, I have had a plethora of stories to enjoy.

My intention to resume regular reading of TNY’s fiction led to Tessa Hadley’s “One Saturday Morning” (in the August 25, 2014 issue of The New Yorker). I enjoyed London Train, but this is the first short fiction of hers which I have read; now I want to seek out a copy of Married Love and Other Stories.

For Carrie, “piano wasn’t the answer she’d hoped for, to what was unsolved in herself”. Set on a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1960s, she is ten years old, home practicing the piano while her parents are at Sainsbury’s, stocking up for a dinner party, when a family friend arrives at the door. Carrie ‘already’ ‘hardly knew’ the significance of that evening, which is laid out with the urgency of a Joyce Carol Oates suspenseful tale and the delicacy of an Alice Munro psychological puzzle. The story is short but the sensory detail rich (Carrie’s mother evokes wine, smoke, hot skin in a white dress that “smelled of ironing”).

Simialrly, the human race is endlessly complex and puzzling in Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of Godher most recent collection,.

“Some people are heroes and some plot, some lie and cheat and steal, and some carry morbidly obese patients up six flights of stairs so they can be medevaced to hospitals and kept alive to eat another day. The human race. You have to love it and wish it well and not preach or think you have any reason to think you are better than anyone else.” (“High Water”)

Whether one must love it as is suggested here is uncertain, but it seems clear that Ellen Gilchrist loves the stories which arise from these twists and turns, these extremes and variations.

Using clear language and simple chronology, the straightforward and matter-of-fact tone might not suit every reader. This is not lyrical prose and ideas do not subtly infuse the stories; these stories are unadorned and their themes are presented boldly.

“Love is devotion. Love is the choice you make and how you keep on making it no matter what happens.” (“Jumping Off Bridges into Clean Water”)

Yet there is something winsome about this uncomplicated approach, something reassuring about being so openly directed by a tale-spinner, and the frequently twinned sense of amusement and resignation does make room for the reader to feel more than one thing at the same time, even when expectations are clearly defined.

He went out to his little house behind the kitchen and he lay down on his bed and went to sleep with all his clothes on because he was so tired he couldn’t take them off. Then he didn’t wake up and we don’t know what happens next because no one gets to find out about dying while they are alive. (“Hopedale, a History in Four Acts”)

Ellen Gilchrist’s Acts of God examines moments of cataclysm in the simplest of terms.

Simon Rich Spoiled Brats

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats (2014) feels as though someone has taken a manuscript and given it a good shake, dislodging readers’ expectations and creating a space in which anticipation is the status quo.

From the first story, readers are jolted by the unexpected proximity of two words: ‘wife’ and ‘cage’. (This makes me think of Andrew Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife but she was not caged, though it would have been, arguably, for her own protection, as time passed.)

Readers realize immediately that this is going to require some attention. And, before the end of the first story, I was wondering if it would require too much of me (a hammer is involved). But, again unexpectedly, the story does just what it needs to do to not only unsettle but to satisfy.

Not only are the unexpected bits substantive, which is to say that what happens in a story is not what one would predict, but the ways in which stories unfold are unusual too. Even, in fact, the characters one discovers along the way are not the usual fare.

For instance (and, yes, it’s true that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius ushered in an over-populated era of characters named for their creators, but perhaps enough time has passed for me to find this novel once more), readers meet Simon Rich in that same “‘wife’ + ‘cage’” story.

“My eyes widen in horror. Simon Rich is Y2K’s ‘class clown’, a pudgy, hyperactive boy with some kind of undiagnosed emotional problem.”

This does not preclude the appearance of other Simon-Rich-dubbed characters in later stories. In fact, were the reader to read these stories in a burst, one might come to expect the unexpected, to begin to look for Simon Rich as younger readers once searched for Waldo. (But parsed out, the novelty remains intact.)

Another level of the unexpected is evident in the possibility of a character in one story reappearing in another (a character not named Simon Rich, in this case). Herein lies the key to the most successful comic writers, who reward their listeners/viewers/readers for paying attention to earlier details in the set/show/collection, for the clever ones are invited to laugh twice as hard.

And sometimes Simon Rich does fully inhabit the role of a comic writer. With “Guy Walks into a Bar”, for instance, he openly sets up for a joke, prepares readers for a laugh. So, on the first page, readers meet a man who asked for a wish from a hard-of-hearing genie in the men’s room, but rather than ‘world peace’ is granted a room filled with geese. Though the story revolves around the bartender who was granted a “12-inch pianist” (you can figure it out).

Spoiled Brats will find a spot on the shelf next to short works by Miranda July and B.J. Novak; its plainspeak could earn it a place next to Ellen Gilchrist’s collection, but beyond the context of this discussion these two collections would make unlikely bedfellows.

What about you: have you been reading short stories lately?
Do you have any collections nearing the top of your TBR?