Click the image for last month's talk of Lispector's stories

Danticat, Farnsworth, Gallant, Hunter, Li and Quade

Short Stories in April, May and June

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to three familiar writers and also explored three new-to-me story writers.

Just last week, I chatted about Yiyun Li’s “A Flawless Silence” and Edwidge Danticat’s “Without Inspection”.

The links between the stories in Vanessa Farnsworth’s The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind (2018) are delicately and deliberately constructed.

For instance, at the end of “The Things She’ll Be Leaving Behind” is this passage:

“I think I’d prefer whiskey.”
“Whatever. At the very least, I think we should do this part in silence. Something seems right about that.”

And, next, at the beginning of “Seashells”, you’ll find this:

“Can you hear me? Please answer me if you can. Without you I’ll never get out of here and I really need to get out of here.”

Pockets of sound repeat in the word selection and there are shared sets of questions about the importance of noise and the importance of its absence.

Sometimes these connections are easier to spot, even from the table of contents, like at the end of “Polaris”, when one character asks “Do you have a favourite star?” And, next, in the beginning of “Andromeda”, “Sandy raises the binoculars to her eyes and fiddles awkwardly with the focus rings until the stars gleam like they do in fairytales.”

Sometimes the connections are subtle: shared settings (like a lakeside or a driveway), strong emotions (like shame or anger), or plot points in common (like suicides and other losses).

Throughout, there is a sharp kind of humour to the pieces, which contain a lot of dialogue (sometimes they are entirely dialogue).

“Ann pauses. She looks like she’s going to cry, but then rallies, huffing her emotions into the air like a smokestack huffing out fumes. ‘You’re my sister for Christ’s sake. That’s as close to incest as you can get without it being the real deal.’” [“Ten Reasons I Won’t Be Going to Heaven”]

Okay, sometimes the sharpness outweighs the humour.

And, sometimes it’s difficult to spot the genesis of the giggle. I marked this passage as evidence of humour, but perhaps it’s funnier when enjoyed with as much wine as the characters have imbibed.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea to exact revenge on a neighbor by murdering her tree then pinning it on a rodent? I mean, talk about karma. Think about it. You could end up coming back as a virus in your next life. Or maybe an armadillo.” [“The Beaver”]

But the armadillo bit is funny, isn’t it? Think of all the living entities one might have chosen, other than armadillo. Maybe for another reader, this is simply quirky: I’m still giggling.

These pieces are short and often scenic: not fragments – that’s too slight – but not quite short stories either, more like echoes of stories which, when they reverberate in a series, contribute to a sense of awe and mystery, the kind you find in everyday life.

Contents: Twenty-two stories from “The Plaid Shoes” to “Napoleon’s Eyes”

It was a delight to discover Mavis Gallant in a walk-on part in Martin Hunter’s The Critic and Other Stories (2013) in “Left Bank”: “Sofia then pointed to a middle-aged woman eating alone. It was the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. She encouraged Rick to ask her for an interview. He declined; he had never heard of her and had never read her work.”

Given how much Mavis Gallant loved Paris and her neighbourhood in particular, I can imagine this having happened. Although I wonder if it would have been so simple to have arranged a lunch.

“A few days later Sofia took Mme. Dudevant to lunch with Mavis Gallant. The two women hit it off. Mme. Gallant was thrilled to meet a descendant of a writer in whom she had always been interested. She had thought of writing about her but instead had become involved in a work about the Dreyfus affair, which she was finding difficult to finish. She confessed that it was easiest for her to complete short fiction.”

Martin Hunter’s stories are direct and character-driven. One can imagine him being part of a couple who sits and invents stories for the people seated nearby, whether in a restaurant or a park, alternating sentences in the imagined scenario until one of them nods in satisfaction at a sense of completion. The stories conclude with a satisfying tone, reading like magazine stories, sometimes with a gentle tone of regret but often a realization that all is as it should be.

Contents: The Harrison Sisters, The Critic, Left Bank, Breaking Out, Angel Cake, The Mating Game, Lenore, Will You Join the Dance?, Montreal Revisited, The Bishop’s Visitor, Writer’s Block, Reunion

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas (2015) is a debut collection which affords some marginalized characters the opportunity to take centre stage.

Some of them have simply been waiting for the opportunity, like Frances.

“Frances was sixteen years old and twitchy with impatience. If Frances’s life was to be a novel – as Frances fully intended – then finally, finally, something might happen at the Fiestas that could constitute the first page.” [“Night at the Fiestas”]

Others, like Andrea, have not expected the world to take notice.

“But Andrea knew that whatever she was granted in life would be granted as a result of her wheedling. She’d forever be checking ethnicity boxes, emphasizing her parents’ work: farm laborer, housekeeper. Trying to prove that she was smart enough, committed enough, pleasant enough, to be granted a trial period in their world.” [“Jubilee”]

Sometimes there is an overt sense of the-story-untold, which creates a whiff of MFA-project (but, even then, I still wanted to know what wasn’t known), like in the collection’s first story.

“No one would talk about what had happened when Nemecia was five. And soon I stopped asking. Each night I thought Nemecia might say something more about her crime, but she never mentioned it again.” [“Nemecia”]

And sometimes observations feel very calculated, constructed (but, better that than sloppily sentimental), particularly when it comes to matters of class and privilege.

“The place caught people like trash in a wire fence, damaged, discarded people blown out of the bright tree-lined towns of America, held here until the wind came up.” [“Mojave Rats”]

Overall, the stories which touched me most deeply were those which allowed a sense of the unfinished when the story was complete. With such attention to characterization and deliberate construction of a conflict against that backdrop, I prefer to have the story end before the moment of impact. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading another collection by Kirstin Valdez Quade.

Contents: Nemecia, Mojave Rats, The Five Wounds, Night at the Fiestas, The Guesthouse, Family Reunion, Jubilee, Ordinary Sins, Canute Commands the Tides, The Manzanos

Mavis Gallant is discussed at some length (relatively speaking) in Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit (2017), which I read earlier this year, just before reading The Pegnitz Junction.

His observations about her work definitely reignited my interest.

“The idea of becoming a writer in Canada didn’t occur to Gallant any more than it did to [Mordecai] Richler. ‘Canadian writing,’ she wrote in the Standard, ‘never hurt anyone’s feelings.’ She chose Paris because it felt her alone to live as she liked. When Canadian interviewers inevitably asked her why she had moved or stayed there, she often answered with a question: ‘Have you ever been to Paris?’”

Most of the stories in The Pegnitz Junction are set elsewhere, the title novella on a train (which means many elsewheres). But consistently that Gallant feel: the attention to detail, the astute observation, her affinity for the lonely-hearted.

The Pegnitz Junction / The Old Friends / An Autobiography / Ernst in Civilian Clothes / O Lasting Peace / An Alien Flower

NEXT UP: Gallant’s collection The End of the World and Other Stories (1974), beginning on August 7, 2018.

Many of the stories have been previously published* in other collections and were later included in other publications of her selected works.

The Other Paris*
The Picnic*
About Geneva*
Acceptance of Their Ways*
My Heart is Broken*
An Unmarried Man’s Summer*
The End of the World
The Accident
Malcolm and Bea*
The Prodigal Parent
The Wedding Ring*
New Year’s Eve
In the Tunnel

Curious about the short form?

Wonder what makes stories tick?

A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.
Lorrie Moore

A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.
Stephen King

Collections of Enid Blyton stories. My copy of Toyland Tales is battered, I also filled in the hands on the clock puzzles, counted the mice following the Pied Piper and coloured people’s faces green.

Edith Pearlman, thanks to a recommendation from Julia, an enthusiastic short story reader and writer, who noticed we share a love of short fiction that tugs at the heart.

So many people can now write competent stories that the short story is in danger of dying of competence.
Flannery O’Connor

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.
Ray Bradbury

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
Neil Gaiman

My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart
Haruki Murakami

Outside of a class reader, the first story I remember rereading was in an anthology about a woman who is walking home alone at night and hears footsteps behind her. All the bejeebies were scared out of me, every single time.

In the same year: D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner”, William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”. It was a good year, but now I see that we did not study Tillie Olsen, Ethel Wilson or Charlotte Perkins.

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.
David Sedaris

When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.
George Saunders

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.
Mavis Gallant

Follow one short story with two more and the impact of any one of them seems to be dissipated and diluted.
Susan Hill

Alice Munro’s A Friend of My Youth, as much for its quiet understated cover as my sense of needing-to-have-read-her-by-that-time. When I loved it, I began to buy collections as often as novels. Well, almost as often.

Fourteen. Highlights included Olive Senior’s The Pain Tree, Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks, and Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit.

I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.
Annie Proulx

Somewhere around the place I’ve got an unfinished short story about Schrodinger’s Dog; it was mostly moaning about all the attention the cat was getting.
Terry Pratchett

“The best short stories contain novels. Either they are densely plotted, with each line an insight, or they distill emotions that could easily have spread on for pages, chapters.”

Louise Erdrich

“The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story…. Within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer the cry of heart of its characters, that one cry of heart of each of them: ‘Who am I?'”

Isak Dinesen

And you? Any short stories lately?