Last week I reviewed Gregory Spatz’ excellent new collection of short stories, Half as Happy (here). I have had the pleasure of corresponding briefly with Mr. Spatz since then, and we were discussing his favorite short stories. I asked if we could post his list here with some of his thoughts. Thanks for putting this together, Mr. Spatz.
Thirteen Favorite Stories:
Why thirteen? Because it’s a lucky number, actually . . . and it’s three more than ten. Ten gets too much attention. Top ten this, top ten that.
I have my biases, of course. I like big, capacious stories that spread out with an unconventional shape but never lose focus. And the emotional highs and lows.
In no particular order:
1. “The Displaced Person,” Flannery O’Connor: Of the many O’Connor stories worthy of inclusion on any list, I chose this one because, in addition to featuring all of her usual scathing comedy about the foolishness of societal norms, and about the avarice, hubris, stupidity, and misbegotten religious righteousness of so many humans, the story features an actual flesh-and-blood Christ figure in the character of the displaced person himself — something O’Connor doesn’t usually do. To me, that inclusion kicks the story into a higher gear, emotionally, and allows her to give us possibly the most fully worked out picture of her ideals for grace and salvation (with an assist from the ubiquitous peacocks). It’s also astonishing, all these years later, to see how little has changed in the benighted opinions of xenophobes from the more backwards corners of our great nation.
2. “A Painful Case,” James Joyce: What makes this story stand out from the many stories of Joyces’s that I love, is the main character’s level of self-awareness. That he is able to see himself and to understand his emotional/intellectual paralysis in the final moments of the story, and with the same kind of “scrupulous meanness” Joyce so famously used to depict all of his characters in Dubliners, gives this story an extra fullness and poignancy that I find especially moving.
3. “Carried Away,” Alice Munro: As with O’Connor, there are many stories from Munro worthy of inclusion on any favorite list. I chose this one because it has so many of her hallmark elements — stretches of epistolary narration, gruesome death, surprise match-making, huge time scope, multiple viewpoint-characters — and ends with one of the most serenely haunting and logic-defying scenes of transcendence I’ve ever encountered. As many times as I’ve read it, I can’t understand that ending, and I can’t be unmoved by it. It’s a miraculous thing.
4. “Pet Milk,” Stuart Dybek: I love the swirling shape of this story, and how that shape mimics the story’s central image or metaphor — the movement of pet milk through coffee. By spinning sideways and backwards through time, making associative leaps to break its own narrative framework, the story presents us with a moment in time as sweetly condensed and elusive as the taste of pet milk (or of nostalgia) itself.
5. “Lull,” Kelly Link: Every time I read this story I feel turned inside out by its virtuosic inventiveness and crazy handling of time. Backwards narrations featuring none other than Lucifer, and an army of green-skinned women named Susan . . . this is unlike any other story I’ve read.
6. “Last Night,” James Salter: Written with the same detached, scrupulous meanness Joyce used in his stories, “Last Night” builds from the kind of scene most of us shy away from writing — the kind that’s so difficult to do without tipping into melodrama: a husband assisting in his dying wife’s medically induced suicide. And then . . . the story goes where you’d never anticipate. A perfect example of Henry James’s maxim about narrative tension and the need to keep turning the screw ever tighter on the reader.
7. “How To Be a Writer,” Lorrie Moore: One of the funniest and most truthful things about writing ever written.
8. “The Pretty Girl,” Andre Dubus: This story embodies many of the things that I admire in Dubus’s work, particularly his ability to write physical action from so deeply within his characters’ hearts and minds you forget there’s a story in your hands. The prose is dense, crystalline; long lines with a staccato beat. But most of all I admire Dubus’s ability to impart a sense of moral outrage in story action without ever trivializing a thing. I don’t know of another writer who can quite as convincingly and compellingly make you feel the need for and rightness of homicide.
9. “Honey Pie,” Haruki Murakami: I love this story for its inventiveness and heart. In condensed form, it touches on so many of the most enviable aspects of Murakami’s craft and style — the long line of romantic tension, the playful magical elements, hints of meta-fiction, light, uncluttered vivid descriptions, and an ending full of longing that lifts and breaks your heart at the same time. An unabashedly sweet story, as the title suggests, that somehow manages never to feel too sweet. As many times as I’ve read it, I can’t finish it without a knot in my throat.
10. “A Small Good Thing,” Raymond Carver: Among the many brilliant things in this big, heartbreaking story, most brilliant of all to me is Carver’s refusal to fill in any history or back story for the main characters. It’s such a great move because it prevents the reader from making any of the usual causal linkages between the tragic death of the boy and past actions or misdeeds for him or his parents — it disconnects us from any foothold in meaning, pattern or fate, (all the usual ways of making “sense” of tragedy in fiction), leaving us purely face-to-face with loss. No one “earns” what they get. There’s no lesson, no reason. Only loss. And perseverance in the face of loss. Another one I can’t finish without a knot in my throat.
11. “Ecorche: The Flayed Man,” Melissa Pritchard: There’s something so natural in the way this braided historic narrative of multiple parts and viewpoints comes across, the reader can easily forget how ambitious and innovative it is. Vivid, concise, searing, smart and utterly itself. I’m tempted to say something about zombie precursors, but the story is so much better than that.
12. “Break it Down,” Lydia Davis: For me, there’s a kind of release into hilarity that results from the tension between Davis’s deadpan style and the tortuous self-awareness and over thinking her characters are given to. It’s incredibly satisfying. The only writer who gets to me in quite the same way is Franz Kafka. Speaking of . . .
13. “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka: Literary perfection. Of course, Gregor gets all the attention for his famously fantastic transformation into a giant bug, but his is possibly the least important transformation in the story. Who can ever forget the image of that apple thrown at him by his father and stuck in his bug-body carapace, there to fester until he dies? It’s not about Gregor or his transformation after all . . . it’s about his family’s epic self-centeredness coming into its own.