Alison MacLeod is the author of two novels, The Changeling and The Wave Theory of Angels. Her short stories have been published by Prospect, London Magazine, Pulp.Net and Virago, and her first collection, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction, was published by Penguin last month. She lives in Brighton and teaches creative writing at the University of Chichester.
Writing a short story is a high-wire act, sentence by sentence, foot by foot. Very few story writers work with the safety net of a plot conceived in advance. They trust in the humming tension of a single opening line or in an image that rises in their mind, or in a fragment of a character’s voice. They might have a sense of where they want their characters to go; they rarely know how they’ll get them there. At times it’s unnerving work. Lose your concentration or the line of tension in the story and both you and it fall. The best short stories have a breathless, in-motion quality to them, a quality that makes them ideal for adaptation into film, as directors are increasingly realising. A great story ending resonates far beyond its final word. It’s a hit to the brain. I read stories and love them for that hit. As the writer Elizabeth Taylor commented, the short story gives the reader the feeling of “being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction”. The best stories leave you exhilarated.
1. The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
On March 25 the barber Ivan wakes to find a nose in his morning bread roll. He is alarmed and confounded. He tries to abandon it in a gutter, then tries to throw it from a bridge but his plans are scuppered. Meanwhile, Kovalev has woken without his nose. Is it a terrible dream? No. The absence grows into an outrage. Then “a door of the carriage opened, and there leapt thence, huddling himself up, a uniformed gentleman… And oh, Kovalev’s horror and astonishment to perceive that the gentleman before him was none other than – his own nose!” This story is delicious. It always makes me smile even though I now know well the exploits of said Nose, the eponymous hero. Gogol’s story says the imagination, like the Nose, can go absolutely anywhere. He shows us that dream-realities have their own kind of logic. I love Hanif Kureishi’s homage, Rhe Penis. Lord knows it was crying out to be done. After all, isn’t the Nose sometimes referred to by Gogol as the member? I also love the fact that a statue erected in St Petersburg to honour Gogol and the story of The Nose disappeared from the face of the city in 2002 – another fitting tribute.
2. The Dead by James Joyce
As fate thankfully had it, Joyce added this story to the Dubliners manuscript as a sudden afterthought while his publishers prevaricated. The most powerful in the collection, The Dead is not about death. It’s about life force. Gabriel and Gretta have enjoyed a jolly New Year’s do at the home of his aunts in Dublin. Later in their hotel room, Gabriel is filled with tenderness and desire for his wife. But a song from the evening has filled her with memories of a boy long dead, Michael Furey, who once stood outside her window, ill and shivering in the rain just for a glimpse of her. Gabriel is firstly jealous, then disquieted by “how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life”, then moved finally by a sudden insight into the strength of the life that Michael Furey gave up for love. The last three paragraphs are among the most beautiful ever written.
3. The Rocking-Horse Winner by DH Lawrence
This story is inexplicable, uncanny – a testimony to Lawrence’s interest in alternative states of mind, whether accessed by love, sex, dream or artistic creation. A mother needs money. Her young son loves her and worries. (Another intense mother-son relationship for Lawrence.) Astride his rocking horse high up in the nursery, Paul rocks himself into a trance through which he becomes strangely prescient. The dialogue is a bit wooden, the plot a tad tortuous, yet the ending is compelling and completely unforgettable. VS Pritchett once said that a good short story captures a character “at bursting point”. Lawrence doesn’t let you down.
4. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
“Every day from nine to five I sit at my desk facing the door of the office and typing up other people’s dreams.” So begins the story of the Out Patients typist whose “real calling” is to collect the dreams of the frightened, lost and despairing, and to dedicate herself privately to the service of “Johnny Panic”, her own low god of fear. The story is hilarious (she has to share her office space with the Foot Clinic), giddy and breathtakingly stark. It’s alive with the bravura of Plath’s dark and shining mind.
5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Story writers are naturally drawn to life’s undersides – to the bits we perhaps shouldn’t see. They’re often private worlds, stolen glimpses, and we, the readers, are licensed voyeurs. Here, two couples, Mel, a cardiologist, his second wife Terri, and young Nick and Laura in their first flush of love, sit around a kitchen table sharing a drink. They talk, the sun goes down, the gin bottle drains. That’s it. Or it would be, except inhibitions slip. An argument starts, emotions burst like blisters; they’re covered over and burst again. As Nick and Laura struggle to hold onto their clichés of romantic love, Terri claims that the ex-husband who used to drag her around the living room by her ankles really did love her. Carver had to have been influenced by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Things get that ugly. But it’s also profoundly moving as Mel struggles through the blur of the gin and the shadows of the setting sun to believe in the strength of the human heart.
6. Meneseteung by Alice Munro
While novels are arguably about life’s big moments, stories, Munro says, are about “the moments within moments”. This is the story of Almeda Roth, a little known Victorian poetess-spinster who lives in a small Canadian town. She resides on the respectable Dufferin Street but her back gate opens onto the edge of a boghole, an area known locally as the Pearl Street Swamp. “Bushy and luxuriant weeds grow there, makeshift shacks have been out up … ” and a woman cries out: ‘Kill me! Kill me!’ …Yet there is something taunting and triumphant about her cry.” It makes Almeda uncomfortably aware of the narrowness of her own life, one in which she waits to see if Jarvis Poulter will finally deem her to be suitable wife material. The woman of the Pearl Street Swamp is to Almeda what Bertha is to Jane Eyre: her alter ego, her nemesis, but also the agent for Almeda’s new, painful insight. The detail of Almeda’s home and her inner world are tenderly and sharply observed. Munro’s prose is, as usual, translucent – so breathtakingly clear there is nothing between you and the world she creates.
7. Love is not a Pie by Amy Bloom
This is one of the most poignant coming-of-age stories I know. Ellen’s mother’s funeral brings back fond memories of idyllic summers spent long ago at a cabin in Maine. It was in these days she first began to understand how vital, lovely and flawed a person her mother was. Ellen’s family shares the cabin with their old friends, Mr. DeCuervo and his daughter. Everything is close, warm and comfortable for Ellen until the night she pushes open the creaky door and sees her mother “spooned up” against her father – and Mr DeCuervo “spooned up against her, his arm over the covers, his other hand resting on the top of her head”. Three middle-aged bodies in a bed. Stories aren’t plots so much as the unfolding of characters. Bloom knows this. Ellen’s mother, father, Mr Decuervo and their shared lives are drawn by Bloom with sharp realism as well as great tenderness. She yokes the two together without contradiction – because she’s that good.
8. Lilac by Helen Dunmore
In story after story, Dunmore’s prose is lucid, sensual and beautifully understated. It just doesn’t get much better. Here, Christie spends a spring holiday in Sweden with her cousins Agnes and Tommy, and Tommy’s best friend Henrik. Christie tell us a story that, in the context of the world she has known so far, is shocking, even taboo – in the final pages, she sees something. I’ll keep her secret so I don’t spoil the story, which is also unbelievably lovely. Exquisite even. I admire the last few paragraphs so much, I want to eat them.
9. Vanilla Bright like Eminem by Michel Faber
The opening line is quirky, involving. It offers the reader an enticing prospect: “Don, son of people no longer living, husband of Alice, father of Drew and Aleesha is very, very close to experiencing the happiest moment of his life.” How can you not read on? This story breaks all the rules. Nothing happens for a long time. An American family are on holiday, en route to Inverness by train. That’s it. Then suddenly the story abandons the usual unity of time and space, zooming forward through many years and vast changes in the characters’ lives. Usually such a narrative spree would leave anyone bored. But not here. It makes us, along with Don, return to that train journey when life was simple and whole. On the train Don observes the mundane details of his wife and children with a credibly odd mixture of honesty and deep affection. It’s moving, if a bit of a narrative cheat. As one writer-friend said to me, “Would we find it so moving if a mother were observing her children so lovingly?” Probably not. We take it for granted that mothers do. But we feel moved when fathers take note. That is admittedly part of what makes this story the success it is. But that said, an unexpected epiphany – a moment of radiant insight worthy even of Joyce – is what makes and sustains this story. It is an apparently ordinary vision: Don’s daughter combs her sleeping brother’s hair. Don watches. But he watches mesmerised, filled with a sense of a present moment that is bigger than him, bigger than any of them. As in the best of stories, the moment can’t be paraphrased. It can only be experienced. You’ll have to read it yourself.
10. Weddings and Beheadings’ by Hanif Kureishi
This story is dark, deadpan and knocks you sideways. A quiet bomb, to use a phrase coined by writer Joseph O’Connor. A film-maker in a present-day “war-broken city” is forced at gunpoint to film the beheadings of kidnapped prisoners. But he is also paid for the work. It becomes his living. “You don’t know me personally,” he says. “My existence has never crossed your mind.” But Kureishi makes us look. The story is less than five pages long, told as the narrator awaits the knock at his door. Less is more. The details are matter-of-fact – what isn’t said boomerangs back at you and hits you between the eyes. I admire Kureishi’s daring and his willingness to explore the turbulence of the here and now. I suspect this story won’t leave me, and that’s a good, awful thing.