Thursday, 7 November 2013

My top five stories for a short story reading group: Carter, Davis, Hall, Parker, Selasi

All these stories will entice you in

“The young man in the new blue suit finished arranging the glistening luggage in tight corners of the Pullman compartment.”

“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”

“He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him.”

“Later, when I knew her better, Manda told me how she’d beaten two girls at once outside the Cranemakers Arms in Carlisle.”

“I am the full time driver here.”

I was asked a few weeks ago to nominate my top five stories for use in a short story reading group. Over those weeks I remembered more and more stories, and it was a kind of pleasant torture to try to commit to only five. These are not my five favourite short stories ever, nor even my favourites on the day I had to stop prevaricating and send the list off. Rather they are stories that are brilliant and clever in ways that stand up to, and deserve, picking apart. I can’t wait to discuss them with other readers.

The first quote is the opener from Dorothy Parker’s story, ‘Here We Are’, which I read in The Secret Self Vol 1: Short Stories by Women years ago, and never forgot, probably because reading it is a painful but amusing experience. (There is also a copy here.) I misremembered the author though, and went hunting through Katherine Mansfield, who also wrote some horribly incisive stories set on trains. In this one, a newlywed couple talk on the journey from wedding to honeymoon, revealing far more about themselves and their concerns than the surface content of the dialogue would suggest.

The second is from Angela Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’, which I read in her Burning your Boats: Collected Short Stories. (There is also a copy here.) When people ask what I love to read, this is the story I whip out. It is shamelessly verbose, mixing Anglo-Saxon and Latinate expression, shifting between first and third person, and is so rich in images, textures and gradients of dread that to read it in one sitting is like eating a whole Christmas pudding, with brandy butter and cream. Yum. The Erl-king is a folkloric character, a kind of male sylvan siren, and Carter was far from the first (or last) writer to re-imagine him, but remains my favourite. There is a great article by Ever Dundas exploring this story on Thresholds Short Story Forum, here.

The third comes from Lydia Davis’ ‘Break it Down’, which I read in her The Collected Stories of..., a hefty book full of small stories that surprise you with their longevity in the head. (There is also an audio version here.) I’d been dipping into that book as if into pick ‘n’ mix now and again having only last year found out about Davis, waiting for her magic to work on me, and it was this story that did it. At eight pages, it is longer than many of her pieces, and the subject at first seems so mundane, offensive even: a man sits working out what he has spent on a holiday with a woman, divided by how many times they made love, to calculate how much it cost per hour. First impressions are also broken down, however, as we watch his mind running back through the experience of love.

Fourth is Sarah Hall’s ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, the first story in her gorgeous collection The Beautiful Indifference. (There is also a copy available here.) I’ve heard Hall say (at the Small Wonder short story festival) that she doesn’t think all the stories in this book have that magic that a great short story does, but she can’t have meant this one. Following the teenage Kathleen as she befriends violent Manda and becomes fascinated by her charismatic family that ‘came from gypsy stock, scrappies, dog-and horse-breeders, fire-mongers’, I long to be there with her but am equally relieved I am not. As with Carter’s story, it is fifty percent this emotional dread-desire and fifty percent the language that makes this story so great. Hall draws on Cumbrian expressions and her own poetic leanings to original and beautiful effect.

Last but not least is Taiye Selasi’s ‘Driver’, which is published in Granta 123 but which I listened to as an audio-book read by Selasi herself. If you can get this audio version (it is on here) I would urge you to do so; her reading is beautiful and brings out the particular cadences and rhythms in the text that build towards its conclusion. The story follows a young man working as a driver for a rich family in Ghana, whose unassuming account of things reveals a gorgeous, divided and dangerous world. I have not yet seen this story on the page, but listening to it, it could often be poetry. Here is a little sample, where I think the rhythm shows:
‘Madam has the contours of a girl I knew in Dansoman and sculptures sold at Arts Centre and Bitter Lemon bottles. Slender top and round the rest. A perfect holy roundness that is proof of God's existence and His goodness furthermore. Her skin is ageless, creaseless, paint. Her lower back a hiding place.’

Whilst that first sentence, ‘I am the full time driver here’, may seem uninteresting, consider that the next is ‘I am not going to kill my employers’, and see if you can resist reading on.

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