The best short story collections — from childish gabbling to jaded nihilism

Short stories from Ali Smith, Nicholas Shakespeare, Lucia Berlin and David Gates, chosen by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

Anyone who enjoyed Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both, with its charmingly loopy monologue of an Italian Renaissance painter prattling away to us through one of the book’s famously interchangeable halves, will be glad to see her new book of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). It looks reassuringly similar: white hardback;

photograph of two contemporary studenty people on the jacket; large font-size; non-justified lines; no quotation marks for dialogue.

Here we are again reading Smith’s deliberately childlike prose. It’s not just the lack of quotation marks that makes it seem so — although this does have that same endearing Young Visiters effect — but also her use of extra-long and extra-short sentences, and her guileless barging into domestic situations. It’s a pleasure to read, because she writes gabbling sentences others wouldn’t allow themselves to write, such as, ‘It all really makes me think of the thing she says where she says…’

But these stories are a notch higher on the loopiness scale than How to be Both. I forgave the weirdness when it came from the voice of a Renaissance painter, but here it is all the author’s, and she goes a bit far. The oddest things happen: a branch grows out of someone’s bosom; someone else has a recurring dream about Dusty Springfield; and another meditates on the etymology of the word ‘buxom’ while trying to rescue a woman in a wheelchair who is stuck on a train being shunted into a siding.

Each story is interspersed with an elegiac short section in italics, quoting writers extolling the joys of public libraries. These are refreshing sorbets between courses. You keep reading the stories, because beneath all the battiness is Smith’s warm-hearted wisdom.

Nicholas Shakespeare’s Stories from Other Places (Harvill Secker, £16.99) are startlingly sane by comparison. They are old-fashioned, vigorously imagined stories with named characters to whom comprehensible things happen: remorse, sadness, fear, death. The book is an example of ‘travel fiction’: stories spiced up — perhaps given their justification — by being set abroad. Abroad is a place where beads of sweat trickle down from the bridges of noses, and ladies fan their veiled faces, fending off the flies, their straw hats shimmering, while ‘the sun grows stale in the sky’.

The stories are set in Australia, India, Argentina, Canada, France, Tasmania, Zimbabwe (I think) and Switzerland. To read them is to go on a freebie holiday, and sometimes back in time too, for good measure. The first story,
‘Oddfellows’, is novella-length (100 pages), and is a retelling of the massacre of Australian picnic-goers in 1915 by two gun-toting Muslims with grudges. It has a love element, unfolds like a film, and could be made into one. My favourite description was of Clarence Dowter, the town’s sanitary inspector, during the shoot-out, standing by a truck ‘staring out, with the serious, strained eyes of someone having their hair cut’. Nicholas Shakespeare thinks hard about what things are like. Sometimes he can be a bit clunky and obvious (‘Her unresolvable fury is aimed as much at the President as towards her loneliness’) but at others he’s spot-on. There are wistful glimpses of sad marriages in the stories, all the bleaker for being endured abroad, sometimes 1,400 miles from the nearest railway station.

A Manual for Cleaning Women (Picador, £16.99) is an intriguing title for a collection of stories. There are 43 here from the late American author Lucia Berlin’s lifetime’s output, and I went straight to the one about the cleaning women to get a feel for her worldview. A jaded, widowed cleaning-lady narrator takes us with her on her buses to various addresses across Oakland, California, in the 1960s and tells us about the collection of oddballs she works for, what pills they keep on their desks, what jewellery and porn books they hide, all the while giving us cynical tips about how to make the best of being a cleaner. This turns out to be typical of the collection — ‘vignettes of real life’ stories, landing us in situations based on Berlin’s own hardworking existence among the Walgreens and the Payless supermarkets.

She was never very successful during her lifetime, but last year she achieved posthumous acclaim when this collection was published in the US. The wry, heavy-drinking, advertising-slogan-flecked stories struck a chord with the resurgence of our taste for pop art.

David Gates’s collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, is a revelation (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99). If you think Lucia Berlin is wry and jaded, wait until you read the nihilist Gates. There’s a callous, coarse lovelessness running through the heart of his stories. To be married is to be unloved; to be fancied is to be attained and then to be unloved.

Gates has a beard and runs a writing seminar in Montana: this could be enough to put you off. I usually avoid writers who teach writing, fearing they’ll be showcasing the techniques they teach. But Gates has converted me. His prose fizzes with life-enhancing detail. He is the master of the parenthetical dash. I admit that this is probably a technique he teaches: but I don’t blame him. Inside his dashes, all of life’s anti-climaxes can be found.

His protagonists are old, world-weary, eloquent, steeped in Eng lit, and mostly failures. Another technique he uses is to speak to the reader as ‘you’:

But back to this man I’m about to marry — I don’t think I’m really getting his appeal across to you. If he played music with men half his age — and there was no ‘if’ about it — he didn’t play rock and roll…

That is from the first story, ‘Banishment’, which is also novella-length, and is the only story with a female narrator. She is just as callous as all the male protagonists.

Yet another of Gates’s techniques is sometimes not to give the main characters names. This is cleverly creepy and adds to the iciness at the heart of these stories.

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