Six of the best short story collections

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

While the short story is currently under-going one of its periods of robust, if not rude, health, its two dominant modes — the classical or Chekhovian, and the postmodern or experimental — have become harder to define, with authors happily borrowing tricks from both approaches. None of the collections here can definitively be confined to either camp, and this should be celebrated.

William Boyd’s decision in The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (Viking, £14.99) to jettison conventional character names is gently experimental, if not always successful. From the start we encounter exotics such as Ludo Abernathy and Arkady Lemko. Later, there’s a Zack, a Moxy and a Sholto. Later still, a Max Bassman, a Jurgen Kiel and (boldly) a Raleigh Maltravers. Just when you think Boyd’s ingenuity has been exhausted, he hits you with a Findlay McHarg, a Tarquin Wolde and a Jadranka Juranic.

These ludicrous names inevitably draw attention to themselves and undermine each character’s solidity. Fortunately, they don’t spoil the first eight stories, of which the most satisfying is ‘Humiliation’, a splenetic tale of literary rivalry and revenge. The novella-length title story is also a treat, a feast of Boydian irony and urbane observation.

Fresh Complaint (4th Estate, £16.99), Jeffrey Eugenides’s first collection, ranges widely in subject matter and location, with characters from his novels making startling cameos. In ‘Air Mail’, Mitchell from Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot is transplanted to a tropical island, where he observes, while suffering from an epic bout of amoebic dysentery, traveller girls with ‘truly accomplished suntans’. ‘Baster’ tells the story of the 40-year-old Thomasina, a Manhattan career woman seeking sperm from a dwindling pool of available men, ‘a ragtag gang of adulterers, losers… village-burners’. ‘It’s terrible,’ the narrator observes sardonically, ‘that women need this stuff… It must make them crazy, having everything they need to raise life but this one meagre leaven.’ The richest story, ‘Great Experiment’, follows a writer of ‘unremittingly bleak’ villanelles as he becomes an amateurish embezzler. Always at home in morally cloudy situations, Eugenides has produced a taut, readable collection of tales.

The stories in the Folio Prize-winner Akhil Sharma’s first collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton, £14.99), appear straightforward, but the underlying emotional complexities are anything but. Oscillating between composure and hysterical declaration, his male protagonists find themselves slowly unmanned by life’s vicissitudes. In ‘Cosmopolitan’, a naïve divorcé’s pursuit of his worldly neighbour ends in tears, while in the title story, an Indian undergraduate adrift in New York experiences a series of poised, luminous epiphanies. The prose’s serene surface always belies great turbulence below, with each story’s conclusion understated, ambiguous and quietly devastating.

Another writer supremely attuned to emotional nuance is the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose career-capping At the End of the Century (Little Brown, £20) takes stories from across her previously published volumes. Anita Desai, in her introduction, rightly says of ‘The Widow’: ‘The voice, the point of view, is so perfectly captured, one would not add or alter a single word for greater effect.’ This could perhaps describe the ideal short story; it sums up the perfection to which the form aspires. In ‘A Loss of Faith’, a man who lives a compromised existence of duty and deference, bullied by his mother, brother, employer and own wife, finds a single decisive act of rebellion sufficient to redeem his dignity. Taken together, these tales of infatuation, regret and wonder make for a magisterial collection.

The teasing title of Joanna Walsh’s new collection, Worlds From the Word’s End (And Other Stories, £8.99) prepares the reader for the dexterous and subversive linguistic games within. In ‘Bookselves’, a bookshelf begins reading its own books: it ‘reads, not like you, but like an ideal reader’; while the title story addresses the impossibility of any utterance: ‘It has become so difficult to say anything… In the republic of words, I love you induced anxiety.’ In the best story, ‘Hauptbahnhof’, a narrator deserted at a station meditates on departures and arrivals. What’s not said says everything. Ludic, contrarian, wry, sometimes savage, these associative vignettes stimulate and inspire.

Finally, the most determinedly left- field of these collections, David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On (Little Island Press, £12.99) offers the greatest aesthetic rewards, while taking the most risks. With a poet’s transformative eye, Hayden steers us through a series of dreamscapes of Tarkovskyan density and strangeness. ‘Egress’ is narrated from the dead by a suicide, its speaker recalling the day and the building he jumped from in intense detail: ‘The honey-coloured glittering skin of stone… the freshness vast and edible’. ‘Dick’ is apparently the story of a man entering the afterlife: ‘Every face is known in love or rage or pity’; while ‘Elsewhere’ is a surreal evocation of boyhood.

If the dialogue is occasionally mannered or artificial, and some of the stories no more than cryptic bagatelles, ultimately these extraordinary performances act as thought bombs, multiplying meanings long after reading. The finest story, the Nabokovian ‘Golding’, is a disquieting masterpiece, bequeathing its atmosphere of precipitous terror to the reader. Too long consigned to the margins, Hayden’s is a unique voice.

So which mode wins? Labelling Boyd and Eugenides traditionalists neglects the experiments in form and tone that their collections take, while Walsh and Hayden are often not so defiantly avant garde as they first appear. However, it is Sharma and Jhabvala, who aren’t self-conscious about literary modes, concentrating instead on timeless human transactions, whose lapidary stories are most likely to endure.

Why spend time on the pedestrian tales of the Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks (also recently published) when you could tuck into this banquet of delights?

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