Bookish's Best Short Story Picks
It's Short Story Month! No, really. In its honor, the Bookish editorial team (itself short, but perfectly formed) has put together a list of its favorites of the genre. Lots of the usual suspects were tossed around: Flannery O'Connor, William Trevor, Alice Munro, O. Henry, John Updike, Kate Chopin, George Saunders, Ernest Hemingway (who did not, after all, write the nes plus ultra of the genre: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."). In the end, though, we skewed less canon, more loose cannon, beginning with a boy about to dive into a swimming pool, and ending with a man swimming through a whole bunch of them. In between, there are utopias, imaginary universes, two pediatricians, blaring radios and silence, a man living backwards and another delivering underwear. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments. But keep it brief, OK?
Story Pick: "Forever Overhead"
The perfect evocation of the cusp of adolescence: The unnamed main character of David Foster Wallace's story, "Forever Overhead," is at a public pool on his 13th birthday, mustering the courage to go off the diving board for the first time. As he notices the "thin children," "hairy animal men" and "disproportionate boys, all necks and legs and knobby joints" around him, the reader senses the boy's growing awareness of the new water he's about to dive into, despite the pain of entry. As Wallace writes, "the water, of course, is only soft when you’re inside it."
Story Pick: "The Ones Who Walk Away"
Le Guin poses a philosophical quandary to readers with her tale of a utopian land with a very dark secret--all its inhabitants' happiness is contingent upon the misery of one child. With the knowledge of the suffering, readers are left to ponder what type of citizen they would be: one who stays and lives in the town or one of "the ones who walk away from Omelas."
Story Pick: "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"
It's hard to pick just one Borges story as a favorite—they're all equally adroit at rearranging reality, building epic imaginary universes in the space of a few pages and drawing the reader into uncharted territories of the mind. But the story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which a fantasy world devised by a group of conspiring intellectuals begins to insert itself into (and eventually overtake) the "real" world, stands out. For those who've never experienced Borges, it's a great place to start, and for the fully initiated, a classic worth returning to.
Story Pick: "Safe Love"
This story about a woman in love with her son's pediatrician is seven sentences long but packs a bigger punch than most novels. Through precise, micro-economical language, Davis dilates a few innocuous-seeming images—"his stethoscope, his beard, her breasts, his glasses, her glasses"—into an erotic hailstorm.
Story Pick: "Harrison Bergeron"
Sure, it's taught in every ninth-grade English class along with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Most Dangerous Game." But unlike these other stories, Vonnegut's dystopian cautionary tale has aged well. If anything, his world--in which people are forced to wear weighted bags and distracting radios so that they're all equal--is even more applicable to today's ultra-politically correct present. The zigzagging chain of events reduces the readers to the same limited comprehension as poor Hazel and George, with just enough dramatic irony to make the ending brutal.
Story Pick: "The Year of Silence" by Kevin Brockmeier
One day, a few seconds of silence overtake a city, shaking its citizens out of their routines and forcing many to question their life choices. Then, a few more seconds; then, whole minutes--then, utter quiet. All that time for self-reflection eventually proves maddening. Brockmeier's story, included in "The Best American Short Stories 2008," presents the unexpectedly devastating fallout of a culture plunged into silence.
Story Pick: "Worst Case Scenario"
In "Worst Case Scenario," the first story in Gerald Shapiro's terrific collection, "Bad Jews," middle-aged loser Leo Spivak bumps into his high school crush Betsy Ingraham on the street, and somehow interests her in an afternoon of non-conjugal bliss. But Spivak can't leave well enough alone, and heads out that night to return a lost object belonging to Mrs. Ingraham. Anarchic, funny, all kinds of wrong, "Worst Case Scenarios" is a short story for bad people everywhere.
Story Pick: "The Rememberer"
If Homer had opted to ditch the long-winded poetical form and write a quirky, five-page short story instead, he might have come up with something like Aimee Bender's "The Rememberer." The story charts the "reverse evolution" of the narrator's boyfriend Ben as he shrinks from an average (if gloomy) human into a single-celled organism. As the narrator struggles to take care of him, she gives us moments both hilarious—"I keep him on the counter, in a baking pan filled with saltwater"—and tragic: "Sometimes I think he'll wash up on shore. A naked man with a startled look who has been to history and back."
Story Pick: "People Like That Are the Only People Here"
There aren't many writers who can take a subject as harrowing and hopeless as an infant afflicted by cancer and make it hilarious--but in "People Like That Are the Only People Here," Lorrie Moore does just that. An archetypal mother/child story, the two characters at its center are called simply the Mother (who, like Moore, is a writer and a teacher) and the Baby. As the Mother frets in the doctor's office over the mysterious blood clot she's found in the baby's diaper and deals with the too-professional doctors, the Baby is in his own world playing with the light switch, plunging them into darkness and back into the light.
Story Pick: "The Swimmer"
Neddy Merrill is the apotheosis of the Cheever Wasp Hero (TM): handsome, aristocratic, full of unquestioned confidence, a glass of gin in hand. One summer's day, Ned is at a pool party and decides to swim the eight miles to his own house, via the neighborhood's backyard swimming pools. The swim starts off brilliantly, with his neighbors cheering him on and topping off his glass. But as he continues his swim, a storm gathers in the sky and knocks the first autumn leaves from the trees, and the neighbors become less welcoming--hinting that Ned's life and fortunes, for all his outward certainty, may no longer be in the height of summer.