The first half of 2014 has seen a number of impressive short story collections, from an always-exciting new book by Lydia Davis to The Office star B.J. Novak’s critically-acclaimed literary debut. But with so many good short stories in circulation, it can be hard to decide which to read, or at the very least, which to read first. If you consume collections the way many do—by sampling one entry at a time—it can be helpful to know which entries in each books are the best. Here, we’ve taken a look at the year’s biggest story collections (so far) and picked our favorite from each.
Best story: “Thank You for Having Me”
The final story in Lorrie Moore’s new collection combines the two elements readers have come to expect from the short fiction master: humor (of the dark but charming sort) and dread (of the suggested but palpable kind). The story centers on a country wedding—more Kenny Chesney than Madame Bovary. Our narrator, a single, middle-aged woman attending the ceremony with her daughter, starts us off with a number of LOL-inducing quips, including a reflection on her animal-print-heavy wardrobe that may or may not have been inspired the nature shows which she admittedly over-consumes.
But weddings are, more often than not, built to implode, and a storm (a literal one) is threatening the outdoor festivities. Add to that a gang of bikers rolling up, insisting on casting out moot threats. The reader’s thoughts: What exactly is happening here? Why do I want to start over again from the beginning?
Excerpt: The previous farm boy she had married, Ian, was present as well. He had been hired to play music, and as the guests floated by with their plastic cups of wine, Ian sat there playing a slow melancholic version of ‘I Want You Back.’ Except he didn’t seem to want her back.
Best story: “A Difficult Phase”
Molly Antopol’s debut collection is peripatetic to say the least. As Masha Gessen pointed out in the New York Times, its entries “span the entire Ashkenazi Jewish universe, from New York to Belarus to Israel and Los Angeles.” Our favorite in the collection, “A Difficult Phase,” is set in just one place—Tel Aviv, Israel—but it centers on a down-on-her-luck journalist named Talia who feels deeply the pain of dislocation.
In prose that’s buoyant and energetic, Antopol describes how Talia was forced to leave her position as a reporter in Kiev and return home to Israel, where she’s now writing fluff for a local paper. Her troubles briefly subside (or promise to) when she meets an older, handsome widower. But their brief, largely sexual, relationship eventually disintegrates. And, in fact, it’s the subsequent interaction between Talia and the man’s teenage daughter that forms the core of the story. Along the way, issues of womanhood, aging, identity, and the various sociopolitical upheavals of the 21st century are addressed in all their inevitable, close-to-home relevance.
Excerpt: Gali was standing in the driveway, the whole dusky sky behind her, wide sweeps of orange and gray. She was panting and her eye makeup was smeared, as if she’d just stopped crying, or was about to start all over again. ‘You live in the middle of nowhere,’ she said. ‘I got lost even from the bus stop.’
Best story: “The Letter to the Foundation”
Lydia Davis is the undisputed master of the short-short story, so it may seem odd that we’re selecting an entry that, at 29 pages, is among the longest she’s ever written. But “The Letter to the Foundation” is extraordinary for two reasons. First, as New York Times critic Dwight Garner pointed out, it is, “for [Davis], remarkably soulful,” showing an emotional candor and transparency otherwise absent from Davis’ typically restrained and cerebral narratives.
Second, it has intriguing elements of autobiography. The eponymous letter is sent by a writer to the representative of a foundation that has awarded her a monetary prize, and describes the emotional and psychological weirdness that she (the writer) encountered after receiving the honor. Davis herself was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2003 and is, like the narrator, a teacher at a university (in Davis’ case, SUNY Albany). We don’t mean to imply autobiography where there isn’t any, but the the story’s resonance with Davis’ own life (whether intended or not) and its refreshing open-heartedness make it, in our opinion, the star of the collection.
Excerpt: And then, I had a stranger and less pleasant thought: not only was I not necessary to those scenes, and not necessary to those lives that continued to go on without me, but in fact, I was not necessary at all. I didn’t have to exist.
Best story: “The Lost Order”
Rivka Galchen is known for furnishing her fiction with scientific concepts and unsettling degrees of narratological ambiguity. (The critic James Wood said her debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances made use of “triple unreliability.”) She does a lot of that in this collection, giving us a range of deluded and self-deluded characters, including a woman who pals around with two time-traveling academics, another who conceptualizes her relationship with her mother as a series of financial transactions, and a third who witnesses her own belongings run out on her.
But the eeriness of Galchen’s writing (which we’d be tempted to call “postmodern,” if that word didn’t seem, nowadays, totally dead and useless), is only a sideshow. The real attraction is her voice, which feels completely 21st-century: casual, dopey, hip, sexy, and very often dishonest. The best showcase for this unique sensibility is the collection’s first story, “The Lost Order,” which you can read in full on the New Yorker’s website. Describing a day in the life of an unemployed environmental lawyer, it’s a perfect portrait of melancholy, and of the capacity for calculation and deceit that that condition so often obscures.
Excerpt: Hugging my favorite throw pillow, I lay down on the sofa, and thought, Just count backward from one hundred. This is something I do that calms me down. What’s weird is that I don’t recall ever having made it to the number one. Sometimes I fall asleep before I reach one—that’s not so mysterious—but more often I just get lost. I take some sort of turn away from counting, and only then, far away even from whatever the turn was, do I realize I am elsewhere.
Best story: “The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for Earth”
He’s a good actor and he’s good looking and he’s BFFs with Mindy Kaling(see: his book trailer) and he can write and—and!—he can write well. It’s hard to pick the best entry in B.J. Novak’s debut collection, but the formerThe Office star’s eye for zeitgeist, along with his willingness to poke fun at it, is perhaps best demonstrated in his story “The Impatient Billionaire and the Mirror for Earth.” The title is absurdly literal, referring to a rich man (always called “the impatient billionaire”) who, while dozing off at a TED conference, comes up with the idea of a mirror in the sky that reflects Earth. “I want you to be able to look up with binoculars and literally wave at yourself,” he tells his engineers. The story—tidy, brief, and highly entertaining—is a rare example of an anti-climax that actually works. When the impatient billionaire succeeds in his ambition—the story’s final image gives us the man “literally” waving at himself—an invisible afternote of chagrin, concerning things not exclusively fictional, hangs in the air: All this money, all this talent, and for what?
Excerpt: ‘If only the earth could hold up a mirror to itself…’
Say no more, thought the impatient billionaire in the audience at the TED conference, who found the speaker’s voice as whiny and irritating as his ideas were inspiring and consciousness-shifting. He already knew the part of the speech that was going to stay with him: a mirror up to the Earth—amazing, unbelievable. Tricky but doable. He got it. Let’s make it.