It is extremely hard to create a list of your favorite short stories especially when you reduce such a list to only five pieces of fiction when I can very well make a list of twenty or even fifty. However, that would be an extremely trying ordeal that would not only test my patience but also that of my reader and I certainly do not want that. Anyway, five seems to be, if not a reasonable number, at least a sane number.
Here are my top five short stories of all-time:
Boys and Girls will now be forever immortalized in my copy of Munro’s Family Furnishings signed by the author herself. Munro, as some may know, is my favorite writer of short fiction and when her Facebook page decided to hold a contest for a signed copy of Family Furnishings that asked participants what their favorite Munro story is and why, here is what I said:
“It will always have to be ‘Boys and Girls’ from Alice Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. I chose it because it’s a story that resonates, a story that shouts despite its quiet prose, and it is my favorite Munro story simply because it opened my eyes to the disadvantages a woman face and what I can do to bridge such a gap.”
The story is the epitome of Munrovian sensibility combining minimalist and terse prose with a strong feminist message that doesn’t feel didactic but instead carries the weight of resigned truth.
Denis Johnson may be one of the most underrated writers today and I say that with the knowledge that I’ve only read one book of his which is his short story collection, Jesus’ Son. Johnson’s storytelling is what you might call hallucinatory and visceral and which, in my opinion, is best seen in ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’. Consider the following paragraph:
The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed fully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.
Johnson knows how to use words to their maximum effect therefore enabling him to write stories with minimal embellishment yet with maximum impact which actually characterizes most of Johnson’s stories from Jesus’ Son and is one of the qualities that makes him a great writer.
In ‘Spring in Fialta’ we find the Nabokov that is most revered by writers all over the world. Here is a man who balances style and content as if he’s Philippe Petit during the latter’s successful attempt in crossing the Twin Towers back in 1974. There’s so much packed in this story that one mistake can undo everything and send Nabokov, well, tumbling towards the figurative depths below. Yet as is his wont, Nabokov has perfect execution in terms of telling this story about an extramarital affair along with several themes of his that recur in most of his works: the unreliable narrator, memory, exile, and reality.
Taken from the collection, Self-Help, ‘How To Be An Other Woman’ is an example of a writer taking something so boring and benign like an instructional ‘how-to’, combine it with one of the most cliched plots in fiction, the adulterous relationship, and then get one magnificent piece of short fiction as a result. The story really does read as an instruction manual and it is told in the 2nd-person. Very few stories work in the 2nd-person and thus it is rarely attempted but, in Moore’s hands, the 2nd-person narration not only becomes an important part of the story but it is the main factor as to why the story works. From there, Moore fills the story with deep, unresolved pain interlaced with bits of biting humor creating what may very well be the best short story about a woman engaging in an affair with a married man.
Salter belongs to the school of fiction that once sheltered and cultivated writers like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway. A school of fiction that believes in terse prose and removing everything from the story that is not essential to it. Take ‘Bangkok’ as an example, a story about two former lovers so minimalistic that the conversation does not have indicators as to who is speaking except for the occasional “he said” or “she said”. Aside from the stylistic minimalism, Salter also offers minimum context and the details that he gives are the ones that are absolutely essential: the two lovers had a whirlwind past, the man married someone else and got a stable life, the woman still lives as a bohemian and she wants the man back. From these sparse details, Salter creates a narrative of regret and resignation, of jealousy and emptiness that it’s hard to believe that a lot can arise from so little and that one of the best short stories out there is, at first glance, unadorned.
At the end of this post, I already have the desire to change the list. I want to add Faulkner’s ‘A Rose for Emily’, Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Li’s ‘Immortality’, Lahiri’s ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine’ but alas I am limited to five. Rest assured though that the ones I mentioned are still exemplary specimens of short fiction and they are the ones that I read over and over again whenever the desire to read a few pages of exceptional writing.