The Short End of the Story

Before I became a certified, book-carrying reader, I dabbled in short stories. I had tried diving headlong, headstrong into novels, but I couldn’t keep up. I’d start one before bed, not read for a few nights, and end up lost when I returned. I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my head. I’d lose the plot, the characters, and my momentum.

Angry CandyThe solution I found at the time was reading short stories. I came across a mention of Harlan Ellison‘s Angry Candy (Houghton Mifflin, 1988) in Scott Davidson’s GUS zine, and I went looking. I found a copy at a long-since-defunct used bookstore on 84 East in Wicksburg, Alabama. After falling asleep to speculative tales like “Escapegoat,” “On the Slab,” “Laugh Track,” and the post-print “The Region Between,” I gained an extreme admiration for the brevity with which Ellison was able to boil my brain.

After devouring more of Ellison and the science-fiction stories in OMNI, I eventually moved on to longer forms. My respect for the short story never wavered though. Now that Ellison writes more litigation than literature, I’ve come across several other adept authors of the shorter form worthy of mention. Summer might be the time for longer reads, but I still find myself pulling back to graze.

Most recently, Leaving the Sea: Stories (Knopf, 2014) by Ben Marcus, whose last novel, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012), is one of my favorite reads of any kind in the past few years. I’m only just diving into Leaving the Sea, but his previous story collection, The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1995), stays by my bedside. Though much more sparse than anything he’s written in the nearly twenty years since, its inspiration is endless.

In Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bagigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010), author of the fabulous The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2010), is able to write in times and places that do not exist, yet exist all around us—including the odd ontology of The Windup Girl (see “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” in this collection). These are eerily adjacent possibles, and like the best science-fiction authors (I’m thinking specifically of Sterling and Gibson—see their collections, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future and Burning Chrome, respectively—as well as the aforementioned Ellison), he seems to be reporting back from them.

If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011) was Charles Yu’s arrival, then Sorry Please Thank You: Stories (Pantheon, 2012) is his journey. Much of the brilliance of that book is preluded here. “Troubleshooting,” written to mimic an actual troubleshooting guide, is especially sparse and poignant.

The Sovereignties of InventionI’ve spent the last couple of years corresponding with Brian McFarland. Scarcely a day goes by that we don’t volley several email threads. McFarland runs the Cursor-powered, indie-book publisher Red Lemonade, which is more of a publishing platform than a traditional imprint. It’s a community effort. So far they’ve unleashed Happy Talk by Richard Melo, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles, and Someday This Will Be Funny, as well as several others, by Lynne Tillman. I asked publishing gadfly and Cursor boss Richard Nash how he came to work with McFarland. “It was a combination of three things really,” he told me, “his curiosity about non-traditional writing, his passion for doing things differently, and his eagerness to connect. I think I also wanted someone from outside the existing world of publishing, someone who would approach it knowing almost nothing of the status-quo ante. Fresh fresh fresh!”

“Three times fresh” is exactly how I’d describe the stories in The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012) by Matthew Battles. With a stream-of-consciousness recording device, the books title tract, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” is sort of a “Funes, the Memorious” for the iPod set (iFunes?), a pocket-size external harddrive for the mind’s every moment. As that one, “The Dogs in the Trees,” “The Manuscript of Belz,” “Camera Lucida,” and “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully” all illustrate, the nominal number of pages (the whole book barely breaks the 100-page mark) needed for Battles to rearrange my mind and the world it’s in is simply amazing and reminiscent of my initial experiences with Harlan Ellison and short fiction in general. It even spawned its own book of reader responses.

All of the above is to suggest that the short story can possess all the complexity or potential for impact as its longer counterparts. If you’re not currently a big reader, one of these collections may be just the door you’ve been looking for.


Special thanks to Scott Davidson for championing Harlan Ellison way back when, to Ashley Crawford for the tip on Ben Marcus, and to Brian McFarland for so many emails, links, and laughs.