Long and Short of It

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In the term short story, “short” is a little baggy. You might find, within a collection of short stories, some that are a few pages, some that are thirty or more. Compared to a five-hundred-page novel, of course, neither of these is a long piece of writing. Both are compressed worlds. But the very short short story and the very long short story have different ways of folding a whole world in.

To me, very short stories often have the feel of stunts: daring balancing acts, high up on ledges. Once the pose is successfully struck—creating the kind of image that lingers on the insides of the eyelids—it’s time to back away. This kind of intensity is only briefly sustainable. To create such a picture in so few words, sentences sometimes have to cover vast swaths of life. Grace Paley is the master of this. In her short story “Wants,” only a couple of pages long, the narrator runs into her ex-husband while returning some years-overdue library books. He tells her their marriage ended because she never invited a couple they knew over for dinner.

That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore.

By the end of the story we can see this decades-long marriage, and the narrator’s current life.Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: Anton Chekhov and Joyce Carol Oates

ocean-90054_1280Joyce Carol Oates’s story “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is a clear response to Anton Chekhov’s classic story “The Lady with the Little Dog.” Almost 75 years separate the two stories, and Oates, though her modifications, clearly modernizes the story, retelling the story through a feminist lens.

Chekhov’s linear story is written from the point of view of the man, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, who is having an affair with Anna Sergeevna, the lady with the dog. The point of view is relatively close to Gurov; we see the world and Anna through his perspective. There are moments, however, where Chekhov pulls back somewhat, so that we get a fuller perspective which encompasses both characters. This clearly happens at the end of the story, when the couple realizes that they wish to be together:

And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

Oates tells the story through the point of view of the woman—Anna, as well—and responds to the circularity at the end of Chekhov’s story by employing a cyclical structure throughout her story. We begin at a concert—a point midway through the chronological story—where Anna spots her lover. We return to the concert two more times over the course of the story, learning and seeing a bit more with each return. From the start at the concert, we move back in time, to where the couple leaves Nantucket, where they have met, and then we move back in time again to when they first meet. The exact midpoint of the story is the moment that they meet. Throughout the story, Oates plays with this circular structure, often referring to it in the text, in Anna’s thoughts and words: “Everything is repeating itself. Everything is stuck.”Continue Reading

The Art of the Sad Birthday

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir

Are you a writer looking for a situation with built-in irony and ample opportunities for subtext? Have you considered a melancholy birthday scene? I’ve collected a few merciless examples for consideration.

barkReferential,” by Lorrie Moore

Moore dives into the irony of the sad celebration in the first paragraph of the story, from her most recent collection, Bark.

Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.

The story is more about a flagging relationship than it is about her son, who is in an uneasy state of equilibrium when the story begins. The protagonist’s sort-of boyfriend, Pete, who retreated when her son grew ill, accompanies her on the visit. Pete is the only named character in the story. The son, in the grip of his illness, eschews subtext in conversation, asking Pete questions his mother never asks: “So where have you been?” and “Do you miss us?” However, the son believes that nearly everything, including the “soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone” his mother eventually settles on as a birthday gift, contains subtext meant only for him. She knows he’ll become obsessed with the messages he finds in it. Everything has wounding possibilities.Continue Reading

Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Wagyu Fungo” by Soon Wiley

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I remember a conversation I had with a professor in grad school, where we discussed the various blessings and difficulties of trying to produce art using the same materials—language—used for so many other, less graceful, purposes (for example, junk mail and mudslinging). In “Wagyu Fungo,” (Harpur Palate) explores a similar dynamic, though from the perspective of a chef struggling with the way his customers receives his dishes.

The chef’s outrage is clear in the first two paragraphs, when a table orders two of his prized wagyu steaks well-done.

This is the real fucking thing: steaks with marbling so wide and white that you swear you could dive right in and swim through the channels of luscious, supple fat. I’m talking about steaks so beautiful, you’d give yourself a black eye, just so you could slap a raw one on your face.

I hate seeing these parentheses under the order: well-done. It’s a sign of disrespect; not to me, this isn’t about my ego.

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Sudden Squall” by Judy Reeves

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Leaving one’s spouse takes a lot of courage, and in the culture of the 1950s, that was even more the case. In “Sudden Squall” (Connotation Press), Judy Reeves explores a mother making that difficult choice, employing a particular sentence structure to shape the thematic content and reveal her protagonist’s character.

Two versions of this structure appear in the first paragraph of the story, both in privileged locations: the beginning at the end.

Except that the hills rose and fell and nudged the horizon in a rolling cadence, the space that spread before them would have been called wide open…Instead, the Buick nosed up, then down, then up and down again, a lazy roller coaster that lulled Louise and Roseann into napping in the back seat. Anna was the only one of the girls who stayed alert and were it not for the little girl’s insistent chatter, Lilly herself might have lapsed into a daze, or worse, into some reverie of how things might have been.

Were the country different, the nature of the drive would be as well. Were Lilly’s daughter different, so might have been Lilly’s frame of mind. Reeves uses this comparative if/then structure to show not just how Lilly thinks, but that another imagined reality—of how things might have been—is pressing on her.

This is important, because this car ride with her daughters is itself a decision to shape a new reality and escape an old one. Reeves reveals that her intention is to leave her cheating husband Sam to go and live with the children’s Aunt and Uncle.

Further along, she employs that same sentence structure to imagine what life would be like were she not to leave.

If she stayed and let him make up to her, for weeks on end she would have to give permission for each touch. Each time his hand lingered on her wrist, his fingertips grazed her hair. Forgive and forgive and forgive.

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Postcards from Unexpected Places

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Like long handwritten letters and atlases, postcards descend from another world now deemed impractical. They belong to the world of Denis Breen in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Loyal Blood and his travels across the American West in Annie Proulx’s Postcards. Ruth, in Lorrie Moore’s story “Real Estate,” finds the form “so careless and cheap.” The genre prizes itself in brevity, in its ability to simply telegraph a person’s self-defined whereabouts.

In Amy Hempel’s road trip story “Jesus Is Waiting,” a woman drives away from home and sends postcards bought at a rest stop to an old lover. All the cards ask questions about symptoms of a mysterious disease, and, in the end, all questions are left unanswered. The narrator doesn’t have a destination and neither do the cards. “God, it’s an ugly road,” she says at one point. But the postcards only show the manicured version of the real thing.

For the 2009 Venice Biennale, Swedish-American artist Aleksandra Mir created a series of postcards of bodies of water all over the world, with “Venezia” in colorful lettering superimposed on the photographs. None of the photos showed Venice, but all of them showed Venice to the untrained eye. Mir’s project, titled Venezia (all places contain all others), reveals that water is just water, regardless of borders or tourist appeal.Continue Reading

It Never Rains on National Day: an interview with writer Jeremy Tiang

Jeremy Tiang's It Never Rains on National Day

Jeremy Tiang is a fiction writer, playwright, and translator from Singapore. His short story collection It Never Rains on National Day was published by Epigram Books in 2015, and is available at Epigram Books’ website. He lives in Brooklyn and was recently featured in the Singapore Writers Festival. We caught up in an email interview.

Xin Tian: What are some of your beliefs when it comes to craft?

Jeremy: I don’t have any beliefs, really. I’m tempted to just go “what even is craft lol”—or less flippantly, I think each story requires a set of tools to tell it, and you pick the tools out of a big bag that, sure, we could call “craft.” But I’m not going to be ideological about it.

X: What is your literal writing environment like, and do you have any working habits or rituals?

JT: I have a tiny room in my flat that is just mine—I think it was originally intended to be a walk-in closet, but I have filled it with white furniture and books. My desk faces the window. I go in there every morning and stay there till evening, apart from toilet breaks and forays for food. What I work on depends on what’s occupying my mind most at the moment and/or deadlines. I generally have several things on the go at once, and when I get stuck on something I move on to something else.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “How to Eat Chicken Wings” by Kristen Arnett

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Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.” In her second-person flash fiction piece “How to Eat Chicken Wings,” (Tin House/The Open Bar) Kristen Arnett takes a long look at the object in her title, and what’s revealed is a story about overcoming and coming to terms with one’s past.

From the opening paragraph, Arnett’s narrator isn’t coy about her use of the chicken wing as both a metaphor and an organizational center.

“There’s a map bred in the bones of the bird. Before you ingest the chicken wing, you must know the vertices of its hinge, that place where tendons and gristle connect and shake hands.”

The narrator is interested in both physical (tendon) and conceptual (vertices) connection. Notice also the situational humor brought out by Arnett’s use of scientific words such as “ingest” and “vertices” alongside the everyday language of, well, eating chicken.

But this contrast of vocabulary isn’t only for humor’s sake. In the first scene of the story—titled “Origin,” a geometric plotting reference—takes us to a church picnic, where the fourth grade narrator is eating chicken and getting covered in barbecue sauce.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Golden Land” by Sunisa Nardone

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The ways in which we humans find our sense of community and identity—nationality, race, religion, class, family etc.—are often also what make connecting with people that don’t share our backgrounds more difficult. Sunisa Nardone’s “Golden Land” (Atlas and Alice) explores the many obstacles facing strangers struggling to connect while awaiting departure from a Bangkok airport.

In the first few sentences of the story, Nardone presents the narrator’s internal conflict, brought on by the appearance of a woman she meets at the airport.

“She couldn’t know anything about the Southern Hemisphere, dressed as she is. The feeling struggles in me, that flutter of judgment and shame, seeing my countrywoman dressed so—.

A foreigner would no doubt mistake her for young and foolish but as a Thai woman myself I can tell that this long-limbed girl is actually in her late 30s, just about my age. Up-cut shorts showing a crescent of ass flesh befits no respectable lady. And here we are at the gate for Thai Airways to fly us to Melbourne in June, hot season in Bangkok but the beginning of real winter Down Under.”

The narrator is concerned for the woman’s well-being—she’s not dressed for the cold—yet she’s also irritated that she’s not dressed more respectfully. The rest of the passengers take exception as well; we find later that they “…won’t socialize with her…”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Davenports and Ottomans” by Stefanie Freele

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Throughout our youth we’re hard-wired to look to the adults in our lives for ideas of who we want to be. Who we are, though, often seeks to establish itself in spite of those desires. Stefanie Freele’s flash fiction piece “Davenports and Ottomans” (Tahoma Literary Review Vol. 2, No. 1) explores this tension through a young protagonist at a party she can’t wait to leave.

When we meet Maribel, she’s uncomfortably dressed and on her best behavior at a family get-together, in a house with stairs that “smell like mold and rain, a confining smell.” She’s not just confined by the smell. “She hates these ill-fitting tights, the crinkly dress, the stiff polished shoes, and her mother for making her wear all of this nonsense.”

Then there’s the rules. Great Aunt Agnes has dishes of candy on the shelf, but Maribel’s not allowed to have them. But notice how Freele sneaks in an impulse that nicely contrasts with Maribel’s desire to disobey her great aunt.

“Quite badly she wants to touch the wrapped candies and line them up in groups of color or in rows of big to little. She wants to unwrap one of each color and shape, sniff them and make a line from tastiest to yuckiest.”

Maribel wants what she can’t have, but notice what she wants to do with them: put them in order…a different order than her great aunt had them, but an order nonetheless. We get the sense that though she may hate what her mother and great aunt are putting her through now, Maribel might not be as different from them as she might at the moment feel.

The contrasts continue, as we discover who’s not invited to this party: her aunt Vickie, who after a Thanksgiving dinner “fell asleep in their front yard, right by the mailbox, in the snow, and Maribel’s mom and dad had to carry her in after a neighbor called…” The reality behind what most likely happened – Aunt Vickie passing out – are lost on young Maribel. She imagines how wonderful it might be to sleep in the snow.

“She often considers building her own bed in a snow bank and if she wore her snowsuit, the purple mittens and her favorite boots, she discerns that she’d be warm enough to spend the entire night.”

Again, Freele juxtaposes the urge to step out of the ordered world Aunt Vickie feels free to break, but in doing so, that urge is accompanied by other, much less reckless desires. She wants to sleep in the snow, but while wearing her choice mittens and boots, and she’s planning ahead, concerned with her comfort throughout the cold night.

As the story careens to a close, the question at hand is one of identity. Maribel is presented with role models. Who will she align with? Aunt Vickie? Her mother? Great Aunt Agnes?

“If the room gets any warmer, Mirabel is certain she will rip off the tights and spring out into the snow before someone grabs her little wrist and says sit down. Although she is constraining herself with an effort she wasn’t even aware she had, an effort that seems inhumanly colossal, it is becoming more and more impossible to keep her body still and quiet, like a dusty reliable piece of furniture.”

She’s still at the party, she’s discovering more and more how much she can stand, but at the same time, she can’t wait to get out. Freele presents Mirabel as unknowingly stuck between her elders—it’s easy to imagine that these same competing feelings will plague her for the rest of her life. We’re all a mess of desires. Somewhere in the middle, Maribel may not find peace, but perhaps she’ll find herself.