Short loves by long-time fans
Contributors to the Sleepers Almanac No. 8 tell us about their favourite short stories and why they love them.
Eleanor Limprecht on ‘Good Country People’, a story from A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
I was a high school student in Arlington, Virginia, the first time I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘Good Country People’ in her collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. It has lingered in my head ever since. Her bleak portrait of an unhappy family – a mother and a grown daughter at odds – is shaken up by a visit from a Bible salesman. There is more than a touch of the Southern gothic in O’Connor’s writing but there is also an economy to her words in this story. The epiphany that the daughter has with the Bible salesman is fleeting and ends up being this extraordinary moment of grace amidst the stark landscape of her life. And then it all disappears as quickly as it has come, and no one is quite who they appeared to be. It is a haunting story, and one that reminds me how powerful short fiction can be.
Melanie Joosten on ‘The Beautiful Indifference’, a story from The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall
My favourite short story is the somewhat reticent title story from Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference. A woman waits in a hotel room for her much younger lover, who has missed his train from London. She dresses, then changes her outfit. Applies lipstick, knowing it will not last long after his arrival. Her friends think her relationship with a younger man is irresponsible, that she is running out of time for the important things, for children. And perhaps she is. A quiet and careful story which, considering its denouement, is oddly uplifting. To a reader it embodies acceptance, to a writer, enviable control.
Vanessa Russell on ‘Speaking in Tongues’, a story from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
The characters are so vibrant and complex in ZZ Packer’s ‘Speaking in Tongues’ that they leave an afterglow. Fourteen-year-old Tia Townsend is punished by a church elder after she laughs at a mawkish Jesus comic. The next day, a fuming Tia boards a Greyhound bus. In Atlanta she catches the eye of Dezi, equal parts drug-dealer, saviour and sleazebag. Packer balances the story on Tia’s church-bred apartness, but never lets her tip into naivety. The dialogue sparks with Tia’s bravado, while the narrative shows how she wavers between fear and fascination as she encounters a church-free world.
Helen Addison-Smith on ‘The Girl who was Blind All the Time’, a story from The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti
Shelia Heti’s writing is risky and the thing it risks most of all is being bad. This story has odd, unnatural cadences. It skips from one place to the next, without a why or a wherefore. But it’s one of the most alive stories I’ve ever read. I guess it could’ve been too fey and hipsterish, what with the blind girl, the odd flat tone and the marching with flags. I think what saves it is smut and snot, the suffering of real live bodies. What I admire most about Heti’s writing is that it (and she) doesn’t seem nice. It’s peculiarly brave.
S.J. Finn on ‘Lyrebird’, a story by Isabelle Li from Sleepers Almanac No. 7.
You don’t have to go far to find this gem of a story in the Sleepers Almanac No. 7. ‘Lyrebird’ by Isabelle Li is a seamless, well-told tale of a quietly ambitious girl who is bright, thrifty and socially astute. Exquisitely drawn, the narrative takes the reader from the working-class suburbs of Sydney to the leafy possibilities of the Blue Mountains. With a subtlety that deserves to be applauded, Li weaves a taste of suspense throughout. Then, in a whimsically uplifting manner, the end rings of heart without fuss, joy without sentimentality. ‘Lyrebird’ left me sated and awestruck.
Paul Mitchell on ‘The Boat’, a story from The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Island: The Collected Short Stories by Alastair McLeod
Picking a favourite story is like choosing your favourite song. ‘What about The Stones, Nirvana or The Smiths’ becomes ‘What about Carver, O’Connor, Winton, Carey or Strout?’ I’ve just grabbed one from my top ten, Alastair McLeod’s ‘The Boat’. The opening story in his collection The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, ‘The Boat’ captures a lifetime’s yearning, despair and hope in a few thousand words. The final image whiplashes you back through the narrative, giving retrospective power to McLeod’s masterful prose. The story’s boat becomes a character, alive in an ocean swirling with human questions of loyalty, honour and regret.
Laurie Steed on ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’, a story from Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
An unnamed narrator records the dreams of mental health patients in a city hospital. She sees their woes as endemic, feeling the world to be rife with one thing: ‘Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all – it’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.’ This piece of short fiction taps Plath’s poetic spirit more successfully than any of her other stories. As an exploration of madness, sanity and all points in between, it is striking, even by today’s standards.
Michelle Radtke on ‘The Happiest Moment’, a story from Samuel Johnson is Indignant by Lydia Davis
‘The Happiest Moment’ by Lydia Davis from her collection Samuel Johnson is Indignant is a brilliant nugget of a story about a man who is asked to recall the happiest moment of his life. Davis writes with such sure economy, her prose so unadorned, that it is hard to believe the rich and complex truth that a text only one paragraph in length can deliver. Every time I read ‘The Happiest Moment’ I feel my expectations at once fulfilled and subverted, and I am reminded that human emotion is layered and conflicted. Happiness, as Davis points out here, is no exception.
J.Y.L Koh on ‘William and Mary’, a story from Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
As with friendships, it can be difficult to predict which short stories will stay with you in the long run. In Roald Dahl’s ‘William and Mary’, William Pearl has terminal cancer. To his wife’s horror, he considers taking extreme measures to ensure that his brain lives on after the death of his body. The first time I read the story, I was a teenager and I hated it; no other tale had made me feel so uncertain about my attitude to revenge. ‘William and Mary’ has since become a favourite (though still unsettling) companion. Its images haunt me – the smoke of a defiant cigarette and the stare of an ice-blue eye floating in a basin.