What’s easier than writing a short story? Sit down on your lunch break, bang out a couple thousand words, maybe add a pinch of editing and there you are, four or five entertaining pages to wow friends, family and literary agents. After all, it’s not as if you’re writing a book. Practically anyone who has ever written a sentence knows they can write a short story—until they try.
With no space to waste and no space wasted, short stories may be the purest, most difficult form of fiction. Some of the greatest American writers—including Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville—were, at one point or another, short story writers. With dozens of delicious stories that range from a teenager’s New York City to the Egyptian desert, from the gray Soviet Union to fraught Central Asia, these four collections—including three debuts—do what great tales should: Hook you fast and hold on tightly, all the way to the end. Some are traditional, some are experimental, and some break all the rules. The one thing these writers have in common is the talent to make it look easy enough for anyone to do it.
Until, of course, they try.
I’d say remember the name Danielle Lazarin, but if you read her first collection of short fiction, there’s no danger you’ll forget it. In Back Talk, her tales of the inner lives of girls and young women are nothing short of revelatory. Forget about what women want; as Lazarin illustrates in gorgeous, limpid paragraphs that will make you go back for more, the more appropriate question is, what don’t women want? Lazarin’s New York women are uninterested in being anyone’s accessory. They fight tooth and nail against love that requires attachment, as they assume it will merely devolve into the heartbreak that has marked their families.
In one story, a teenage girl tries to navigate the evolution of a lifelong friendship while exploring sex with the friend’s cousin. In another, the youngest of three siblings tries to simultaneously fit in and distance herself from her broken family, which is scattered over two continents. In the title story, a high school girl at a house party turns the tables on a boy who stands behind her, harassing her and whispering in her ear, only to later pay the inevitable social consequences of speaking up.
Back Talk is a pulsing, muscular heart of a collection that is as good as any I have read in years.
A RUSSIAN GREAT
Modern Russian literature generally falls into two categories: tales of Soviet life so heavy you can practically feel the yoke upon your shoulders, and more recently, tales that evoke the manic staccato of the diaspora. While both are prominent in Aetherial Worlds, Tatyana Tolstaya’s writing is so good that it cuts through the surface directly to the universal workings of the human heart.
In the sad and elegant “Smoke and Shadows,” a visiting Russian professor at a Midwestern school reluctantly falls in love with a married American counterpart. In another, an old woman going through long-neglected suitcases finds her father’s clothes, and she is able to remember him as the young man he once was and recall his promise to give her a hint about the afterlife.
The Leningrad-born author is descended from both Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev; her bloodlines practically drip ink. But Tolstaya labors under no ancestor’s shadow.
Bring Out the Dog, a debut collection from Navy veteran Will Mackin, takes us into the world of modern war—and the soul of the modern soldier.
On a night raid in Afghanistan, a member of a special operations unit is accidentally shot by one of his own. Back home in North Carolina, a Navy pilot happens upon a meeting of the Man Will Never Fly Society, whose membership is made up of former fliers. In my favorite story, Navy SEALs lie in ambush, waiting for the signal to attack, as an enemy patrol files by.
Mackin’s stories are at times raw and can feel unfinished, but he’s clearly a writer with promise who knows his subject matter. He spent 23 years in the military, the last five as a member of a SEAL team. His writing life is almost as interesting: An English major in college who opted for the service, he later met Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders at a literary seminar in Russia. Saunders became his mentor, and his influence is apparent in Mackin’s marriage of the mundane and the absurd.
Anjali Sachdeva’s debut, All the Names They Used for God, is a wide-ranging collection of stories that are a blend of fact and fiction, seamlessly integrating magical realism and the firmly earthbound. Sachdeva’s fantastic world is one where angels visit a blind old man and help him write one of the greatest poems in history, and where an albino woman on the American frontier discovers a world under the earth that she prefers to the one above ground.
Sachdeva’s spare, unsentimental writing is never more artfully deployed than in the title story, an emotionally scorching tale of two African women’s kidnap and escape from a Boko Haram-type army. In captivity, the two women discover powers they never knew they could possess, but can their strength ever allow them to be the girls they once were?
Sachdeva’s eclectic stories span time and geography, packing a wallop even greater due to their diversity. It’s a strong collection from start to finish, with not a weak story in the bunch.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.