From Mexico, to the former Soviet Union, to England, Japan and the United States, the reach of the short story spans the globe. These five collections, some by established authors and others by writers just beginning to make their mark, offer a generous introduction to the richness of modern short fiction.
Chilly slices of modern life
Ali Smith, author of the critically praised novel The Accidental, has observed, "Stories can change lives if we're not careful." In The First Person and Other Stories, her fourth collection, she offers her unsettling take on contemporary life.
Smith's book is most notable for its air of experimentation. The story that opens the collection, "True Short Story," begins with a writer in a café, observing two men and imagining the story of their relationship before halting the exercise. ("I stopped making them up. It felt a bit wrong to.") It concludes with a series of pithy observations on the nature of the short form from writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro.
Smith's style is terse and edgy, almost daring the reader to settle in. In most of these stories, the characters are nameless, and it's only possible to know their setting because of a passing allusion to London or some feature of British life.
One of the more startling tales is "The Child," in which a woman discovers a baby abandoned in her grocery store shopping cart. When she takes the child with her, it begins spouting conservative political dogma, soon laced with racist and sexist jokes. The First Person and Other Stories won't appeal to everyone's taste, but those who like their stories provocative and enigmatic are likely to find it a satisfying work.
Weird, wonderful and wild
Although he's unknown to the American audience, Yasutaka Tsutsui has captured awards in his native Japan for his science fiction. His collection, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, translated by Andrew Driver, contains several examples in that genre, but it also sparkles with biting pieces of social and political satire that reveal a formidable talent.
Tsutsui excels at creating protagonists living in worlds uncomfortably recognizable as our own and yet decidedly dystopian. In "Rumours of Me," a young man suddenly begins to hear and read news stories about the most mundane aspects of his daily life. "Anything can become big news if the media report it," a newspaper editor tells him, bringing to mind the short-lived obsession with "Joe the Plumber" in last fall's presidential campaign. "Commuter Army" is a brilliant satire on the insanity of war, imagining platoons of soldiers who board the train each morning like office workers, the fortunate survivors returning home the same evening. "Hello, Hello, Hello" features a meddlesome "Household Economy Consultant" whose bizarre counsel sheds a revealing light on modern capitalism and our consumer culture.
The title story, the longest in the collection, is a complex exploration of human sexuality and evolutionary biology that plays out in the context of a space adventure. Throughout this wildly varied assortment of tales, Tsutsui's voice is witty and quirky, seducing us to suspend our disbelief for even the most fanciful narrative.
Riding the waves
Whether as a force for life or one of destruction, water in all its forms is the unifying theme in writer and artist Peter Selgin's powerful collection, Drowning Lessons. Selgin is never heavy-handed in his use of metaphor, and it's rewarding to trace the skill with which he employs it in many of these 13 stories.
In the opening tale, "Swimming," an elderly man disgruntled with the state of his marriage offers swimming lessons to an attractive younger woman. "Our Cups Are Bottomless" features a man in a coffee shop in a dying mill town, contemplating the suicide notes he's written as the town's two rivers rise in a raging downpour.
The most dramatic story in Drowning Lessons is "The Sea Cure." In it, two brothers take a trip to Mexico. Lewis becomes ill after drinking the local water, and Clarke meets a mysterious woman he believes will help secure medical treatment for Lewis, whose condition becomes more desperate with each page, until the story reaches its haunting climax. The collection concludes with the alternately hilarious and touching "My Search for Red and Gray Wide-Striped Pajamas." Its narrator suffers from mysterious fainting spells while wandering New York City seeking a pair of pajamas like the ones worn by his late father, his search a metaphor for the attempt to find his way in the world.
Coming to America
When a young writer's first two stories are published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, it's a safe bet she's on the fast track to recognition in the world of literary fiction. In One More Year, Sana Krasikov, born in Ukraine and now living in New York, demonstrates why the early notice she's achieved is well-deserved.
Krasikov's fiction focuses on her fellow immigrants. Unlike the affluent Bengalis depicted in the stories of another young star of contemporary short fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri, however, her characters are struggling to plant their feet firmly on the first rung of the ladder of success in America. Most of the stories are set in Westchester County, New York, but it's hardly the country club and cocktail party world of John Cheever.
In stories like "Companion," "Asal" and "Maia in Yonkers," women from the former Soviet Union find themselves in low-end personal care jobs. Maia's son sums up her plight when he berates her, "Every year you say 'It's one more year, one more year!' " and his blunt indictment sums up the predicament of most of Krasikov's characters. Representative is Anya, the protagonist of "Better Half," 22 years old, married for a few months and working as a waitress, who observes that "trying to escape your tedious fate only led you back to it."
Their task won't be easy, but at the end of this consistently strong collection we're left with a feeling that the determination by Krasikov's characters to establish themselves in a new land will be rewarded.
Living and loving in Mexico
Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico's most distinguished living writer, offers a rich collection of stories in Happy Families. Taking his ironic title from Tolstoy's legendary observation, Fuentes exposes the dark corners of his characters' emotional lives with a piercing light.
Fuentes' prose is lush, almost poetic, as presented in this translation by the distinguished translator Edith Grossman. Indeed, after each story there is a free verse "chorus," many of them illuminating some troubling aspect of modern Mexican life.
In its 16 stories, Happy Families covers the subject of love in all its complexity. We meet a long-married couple raking over the dying coals of their relationship ("Conjugal Ties (1)"), a priest who's fathered an illegitimate daughter and lives with her in an isolated mountain village at the base of a volcano ("The Father's Servant") and a mother desperate to rescue her son from a life of street crime ("The Mariachi's Mother"). Fuentes is a keen student of human behavior, and if his Mexican historic and cultural references occasionally may be puzzling to non-Mexican readers, the emotions on display are universal. In "The Discomfiting Brother," the story of an impoverished man who returns to the home of his prosperous brother after more than 30 years, the former notes, "Life consists in our getting used to the fact that everything will be badly for us." That solemn observation serves as a fitting benediction to this collection by an acknowledged literary master.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.