Some people would have you believe that short stories are the literary equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues, a place to hone your skills until you’re ready for a bigger and more prestigious stage. But as masters such as Alice Munro have proven, a great short story is no less of an achievement than a great novel.
These four collections demonstrate that a new generation of authors is happy to experiment with the possibilities of the short form.
The most audacious collection here is Only the Animals by the South African and Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey. How’s this for a daring conceit: Each story is written from the perspective of an animal killed in a conflict wrought by humans. And an author appears in almost every narrative.
A cat owned by Colette escapes from the author’s car and witnesses horrors on the front lines in France during World War I. Chimpanzees in Germany who are being trained to adopt human characteristics become more refined even as food rationing dehumanizes men and women. A dolphin born into captivity writes to Sylvia Plath, “a human writer who meant something to me,” to explain the circumstances by which the dolphin performed echolocation activities for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.
Seeing events through an animal’s eyes gives us an outsider’s perspective on major events in recent history, including atrocities like the rise of Nazi Germany and the wars in the Middle East. In forcing us to do so, Dovey suggests that some animals have a capacity for empathy that humans would do well to emulate.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is an intricately structured and powerful collection. These interconnected stories set in Russia span more than 70 years. They begin with the tale of Roman Markin, a “correction artist” who works for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to airbrush images of political dissenters out of photographs and paintings. One of the dissenters is his younger brother, Vaska.
In memory of his brother, Roman draws tiny portraits of Vaska in the pictures he censors, including a photo of a ballerina who looks like Vaska’s widow and a painting of a dacha in a pasture. The painting links tales of the ballerina’s granddaughter, a telephone operator at a nickel combine who wins the Miss Siberia pageant and marries the 14th richest man in Russia; a former deputy art director who, after the 1999 bombing of Chechnya, is forced to become head of the Chechen Tourist Bureau; and a soldier who carries a mix tape his brother gave him before his first tour of duty.
This collection showcases Marra’s wit and his gift for unforgettable details, such as when a soldier fires a round into the earth to loosen it before he digs a grave. Some characters are capable of great brutality, whereas others are capable of declaring that no invention is “more humane, more elegant, more generous” than the wheelchair ramp. The Tsar of Love and Techno is the work of an elegant and generous writer.
Lauren Holmes’ debut, Barbara the Slut and Other People, is lighter fare than the previous books, but don’t equate light with inconsequential. Holmes’ deceptively breezy stories focus on women grappling with sexual politics and make important observations about challenges faced by millennials.
A 20-year-old woman from Los Angeles travels to Acapulco to see her distant mother and to announce that she’s a lesbian. “Mike Anonymous” is a quietly devastating story of a woman who works at a clinic that helps people with sexually transmitted diseases, and of a married Japanese man convinced that he’s HIV positive. And in the title story, a high school senior applies to Princeton and struggles to lose the reputation she earned several times over in 11th grade.
Holmes, whose work has appeared in outlets like Granta and Guernica, has a keen ear for dialogue and a sharp memory for the high school life, as proven in the description of a student who “removed her retainer with her tongue and spit it onto her desk every time she was about to say something in class.” Barbara the Slut contains surprisingly tender depictions of love and family, which show that you should never judge a book by its title.
HOME TO KANSAS
Andrew Malan Milward focuses on the rich history of his home state of Kansas in his second collection, I Was a Revolutionary. Milward’s hometown of Lawrence has been the site of significant moments in American history, including pro-slavery guerrillas’ 1863 massacre of abolitionists—the largest act of domestic terrorism until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. He recreates many such historical moments in these stories.
The protagonist of “The Burning of Lawrence,” which chronicles the 1863 killings, is the Confederate guerrilla fighter William Quantrill. “The Americanist,” a modern-day story about a gay couple, invokes John Romulus Brinkley, the “Goat Gland Doctor” of the 1920s who injected goat testicles into men to improve their virility. “What Is to Be Done?” presents the eccentric sculptor Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, a retired teacher who, in later years, was known to lecture about socialism to a roomful of invisible students.
Milward’s habit of providing excessive historical detail diminishes the tension at times, but when he minimizes background information, as he does in the brilliant title piece, the results are compelling. There are lovely, unexpected touches: A pro-slavery fighter in “The Burning of Lawrence” trashes an abolitionist’s home, but pauses long enough to play the family’s organ with “long-dormant familiarity.”
Throughout the book, Milward makes astute observations about politics, not only about the political climate of past eras but also of our own—a rarity in contemporary American fiction.
Who says short-story writers occupy a low rung on the literary hierarchy? As these collections prove, great short fiction not only is its own major league but also boasts an impressive lineup that any contingent would envy.