A soldier returns from the war to find that things are pretty screwed up at home, too.
(from Tenth of December)
Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
“Get in here, you,” Ma said.
Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was as usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall above the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.
“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.
How shall I praise George Saunders today? How about this: Stories like “Home” make the contagiousness of their cynicism optional. If you want to, you can read this story from a safe distance, and never let the horribleness of its heightened reality poison your mind. That’s pretty much how it is for the characters, so beaten down are they by the grim violence and carelessness of their existence. It’s funny-sad or just funny, depending on how much you believe these are real people in a real world.
And now a thought exercise: Imagine the novelization of Idiocracy, as written by George Saunders.
An elderly woman attempts to deliver a letter to the post office.
(from I Want to Show You More)
Sometimes she forgot and said she didn’t know where the sweater came from, and when she said this, it was as true as when she told the story about the dead son. She wasn’t always sure if the thing had actually happened or if it was just something she read in a book. When she told the story, she felt she had not even known the boy in the jungle; she told it without emotion, as if describing a scene from a stage play, the boy who stepped onto the booby trap just an actor who was now carrying on another life somewhere.
This story authentically captures the perspective of an eighty-nine-year-old woman who sets out on a walk to the post office. She is carrying an anti-war letter in her pocket and keeps feeling for it to remind herself of her mission. There are some really beautiful moments here, particularly when the woman thinks of her son: “She felt certain that, were she able to kiss his cheek, she would remember how to feel sadness and grief, love and longing.” This sentence makes me happy to be able to feel–how lucky we are to feel. That being said, I was a little underwhelmed with the story as a whole. I felt like something was missing.
This story was originally published in The Antioch Review. If you have library access, you can read it at JSTOR. Otherwise, you can read a small portion of it here.
A single mother makes a disturbing discovery while snooping in her daughter’s room.
(from If a Stranger Approaches You)
Abigail was a good daughter, an A student, had never been in any trouble…
But Mona also knew how wrong things could go when they went wrong. She’d been a teenager. She’d come dangerously close to the edge of something, herself, at that age.
This is more flash fiction than short story. It’s a brief series of events–a mother snooping, finding something, and confronting her daughter. The story ends with the daughter wailing. I’m still not quite sure what was found. I’m a little underwhelmed by “Mona,” particularly as the first story in a collection. It’s told very simply and there’s no resolution. I want to know what the thing is, at least, and why the daughter is wailing over it. I don’t know. Just a little unsatisfied with this one…
A man gets married so he doesn’t have to spend his nights alone.
(from The Dark Side: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural)
It began last year, in a very strange manner on a damp autumn evening. When my servant had left the room, after I had dined, I asked myself what I was going to do. I walked up and down my room for some time, feeling tired without any reason for it, unable to work and even without energy to read…
Henry-Rene-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, often credited with being the originator of the commercial literary short story, was born on August 5, 1850 in France. He was super prolific. He attempted to kill himself in 1892 and died in Paris the following year. I include the bit about attempting suicide because writers collect information like this. Why do we love to hear about those that killed themselves? Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyhow, this is the first story by Guy de Maupassant that I have ever read, or remember reading, and it feels very modern. It’s creepy and ghostly but also true-to-life. The writing is lovely. I’m not going to say any more about it because it really is just about a man who cannot be alone. Haven’t you ever felt like this?
You should listen to it here. I love this podcast: Bedtime Stories: Classic Tales for Sleepy Grownups by Parker Leventer. She used to do these terrible voices but someone must have told her to stop, and, thankfully, she did.
A man and his Husky are traveling the Yukon Trail on a very cold day.
(from To Build a Fire)
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already.
I’m sure I read Jack London in high school, though I don’t think I would have appreciated this story then. I’m sure I wouldn’t have. There’s a lot of repetition and it builds really slowly. I also don’t like the way he treats his dog, though I understand that the dog wasn’t a pet or a companion to him.
The man, who is nameless, is walking on a trail that hasn’t been traveled in quite some time. He is fairly new to the country and doesn’t heed the advice of the “old-timers.” I can’t say much more than that without giving something away. This site has all 197 Jack London stories online, apparently, which is pretty cool. You can also find “To Start a Fire” at Bedtime Stories: Classic Tales for Sleepy Grownups, which I love.
A refrigerator salesman and his lovely automaton refrigerator assistant travel around dazzling crowds and selling fridges.
(from While Mortals Sleep)
Jenny was radio-controlled, and those controls were in those trick shoes of George’s — under his toes.
This was an impulse buy. I’ve read pretty much everything in Vonnegut’s bibliography, so I knew I’d pick up While Mortals Sleep eventually, but these posthumous collections give me pause. I’ve found it’s best to go into them knowing that these are often early and lesser works, sillier stuff, sometimes, with lower stakes. “Jenny” fits that mold. It’s got some things to say about how people get attached to non-people, but mostly it’s just a fun little yarn from the, I wanna say, ’60s. Still better than most things in the world.
A man writes letters to the man whose letters and things he found in an abandoned town.
I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel.
Please, write back.
Today was one of those early spring days where everybody dresses light and sits outside and pretends it’s not actually still pretty chilly out. I read this one in Rittenhouse Square. It was unexpectedly heavy at the end. I am too tired to think about why I liked it, but I did. I bet this was inspired, partly, by the one segment I remember from This American Life, although it’s actually pretty different so maybe not. Read ”The Last Thing We Need” here. And here are some pics of Rhyolite, the abandoned Nevada town at the center of this story.
A stranger asks a woman to carry a package onto an airplane.
(from If a Stranger Approached You)
As was always the case in airports, there was a small crowd of confused people (the elderly, the poor, some foreigners) standing patiently in a line they didn’t need to stand in, and a woman behind a counter who was waving them away one by one as they approached her with their fully sufficient pieces of paper.
This book of stories was published by Sarabande this month and I feel extremely proud of myself for reading something current. I’ve always been a fan of Kasischke’s poetry, but I’ve never read any of her stories (or novels). I admire the way she doesn’t shy away from writing about race or class. She’s fearless, bold.
I liked this story quite a bit. Kasischke is adequately able to convey the narrator’s state of mind and make me believe that she would do this favor for this stranger. I don’t want to tell you any more about the story but luckily you can read it here.
Also, it strikes me that nearly all of the stories I’ve reviewed for this site have been by women. Perhaps this is one reason why women are so grossly underrepresented in literary magazines; it may not have anything to do with overt sexism but the fact that the editors of these publications are men and they prefer to read work by men same as I prefer to read work by women. This doesn’t make it okay or anything, but it’s a valid reason, I think. Anyhow, more on this later…
A young girl gets blamed for a plague on her town.
(from McSweeney’s Quarterly 29)
“And girls,” he says, bending over to examine a line of ants. “Look down here. Closer.” We three crouch, the line of ants weaving between us. They are carting away their dead. One of the ants, unmoving, rests upturned on the back of another, and the other ants follow.
“How come they do that, Daddy?” I ask. “Is it like a funeral?”
“Nobody knows. What do you think?”
“I think maybe they don’t want to leave the other ant behind,” I say. “Maybe he’s important.”
Selma chews on her thumb for a moment, her head cocked. “That ain’t it,” she huffs, spitting out a bit of fingernail. “They’re taking his body home, so’s the rest of them can eat it.”
Daddy stares at her.
I don’t say so, but I was just trying to be pleasant before. Of course they’re going to eat it.
I really liked this story, about a sickness that takes over a town and the towns’ need to blame someone. The voice is clear and engaging, and the dialect, which I tend not to like, works really well. I’m a sucker for a child narrator. I’m also a sucker for plagues and apocalypses.
This story isn’t available online and Hendrix seems to be largely unpublished. Where are you, Laura Hendrix? Find your old copy of McSweeney’s 29. It’s lovely.
The nerds are up to something.
Mom’s messed-up universe started with one bad star: a nine-month marriage to the man who was my father. He brought her to the States, a living knickknack from his military days. Their union, brief as it was, spawned me and all my biological peculiarities. “You’re like Aquaman,” Luc said when I told him the story — “cool.” But Aquaman’s mother was a mermaid, his father a human being. Nothing is human within the man who was my father. He disappeared from her life just hours before I was born. What I imagine, what I’ve even dreamed, is that he is a sinister breed of assassin, with white hair, white skin, and white eyes, invading alien streets, sent to find and fuck my mother and then finish her off. When she is drunk, she talks about my origin, sticking the sick story in my head, panel after panel after panel.
I’m a lapsed comic book fan, so this story about high school geeks burying themselves in Green Lantern hit home. Of course, I never took things as far as these kids do. As a starting point I’ll call this story Unbreakable meets Elephant. Actually, I’ll leave it like that. Everything I try to write about “Superassassin” ends up giving away too much. Read this story here at the Atlantic, where it was originally published in 2000.