The short story

At book club the other night, the question of what makes a good short story came up. We are discussing Alice Munro in May, so it’s timely.

I am Munro’s all-time biggest fan, so I find it hard to be reasonable about her writing. But when the short story form is done well by anyone, it is simply spell-binding. You can’t get away with a chapter that doesn’t work so well or with uninspired patches of writing. There is no room for words that don’t count.

If you want to find examples of the best short story writing around today, you can’t do better than go to The New Yorker. Any issue is quite likely to yield a gem.

Take the story in the February 1 issue: Fjord of Killary, by Kevin Barry. The first few paragraphs take you right into the story: they set the scene and the mood, introduce you to the protagonist and a typical member of the hard-drinking locals, and give you an idea of the dynamics between the protagonist and others.

So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary. It was set hard by the harbor wall, with Mweelrea Mountain across the water, and disgracefully gray skies above. It rained two hundred and eight-seven days of the year, and the locals were given to magnificent mood swings. On the night in question, the rain was particularly violent — it came down like handfuls of nails flung hard and fast by a seriously riled god. I was at this point eight months in the place and about convinced that it would be the death of me.

“It’s end-of-the-fucking-world stuff out there,” I said.

The chorus of locals in the hotel’s lounge bar, as always, ignored me. I was a fretful blow-in, by their mark, and simply not cut out for tough, gnarly, West of Ireland living. They were listening, instead, to John Murphy, our alcoholic funeral director.

“I’ll bury anythin’ that fuckin’ moves,” he said.

“Bastards, suicides, tinkers,” he said.

“I couldn’t give a fuckin’ monkey’s,” he said.

There are sullen Belarusian staff, who make minimum wage and circulate through each others’ “dreary, viewless” rooms at night. We discover that our host is a poet, who is in the middle of a “long silence.” We find out more about the locals who drink in the bar of the Water’s Edge Hotel. They talk endlessly about how long it takes to get from one place to another, when they are not talking about sex.

“You’d do jail time for that,” John Murphy said.

He was eying once more the rear quarters of Nadia as she headed for the kitchen.

“John, I’ve warned you about this,” I said.

“I’m only sayin’,” he said.

He sullenly turned back to his stout. The people of this part of North Galway are oversexed. that is my belief. I had found a level of ribaldry that bordered on the paganistic. It goes back, of course. They lick it up off the crooked rocks. Thackeray, indeed, remarked on the corsetless dress of rural Irish women, and the fact they kissed perfect strangers in greeting, their vast bosoms swinging.

Against this colourful background, there is a growing problem, a crisis and a resolution. It’s fast and funny and an easy introduction to the short fiction genre.

Go back to January 11 for a slightly more complicated story: Safari, by Jennifer Egan. Again, the scene is set quickly in the opening paragraphs:

“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?” Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair, is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely. “Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink—”

“Impossible,” their father interjects, with a wink at the elderly bird-watching ladies to his left. Both women wear their binoculars even in the dark, as if hoping to spot birds in the firelit tree overhead.

“Remember, Charlie? How the beach was still warm, and that crazy wind was blowing?”

But Charlie is focussed on her father’s legs, which have intertwined behind her with those of his girlfriend, Mindy. Soon Lou and Mindy will bid the group good night and retreat to their tent, where they’ll make love on one of its narrow rickety cots, or possibly on the ground. From the adjacent tent, which she and Rolph share, Charlie, who is fourteen, can hear them—not sounds, exactly, but movement. Rolph, at eleven, is too young to notice.

There is an entertaining and useful backbone of anthropological inquiry running throughout that guides our understanding of the situation and characters. Mindy uses existing concepts and coins new ones as needed:

“What on earth have you got in that backpack?”

It’s Cora, Lou’s travel agent. She hates Mindy, but Mindy doesn’t take it personally—it’s structural hatred, a term she coined herself and is finding highly useful on this trip. A single woman in her forties who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the thready sinews of her neck will structurally despise the twenty-three-year-old girlfriend of a powerful male who not only employs said middle-aged female but is paying her way on this trip.

“Anthropology books,” Mindy tells Cora. “I’m in the Ph.D. program at Berkeley.”

Structural resentment: The adolescent daughter of a twice-divorced male will be unable to tolerate the presence of his new girlfriend, and will do everything in her limited power to distract him from said girlfriend’s presence, her own nascent sexuality being her chief weapon.

Structural affection: A twice-divorced male’s preadolescent son (and favorite child) will embrace and accept his father’s new girlfriend because he hasn’t yet learned to separate his father’s loves and desires from his own. In a sense, he, too, will love and desire her, and she will feel maternal toward him, though she isn’t old enough to be his mother.

Structural incompatibility: A powerful twice-divorced male will be unable to acknowledge, much less sanction, the ambitions of a much younger female mate. By definition, their relationship will be temporary.

Structural desire: The much younger temporary female mate of a powerful male will be inexorably drawn to the single male within range who disdains her mate’s power.

All these structures are, of course, present in the narrative. “Structural desire” shows up as Mindy’s attraction to Albert, the assistant leader of the safari. Albert is driving when the first crisis occurs: Chronos, a member of the group, is attacked by a lioness when he gets too close and only Albert’s fast shooting saves him.

Albert has gained the status of a hero, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. He gulps a bourbon and mutters his responses to the giddy queries of the Phoenix faction. No one has yet confronted him on the damning basics: Why were you in the bush? How did you get so close to the lions? Why didn’t you stop Chronos from getting out of the jeep? But Albert knows that Ramsey, his boss, will ask these questions, and that they will likely lead to his being fired: the latest in a series of failures brought on by what his mother, back in Minehead, calls his “self-destructive tendencies.”

When Lou suspects something happened between Mindy and Albert, he changes in this attitude toward her because he can’t bear to lose. Rolph, temporarily angry at Mindy, betrays her. He doesn’t know his father yet.

But Charlie does know her father. He’ll marry Mindy because that’s what winning means, and because Mindy’s eagerness to finish this odd episode and return to her studies will last until precisely the moment when she unlocks the door to her Berkeley apartment and walks into the smell of simmering lentils: one of the cheap stews that she and her roommates survive on. She’ll collapse onto the swaybacked couch they found on the sidewalk and unpack her many books, realizing that in the weeks of lugging them through Africa she has read virtually nothing. And when the phone rings her heart will flip.

Structural dissatisfaction: Returning to circumstances that once pleased you, after having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, and finding that you can no longer tolerate them.

There are quick, almost parenthetical references to the future lives of  Mindy, Lou, Charlie and Rolph. All the ingredients for their future choices are present in their safari experiences and it’s one of the achievements of this story that the direction of their later lives seems inevitable. We’ve known people like Lou and we understand how he damages the lives of those around him. Sadly, the children don’t yet have the ability to choose and how much of a choice the adults have is a question for anthropologists and psychologists, who are represented in this story by Flora and Mildred, the bird-watching members of the safari group.

Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff was published in The New Yorker on September 25, 1995. It’s no longer available at their online site without a digital subscription, but you can find the text at other sites, such as The Floating Library. This is one of my all-time favourite short stories for its brevity and its encapsulation of a life in a series of flashbacks.

Again, the first few paragraphs give us the set, the character of Anders, and what is going to happen:

Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders — a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the bank tellers stuck a “POSITION CLOSED” sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. “Oh, that’s nice,” one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more.”

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. “Damned unfair,” he said, “Tragic, really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”

She stood her ground. “I didn’t say it was tragic,” she said, “I just think it’s a pretty lousy way to treat your customers.”

“Unforgivable,” Anders said, “Heaven will take note.”

She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. “Keep your big mouth shut!” the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?”

The tellers nodded.

“Oh, bravo,” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”

“Weary elegant savagery,” indeed.  Anders can’t seem to help himself: he provokes the thugs by mocking their predictable dialogue and he pays the price. The story describes the many things that Anders doesn’t remember in his final moments. And then it describes a memory:

This is what Anders remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedius to Anders; an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all–it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The story hits you powerfully. There are emotional ups and downs: Anders’ playing with fire; the shock of the bullet; the mini-version of his life’s highlights, meaningful and meaningless jumbled up together.

So, back to Alice Munro. Every one of her stories has had me admiring how well she nails her characters with a couple of words. The situations, though not always on a large dramatic scale, usually have me holding my breath as I read.

The movie Away From Her (directed by Sarah Polley) was based on a Munro story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain. It’s worth comparing the movie to the story. The movie shows a poignant time in the lives of a couple, as Fiona develops dementia and Grant has to learn to show his love for her in a different way by letting go. It’s a meaningful story, told compassionately, but it’s a simplified version of Munro’s. In The Bear Came Over the Mountain, there is more complexity and ambiguity in Grant’s and Fiona’s relationship: Alice Munro doesn’t tell stories that can be summed up easily. In her narratives, individuals are both understandable in that we can identify with them on the level of basic humanity and recognizable traits, but they also have their layers of complications and contradictions. They do the unexpected thing. In Munro, the unexpected thing may not be the external crisis — the flood, attack or bullet — it is more likely to be the dawning understanding of fundamental betrayal.

This is the perfection of the short story form: you must find both reinforcement of things that you knew, even if you’ve never articulated them, and the shock of a surprising twist.


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