Short stories are the Now. Not only in the sense that they are more conducive to our e-readers and increasingly short attention spans but in the literal sense of the word now. They are urgent and immediate. You can have a complete narrative, with compelling characters and plot and climax and empathy training in one fulfilling sitting. Though individual short stories can – and should – be found all over the place, collections offer a more comprehensive view of an author’s work, and often feature stories that can’t be found elsewhere. They’re like the complete albums to the radio single, and any good enthusiast should invest in them. Below are a few (but by no means all) of my favorites:
Mike Young’s debut collection from Word Riot is a romp through a universe that is just ever so slightly parted from our own, full of the familiar but plagued by the bizarre. Extravagant game shows in small towns, fleshy alien-like growths, and miniature babies in medicine cabinets seem to merely hover in the background of meditations on brotherly affection, the loss of models, illness, boredom and love. Lovers of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez will enjoy the even hand with which the otherworldly is deployed.
In the 2012 pilot episode of Girls, Hannah Horvath claims she is the voice of a generation. A year earlier, Suzanne Rivecca quietly made the same claim with the release of her short story collection Death Is Not An Option. In these stories, girls and young women bump up against the exotic oddities presented by every day life. Tigers, graduation rituals, peer rejection and of course inappropriate sexual advances are navigated by whip smart but already exhausted young women, all detailed in a crystal clear, humorous tone that reads as – well, as the voice of Hannah Horvath’s generation.
Strictly speaking, Adler’s 1976 Hemingway Award Winning Speedboat is a novel, but I’m including it in this list because it is a narrative built of needle sharp pieces of flash fiction. Some segments are as brief as fifty words, and all relate only loosely to one another to those which precede and follow. Each piece of flash is air tight, and can be read independently, just as a short story in a collection could be. As a complete novel, the hundreds of very short, smart stories start to create a delirium, a confused and confusing universe inhabited by an observant but not always comprehending young woman. The result is an intoxicating melancholia, the sort you feel when a party gets too raucous but you can’t bear the idea of going back to your too quiet home.
Orientation didn’t get a whole lot of hype when it was released in 2011, which is a shame because it is one of the most hilarious and original short story collections I’ve come across. More often than not, a collection will reveal themes, patterns, preoccupations. Especially skilled writers can make these preoccupations your own (see: Alice Munro), but often the stories, when presented together, begin to feel repetitive. Not so in Orientation. Orozco, whose stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and Harpers, delivers a totally individual work in each piece, from form to tone to subject matter. In the titular story, a monologue reveals the eeriness of a new work place. In “Officers Weep”, a budding romance between two officers is revealed in their police reports. In “Samoza’s Dream”, a more traditionally formatted short story, a dictator faces his death. There are a million things on offer in these nine stories, especially for lovers of George Saunders.
Lydia Davis is a stream of consciousness black belt. Her novel, The End Of The Story, follows the dead end filled labyrinth of a woman’s mind as she tries to recall the benefits and pitfalls of an affair. Her short stories, available as a complete set in The Short Stories of Lydia Davis, struggle to define similar highs and lows in smaller, sometimes microscopic, events. More often than not they succeed, if not in defining the event or item itself, then in defining the struggle to define. I recommend 2001’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant in particular because it is the first book of Davis’ I read, and her style is so complex in its brevity that it demands to be savored, at least initially, in a single, carefully curated volume rather than a complete collection. But any of her books is bound to surprise and delight.
In addition to these short story treats, look into your favorite novelist. Most literary giants have also released short story collections: Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov and Margaret Atwood are just a few examples.