On the short story

The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.

From The Ambition of the Short Story, by Stephen Millhauser (thanks Dave!)

…I think I read my first Millhauser novel at fifteen, when a teacher handed me his copy of Martin Dressler and let me take it home. (That was my year of discovering literary fiction, and I have my teacher to thank for it. Years later while house-sitting for him I discovered Haruki Murakami, and my perspective changed in subtle and dangerous ways.) I remember being confused but still determined to finish the book and pry open the secret that I firmly believed awaited me at the end.

Dave and I were talking about short stories the other night, and we both concluded that despite the span of years separating us, we had basically learnt short stories from the same basic sources: Night Shift and The Illustrated Man. The only difference is that I literally cut my teeth on the former: my mother’s battered paperback features tiny teeth marks and in the upper right-hand corner. I still think that there isn’t much about the short story that can’t be grokked from those two books. Granted, I actually enjoy King’s stories in Skeleton Crew better, particularly “Paranoid: A Chant,” “The Raft,” and “The Jaunt.” But I maintain that there’s an audacious simplicity to those Night Shift stories — the whole story hangs open like a frozen carcass waiting to be butchered. You can see the bones and the meat. It’s all there, nasty but complete, naked. The Illustrated Man is, if anything, even creepier: “The Veldt” and “Zero Hour” remain the most true and most frightening stories about children that I’ve ever read.

To this list I would add Murakami’s After the Quake, which is a tiny collection of short stories inspired by the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The quake never enters the story directly. We never see it happen, but rather feel the aftershocks rippling across the consciousness of each main character. Those stories are the gold standard, as far as I’m concerned, for literary or surrealist short fiction. They’re elegant, disciplined, and powerful, like a single perfect swing of the bat. When I forget what a short story is supposed to do, I go back and read them, particularly “Honey Pie” and “Thailand.” (Then I promptly weep over my personal incompetence.)

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