Short Stories

One of my favourite characterisations of the short story comes, unsurprisingly, from Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1982 interview with Fernando Sorrentino, Borges attributes the short story’s strength to its economy; to its muscular form, trimmed of all fat. A three-hundred-page novel, he says, ‘necessarily contains a certain amount of padding, pages whose only purpose is to connect one part of the novel to the other. In a short story, on the other hand, it is possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or – at the very least – to appear to be essential.’ One might say the same about a good anthology: there is no space for filler, no room for error; every story must be essential, or – at the very least – must appear to be essential.

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Back in my bookselling days during the early noughties, I spent a grey London autumn in the company of W.B. Yeats. My employers were Maggs Bros., an old Quaker firm and the queen’s booksellers, then based in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square: a venue that sounds glamorous but wasn’t, or at least not for me. The job involved much sitting in an underheated basement, beneath windows that offered a glimpse of passing ankles, cataloguing my way through stacks that bulged with a collection of Irish literature, predominantly by or associated with Yeats, assembled with frugal determination and frankly insane completism over decades by an autodidact bus conductor from South London.

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I’m well overdue with this article, and I suspect John McLaren is never going to speak to me again. Trouble is, I’m on a frenetic reading jag and its mainly McLaren’s fault.

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Gerard Windsor had a rocky start to his writing life. Out of the Jesuits after seven years, he scored a contract with his old school, Riverview, in Sydney, to write its centennial history. I was one of the alumni he interviewed; I remember suggesting that he take steps to guarantee the publication of his text. After all, I argued, a school run by a religious order was like a family commissioning its history: it would have tender feelings towards its dead and be wary of any diminution of their legends.

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‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

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April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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When as a boy I listened to football on the radio, I would often hear mention of David Harris, a skilful midfielder who played for Geelong and Geelong West respectively in what were then the VFL and VFA. Harris was mostly known as ‘Darky’, not ‘David’. Recently, thanks to a YouTube interview, I learnt that Harris’s parents were Lebanese Australians. While in the interview Harris did not express offence, one can only wonder about the effect on him of this nickname – one he’d had since his own boyhood – based on the colour of his skin.

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Pushing Back by John Kinsella

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April 2021, no. 430

Comprising more than thirty works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, John Kinsella’s prolific output is impressive, and this figure doesn’t include his collaborations with other artists. Here is a writer who swims between boundaries, experiments with form and content, and eludes easy categorisation. His most recent novel, Hollow Earth (2019), was a foray into science fiction and fantasy, and his most recent poetry volume The Weave (2020), was co-written with Thurston Moore, founder of NYC rock group Sonic Youth.

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A series of beautifully controlled fictional voices and an exquisite sense of literary craft contribute to the dark magnificence of Chloe Wilson’s début collection of short stories, Hold Your Fire. This volume explores the strange and sometimes surprising abject horror that characterises the quotidian and the ordinary. The stories both examine and revel in the classically Kristevan abject realities of the body’s expulsions and the disgust that is often characteristic of social marginality. For example, the ‘poo phantom’ writes a ‘message in shit on the walls’; tampons wrapped in toilet paper are described as ‘bodies that needed to be shrouded for burial’; a character feels a ‘quiver down to the bowels, the rush that is equal parts excitement and dread’; another tries ‘to pass a kidney stone’; and two sisters try an ‘Expulsion Cure’, where the doctor asks how much they expel: ‘And how often? And what is the colour? The texture? … When you eat something – poppy seeds, say, or the skin on a plum – how long does it take to reappear?’

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Eugen Bacon’s début short story collection, The Road to Woop Woop, plays with the genres of speculative fiction and magic realism. Using familiar tropes such as time travel, shapeshifting, and prescient characters, the stories typically refuse formulaic outcomes. The title story, for example, confounds expectations about the horror of bodily disintegration. The ominous angel of death in the story ‘Dying’ turns out to be a true wit. The surreal is transformed by the blessing of love in the heart-warming story ‘He Refused to Name It’.

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