Monday, October 9, 2017

Seven Short Stories I Should Have Read with Coffee

It was International Coffee Day recently, and though I don't drink much coffee, maybe it could have helped with the short stories here. These are short stories I liked but wasn't sufficiently alert while reading them. (And I took few notes.) They're also tricky in different ways - they might depend on a slippery narrator or express something frustrating and undefined just out of reach.

Title: The 5:22
Author: George Harrar
Where I Read It: Boston Noir 2

"The simple question 'What if?' could lead to so many disturbing places."
Walter Mason, a researcher at MIT, is solitary and sticks closely to routines. His daily commute doesn't stray from its schedule. Then, on one of his train rides, he notices a woman who's wearing a scarf. When the wind blows it aside, he sees she's missing an ear. In the course of the story, the woman disappears from his commute, and one day the conductor who's always there doesn't show up either. The train also misses his usual stop.

The shake up to his routine is unsettling and creates unease. But it could wind up not affecting his life much. Or maybe it will nudge him towards something better. Moments that appear inconsequential can call for courage and have a profound effect, like taking a chance to talk to someone instead of stare at them.

Title: Egnaro
Author: M. John Harrison
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

"Egnaro is a secret known to everyone but yourself."
This story is difficult to describe. It needs to be experienced. Plus, because I'm writing about it months after reading it, after only writing down a few excerpts, I'm picking at it from memory fragments. But that's what reading the story feels like - trying to hold on to grains of sand.
"It does not exist: yet it is quite real."
The story from what I remember explores the need to escape from the mundane, a need for frontiers, real and imagined. However, once someone reaches that imagined place it may lose its wonder (it's a place most wonderful when imagined but not attained). When they don't have it - when they merely hear about it or sense it - it can drive them to long for it madly and search for it everywhere, particularly if they haven't found belonging or purpose in their life as it is.

Title: The Great Manta
Author: Edwin Corle
Where I Read It: The Brooklyn Reader

A movie usher breaks the routine of his life to visit a circus-like attraction featuring a giant fish. It's hyped up, but what does the hype mean? Something new or strange isn't necessarily life-changing. It can just be a thing to see, and glance off you as you settle back in to routine after.

Title: An Interest in Life
Author: Grace Paley
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The main character's husband goes off to the army (what army? is he abandoning the family?), and a man she knew when she was younger reappears. Her kids remain kind of in the background of the story. The narrative voice gives the story an atmosphere of water swishing around in a bathtub. If the water stopped sloshing and swirling, a deadness might creep into the main character's life. A loneliness too hard to bear. There's a frenzy of activity warding off despair.

Title: On the Day that E.M. Forster Died
Author: A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Duffy)
Where I Read It: Sugar and Other Stories

What I remember from this story was the squeeze of time and the flood of details and ideas pressing in on the main character, who writes. In the story, a number of plots converge in her mind, and she sees a way towards creating a masterwork that will somehow embrace everything in her life. Somehow. The shape of it, forming out of incoherence, is just there, tingling at her fingertips. Part of the pressure in the story comes from the fact that when the writer becomes mature enough to perceive a vision that's more her own and appreciate the possibilities of language to a fuller extent, age or illness may cut short the opportunity to write. Then, regardless of age, there's the fragility of the artistic vision that can be deflated by certain encounters in life. The story I think shows the process of writing as both depending on and needing protection from the world at large.

Title: The Priest Next Door
Author: Susan Fromberg Schaeffer
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The opening paragraph I remember being beautifully written, placing you in the neighborhood of the story and its houses with their complex interiors. One theme the story explores is how people try to avoid looking at harsh realities head-on. Regarding a woman who nearly dies in a hospital, for instance, the discussion may be limited to various procedures that make the topic technical and sanitized. What's the vocabulary of pain, loss, and savagery? Do people lose their minds from not having the words to talk about the dark, hungry places in the world and in themselves?

Title: Talking Dog
Author: Francine Prose
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

A story of sisters. Grief, love, and envy bleeding into the way the younger sister, who is the narrator, interprets and presents events. The way she tells her story, it's like she's holding colorful warped glass between us and everything that's happening. But I wanted to keep squinting through that glass, instead of turning away in frustration.