Category Archives: Short Stories

One Man’s Trash: Very Good


I’ve written many times before about Ivan E Coyote and how very very good her stories are (they are very very good). I recently made my way though this collection as a set of nighttime reads. You know how usually you can only manage four or five pages in bed before falling asleep? Well this collection is perfect because no story clocks in at more than six or seven, each one is a contained little gem and you go to bed satisfied that you’ve explored something rich and deep without having to dive too far. I suppose it’s like wading to your ankles in the time it takes, but still discovering a submerged treasure. The subject matter is quotidian, the narration a matter of fact first person, and yet it somehow manages (and I suppose it should be my task here to figure out that “somehow” and explain it, but like watching a magician, I’d rather not look too closely at Coyote’s magic for fear of having the whole thing spoiled) to unsettle/resettle the taken-for-granted. Magical!


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Short Stories

Too Much Happiness: Perfect Detail


Alice Munro might be the reason I hate short stories. I mean, she’s the best short story writer ever – perfect detail, brilliant dialogue, the amazing ability to move forward and back in time in seamless slips of paragraphs – but with this incredible talent comes (my) the awful realization that the story is only going to be 30 pages long. And that you want it to be 300. Which doesn’t even make sense because short stories have a certain something-something in the punchiness of the plot, the pace of things, that tells you that it can’t – shouldn’t – be sustained for more than 30 or 40 pages, and yet, such is the brilliance of the characters and the complexity of their motivations that I can’t help but be just a little furious that they’re capped at being *short*.

In any case: it’s a dark collection. Murder, betrayal, knives and cheating and cold train trips. The last and titular story feels a little out of place in the collection in terms of time and setting – it’s historical fiction and set in Sweden/Denmark/Germany – but it maintains thematic resonance with preoccupations of the extent to which women will subsume their own desires and opportunities for the men in their lives, or that women are dependent (to the point of great violence) on men, or the propensity for violence that lives in each of us just waiting for particular – though not necessarily extraordinary – circumstances to come out.

Anyway. I have some ambition to read all of Alice Munro’s collections next year, but then I realize that I have to take several days off from reading after each story because I find them just so intense. So maybe I won’t. Or maybe I’ll read a story a week or something. It’s a hard life for a reader when the challenge is how to space out brilliance so as to not squander it or be overwhelmed by its dazzling beauty.

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A Man Melting: I Really Liked This One, But I Still Don’t Like Short Stories


Everything I knew about New Zealand up until reading -A Man Melting- I knew by way of N. and L. (and The Lord of the Rings). Things I gleaned from these dear friends: flip-flops are jandles and sweaters are jerseys, voting for your favourite bird is Very Important, singing the anthem in Maori for the Zealandish is more important than singing the anthem in French for Canadians, Wellington is windy, the method of electing ministers to parliament is much more civil and rational than in Canada, there are mountains and ocean, exports include sheep and fish, there were some gold rushes, the New Zealand rugby team is a Big Deal, N. wore a uniform to school and might have been the Prefect (I hope he was), cookbooks are better in NZ than here, eggplants are aubergines, walls accrue mould because it is Damp, it is preferable to say “dodgy” and (my favourite) “heaps” than the Canadian “sketchy” and “lots.”

After reading Craig Cliff’s -A Man Melting- I can now report on similarities between Canada and NZ: a certain colonial defensiveness re: America that is manifested in a quiet insistence that Things Are Different Here, an admission that many people are from elsewhere (but dammit we’re still unique) and the all out angst of the 20 something hipster/suburban youth.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed -A Man Melting- and its take on the challenges of figuring out who you are, what you want, what makes you special, what you’re meant to do with your life: these are the questions that preoccupy me (that is, *cough* when I actually stop to think about them) and I expect preoccupy many of my fellows in my cohort. And for the most part Cliff gives fresh, imaginative and inspiring explorations of these questions. Hilarious plot events, unsuspecting character voices, interweaving thematic questions about heredity, aspiration and failure.

I suppose my complaint is one I hold for most (if not all) short story collections and that is that I wish it was a novel. This is entirely my prejudice (and very likely the outcome of a terrible memory that cannot hold disparate plot lines long enough in my head to connect them) and so shouldn’t be read as discouragement for picking up -A Man Melting-. On the contrary the collection offers some zinger sentences of exceptional originality and beauty and some thoughtful character studies. But I was, on the whole, rather disappointed (as I always am) that these characters were so swiftly introduced and then denied me. So hear this, Mr. Cliff, write me a novel, okay? Because you’re one bang up writer with heaps of talent.

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The Bloody Chamber: Wolves, Wives and the Colour Red


I begin reading novels with the presumption of brilliance; I begin reading short stories with the expectation of disappointment. It is for novels to fail; it is for short stories to triumph. Call me a genre-ist, call me a novel-ist (no really, call me a novelist!), call me what you will.

Angela Carter’s collection (as recommended by E. – thanks!) The Bloody Chamber does so well as a collection it more than proves its burden of brilliance. And here’s my hypothesis for why it’s so great: it sets out to be a short story collection. Most of the other collections I’ve encountered read as patchwork efforts wherein a writer realized they’d amassed enough stories to call it a collection, puzzled out some central themes, maybe did some edits, and worked on a good title. With Carter, however, it’s clear – or at least I hope this is the case – that she decided to write a collection of fucked up fairy tales and did just that. So it’s no surprise that scenes repeat, characters share characteristics, the themes – curiosity, sexuality, youth, virginity – bleed (ha! get it? Bloody chamber?) from one story to the next. My terrible pun is evidence of this too, as blood and the colour red penetrate all of the stories as characters must confront the physical body and its (mostly sexual) urges. So many deflowered virgins.

I also enjoyed Carter’s willingness to see the human as one other kind of beast caught up in a fantastical world of desire and impulse. That we often behave without reason, or more often still, counter-reason, is exploited by Carter in a number of the stories when the reader watches in car-accident-attention-horror as yet another woman falls victim (or rather, agentally victimizes herself) to yet another beastly man or manly beast.

Here’s a good example:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never case to mourn their own condition” (112).

Swap out “beast” and pop in “human” and you’ve got the collection covered. Well, add a bit more blood and you’d have it covered.

Each story provides an unexpected narrative point of view (I loved, for instance, the animal perspective of Puss in ‘Puss in Boots’ – at long last a non-human protagonist I enjoyed!), some twist classic fairy tales, others simply allude to them. In either case the resonances make for a disturbing read.


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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Short Stories