Carolyn Cooke's new collection, Amor and Psycho, is one of very best of 2013. When you go to the bookstore to pick it up, make sure to save room for these 10 legendary collections.
From almost the beginning it seemed impossible to survive the limited impressions, atmospheres, and perceptions generated by my own experience. I wanted more, and so became an early reader of short stories. Cheever and Updike were my literary parents; the vistas they described--the 1960s and 1970s, the shaken cocktails, the urgent bad sex, the smoky, Nixonian America--amplified my own narrow vision. Casting further back, Hemingway and Fitzgerald represented (impossible to imagine this now) literary polar opposites--bullfights and Africa! Martinis and money!
Drawn to decadence in every form, I also wanted to read writing that might erase boundaries of generation, gender, race and class, and show how one might live more fully in the great body of humanity. I discovered American champions of working class experience--Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver--then Tolstoy, Chekhov, Babel, Kafka, and Borges. I’m still regularly blown open by the wildly different effects writers achieve using the somewhat limited range of
human experience, language and consciousness. The following 10 collections--whole atmospheres made entirely of words--feel essential, either because they manage to make human experience feel new, or because, like some uncle who left a $1,000,000 legacy, their influence lingers.
1. The Complete Works by Isaac Babel - This volume contains The Red Cavalry Stories and the stories from 1925-1938, including “The Story of My Dovecote” and my all-time favorite, “Guy De Maupassant.” I wrote my own short story, “Francis Bacon,” under the self-imposed constraints that 1) like “Guy de Maupassant,” it concern a young writer in a compromised position; and 2) that it contain, in the original draft, exactly the same number of words (2,675) as my translation.
2. Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin - Baldwin was a master of the apparently “true” story, the first person narrator revealing more of the story than he knows. This volume includes the sublime “Sonny’s Blues” and that masterpiece of rage and compassion, “Going to Meet the Man.”
3. Love is Power, Or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett - A brand-new collection by a brilliant young Nigerian-Jamaican writer--and the most exciting, scary collection I read last year. Barrett’s characters don’t usually think about colonialism or corruption--they can’t afford the luxury of despair. Whole lives contain less agonizing detail than one of these stories.
4. The Collected Stories by Lydia Davis - Davis’s excruciatingly compressed, intensely dark, and usually playful stories render the strange as ordinary and the ordinary as strange. To read Davis for five minutes is consciousness-altering. The aperçu, for her, is an artery of intelligence.
5. Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill - The strangeness of human desire is Gaitskill’s great subject. In “The Girl on the Plane”--one example of many--Gaitskill pursues the awkward moment, and particularly the awkward sexual moment, to an interesting extreme. The reader reddens, but her characters never look away.
6. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson - Nobody writes more beautifully or goes closer to the sweet, rotten core.
7. Dubliners by James Joyce - Maybe it’s less true than it used to be that people are made of place--that the same elements that form coal and clay and bogs and ice form faces, voices and characters. I wrote my first collection of short stories, The Bostons, in homage to this book, hoping, as did Joyce’s young Stephen Dedalus, “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience” of some island-dwellers I knew.
8. The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka - To read “In the Penal Colony,” “The Hunger Artist,” and “Metamorphosis” is to be in some essential way unburdened of innocence about the human condition, to recognize the primal claw beneath the wings of human spirit and desire, and to understand, finally and forever after, the absurdity of “realist” fiction.
9. Selected Stories by Alice Munro - Munro’s stories feel expansive, but are in fact masterpieces of compression. On the inside cover of my brutally used copy of Munro’s Selected Stories (1996) is written: “She is an insight machine.” A few Munro sentences can capture a provincial girl in itchy clothes waiting for the Canadian National Railroad to take her to her destiny--while some cosmic rearview mirror unfurls the whole arc of a life.
10. The Great Short Works by Leo Tolstoy - Includes my all-time favorite story, “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Helplessly in thrall to this perfect work, I wrote the first chapter of my novel, Daughters of the Revolution, in an attempt to capture--in the same span of 39 pages--a life and death.