Amy Parker's wonderful linked story collection, Beasts and Children, features a ransom payment, a road trip, and monkeys, adding up to a collection that feels as complete as a novel. Parker picks 10 of her favorite linked story collections.
It’s the faceted aspect of linked collections that appeals to me. A linked collection operates like a mandala, all the parts interrelated, but without a definite origin and without a definite end. Our lives as we move through time aren’t straight lines, or single threads. They intersect with other lives, and with history.
Linked collections mimic this quality. They’re like Indra’s net. Each story is a jewel, set in its own vertex, and it reflects all the others.
These are linked collections that have had the most influence on my own work:
1. Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (Love and Rockets)/ Locas in Love
Written and drawn over a span of fifteen years (from the mid-eighties to the late '90s) as part of the comic book series Love and Rockets, these two volumes of stories follow Maggie Chascarillo and Hopey Glass, Mexican-American women coming of age in Hoppers, a fictional town in Southern California. Maggie and Hopey mature over decades, meeting and parting, intermittently falling in love with one another, moving from teenaged chaos in a post-punk California to the heartbreaks and compromises of adulthood, maturing into middle age, growing wiser, sadder, and kinder with the passage of time. They break and they heal, but ultimately the stories are as much about joy and discovery as they are about sorrow. The stories contain surreal comic book elements (Maggie starts out repairing rockets in a dinosaur-infested jungle) and are peopled with female wrestlers and caped crusaders, musicians, depressive brujas, and men good, bad, and indifferent. For all their fantastical elements, the collections stay rooted in Hispanic and queer culture, in music and in place, and consistently celebrate two very different women and their enduring bond. This world and its women are drawn in a style so damned luscious you could eat each panel with a spoon.
2. Come Over, Come Over/ Down the Street/ It’s So Magic/ Everything in the World/ The Freddie Stories/ The Greatest of Marlys
I think Lynda Barry has influenced my own work more than any other writer. The collections include meditations on nature (particularly insects), school reports and drawings by the protagonists, and storylines that are frightening, funny, and real. Barry’s work captures the experience of being a child better than any other fiction I’ve ever encountered. Totally unsentimental, she depicts the wonder and the terror of being young and full of belief. These collections examine childhood’s vulnerability and inventiveness, show us children’s ability to be wounded and remain hopeful. If Barry makes you remember things from your own past that you might you wish you didn’t, she also helps you rediscover moments from your own experience so ordinary and revelatory that part of you will be restored. To read these is to have your childhood resurrected. (Mileage may vary.) Barry’s drawing style is bananas, and so expressive that it will make your heart prickle and your eyes itch.
3. Tales from Moominvalley
The Moomins, a family of hippopotamus shaped trolls, live in a valley with inhabitants as idiosyncratic and recognizable as the people surrounding you, regardless of their shape. In Tales from Moominvalley, loosely affiliated secondary characters and figures in the Moominverse have adventures in the absence of the protaganists. Jansson combines this with a deep knowledge of human nature and an even deeper acceptance of such. There’s no attempt to teach or correct. Each story touches on themes of identity, of integrity, and the courage to be oneself, of the sacrifices one makes to get along with others, but in such a strange and honest way that reading them is like drinking a cold glass of water from a pure spring. They’re fanciful, but they take up certain unspoken conditions and truths with such clarity that they’re unlike anything else you’ll read. Celebrated worldwide, sorely underrated in the USA. And Jansson’s drawings are beautiful.
4. Franny and Zooey
Combining the Künstlerroman, the spiritual crisis, and the family tragedy—this pair of linked stories forms a duet, and provides a lovely counterpoint to the Buddy-narrated Glass family stories. In the first section, “Franny,” Franny Glass, a gifted young actress, collapses during a standard issue mid-century-Ivy-league-upper-class dinner date with a promising (but utterly boring) young man. In the second part, “Zooey,” we learn the whys and wherefores of this collapse as her younger brother Zooey, also a talented actor, comforts and bullies Franny, who is in spiritual crisis and considering creative suicide. Zooey, with the knowing cruelty possessed by siblings, hauls her back from the brink. A defense of art, an exploration of talent and self-denial, funny, and not nearly as digressive as his later work, Franny and Zooey is the gem of Salinger’s output. Read it for the Fat Lady.
5. One Thousand and One Nights
Still culturally and politically relevant, these are linked stories to end all linked stories. Sly, feminist, raunchy, poetic and near-endless, this is a story within stories within stories. One Thousand and One Nights is, among other things, about the power of suspense and the saving force of narrative. A crash course in how to survive life with a genocidal tyrant, and a secret training method to gentle an irresponsible king into dispensing lawful and merciful government. With bonus instructions for young virgins on how to be devious, feminine, and virtuous—in short, how to keep one’s head.
6. Kingdoms of Elfin
A chilly, quietly unsettling collection—these linked stories first appeared in the New Yorker, championed by her editor and friend, William Maxwell. Warner’s wry, caustic depiction of the fairy courts, their mores, amours, and rituals has the unmistakable tang of British class satire. (According to Warner, all fairies can fly, but the upper classes choose not to, leaving that to the servants). These are fairies as you’ve never imagined them, and the detached tone with which Warner renders the tales allows us to experience the alien (but oddly familiar) amusements and laws of the fairies. Inhuman stories, brought to light in a human tongue, exquisitely detailed and strange.
7. Deep River
A group tour to the Ganges becomes a spiritual pilgrimage. This book follows five Japanese tourists on their journey to India. Each is fleeing from their past and seeking peace or spiritual renewal—a soldier reliving memories of atrocities in Japanese-occupied Burma, a middle aged cynic with a void at her center, a widower grieving the wife he neglected during life, a widow seeking the soul of her husband, and a disgruntled young Catholic convert. We’re presented with the stories of their individual pasts, and the thread of the river nourishes and unites them. Unabashedly spiritual, moving beautifully between present-day India and stories that reveal hidden aspects of the Japanese character and culture, this book isn’t afraid to talk about God, love, death, and meaning.
8. The Illumination
Two threads bind the characters together in Brockmeier’s The Illumination. First, wound sites begin to emit light. Pain shines and suffering is made luminous and visible. Second, a journal compiled of daily love notes from a husband to his wife circulates through the hands of the characters, shedding light on their own predicaments, providing a counterpoint of warmth, love, and humor to their own immense pain. The journal itself is a masterpiece of deeply observed details, a celebration of a beloved in all her particularity. Brockmeier is one of the greatest prose stylists working today, and his tenderness for the human condition registers in every line.
9. Jesus' Son
This book was everywhere in the late '90s, and for good reason. Johnson’s images are indelible. A naked woman flown like a kite; a Mennonite couple making love in Iowa; a pour of whiskey trembling at the rim of a shot glass; a man with a knife in his eye. The writing is spare, smart, and beautiful. The stories hurt to read—as we follow FH (Fuckhead) through his mess of a life, seeking connection, seeking redemption, and finding it in stolen moments and unexpected places.
10. Dandelion Wine
A celebration of a bygone world and an anticipation of a swift-moving future where the slow delights of summer will be improved out of existence. Dandelion Wine hums with quiet Midwestern magic. It blends sci-fi and fantasy elements with a honeyed realism—a child realizes for the first time that he’s alive; a couple agree to reincarnate on a schedule so they can fall in love at the proper time; a man tries to build a Happiness Machine. Bradbury is unabashedly allegorical but his wit, force of imagination, and observation of human nature gives Dandelion Wine substance. Bradbury’s Midwestern magic is part of our cultural DNA. I could swear that every story in this book is true.