One thing that’s great about short stories is how quickly they can ruin your life. Maybe you start reading one over your lunch break and, if it’s the right one, before that peanut butter cup you brought for dessert even has a chance to finish its melting shape-shift into some kind of sugary cement, the whole world has been destroyed around you and then rebuilt, and nothing is quite the same again.
This happens whether you like it or not. Great stories practice this violent beauty on you in a variety of ways: some by making an absurd world familiar (or vice versa), some with a slow burn, some with a voice that colonizes your thoughts. Some do it quietly, almost without you even noticing, and some do it with high wire acts of imagination or intellect that make you into a breathless witness.
The trick, then, is finding the right story, one that is capable of such a thing. This is no easy task. Tastes differ, of course, and it can be confusing to spot the small boat of a great story on the wide sea of fiction. What any reader can offer you in terms of guidance is actually the same thing that any good writer can offer you with the story itself: a way of saying, This is what moved me and made me feel strange and alive in some way; here, why don’t you give it a try?
This curious, masterful story is about a set of brothers who work as managing engineers overseeing the Chernobyl power station on April 26, 1986, but, as with most of Shepard’s work, it’s also about the invisible planets of loss that our personal lives orbit. It is both an education and an elegy. Shepard’s forthcoming novel of the Warsaw Ghetto, Aaron Only Thinks of Himself, promises more of the same.
Titania and Oberon, the immortal Queen and King of the Fairies, live under a hill in a modern city park. To save their marriage, they adopt a mortal toddler and begin to raise him, only to discover he has developed terminal leukemia. What follows, set in a fairy den and an oncology ward, is one of the best (and, somehow, realest) short stories ever written, a haunting exploration of love and death that has followed this reader, at least, into marriage, parenthood, and nearly every subsequent day spent on this earth.
One of the newest voices on this list, Vijay tells the story of Indian children mining the ore used to construct Olympic stadiums in China with remarkable poise and vision. While the inherently political nature of the story is certainly important and the writing is ruthless in its detail, to approach “Lorry Raja” in only that way is to miss the quiet power of Vijay’s prose, as well as its ability to look honestly into the subtleties of family and the scales of desire without denying beauty where it lurks.
Published in 1975 at the peak of The Troubles in Ireland, Kiely’s unlikely story of a small country park and the two young people who spend a few afternoons together in it is sly, funny, and tremendously affecting. A lesson simultaneously in understatement and heart, this story is really about the near misses of the lives we almost live, as well as what time does to the things that could’ve been. Long forgotten by most, author Colum McCann miraculously resurrected it for The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, and it is best experienced in his wonderful voice.
It’s difficult to say exactly why this story—the reflections of intelligent, grumpy Otto about his aging partner William, his own aging, his uneasy relationship with his family, the sanity of his troubled sister, loneliness, and the new baby of his upstairs renter—is as wonderful as it very much is. The story is, in the end, a testament to the power of a whole person—caustic, funny, articulate, alone, lost and found, cruel and loving—given life on the page. Originally published in The Yale Review, eager readers can find it in The Best American Short Stories 2004 anthology.
Also published in 1975, sixteen years before she would be awarded the Nobel Prize, this is Gordimer’s story of the relationship between Austrian geologist Dr. Franz-Josef Von Leinsdorf and a mixed-race Johannesburg shop girl, an affair that is illegal in apartheid-era South Africa. One of the most overlooked pieces of Gordimer’s writing, this is also one of the quietest, and most effective. The uneasy dynamics of race, class, and power (especially when it comes to love and sex) are nimbly explored here, and build to a devastating end. It was similarly saved from obscurity, this time by author Tessa Hadley, for The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast.
Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull,” begins this amusing and heartbreaking story, perhaps the most underappreciated narrative Nabokov ever wrote. Waiting behind Nabokov’s admittedly long and wry sentences is the plainly moving story of a love affair pursued through the years. Every detail works together here to render Nabokov’s testament to the illusiveness of love and memory, and a reader’s patience is richly rewarded. Those interested can find it online, or in the excellent anthology of love stories, My Mistress’ Sparrow Is Dead.
By turns funny, disturbing, canny, and inventive, this novella takes the form of fictional episode summaries of the famous show (but if the show, as one reader puts it, were directed by David Lynch). Machado, another new voice in American fiction, manages to create an engaging, strange, and wholly original story that draws into conversation sexual violence, popular culture, and our own weird-feeling relationships therein.
While this very short, very tricky story purports to be about the birth of the tribal language used to print the first Bible in the Americas, it is really about the death of it, and the way history itself is a colonizing narrative. Shattuck’s facility with prose makes this a funny, winning story, even as it is a bitter and sad one: a clever and unique creation that will stay with you long after you’re done reading.