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Five Short Story Collections that Tell a Single Tale

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Since short-story specialist Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, the story form has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Lauded collections like Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond have shown how short story writers might sometimes be able to do more than novelists to depict the fragmentation and multiplicity of contemporary life.

All the same, lots of readers—including me—struggle with short stories. As much as I admire the economy and the sucker-punch power of a great short, I usually find I want more. Novels immerse you in a world and let you stay there. A ten-page story, not so much.

That’s why I love collections whose individual stories add up to a bigger picture. In the books on this list you’ll find powerful stories that don’t chew you up and spit you out: instead each of them offers you one piece of a complex tale.

Pond

Pond has been compared to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing—both are concerned with mapping the hinterland of female consciousness—and with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle, which like Pond has a knack for compelling digressions that bloom from the minutiae of everyday life.

But Pond really resists comparison—and description. Its unnamed narrator lives in self-imposed exile on the west coast of Ireland. Solitude teaches her to deepen the quality of her attention: to the landscape, to everyday objects and above all to herself. Some of Pond’s stories are long and digressive, revealing their structure and purpose only gradually. Others are so short that I can quote one in full, ‘Stir-Fry’:

‘I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that, so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.’

Each story submerges you a little more deeply, and Bennett’s Pond is anything but shallow.

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All That Man is

Its publisher describes All That Man Is as a novel, and its cumulative melancholy makes it as involving as any novel, but Szalay’s book is comprised of eight separate stories, each concerning a man on a journey somewhere in Europe.

We follow, amongst others, a Hungarian bodybuilder hired to protect a prostitute in London, a Scottish salesman making a mess of his retirement in Croatia and a Russian oligarch contemplating a suicidal leap from his yacht. Their situations and stories are diverse, but a brotherhood gradually emerges: all these men have failed to secure a lasting purchase on the world. Each begins and concludes his adventure alone—more often than not through his own fault.

In his novels Spring and London and the South-East, Szalay showed himself to be a sensitive satirist of modern masculinity and its blundering power. All That Man Is asks a more penetrating question of contemporary manhood: what is left when a man is stripped of the things he depends upon for his self-respect?

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Lost in the City - 20th Anniversary Edition

When Edward P. Jones was a young writer he picked up James Joyce’s iconic story collection Dubliners: ‘I was quite taken with what he had done.’ Jones decided to bring the forensic but kindly attentiveness of Joyce’s stories to the predominantly African-American areas of Washington D.C. in which he grew up.

The result is Lost In The City, a collection of fourteen stories that together paint a picture of the variety and complexity of ordinary life in Jones’s hometown. The events that take place in Lost In The City are unremarkable—a girl starts school for the first time, an old woman is mugged, an unemployed man answers a classified ad—but Jones painstakingly reveals the profound emotional textures of these everyday decisions and occurrences. The world that emerges from Lost in the City’s fourteen stories is the real world, nothing less.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad

To ask whether Goon Squad is a story collection or a novel is to miss the point: Jennifer Egan’s best known work is self-consciously, gloriously unclassifiable. The centre of its centrifugal ‘plot’ is a record executive called Benny, but our focus leaps away from him as quickly as the music industry’s trends change on him. We spend time with his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha, a starlet called Kitty, Jules, the celebrity journalist who tried to sexually assault Kitty, a PR guru who goes by La Doll and is working for a brutal dictator… and so on, all the way into a sci-fi near future.

Each story is told from a different point of view and usually in a different form (one is memorably related in the form of a PowerPoint presentation). The only constants are Egan’s sharp satirical eye for the foibles of contemporary celebrity culture and her equally sharp sense of compassion for her characters.

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Red Cavalry

Babel was told by no less a personage than Maxim Gorky that to perfect his writing he needed more life experience. He followed that advice by training as a journalist, and in 1920 he was sent to cover the Polish-Soviet War.

His experiences as an observer in the First Cavalry Army form the basis for Red Cavalry, widely regarded as one of the most important and influential story collections ever written. Its gently-spoken narrator relates scenes of improbable horror and violence in language as strange, illuminating and awesome as a lightning strike:

‘Right there, not two paces away from me, lay the front line. I could see the chimneys of Zamosc, the thievish lights in the ravines of its ghetto, and the watchtower with its shattered lantern. The damp sunrise poured down on us like waves of chloroform. Green rockets soared over the Polish camp. They flashed in the air, came showering down like roses behind the moon, and expired.’

Although it cannot escape the brutality of war, Red Cavalry also finds much to say about friendship and camaraderie, politics, sex, anti-semitism and the beauty of the natural world. Not only is the collection as a whole easily as moving and complex as the greatest novels, many of its individual stories pack a novel-sized punch.

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I'm a writer and sometime theatre director. At the moment I live in Dublin.

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