I’m briefly going to talk about my ten favourite short stories ever, one every day for the next ten days. Just as a change from making puns or trying to promote my own books… So in reverse order… – 28.01.2014
No sooner did I finish my list of the ten best short-stories ever than I realised I had forgotten a total stunner, ‘The Blinding Order’ by Ismail Kadare… Bah! I knew that would happen. – 05.02.2014
“The Four-Colour Problem” (1971) by Barrington Bayley, a high-concept story which at first glance resembles a dissertation on geometry. There are a number of mathematical lectures embedded in the text, but these are never too technical for digestion. To further soften their impact, Bayley adopts a darkly comic tone which owes much to William Burroughs. The plot involves the amazing discovery that geography is “wrong” and that between political borders lie weird new countries. The explanation for this state of affairs is ingenious and concerns the real four-color problem. Cartographers have long known that just four colors are required to fill in any map so that no color borders itself – but mathematics yields only a proof for five colors.
Bayley’s response is that there must exist maps which really do require five colors and that our globe is one of these. The ‘missing’ countries exist in dimensions tangential to our own. During the course of the tale, efforts are made to probe these interstices, with unexpected and humorous consequences.
‘Traveller’s Rest’ by David I. Masson. This is a prime example of the kind of daring new speculative fiction that was being produced in the pages of New Worlds magazine in the 1960s. This remarkable tale demonstrates how the approaches of Kafka and Arthur C. Clarke are not mutually incompatible, for it manages both to be a satiricial absurdist tragedy and also a vigorous piece of visionary SF at the same time.
One of the special things about this story is that the core ideas that control it infuse the prose on every level: as time lengthens in different zones of the world on which the narrator exists, his very name expands too. The irony at the climax is one of the acutest in literature.
‘Prismatica’ by Samuel Delany. A slightly odd choice this one, because it’s very uncharacterstic of Delany’s mature style and in fact is an early work of his and far more conventional in presentation and purpose than his later masterpieces of short fiction.
But the actual story itself is a delight, a quirky, amusing and relentless absurdist adventure in a charming but also somewhat deadly fantasy land where jewels can be consumed for food and language patterns are simultaneously poetical, elaborate, humorous and threatening.
Although it might seem like a fairy tale or fable on the surface, ‘Prismatica’ is really closer to the old genre of the picaresque: the journey that forms the core of the story is a test of the hero’s wits and survival instincts.
‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother’ by Gabriel García Márquez. I love Márquez but I actually prefer his slightly later work, when he eased up on the stylistic density and conceptual compression of his trademark ‘Magic Realist’ prose and developed a harder edge. This particular story shows his genius at its optimum.
More of a novelette than a short story as such, it is also an extension of a brief scene in his renowned novel ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. Eréndira is a young girl who accidentally sets fire to the home of her grandmother, who forces her to work as a prostitute in order to repay the debt, a term of servitude that lasts years.
The hallucinatory tone of the story and its incipient strangeness intensify rather than detract from the fact that this is essentially a love and revenge tragedy as bloody and passionate as any ever conceived, but conveyed in language that is simultaneously moonwashed with magic, heady with tropical oppression and sharp as a machete.
‘The Congress’ by Jorge Luis Borges. We are all familiar with the conceptual rigour and originality of the most famous Borges stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘The Library of Babel’, texts that redefine the meaning and purpose of the short story as a cultural product. They are perfect works.
But I have always found ‘The Congress’ to be the ultimate Borges story. The matrix on which it is based is a loop that turns out to be a complex manifold akin to a Reimann surface. It is somewhat like a reverse prose version of Escher’s famous lithograph ‘Print Gallery’ in which a man is viewing a picture which contains the gallery in which he is standing.
In ‘The Congress’ a scheme is evolved to represent and thus control all the variables of the real world: as the number of these variables increases due to the demands of greater precision, so the scheme is seen to already exist in the form of the real world itself.
‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ by Cordwainer Smith. I discovered the remarkable works of this writer later than I should have. I was vaguely familiar with his name when I was younger but I had no idea his work was quite so original and bizarre as I have found it to be.
Before discovering Smith’s oeuvre I assumed that all pre-‘New Wave’ SF authors always followed orthodox narrative structure and employed conventional ‘straight’ prose techniques. Cordwainer Smith was different. All literature of the imagination is ‘strange’ but most of it is created by men and women who are not particularly strange. Most tales of the far future maintain the impression that they are imagined by writers who are living in the present: this is normal.
But Smith’s stories give the impression they are realistic or historical fictions written from the future. I believe it was Robert Silverberg who made the witty suggestion that Smith was a real time traveller from the future who offered the mainstream, non-fantastical works of his own age to the science-fiction magazines of ours. I have heard it said elsewhere that the strangeness of Smith’s style derives from Chinese methods of story-telling (Smith spent his formative years in China) but that doesn’t account for the strangeness of his visions. They are authentically strange, not forced or contrived, and I am enthralled by them; and ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ is my favourite.
‘Soul’ by Andrey Platonov. This is a very powerful work that operates on many different levels simultaneously. Platonov is the greatest Russian writer yet to achieve due recognition in the western world. He annoyed Stalin tremendously and paid the price for it.
‘Soul’ is like a Kafkaesque ‘western’ set in the East, in the badlands of Turkestan. Platonov had an interesting way of criticising and resisting the Soviet regime: his approach was that communism was the best political system but that the leaders of the USSR weren’t applying it correctly. This message was implied rather than stated: he walked a swaying tightrope over destruction, and ultimately he fell.
‘Soul’ is the story of a Moscow-trained engineer, Nazar Chagataev, who returns to his ancestral homeland and attempts to prove to his own people that life is worth living. The sheer humanity of Chagataev (and by extension of Platonov) is profound and inspiring and the way he demonstrates it in the deserts and mountains of his inhospitable but oddly magical birthplace is remarkable and startling.
‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ by J.G. Ballard. When Ballard was at his best his prose had a strange sort of clarity that was both intellectual and emotional, and quite heady. He was able to make geometries lyrical: the forlorn and abandoned landscapes of our modern civilisation were projected by him into a curious world of glacial fabulation.
It often seemed as if Ballard is writing the same story again and again, refining it in an attempt to achieve some ultimate truth. For my money, he never bettered ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’ in which the usual Ballardian obsessions, the overlit deserts, the elegant women, the misfits, the surreal juxtaposition of old and new, the vast silences, fuse as perfectly as grains of sand that have turned into glass.
Ballard was a writer who relied almost entirely on imagery, deeply affecting sequences of mind patterns, to impress and even mesmerise the reader. After first reading this story more than ten years ago I have never been able to forget the gliders carving clouds into giant shapes above the bizarre resort of Vermilion Sands.
‘A Manual for Sons’ by Donald Barthelme. For many people ‘postmodernism’ is a dirty word, but it never has been for me, because I discovered the work of Barthelme long before being exposed to the somewhat pretentious academic side of the ‘movement’.
Barthelme’s stories are playful, wise, profound, dry, unique and funny. There is no finer stylist in the cosmos of the short story.
He was an experimentalist but also had an utterly solid grasp of the fundamental rules of the craft. ‘A Manual for Sons’ demonstrates all his strengths and is both tragic and comedic to an extreme degree.
‘Five Letters From an Eastern Empire’ by Alasdair Gray. This was the first story by Gray I ever read and it burned itself into my mind so forcefully almost two decades ago that I still regard it as the zenith of what is possible in the art of the short story; or rather what I regard as ultimately desirable and worthwhile.
It’s a political satire, a fantasy, a tragedy and a story about definitions. The changing of a single word in the title of a lament written by the main character, Bohu the Court Poet, turns an act of rebellion into a perfect propaganda tool for a repressive regime ruled by an immortal puppet.
This ingenious conceit is not only stunningly presented in its own terms but has much to say about how dictatorships do manipulate the masses; and the evolution of the intolerable irony of the situation in which Bohu finds himself is perfect in pacing, mood and depth of meaning.
Gray designed all his own books. I recommend reading this story in his collection UNLIKELY STORIES, MOSTLY where the story is accompanied by his brilliant illustrations.