In stories as haunting as anything the Grimm brothers could have come up with, Link (Magic for Beginners, 2005, etc.) gooses the mundane with meaning and enchantment borrowed from myth, urban legend and genre fiction.
Here are superheroes who, like minor characters from reality shows, attend conferences at the same hotels as dentists and hold auditions for sidekicks. Here, a Ouija board can tell you as much about your future as your guidance counselor. In “Two Houses,” six astronauts wake from suspended animation to while away the time telling ghost stories, although they may be ghosts themselves. In “I Can See Right Through You,” an actor past his prime, famous for his role as a vampire, yearns for the leading lady who has replaced him with a parade of eternally younger versions of what he once was—but who is the real demon lover? In “The New Boyfriend,” a teenager discontent with her living boyfriend toys with stealing her best friend’s birthday present, a limited edition Ghost Boyfriend, capable of Spectral Mode. In “Light,” Lindsey has two shadows, one of which long ago grew to become her almost-real twin brother. She contemplates a vacation on a “pocket universe,” a place “where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.” Lindsey could be describing Link’s own stories, creepy little wonders that open out into worlds far vaster than their shells. In a Link story, someone is always trying to escape and someone is always vanishing without a trace. Lovers are forever being stolen away like changelings, and when someone tells you he’ll never leave you, you should be very afraid.
Exquisite, cruelly wise and the opposite of reassuring, these stories linger like dreams and will leave readers looking over their shoulders for their own ghosts.
Horror, noir, fantasy, politics, and poetry swirl into combinations as satisfying intellectually as they are emotionally.
Miéville (Railsea, 2012, etc.) has a habit of building his narratives by taking a metaphor, often about a political or social issue, and asking what would happen if it were literally true. His masterful 2009 novel The City and the City (Locus, Hugo, and Arthur C. Clarke awards), for example, explored two metropolises with entirely separate populations, governments, infrastructures, and even clothing styles that shared a single geographical location. In less-capable hands, this method might result in mere gags or dead horses endlessly beaten. (Good thing this isn’t a Miéville story, or you’d be wiping off bits of rotten horseflesh.) In Miéville’s hands it ranges from clever to profound. In “Dreaded Outcome,” the narrator, a Brooklyn psychotherapist, practices “traumatic vector therapy,” a style that incorporates military and martial arts techniques. (Like that therapist, Miéville often mixes styles and genres, in this case academic discourse and noir.) “Most of the time what our patients need is a compassionate, rigorous, sympathetic interlocutor. Sometimes the externalized trauma-vectors in dysfunctional interpersonal codependent psychodynamics are powerful enough that more robust therapeutic interventions are necessary. I checked my ammunition.” That readers can guess what will happen after the narrator learns her own therapist is also a TVT practitioner makes the ending no less satisfying. In “Polynia,” the ghosts of vanished geologic and ecologic features haunt the warmed globe, with icebergs floating in the air over London, coral forming the “Great Brussels Reef,” and rain forest undergrowth shutting down factories in Japan. Other stories are more open-ended. In “The Dusty Hat,” members of a political organization have split off from “the Mothership” to form “the Left Faction.” The story opens with the narrator contemplating a crack in his (or her?) wall and ceiling; by the time it ends, he’s discovered a vast politics of the inanimate, with its own schisms. “I poured myself a glass of water. I didn’t like how it looked at me.” As a mysterious, not-entirely-animate figure tells him, the “loyalist” crack in his wall has been watching him: “The split was against you in the split.”
Bradbury meets Borges, with Lovecraft gibbering tumultuously just out of hearing.
A master storyteller continues to navigate the blurry space between magic and reality in 16 comic, frightening, consistently off-kilter tales.
As a short story writer, Millhauser (English/Skidmore College; We Others, 2011, etc.) emerged in the ’70s with his sensibility fully formed, taking Bernard Malamud’s heady mixture of Jewish mysticism and urban life and expanding its reach to encompass palace courts and big-box suburbia. His strategy remains the same in this collection, but there’s little sign that his enthusiasm has weakened. In “Miracle Polish,” a man buys a mirror-cleaning chemical that makes his reflection slightly but meaningfully more upbeat and glimmering; a sly riff on the myth of Narcissus ensues. “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” describes a community wrecked by a spate of suicides, some seemingly done as perverse pleas for attention, and the narrative slowly edges toward a harrowing, Shirley Jackson–esque conclusion. That story, like many of the others here, is written in the first person plural, and Millhauser revels in upending that bureaucratic voice and making it strange; he satirizes the language of rest-home brochureware in “Arcadia,” which opens gently but becomes more sinister, darkening the bland rhetoric. Millhauser does much the same with setting, complicating our notions of suburban comfort in stories like “The Wife and the Thief.” As ever, he’s an incessant tinkerer with ages-old myths, fairy tales and religious stories: Among the best entries here are “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” a tale of the young Buddha that pits foursquare language with its hero’s roiling spiritual despair, and irreverent tweaks of tales about Paul Bunyan, Rapunzel, mermaids and the prophet Samuel. Millhauser intuits modes of storytelling like nobody else, and even his satire of sports-announcer–speak in “Home Run” elevates the quotidian to the cosmic.
A superb testament to America’s quirkiest short story writer, still on his game.
A half-dozen sometimes Carver-esque yarns that find more-or-less ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges and somehow holding up.
Tragedy is always close to the surface in Johnson’s work—with tragicomic layerings, sometimes, but it’s tragedy all the same. So it is with the opening story of the six here, “Nirvana,” which takes its title from the Kurt Cobain–led rock band but shares a spirit with near-future films like Her and Gattaca. A software engineer, desperate to do right by his paralyzed wife, reanimates people from the past: “After the doctor left,” the narrator says matter-of-factly, “I went into the garage and started making the president.” It’s science fiction of a kind but with an extra element of disspiritment: people exist, but we long for simulacra instead of them, “like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.” With more than a nod to his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), Johnson calls on two North Korean defectors who, now in the South, haven’t quite got their new world sussed out but are starting to get an inkling of how things work: “Christian talk, when said in a non-Christian way, scares these Southerners to death.” Their lessons in fitting in include essentials such as “handling money, hygiene, being pleasant, avoiding crime,” but it’s clear that no amount of instruction will make them feel at home. Safe houses, hospices, hospitals: these are the theaters where many of the stories take place, all enshrouded in a certain incomprehension—but, to Johnson’s great credit, seldom in hopelessness, for his characters are inclined to endure against the odds: “You turn the ignition and drop the van in gear, and you know this is no ordinary event.”
Bittersweet, elegant, full of hard-won wisdom: this is no ordinary book, either.
A selection of short fiction by a British author, poet, and translator, this book aims to correct the problem of Constantine’s obscurity in North America.
If nothing else, these 17 stories—crafted over the course of 30 years—demonstrate the admirable consistency of Constantine's writing, both in subject matter and quality. Sometimes stuffy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes chatty, Constantine’s work is what people mean when they call something “European.” In other words, the stories are slow, chilly, cerebral, whispers rather than shouts. But they are not entirely indirect; rather, Constantine chooses his moments to strike. That way, when a man named Mr. Carlton cries at the end of this book, it's an emotional scene that feels earned because of the author’s restraint elsewhere. Are these stories sometimes too spare, too reserved? Perhaps. But then, many of Constantine’s characters are reserved people, and his world sometimes recalls those of Harold Pinter and Ian McEwan, in which the banal niceties of comfortable living—dinners, funerals for colleagues, business trips—seem to conceal great menace. You know that popular cliché—the tip of the iceberg? Well, it’s what goes unspoken in so many of these stories that seems so powerful. And then, there’s the ice itself: in “The Loss,” ice becomes a metaphor for the frustration of a man who has lost his soul. In the chilling title story, ice is what encases a young girl, killed while exploring a glacier, only to be found decades later, “just the way she was. Twenty, in the dress of that day and age.” This ice becomes so powerful that it spreads across the entire collection; even when a man and woman have tea near water (as in “Tea at the Midland”), all the reader can think about is the frozen world ahead.
“Freedom is only what can be conquered”: a welcome, long overdue omnibus collection of the short stories of the great Brazilian literata.
Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector, later Clarice Lispector (Soulstorm, 1989, etc.), has been called the most important Jewish writer since Franz Kafka and certainly one of the most important shapers of late-20th-century Brazilian literature. Those familiar with novels such as The Stream of Life will not need convincing, but those new to Lispector’s work would fruitfully begin with this collection, which shows both the evolution of her style and her early mastery of the story form. Often in her stories there is a vaguely discontented woman who has settled into her fate early on but nurses misgivings. In a story that begins, arrestingly, “Now that the affair is behind me, I can recollect it more serenely,” the narrator remarks on the damnable complacency of those around her, who can barely be budged into action except by such climactic events as birth and death “and their attendant conditions.” “I can recollect it more serenely,” of course, isn’t quite idiomatic, and the collection is marked by a highly literal rendering that at times verges into translatorese: no speaker of American English, in the heat of anger or some other passion, would yell, “I feel tied down. Tied down by your fussing, your caresses, your excessive zeal, by you yourself!” Excessive zeal? There are plenty of perfect moments, though, as when Lispector describes a young lady to whom things are about to happen: “She sat combing her hair languorously before the three-way vanity, her white, strong arms bristling in the slight afternoon chill.” For much of the collection, Lispector favors a kind of elegant realism, though with odd turns: contemplating chicken and egg, literally, she waxes post-Wittgensteinian: “Seeing an egg never remains in the present: as soon as I see an egg it already becomes having seen an egg three millennia ago.”
Essential and sure to turn up soon on reading lists in courses in women’s studies and Jewish diaspora literature as well as Latin American writing.
Communists, oligarchs, and toxic landscapes from Siberia to Chechnya define this collection of tightly linked stories from Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, 2013).
In fact, let’s go ahead and call it a novel: though the individual stories bounce around in time and are told in different voices, they share a set of characters and have a clear narrative arc. More importantly, they share a command of place and character that strikingly reimagines nearly a century of changes in Russia. In the opener, “The Leopard,” a communist censor in 1937 secretly inserts his disappeared brother’s face in the photos he retouches—a fact that re-emerges in later stories and also serves as a symbol for how what’s lost in Russia never quite disappears. (An oil painting of a bland Chechnyan landscape plays a similar role.) From there, the story moves to chilly Kirovsk, a cancer-ridden industrial town that’s struggled to adjust to the fall of Communism, and hometown of Galina, a middling actress who’s risen to fame thanks to her marriage with Russia’s 13th wealthiest man. In Chechnya, we meet her childhood boyfriend, Kolya, who’s been taken prisoner after becoming a soldier. Marra’s Russia is marked by both interconnection and darkly comic irony; Kolya’s stint in captivity is “the most serene of his adult life,” while elsewhere a man is roped into trying to sell mine-ridden Grozny as a tourist destination. (“For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.”) As in his previous novel, Marra is deft at managing different characters at different points in time, but the book’s brilliance and humor are laced with the somber feeling that the country is allergic to evolution: KGB thugs then, drug dealers and Internet scammers now, with a few stray moments of compassion in between.
A powerful and melancholy vision of a nation with long memories and relentless turmoil.
A posthumous collection of stories, almost uniformly narrated by hard-living women, that makes a case for the author as a major talent.
From the 1960s through the '80s, Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) published brilliant stories for low-profile publications—her six collections all appeared with reputable but small presses. One suspects she might have had a higher profile had her subject matter been less gloomy: she mined her history of alcoholism in stories like “Her First Detox” and “Unmanageable,” which detail the turmoil of the DTs and lost potential, and her work in hospitals in stories like “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” which establishes a milieu of “rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools.” Yet the prevailing sensibility of this book, collecting 43 of the 76 stories Berlin published, is cleareyed and even comic in the face of life hitting the skids. The title story, for instance, balances wry commentary about housecleaning work (“never make friends with cats”) and deadpan observation (“I clean their coke mirror with Windex”) with a sad, thrumming back story. Similarly, “Sex Appeal” is narrated by a girl watching her older cousin primp for a date only to realize that she herself is the lecherous man’s lust object—a discovery Berlin presents with both a sense of surprise and foreboding. Berlin’s skill at controlling the temperature of a story is best displayed in her most emotionally demanding material. In “Tiger Bites,” narrated by an El Paso woman who heads to Juarez for an illegal abortion, the pain of her experience and the pieties of her family at home collide. And “Mijito,” which deserves to be widely anthologized, exposes how an immigrant woman’s best intentions to care for her ailing son are easily derailed by circumstance and obligation.
A testament to a writer whose explorations of society’s rougher corners deserve wider attention.
Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories.
The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question. Despite the title, not all are single (or carefree or mellow), but they are all singular, and following their stories is like sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales. In fact, “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book—as by the end of a night at the bar with our metaphorical, engagingly louche friend—we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company.
These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.
These 31 stories by O’Brien (The Country Girls Trilogy,1986, etc.), spanning some four decades, are brought together in the sort of volume meant to establish a legacy and win prizes. The Irish-raised, London-based author hasn’t been praised for her short stories with the same reverence as William Trevor or Alice Munro (the Nobel Prize winner who provides a rapturous blurb here, proclaiming that O'Brien writes “the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere”). Perhaps her novels, memoir, and persona have distracted attention from her mastery of short fiction, which reveals itself over the course of this generous selection as the focus moves from Irish girlhood to the literary life in large, cosmopolitan cities. Not that these stories are necessarily autobiographical or that it even matters if they are. The power of the first-person narrative in a perfect, and perfectly wrenching, story such as “My Two Mothers” rings truer than a memoir might, as O'Brien describes a relationship with a mother who is somehow both lover and enemy, the breach caused when “I began to write,” the story itself a meditation on life, literature, and “being plunged into the moiling seas of memory.” Hers is not the sort of writing that indulges in what one story dismisses as “clever words and hollow feelings”; her stories ask impossibly difficult questions about the nature of love and the possibility of happiness, and they refuse to settle for easy answers. As she writes in “Manhattan Medley,” a tale of infidelity in a city and a world filled with it, “the reason that love is so painful is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.” Beneath the veneer of sophistication in a story such as “Lantern Slides,” the emotional ravages are as deep as in the hardscrabble stories of rural Ireland.
With an introduction by John Banville and a dedication to Philip Roth, this collection positions O’Brien among the literary heavyweights, where it confirms she belongs.
Pearlman (Binocular Vision, 2011, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) returns with another collection of closely observed, often devastating stories of more or less ordinary life.
Pearlman is a poet of eyes and hair; nearly every story features an observation, often in the form of an arresting image, of these features. So it is that in the opening story, in which an art historian figures, a woman appears whose “eyes in her lightly wrinkled face were the blue of a Veronese sky,” and so it is, in seeming homage to Chekhov, that in another story, a character sports “brown hair, too much of it, a blunt nose and chin, and a habit, during conversation, of fastening his gaze on one side of your neck or the other.” A vampire? No, just another character who’s not quite comfortable inside his or her own skin, as so many of Pearlman’s characters are not. Pearlman, who is in her late 70s, writes with the wisdom of accumulated experience, and many of her characters have suffered the loss of spouses, even if they themselves are not yet of age. One comparative youngster, a spry 49, has just lost her husband in war: “Each of his parts was severed from the others,” Pearlman writes arrestingly, “and his whole—his former whole—was severed from Paige.” Every word counts in that sentence, and Pearlman fills volumes with her economy of language, even if so much is devoted to such not-quite-usual matters as “corneal inlays” and people who bear odd sobriquets: “Louie the vegetable man was not composed of fruit or vegetables. He was composed of a cap, a face with little eyes and a big nose and a mouth missing some teeth, and a pile of assorted clothing from a junk shop.”
Without quite the moral gravity of Alice Munro but with all the skill: Pearlman serves up exemplary tales, lively and lovely.
Linked autobiographical fictions explore the loss of a young husband.
With a delicate balance of cleverness and emotion, the 16 stories in Pietrzyk's (Pears on a Willow Tree, 2011, etc.) collection explore the event of her husband's sudden death at the breakfast table in 1997. Literal facts ("My husband, Robert K. Rauth, Jr., died of a heart attack when he was only 37") in some stories stand beside slightly altered ones in others (a husband named Roger, a husband who drove off the road, a husband who died in his early 40s). The author's wit, clarity, and literary inventiveness dance circles around the omnipresent sadness, making this book a prime example of the furious creative energy that can explode from the collision of grief with talent and craftsmanship. A few stories are traditionally told; many rely on formal strategies—a list, a quiz, a speech, an annotated index, various narrative voices, and a metafiction about the use of narrative voices. Running through them are recurrent details that add the weight of obsessive memory: a carefully organized library of books, a bowl of cornflakes, the music of Springsteen (a misunderstood line of which gives the collection its name), an extramarital affair. Pietrzyk explores every aspect of the truth, including the parts you have to make up, and never gives in to sentimentality or self-pity. As in Joyce Carol Oates' much less successful book A Widow's Story, one learns that the author is remarried—the last line of the last story is addressed to her second husband by name—but here there is no sense of duplicity or caginess. The relief is what we want, both for her and for ourselves. This book is the winner of the distinguished Drue Heinz Literature Prize, upholding its tradition of excellence in short fiction.
Like Magic Rocks in a fishbowl, these stories turn the stones of grief into something bright, crystalline, mesmerizing.
When the patriarch of a large, wealthy clan in Mexico City is kidnapped, it leads the family to an unintentional diaspora.
Mexican-born, Texas-based journalist Ruiz-Camacho shows a wealth of talent in this fiction debut, a collection of interconnected stories about the blowback from the disappearance of José Victoriano Arteaga, a wealthy Mexican citizen. In the opener, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” the don’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Fernanda, offers a flashback about what happened when the patriarch disappeared after leaving his office for lunch one day in 2004: “It is the year all the members of my family will end up fleeing Mexico, following Grandpa’s disappearance, but at that point I don’t know for sure what’s happened to him.” Ruiz-Camacho captures a younger child’s take on grief and misunderstanding in “Okie,” written from the point of view of 8-year-old Bernardo. An outstanding offshoot from the main plot comes in “Origami Prunes,” in which a young consulate officer named Plutarco Mills meets the don’s daughter Laura in a laundromat and starts an affair with her only to meet her daughter Nicolasa years later under sad, strange circumstances.There’s a funny, almost theatrical exchange in “I Clench My Hands Into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” in which two siblings, Homero and Ximena, have holed up in a Manhattan flea trap to pop pills, snipe at each other and dream of better days ahead.Another offshoot, “Better Latitude,” examines the unique heartache carried by Silvia Guevara, mistress to Don Victoriano and the mother of his 6-year-old son, Laureano, to whom she must explain where Daddy went. Finally, Ruiz-Camacho sticks the landing in the title story, transposing son Martin's trip to the vet in Madrid with his memories of the don’s body parts' arriving in the mail, ending with a conversation with his father’s ghost.
A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.
Urrea, celebrated for his historical sagas(Queen of America, 2011) and nonfiction (The Devil’s Highway, 2004), offers 13 stories that reflect both sides of his Mexican-American heritage while stretching the reader’s understanding of human boundaries.
With spare eloquence, the opening “Mountains Without Number” conjures up a dying town near Idaho Falls, both its stark landscape and aging inhabitants. The language turns lush, Latin and slangy in the next two stories, “The Southside Raza Image Federation Corp of Discovery” and “The National City Reparation Society,” which feature the bookish Mexican-American Junior, who doesn’t fit in with a white college crowd any more than with the immigrant community he grew up among. The theme of young Anglos straddling class and/or cultural borders occurs, too. The adolescent white narrator of “Amapola” falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl, naïvely oblivious to the source of her family’s wealth. Joey in “Young Man Blues” learns the reward and price of goodness when caught between loyalty to his elderly middle-class employer and his father’s criminal cohorts. While “Carnations” and “The White Girl” are brief snapshots of grief, “The Sous Chefs of Iogua” resonates on multiple levels, exposing the uneasy complexities of Anglo-Mexican relationships in an Iowa farm town. In “Taped to the Sky,” a Cambridge academic suffering over an ex-wife takes a cross-country trip to the far west and has a darkly comic encounter with Oglala Sioux Don Her Many Horses, who shows his depth in the volume’s bittersweet final story, “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses,” about a white man whose marriage to Don’s sister shows the power and limitations of cross-cultural love. “Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush,” about a graffiti artist in a Mexican village, was published as a graphic novel in 2010; its magical realism would make it an outlier here if not for the penultimate “Welcome to the Water Museum,” a dystopian tale of Western life in an arid future when children consider water an anomaly.
Urrea’s command of language is matched only by his empathy for his characters.
The feminist superstars of science fiction, fantasy, and horror dismantle and reassemble gender’s many implications and iterations in the newest anthology edited by the VanderMeers (The Time Traveler’s Almanac, 2014, etc.).
There is probably no better time for this anthology to emerge, as the SF/F world is rocked by a clash over the value of diverse voices. While the original dates of publication of these stories range from the 1970s to the current decade, and include both stalwarts of their respective genres and relative newcomers, they all feel fresh as ever. Touching on issues from surveillance, misogyny, and marriage to queerness, family dynamics, and gender fluidity, it’s hard to say if this anthology’s aggressive relevance is encouraging or depressing—that feminism remains at the cutting edge of contemporary problems or that the same ideas turned over by writers as long as four decades ago continue to haunt society unaltered. Either way, these stories, coming from a variety of genres, subgenres, and nonrealist traditions, are timeless and breathtaking in scope and power. L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.,” about a woman whose words are so dangerous her free speech has been rescinded in the Constitution, will crackle and spark given the current discussion about government overreach. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a gorgeous retelling of Bluebeard and an exploration of domestic violence. Susan Palwick’s “Gestella,” about a werewolf who marries a human man, is a chilling reminder of the banality of evil; and there is probably no way to top the enduring horror of James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Screwfly Solution.” In the introduction, the editors mention that anthologies of this type can never be truly complete—the canon is always expanding through time, discovery, and translation—but this book will undeniably become part of the ongoing conversation.
A necessary, well-curated anthology that shows the singular political power of speculative fiction.
Four dozen stories by one of the form’s greatest practitioners.
Like pitchers, some writers are openers, and some are closers. Few are as accomplished as Williams (Honored Guest, 2004, etc.) in condensing the whole of a large, often painful world into a few closing sentences: “She coughs, but it is not the cough of a sick person because Pammy is a healthy girl.” “It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.” “She looked at the lamp. The lamp looked back at her as though it had no idea who she was.” Not that Williams can’t open a story well (one lead: “My mother began going to gun classes in February. She quit the yoga”); it’s just that her most arresting moments come well after we’ve stepped into the world she’s created. That world has less dirt for its characters to get under their fingernails than, say, Raymond Carver’s, but it has some of the same uneasiness: if people are doing OK one minute, they’re going to stumble the next, and it’s often the things unnoticed or unspoken that will trip them. In the title story, for instance, it’s not just the protagonist’s offhand comment that ends a long-crumbling friendship: “We’re all alone in a meaningless world. That’s it. OK?” Just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be feared, though; in another singular moment, a young girl is terrified that birds will fly out of the toilet. Why wouldn’t they? And why don’t all short stories feature Gregory of Nyssa and javelinas?
Williams, to belabor the metaphor, isn’t just a closer, but a utility player at the top of her game. If you want to see how the pros do it—or simply want to read some of the best stories being written today—you need look no further.