Alec has been obsessed with reading since childhood. If it's about how wild it is to live on this planet, he's probably down to read it.
In the introduction to “Left Hand of Darkness,” legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin breaks down why she believes that the best science fiction should not be predominantly predictive or extrapolative, but rather descriptive. That is, instead of just coming up with a premise like aliens landing on earth and following that premise to its logical conclusion, science fiction (and perhaps all fiction) should be more preoccupied with using those premises to say something about our current world.
Not that writers can't think about the future and try to predict what will happen. Just that, coming up with wild future puzzles and solving them in a vacuum isn't as interesting (or useful or necessary) as trying to parse through the mountains of puzzles already at our feet.
While the expectation that a fiction writer would be able to solve any of these ever-morphing problems is clearly too much to ask, the task of nevertheless looking out at the world and at least trying to describe what you see in hopes that you could potentially help in some way should be among the chief focuses of any writer worth their weight, regardless of medium.
Le Guin notes that, ideally, when we're done reading a good book “that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”
“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words,” Le Guin says. “The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”
Of course, this noble pursuit isn't relegated solely to novelists. Though they may not garner as much attention or acclaim, such strivings can be found in equal measure within the pages of exceptional short stories.
Here are just a few that seek to engage in that impossible mission: to say what cannot be said with tools that fully admit their inadequacy.
1. The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George
Jen George's protagonists have it rough. They're expected to be interesting, but not too interesting, lest they make the men around them feel threatened. They're expected to sit there while male figures imbued with arbitrary authority tell the narrators how the latter are feeling, how they are failing, and how their flailing about while failing is terribly unbecoming. They're barraged by toxic ideas and corrosive desires from the world around them, then shamed for wanting something, anything—for coming off as desperate. They write off their successes as flukes and internalize their failures as proof of their true worth. They see the women around them having it that much worse, feel for the even-unluckier, and wish with all their might that a similar fate will pass them over.
George never presents these characters as pure victims of abuse, or even circumstance, however. They have complex tendrils of agency and volition. In some cases, they're more so confused and just trying to figure out the parameters of their situations and what they're trying to do with their own lives than they are overtly suffering from the confines of them. With mixes of hyper-surrealism, magic realism, dystopian black comedy, and handfuls of other styles, George shares the lives and interiorities of her characters with incredible depth and care and compassion. Oh, and humor. Lots and lots of humor. When one of her characters, say, makes an oval sculpture out of fairy wand quartz and aqua aura titled “Portal #369: Forgiving Everything Undesirable in Others So As To Be Forgiven for Everything Undesirable in Oneself & Other Venal Acts” we feel for them more than just as symbols of subjugation. We feel for them as people just trying to navigate a baffling world of shifting rules and rulers without crumbling in every moment.
For the rest of the night, I pretended I wasn't hurt when people would pass me and say hello.' Looking at the actors surrounding my hospital bed, I feel wise for a moment. 'I think much of life is pretending you're not hurt,' I tell them. No one writes this information down.
— Jen George, "The Babysitter at Rest"
2. Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano
Written as a seemingly random assortment of brief snippets in the lives of assorted people and couples, Trysting often communicates more about how we try to connect—and cope with the frequent failure to do so—in a few lines than many novels do in hundreds of pages. By not giving you much, if any, backstory about the characters before she shares moments in their lives with reader, Emmanuelle Pagano frees herself up to tap directly into the infinite depth within any given moment: how much we can feel in the smallest gesture, how much it can mean to us, how devastating it can be when that cavernous wellspring of emotion steadily morphs through the passage of time. The book refrains from bludgeoning the reader with heavy-handed messages or mawkish sentimentalism and builds a more subtle and dynamic cumulative power as a result.
Pagano does an amazing job of showing the reader how much these people mean to each other, but without framing it as embarrassingly desperate or pathetically needy. Characters listen to their significant others' accidental butt-dial voicemails to the end. They reflect on the realization that perhaps they confused their own kindness and desire to love and take care of another for actually being in love and feeling it in their bones. Some even lament their own functionality, recognizing that they could never be as close to their paramour as one who truly needed and depended on the latter for everyday aid in simple tasks. It is in these short, but expansive moments standing alone in the kitchen or looking at their lover as they get dressed where untold libraries worth of understanding can be gleaned about how much we mean to each other. Often too much to know what to do with.
I calculate everything. I calculate too much, far too much. I try to work out what he's going to think in advance. I say to myself that if I turn the light off, he'll be annoyed, things like that. I can't behave naturally. I can't seem to love him without making predictions.
— Emmanuelle Pagano, "Trysting"
3. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins
Coming from more of a filmmaker and playwright background, Kathleen Collins wrote a handful of short stories that didn't see much light of day while she was alive but were culled together by her daughter after the former's death and published posthumously a few decades later as the collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? This eye more for scenes and people than extended novelistic narratives partially explains how Collins manages to extract so much from just placing characters in a room and letting them bounce off each other, or themselves.
Collins says so much about what we go through and how we get through it, often unbeknownst to anyone else (at least until it's too late). How those in our lives often can't see our motivations for doing things, how they misconstrue our values, and how deeply we often have to fight to urge to do everything in our power to correct them—especially when they refuse to listen. How desperate we can be to feel like we matter, to avoid the droll of “so many tuneless days,” that we're often willing to demolish whole communities and devastate those around us in our pursuit of this phantom meaning. How our sorrow warps the lives of our loved ones (and vice versa) and the impossibility of knowing what to do about that. Even when years have gone by, these connections continue to pull at us in vague, formless ways, reminding us of the discrepancies between what we wanted from these relationships and what we were willing to give in turn. And as in life, there are far fewer answers than questions. Instead, we're left to stand there in the slanted mid-afternoon sunlight falling through the window, just wondering. As one character notes, “'You think you've done the right thing ... but then it gets so empty all of a sudden and you don't know why.”
(He) so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trial and endurance; so refused to strike out against it, go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with. No. He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.
— Kahtleen Collins, "Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?"
4. Person by Sam Pink
This isn't technically a conventional collection of short stories, but it's composed of a lot of short chapters that can stand alone and functions as a whole much like a grouping of short stories. And there are few writers as adept as Sam Pink at capturing that bizarre internal swirling pot of thoughts, emotions, impulses, and desires. The narrator can oscillate between deep self-disgust, to a crippling need for immediate connection with anybody who's willing, to a bemused detachment from the endlessly strange tenets of “normal” life—often all within the same sentence. Whether it's thinking and feeling like you really care about something only to realize a handful of minutes, or even seconds, later that you actually don't care at all about that something or not wanting to make eye contact with strangers for fear that you might “ruin their night and make them feel bad,” Pink has a uncanny knack for tapping into those deep parts of ourselves that we desperately seek to prevent anyone else from knowing about.
And yet, these uncomfortable supposed weaknesses are among our strongest bonds as a species. Like feeling embarrassed that you require and expect too much of the world. Or going from feeling like the most anonymous, worthless, and unneeded speck of existence to minutes later feeling like you have an infinite potential for catastrophic harm (accidental or otherwise). Or even just feeling the deep urge to walk up to a random person and ask if they'd like to hang out and spend some time together, but not having the slightest idea of what to do with that feeling. It is in these spaces that Pink sets up camp and revels in. The spaces of human minutiae that reveal themselves to be so much of who and what we are and how we choose to live, even as we stand there not knowing what to do about them. As the narrator notes at one point, “There should be a word for what happens when you begin to ruin a feeling by saying it.” Indeed.
I don’t know if I should judge myself based on what I can accept or what I can’t accept but I do know that I always dislike where I am and then look back on where I was with sadness because it is gone. (That means I am worthless and it’s my fault.)
— Sam Pink, "Person"
5. literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder
Much like Person, Darcie Wilder's literally show me a healthy person doesn't really fall under the common definition of short stories, or even necessarily fiction for that matter. Yet, Wilder's first book works a lot like most short fiction in the sense of using very condensed literary nuggets to convey the often frightening enormity of life. Hers are just a lot shorter, ranging from two or three pages to a single sentence. Known primarily for her popular Twitter account full of extremely personal confessions and astute observations, Wilder thrives in quick bursts of powerfully direct and vulnerable statements, often delivered with minimal punctuation or capitalization.
One moment she's proposing a petition to change the definition of crying to include eating and sleeping, the next she's talking about her fear of becoming “one of those mothers that hates their baby.” Poignant quips like noting her specialty is “beginning to speak at the same time as a man and slowly fading out whatever im saying” brush up against frank admissions like wishing just once that a doctor would tell her that she's as messed up as she feels. Though her style of never running out of deprecating things to say about herself and her habits may turn off some readers who could read it as glamorizing depression, Wilder consistently proves herself to be much more than just some sad person reveling in their sadness. Often times her frank confessions of things many would feel ashamed to admit work more to dismantle that oppressive shame, seemingly in hopes that doing so will help people cut themselves some more slack to be a flawed human. One still worthy of respect and love—a goal and process which continues to elude a great many of us. And, after all, what are you supposed to do if, as she notes, you have yet to find anything more funny than your own pain and suffering?
i'm on a grand central bound train and a man just walked into the bathroom and started weeping really loud for several minutes before coming out, pointing at someone's hat and saying 'nice hat'
— Darcie Wilder, "literally show me a healthy person"
6. The Great Frustration by Seth Fried
Much of the driving force in the eleven stories that make up Seth Fried's The Great Frustration derives from the characters confronting limits—in the natural world, within the social fabric, and inside of themselves—and trying to figure out not so much how to overcome them, but more so how to take delight in embracing them. There are some contending with how to temper the blind optimism we collectively often rely on as a coping mechanism to ward off the overwhelmingly depressing evidence of the past, but without breaking everyone's spirits in the process. Or take the title story, where animals in the Garden of Eden look around and bemoan the cruelty of the dynamic of life. A parrot watching a cat struggle up a tree feels terrible that, as a bird, it has the gift of flight through no effort of it own, and yet has no power to share this wondrous boon with others. Meanwhile, the cat feels itself compelled to chase prey, the feline almost devoid of its own personal choice, causing it to wonder how much of itself is merely ingrained impulses on autopilot and where its identity as an actual cat with agency and identity begins.
Perhaps the most intriguing story in the collection, however, might be the finale “Animalcula: A Young Scientist's Guide to New Creatures.” The story functions like an informative guide to imaginary creatures. But instead of detailing flying lizards or human-hippo hybrids, Fried uses the form to explore notions of what it means to exist and how infinitely complex and inscrutable almost every aspect of life is—and how horribly exhilarating that can be. One such creature is the halifite. A microscopically small blue oval, the halifite exhibits human-like emotions, seemingly in response to stimuli (much like how we often conceive of humans). But with each increase of magnification, the halifite reveals new, different emotions. Thus, the emotions being expressed at the lowest level of magnification are mere composites of the deeply complex and manifold tapestries of feeling that the halifites are experiencing in total, at any given time. Taking the idea further, the halifites and humans alike are indeed experiencing every possible emotion at all times, just in varying proportions. It is in these wonderfully playful musings that Fried displays his exceptional skills at interweaving the whimsically theoretical and the vibrantly emotional to explore how the impossibly perplexing nature of existence is at the heart of what often makes it so terrifyingly fun.
We must begin to approach the idea that, perhaps, emotion exists for emotion’s sake, and that what makes our inner events so intense and manifestly difficult to understand is that the end toward which all emotion is moving is unknown even to its own components. And if this uncertainty troubles you or leaves you feeling depressed, then examine your feelings carefully and take note of the fact that you are also thrilled by it.
— Seth Fried, "The Great Frustration"
7. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
When it was released in late 2017, Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties garnered almost endless praise from countless outlets for its seamless blending of fantasy and magical realism and crushingly heartfelt storytelling, and very deservedly so. Machado possesses dazzling skills at conveying power dynamics, emotional depth, and the myriad ways that life/society/psychotic men chip away at people until it's difficult to say what's even left. The women in her stories have their feeling, opinions, and experiences routinely dismissed and denied and attacked. They work hard to help and satisfy and love the people in their lives, all the while knowing that wanting similar levels of these efforts in return is almost certainly asking too much. And yet, part of what makes the stories so good is that the abusers are not unequivocally “bad people.” There are few, if any, easy villains. Just people. People who fail to listen and respect and value others' desires, plights, and emotional and spiritual well-beings.
Readers are constantly reminded of the limitless capacity we all have to hurt those we care about, or even just those we come into contact with. We are reminded of how it's just as important to believe women when they say what they want or when they say they've been abused as it is to believe them when they say they chose their choices (even if they now regret some of them). How even those who seem indefatigable paragons of endless strength and love are humans too—humans with very real thresholds of how much strain and pressure they can take. Machado ruminates on the importance of loving people for who they are, while maintaining that there are still limits within that realm and just because someone loves you for who you are doesn't mean you shouldn't still strive to be a better listener, a better supporter, a better friend. She builds literary temples for flowers to be laid in honor of all the swallowed words and neutered emotions, fighting against the age-old, tiny-white-room suffocation of the “crazy” label. Perhaps what amazes most of all, however, is how Machado conjures people so very real and dynamic in their struggles just to be who they are and live their life that the reader can't help but be reminded that just because someone is resilient enough to trudge through vast tundras of unnecessary, traumatic garbage doesn't mean that they should have to keep doing so.
I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet–
— Carmen Maria Machado, "Her Body and Other Parties"
© 2018 Alec Surmani