I love a good short story – reading them that is, not necessarily writing them. I find I don’t have the discipline to successfully construct one. My mind is too diffuse, ideas spin off or burrow away. I get too hung up trying to pin down themes and wind up a weeping and frustrated mess. So, I tend to steer clear of attempting to write short stories, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them in all their focused, thematic beauty - and occasionally feel a pang of jealousy towards those writers who can so successfully distil their ideas in such a way.
The great thing about a short story is more often than not the questions it leaves dangling tantalisingly for the reader to ruminate upon once the pages are closed, or before you move on to the next in the compendium. With no (or limited) sub-plots to steer you away from the main thrust, really good writers drop you in to the middle of a tale. You arrive there and sometimes feel lost, without a literary compass, context or frame of reference to guide you, but that doesn’t matter. That’s all part of the fun. Themes come at you like snowballs, or poisoned arrows – depending on the tone of the tale – and very quickly you learn to love or loathe the characters and make a decision where your reader loyalties should lie. In a few short pages there are twists and turns that can bend your mind, leaving you exhausted and breathless, before the writer ups and departs, without so much as an ‘I’m outta here…’, and you scratch your head, exclaim a quiet ‘huh?’, before attempting to answer the questions the writer has left hovering in the ether. Sometimes these can be as simple as, ‘well, what happens now?’, at other times you’re left pondering conclusions that are altogether more surreal.
The very first short story I remember reading (or rather having read to me at school) was by Bill Naughton. In ‘Seventeen Oranges’ the protagonist, a young boy, steals the aforementioned fruit from a shipyard before being caught and held in a nearby hut (by the brilliantly named policeman ‘Pongo’). Terrified at what might happen to him, he’s left alone while Pongo goes off to find another policeman to act as a witness against him. While alone the protagonist hatches an ingenious (and digestively challenging) plan to get rid of the evidence. This singular act of rebellion alongside the fantastically descriptive writing was probably the first instance that ignited my love for short stories.
In more recent years I often dip into collections to get my regular fix. A particular favourite is Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes. Well known for his often surreal, occasionally sci-fi and fantasy tinged work, his style is ideally suited to the short story (but he has only ever published the one collection). In The Elephant Vanishes we’re treated to seventeen brilliantly off-the-wall tales beginning with ‘The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women’- which went on to form the opening chapter of his epic Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but works equally well in short form here – and ending with the eponymous yarn about an elderly elephant and its keeper disappearing without a trace. The stories in between take the reader on a journey that explores the impact of the extraordinary and inexplicable on ordinary lives and leaves you with more questions about the nature of existence than you had before you started.
Perhaps my favourite short story (for the moment at least, although like my favourite film and favourite album this is always liable to change) is by Neil Gaiman. Taken from his 2015 book Trigger Warning, 'Click Clack The Rattlebag' (...and what about that for a title for starters?) is a brilliantly creepy story with a twist. I remember the first time I read it I was standing on an overcrowded train in the height of summer and by the time I’d finished I had goosebumps. Like Murakami it begins with a relatively ordinary situation; on this occasion a young man talking to his girlfriend's little brother while waiting for her to arrive, but with almost each sentence a sense of unease builds until the reader is as disoriented as the protagonist. It truly is a great example of a near perfect short story – at barely more than four pages, not a syllable is superfluous nor a word wasted.
At the end of the day short stories are literature that everyone has time to read. I just wish I had the the skills and craft myself, to write them.