Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The best short stories I read this year

The British conductor Thomas Beecham once said something to the effect that good music leaves the memory with difficulty, while great music never escapes. Beecham was a man who sometimes let the sound of his own words get the better of him. Still, I've always liked this little rule-of-thumb memory test for what's worth revisiting—in music and in other walks of life. To be sure, not everything great seems great at first glance. But it's rarely the case that something that makes a strong first impression doesn't yield richer insights on revisitation—even if the luster fades, and the insights take the form of nicks and imperfections you hadn't noticed before.

The short story, as I've written before, is a genre that we can't just dismiss; still, I have to admit that many short stories are eminently forgettable. I rarely forget a novel entirely, but when I look at a list of short stories I've read recently, I often can't remember a thing about them. On the other hand, the stories I do remember come back to me all the time—when I'm at the grocery store, or in the shower, or reading another short story. In other words, they do what good literature so often does: they rewire the way you think from day to day.

With the Beecham principle in mind, then, here is a list of the best short stories I've read in the past year. Not, mind you, a list of the best short stories of 2013, which I have no authority to offer—just a list of the best short stories that I've come across in the best year, two of which weren't published in 2013. Still, they're all from the past decade—perhaps oddly, since it was a year when I dipped into a lot of wonderful short stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Chekhov, Babel, the underappreciated Juan Rulfo. These, however were the stories that stood out. Perhaps this means that we're in great times for the short story after all.

David Gates: "An Actor Prepares" (Paris Review, Spring 2013)

Not exactly an unknown writer, since he has been a finalist for the Pulitzer, the NBA, an arts journalist at Newsweek, and a Guggenheim fellow; still, I'd never heard of him until I came across this clever, hectic, funny short story about a struggling actor who ends up in a summer-stock production of Twelfth Night in a little town.

Etgar Keret: "Healthy Start" (Tin House, Winter 2006)

It is a miracle that other people recognize us for who we were rather than the many people who we aren't. This is a story about what happens when that breaks down—when strangers literally think you are someone other than who you are.

Nam Le: "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" (Overland, Winter 2007)

My friend Sophie introduced me to this story, which she taught to a group of high school students at the summer camp we were both working at in Amherst. It's a stylistically confident but materially self-lacerating story that in a dozen pages plumbs one of the hardest problems that fiction has faced in the past twenty-years: how to write about identity, ethnicity, and culture in an honest, intelligent, and non-exploitative way.

Benjamin Nugent: "God" (Paris Review, Winter 2013)

The voice of the frat-boy narrator that Nugent concocts is hilarious, especially as he steers it agilely over the waves covering the depths that this story might initially seem only to skim: questioning attraction, sexuality, bravado, and the problems of saving face. But let me emphasize that the key word here is "hilarious"—the story, which I hope is part of something longer, is straightforwardly funny (and why should we need anything more)?

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