Last year, the Observer’s Emily DePrang called George Saunders on the phone to talk about Tenth of December: Stories, his most recent work. She asked him if short stories fight injustice, and Saunders responded that they do. In his words, short stories “make the boundaries permeable … remind you that you’re not without agency and you’re not above or below the fray.” Saunders will be in Houston at Brazos Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. tonight. To mark the occasion, we polled Observer writers for their favorite short story collections, new and old, that traverse boundaries and pull readers into the fray.
Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
A few months before celebrating his 80th birthday last March, Philip Roth, the most decorated living American novelist, announced that, after publishing almost a book a year since 1959, he had ceased writing. Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched his career of brilliant literary provocations, is still astonishingly fresh. Consisting of the title novella and five short stories, the volume explores love, faith, and assimilation with both wit and compassion. In particular, “Defender of the Faith,” the story of a war-hardened drill sergeant who responds in complex ways to a cunning Jewish recruit who tries to exploit their common background to extract special treatment, shows no signs of aging.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Recommended by Emily DePrang
Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, is messed up. Not the execution of the book itself—it’s crushingly beautiful and stylistically perfect; I mean perfect—but the content: drugs, crime, car accidents, drugs again. It makes you feel deeply with and for people you would never want to meet and live moments you’d never want to live through, except that because Johnson is such an excruciatingly good writer, you’ll read on anyway. And if you’re me, you’ll read on again and again and again, just to get that feeling.
Recommended by James McWilliams
“Jack liked his office and it was alright to like your office.” This is the opening line of Norman Rush’s classic short story, “Lying Presences,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1982. Rush’s story is one of 20 published Paris Review pieces now compiled in a book called Object Lessons. It goes without saying that the stories themselves are, in various ways, masterful (if largely dark) expressions of what many prematurely lament as a dying genre. But what’s especially valuable about this anthology is that leading contemporary writers—including Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore—chose the stories and, albeit too briefly, introduced them. Unexpected insights emerge from this arrangement. Who would have guessed—as Mona Simpson, who introduces Rush’s story, reveals—that the opening line about Jack liking his office had, on its own, convinced The Paris Review (where Simpson once worked) to publish the story before even finishing it? As Simpson notes, “Editors, like curators, develop refined intuition.” It shows throughout this volume.
Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Burgin writes some of the most dangerous short fiction being published today, as Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories—his newest collection, and ninth overall—demonstrates. These stories are dangerous because they force readers to question ordinary ethical behavior and the boundaries between transgressors and victims. While his previous collections have also been dark—involving every variety of sadomasochistic behavior imaginable—the new book seems to be his darkest yet, compounded by an intensified concern with mortality in addition to Burgin’s usual preoccupation with sexual “deviancy.” In all these stories, Burgin puts the darkest possible spin on our private lives, exposing the baleful mendacity and self-deception whereby we operate day to day. There is an undertone of a radical political critique here, an ardent nihilism that is all the more lovely for its ring of unshakeable truth.
The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is usually remembered for the story at the end, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” because it inspired the movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, but for me, Millhauser’s magic lies in his shorter stories. The one I can’t forget is titled “Rain,” and follows a man caught in a downpour after coming out of a movie theater. City lights and storefront signs swim around him, and eventually everything—even the protagonist—dissolves. The premise is straightforward, and the story is approximately eight pages long, but in those eight pages Millhauser manages to explicate the futility of an unremarkable life, while deliberately, and beautifully, washing it away. The Barnum Museum is a series of age-yellowed, water-damaged images—long-forgotten artifacts and mementos both magical and achingly sad.