My Favourite Short Stories

Sometimes I don’t know if this blog is about other peoples’ art, or myself, or my own art.  Or if it’s just a mess of all three.  Regardless, because I am venturing into really taking a good look at Carol Shields’ Collected Short Stories this summer, I thought I would compile a list of the (published) short stories that have most influenced me in my writing, and personal life.

Alice Munro – Boys and Girls.  This story started it all for me.  I read it in high school english and our teacher had us do a lot of extensive work on it; a group project where we each looked at the story’s seperate elements, a couple of essays, a presentation, and so on, all simply about this story.  And I can understand why for two reasons; because there is a lot to it, and because it’s completely wonderful. Reading this story, I sculpted an image of myself as a future writer, and I also learned about myself as a person of the female gender, which was invaluable to me in later years as a student of literary theory and a small girl in contemporary society.  The first time I read this story, I thought about what I wanted to with my life, and that was write fiction.  A lot of the stories I wrote in high school were heavy on symbolism because of Boys and Girls.  For those reasons, it is the single greatest influence on my short fiction.

Carol Shields – The Orange FishThis is the first of Shields’ works I ever read, and I read it in my third year of university.  The one memory I have of it, is that contrary to most of the stories we read in my 300-level writing class, everyone loved this story.  It was funny and bold and vivacious and all of us had tons to say about all of its merits as both a piece of entertainment, and a hilarious commentary about art and community.  I’ve never been much a fan of comedy writing in the first place, and ‘funny’ literature doesn’t generally strike a chord with me and never has.  But I think what The Orange Fish does so well, is incorporates elements of art that someone like me, who has lived within a community of academics for five years can relate to, with humour and the same thread of heart – pure, kindheartedness – that you can weave through all of Sheilds’ work.  And it’s that heart and likability that I’ve never forgotten about this story.  I want to write a story that everyone in a room of sweet, kind, talented people love.  The best moment in the story is the Japanese man discussing his orange fish experience: “As you can imagine, his accent was somewhat harsh and halting, but I believe we understood something of what he said.  In the small house where he lives, he has hung The Orange Fish in the traditional tokonoma alcove, just about the black laquered slab of ood on which rests a bowl of white flowers.  The contrast between the sharp orange of the fish’s scales and the unearthly whiteness of the flowers’ petals reminds him daily of the contradictions that abound in the industrialized world.  At this no one clapped louder than myself.” (Collected Stories, 225).

W.D. Valgardson – Bloodflowers.  This is another story I read in high school that long-resonated with me.  It’s kind of fantastical and kind of horrific, but it is so starkly grounded in realism, the setting is completely engrossing and vivid.  The story has a violent, masculine edge (another of its qualities that normally disagrees with me) but that precise edge is just what the story needs in order to tell itself.  Valgardson is a strange author; all of the stories in the collection from which this story comes (also entitled Bloodflowers and very worth looking at) have passive, naive women and an undercurrent of opressive cruelty, all set against very stark and sometimes primitive Canadiana.  The best of the collection is the title story, which is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s infamous The Lottery only much more creepy and engaging, purely based on its remote island Canadian setting.  The gruesome-ness of the story and the masculine abuse and power of the story is never lost on me, and it alienates me in a fascinating way.  I know I’m not saying much about the story itself, but I don’t want to because of its most excellent twist ending.  The impact of that twist has stayed with me ever since reading it.  Subtle and symbolic and powerful.

Carol Shields – Chemistry.  I just read this recently actually, and I think its power for me is that I could relate to it.  It’s a very simple little tale about a group of people taking a recorder class at the YMCA in Montreal.  They meet after their classes and gossip about their teacher and have a few beers despite their broke circumstances, and then the class ends and everything just seems so… timely.  As though those friendships could only exist at that time and simply cease to ever be anymore.  And I think in a sense, I’ve lived that kind of friendship and I can understand its fallings out and I can relate to it, but never looked at it in quite this way.  And the interesting thing about the story is that it is told by an un-named narrator, specifically to an un-named woman; we only know she wears black tights.  It’s kind of a magical little ode to live’s coincidences and circumstances, something Shields always does really well, particularly here.

Miranda July – The Swim Team.  This is a very odd and kind of surreal story about a young woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend, and she teaches a small group of senior citizens in her VERY tiny town, how to swim, without water.  There is so much to this story – themes of identity of all the characters are prevelant throughout, as well as contemplations about life, age, love and time – and it is all crammed into one very odd, very small little package.  Which is a wonderful, beautiful thing.  July’s other stories are equally unsual, and her collection No One Belongs Here More than You is worth a look as well.  She describes oddly serene, ordinary life events with utmost care to distort them and turn them on their heads.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.  When I first started writing fantasy fiction (or at least, dabbling  in that genre), I thought back to this story immediately.  I think it’s the most poignant example of magical realism ever, and my first thought was, “I want to write a story like Marquez’s”.  I didn’t.  I’m not THAT talented, but the story was a huge influence on me throughout the course in terms of defining fantasy and placing my own fiction on that spectrum; how far can you take something before it becomes fantastical, or doesn’t?  And what techniques or description can you use in order to either amp up the story’s magic, or leave that magic ambiguous to the reader?  In respect to writing and genre alone, there is a lot to consider with this story.  But it is also completely sad and beautiful and also kind of…glorious.  The cruelty and carelessness of the citizens of the town versus the so-called miracle of the angel, is both engaging and traumatic, and it is thus for me, the apex of a good fantastical story.

Charlotte Gill – You Drive.  I used to write a lot of stories about failing relationships or marriages, and I found real footing with this topic, because there is so much beauty, emotion and introspection that can come from this kind of conflict.  And this story to me, demonstrates, in oddly extreme and sometimes eerily funny ways, a lot of what a break-up can mean.  The other fascinating thing about this story is its structure; it is told backwards, and therefore, we know right at the beginning what has happened to the nameless man and woman in the story, and yet it really doesn’t seem or feel like anything tragic or worth caring about, until we reach the story’s end… which is actually its beginning.   It really, really says something about relationships that is profound, and demonstrates to us that knowing people and knowing how they function together can really affect how we view a tragedy.  In addition to all the philosophical reasons I have for loving this story, it is also full of really unique similes and metaphors, and oddly engaging but subtle little symbolic cues that are telling and gorgeous.  I totally love Charlotte Gill – she’s definitely another one of my great literary heroes.

Daniel Clowes – Caricature.  From Clowes’ best collection of short stories with the same title, this story has REALLY influenced the hell out of me.  Clowes’ drawings are strangely engaging in that everyone in them looks sad and even when his colour schemes are vibrant, they’re STILL so sad.  So often too, I miss the POINT of Clowes’ fiction.  I don’t understand what he’s getting at, I don’t know why he just told us the story he did – sometimes nothing even happens and I’m completely confused.  But what Clowes does really well is design pathetic sad sack characters.  And Caricature is so so so so good for that.  I don’t think I get the gist of the story, and I’ve tried so hard over the years to understand it (even after multiple reads, it still eludes me) but what I can glean from it, is that the protagonist realizes his life is meaningless and just when he thinks that he has an opportunity to re-do everything, just when someone gives him a fresh perspective, he realizes that this person too, will inevitably leave him alone with his reflection and his drawings, in a dingy place that he can’t recover from.  It’s so deliciously bleak it’s hard to diegest, and that’s what makes it so incredibly wonderful.  And that the entire story is drawn in black and white is almost too perfect.

Ryan Adams – I was a Drunken Cliche.  The wonderful thing about this story is that it is in two parts that seem to be completely random.  The narrator begins by telling us something innane, and then he launches into a self-reflexive sentence: “New York City was hot.  It begins just like that.  A cliche sentence right off the bat, straight out of the cannon.”  We know he is writing a book, but the question is, why?  And he is at the same time, going through a strange breakup with a girl named Margot.  Neither part fits, and that’s what I like about this ‘story’ (is it a story?).  It’s random and it’s drawing attention to itself as the kind of writing that demands self-reflexivity.  It’s more like a poem in complete sentences than a story, and it leaves a lot of work for the reader to make meaning of it.  But it’s wonderful.  It’s a bit like Notes from the Underground or something by Kerouac, wildly unedited and un-finished and full of beautiful poetry that I can only attribute my own meaning to.  I idolize Adams as a musician and songwriter and after his first collection of prose came out this past year, I’ve found him to be also completely inspirational as a fellow writer as well.  His ramblings are often incoherant, often hilarious, but in the end, full of honesty and heart.  Especially this short little piece.

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