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The shortlist: recent collections of short stories

The shortlist: recent collections of short stories

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard reviews recent collections by Emily Geminder, Bennett Sims, Emily Fridlund and Josh Weil.

Dead Girls: And Other Stories
By Emily Geminder
176 pages. $17.

The girls of Geminder’s title may be dead, but her debut collection brims with life. Whether she’s writing, in the first story, about a displaced young girl at odds with her family and herself and this world or, in the last, about a young woman seeking meaning through her interactions with a corpse named Gracie (to which she’s assigned at a four-day anatomy workshop), Geminder, a former Phnom Penh Post copy editor, demands attention through her prose. The worlds her characters inhabit are chaotic, disorienting, nightmarish and vital. When the middle school girl who narrates the first story meets an older boy her family will hate, she tells us he “just slipped through some rip in the universe” and has “green cauldron eyes … When he leans in toward me behind the gas station, somehow I know it’s him: the one who’ll save me.”

If it’s true that good art is often in conversation with the good art that preceded it, then Geminder’s stories seem to be in conversation with Aimee Bender’s work – the collection’s second story, 1-800-FAT-GIRL, especially calls to mind Bender’s Debbieland, from the book Willful Creatures – as well as the work of master storytellers like Steven Millhauser and John L’Heureux.

In short, this is a breathlessly fast-moving collection that leaves a reader enchanted, provoked and curious about the little-noticed corners of the darkening world.

White Dialogues: Stories
By Bennett Sims
196 pages. $16.

Sims – the author of the novel A Questionable Shape – doesn’t hesitate to use his rich and borderline arcane vocabulary in this debut story collection, which moves readers from one beleaguered mind to another by way of nearly hysterical examination. From the first story, House-Sitting, in which a young man becomes plagued by the same nightmares he imagines must once have plagued the cabin’s owner, to the last, in which a film professor who has been denied tenure watches in horror as his nemesis delivers a well-received lecture on Hitchcock, Sims delves into the unhinged, the unnerved and the merely unwell. “Your mind is racing,” the housesitter thinks. “At the etymological level, your mind cannot stop cataloging all the terms that the vocabularies of architecture and psychology share. Entrance, for example. For while entrance is a psychological verb, referring to the process of hypnosis, it is also, at the same time, an architectural noun, referring to a point of ingress. To be entranced, psychologically, is to be pushed through the entrance of an alien thought structure. Hypnotized, you stand inside a new structure of thoughts, one that has been designed especially to encage you.”

Some readers may become frustrated by the author’s verbal pinwheels and conclude that his relentless explorations into the minds of his characters sacrifice content for style. But anyone who admires such pyrotechnics of language will find 21st-century echoes of Edgar Allan Poe in Sims’s portraits of paranoia and delusion, with their zodiacal narrowing and the maddening tungsten spin of their narratives.

Catapult: Stories
By Emily Fridlund
199 pages. $17.

Fridlund has had an impressive 2017: Her debut novel, History of Wolves, published in January, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, and now here comes a powerhouse of a first story collection notable for its temerity and its skilled combination of humour and insight. Awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, this is – seriously – a laugh-out-loud collection as wise as it is funny. Take this line from the final story: “I think a teenage daughter must be like one of those lawn ornaments everybody has, one of those grotesque little gnomes that are so useless and absurd you don’t even need to look at them.”

It’s a funny image, made funnier by the fact that the speaker is herself a teenage daughter. Or this passage from the title story, delivered by a young girl who is too smart, too perceptive, too already bored with the world for her own good, as she renounces a former set of playmates: “When we were 11, 12, I’d taken care of them all. Summer evenings, I used to usher them into the woods to play in the stand of old pine behind our houses . . . I’d taken their shoes from them, and I’d taken their socks. I’d made their wimpy girl fantasies into categorical facts . . . Look, the clubfooted horse thief made you lame so you’d have to love him. Limp, limp . . . There were only believers and doubters: I saw no other distinctions, considered none of them friends. You either believed what the mind could do – and took your severed horse hoof and found what solace there was – or you didn’t, and were a kid. I had no patience for pretenders, for people who needed shoes or snacks. I converted them all.”

The Age of Perpetual Light: Stories
By Josh Weil
258 pages. $25.

No Flies, No Folly, the opening story of Weil’s brilliant new collection, reads like a microcosm for the book itself. The story traces the character development, over a number of years, of a peddler in Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century and his devotion to a large married Amish woman who is herself devoted to the Edison lamp. With its tightly woven and comprehensive scope, the story is a fitting introduction to the collection as a whole, which spans an entire century before pushing into an overlit future of wonderment. From story to story we are introduced to details so fine and clean that their observations are at once accessible and overwhelming for their acumen.

The Age of Perpetual Light is a long collection, thanks partly to the fact that Weil seems most comfortable writing Deborah Eisenberg-length stories of 25 to 50-plus pages that can read more as novellas, in the best way possible. They are patient and provocative, nuanced and far-reaching. For their breadth, intensity and audacity of ambition, the stories of The Age of Perpetual Light situate themselves as natural heirs to such masterpieces as Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and James Joyce’s The Dead.

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