Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Top 10 short stories: Alison MacLeod

Novelist and short story writer Alison MacLeod named her top 10 short stories for the Guardian.

Her criteria and one of the more recent stories from the list:

Writing a short story is a high-wire act, sentence by sentence, foot by foot. Very few story writers work with the safety net of a plot conceived in advance. They trust in the humming tension of a single opening line or in an image that rises in their mind, or in a fragment of a character's voice. They might have a sense of where they want their characters to go; they rarely know how they'll get them there. At times it's unnerving work. Lose your concentration or the line of tension in the story and both you and it fall. The best short stories have a breathless, in-motion quality to them, a quality that makes them ideal for adaptation into film, as directors are increasingly realising. A great story ending resonates far beyond its final word. It's a hit to the brain. I read stories and love them for that hit. As the writer Elizabeth Taylor commented, the short story gives the reader the feeling of "being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction". The best stories leave you exhilarated.

9. "Vanilla Bright like Eminem" by Michel Faber

The opening line is quirky, involving. It offers the reader an enticing prospect: "Don, son of people no longer living, husband of Alice, father of Drew and Aleesha is very, very close to experiencing the happiest moment of his life." How can you not read on? This story breaks all the rules. Nothing happens for a long time. An American family are on holiday, en route to Inverness by train. That's it. Then suddenly the story abandons the usual unity of time and space, zooming forward through many years and vast changes in the characters' lives. Usually such a narrative spree would leave anyone bored. But not here. It makes us, along with Don, return to that train journey when life was simple and whole. On the train Don observes the mundane details of his wife and children with a credibly odd mixture of honesty and deep affection. It's moving, if a bit of a narrative cheat. As one writer-friend said to me, "Would we find it so moving if a mother were observing her children so lovingly?" Probably not. We take it for granted that mothers do. But we feel moved when fathers take note. That is admittedly part of what makes this story the success it is. But that said, an unexpected epiphany - a moment of radiant insight worthy even of Joyce - is what makes and sustains this story. It is an apparently ordinary vision: Don's daughter combs her sleeping brother's hair. Don watches. But he watches mesmerised, filled with a sense of a present moment that is bigger than him, bigger than any of them. As in the best of stories, the moment can't be paraphrased. It can only be experienced. You'll have to read it yourself.
Read about Number One on MacLeod's list.

--Marshal Zeringue