Short story collections: A vintage year for big ideas in taut salvoes


Max Liu
Friday 02 May 2014 01:47
Expanding the form: James Kelman
Expanding the form: James Kelman

Following George Saunders's triumph at the inaugural Folio Prize, and strong new books from Ben Marcus and Lorrie Moore, the American short story's vintage year continues with Rivka Galchen's first collection, American Innovations (Fourth Estate, £14.99).

Like her compatriots, Galchen's fiction bears the influence of the late Donald Barthelme, who argued that "not knowing" is vital to creativity. Time, identity and love are shown to be flexible if, as one character says, "our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations". Protagonists flounder in absurd, accelerating circumstances, struggling to comprehend events in more than abstract terms. Gently, Galchen interrogates the nature and necessity of innovation with results that prove hopeful, funny and innovative.

Kjell Askildsen's Selected Stories (translated by Seán Kinsella, Dalkey Archive, £8.50) shows that there's more to contemporary short fiction than America and more to Norway than Knausgaard and Nesbo. The octogenarian, who has been publishing in his own language for 60 years, offers stark portraits of male sexuality and familial dysfunction that are full of compelling strangeness. Lives surge through a few brittle pages, suppressed loves and resentments threaten to erupt. Characters are rarely isolated but their loneliness is palpable as they steal time in the shadows. Names recur throughout the book so the reader tries to connect people with events, but it's the loose ends which draw you back to these taut dramas.

"You can't beat life," says a character in one of the most famous stories in Lying Under the Apple Tree (Vintage, £8.99), a selection from Alice Munro's later works. The Canadian Nobel Laureate tackles universal themes but that's part of the problem in a book so rich with death and yearning that reading it from cover to cover is overwhelming. It's designed to attract new readers to Munro's oeuvre but, while "A Bear Came Over the Mountain", "The Love of a Good Woman" and the scorching title story immerse us in small-town Ontario, the uninitiated are better served by one of the collections from which these stories are drawn. Try 2006's Runaway.

Tackling universal themes: Alice Munro

If James Kelman ever receives the Nobel Prize, his short fiction will have been an important part of his achievement. For my money, he expands the form with more substance than the lauded Lydia Davis, but there's an irony about reading his existentialist tales of drift and destitution in an expensive, tweed-bound limited edition. A Lean Third (Tangerine Press, two editions available for £30 and £50) is for Kelman completists but the wit and profundity it contains will reward unlimited rereading. Many of these stories were originally published in the 1980s but Kelman, who has reworked some of them for this volume, indicates in a fascinating afterword that his experiments are never finished.

Kseniya Melnik's debut collection, Snow in May (Fourth Estate, £14.99), concerns her hometown of Magadan, in north-east Russia, which was once the gateway to "the most remote island in the notorious Gulag Archipelago". Musicians, communist apparatchiks, wealthy New Russians and others populate these linked stories, which span half-a-century. Visiting Moscow, a woman encounters the stress and cynicism of Soviet society while balancing desire with her responsibilities as a mother. Life in Magadan feels militaristic but not entirely bleak and layers of narration leave the reader unsure who to trust. "You can't fight destiny, but you should always try to befriend it," says one character, while another is accused of reading "too much Turgenev". That's apt because, although Melnik moved to America in 1998, she's inherited her native country's literary giants' passion for soul-searching and dramatising the shared fates that bind people to places.

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