I’ll admit it: I love books as objects, almost to the point of fetishization. So, for a long time, I resisted reading anything on a digital platform. If I could not hold it, could not feel the page turning, then something was missing. As my previous entries will show, though, I am now thoroughly converted to finding fiction online—online publications simply create opportunities for so much great writing to get out into the world. I started this round of reading with the winner of Galley Beggar’s short story prize: “Brothers,” by C.S. Mee. This strange, entrancing story set the tone for my week, and I followed it up with four other stories all published online.
Day 16: C.S. Mee, “Brothers”
I have to be honest, I started this story only intending to have a quick glance, having seen the announcement of the winner online. Galley Beggar Press are wonderful, and the judges for this year’s prize reflect the publisher’s innovative eye for unusual voices. So I thought it would be worth my while to take a brief look at the story they had chosen this year—but before I knew it, I had devoured the whole odd, wondrous little piece.
This is the kind of story that knows how to lure you in. Mee writes with simple language, a strong voice and, at first, just a hint of mystery—enough that you have to keep reading. In fact, it is this narrative mastery—the ability to tell a story well—that makes this piece so effective; in the hands of another writer, it could have been a clunky concept piece. The premise is both eerie and inspired: the narrator’s right leg is really his conjoined twin, with his own tiny brain and own strange personality. Don’t get me wrong. Mee explores the potential of this idea to its fullest. But she always balances the concept of the piece with taut language and narrative suspense. I particularly enjoyed the framework of the story, which returns in the final sentences to take the premise, and twist the screw once more.
Day 17: James O. Heath, “Various Kisses”
Storgy is an online magazine that lives up to its name: a feast of short fiction, its editors are dedicated to supporting both a core of dedicated writers and a range of new voices. I have been a regular reader for a while now (in fact, Storgy was one of the magazines that brought me around to online fiction) and I regularly dip into their wellspring of stories. “Various Kisses,” published on day 17 of my challenge, shows off the magazine’s commitment to the short story form and the editors’ eye for unusual writers; the author of this disturbing, beautiful fable, James O. Heath, also makes films and writes on judicial politics.
Thankfully (at least, for me!) this story leans more towards the filmic, progressing almost as a series of tableaux. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I was drawn to this tale—between our bookcases at home, we have a tapestry of Klimt’s “Kiss” (a gift from a mother, too!). This painting and its counterpart, the synonymous sculpture by Rodin, loom over the story as more than just artistic references: Heath has adopted something of their shared symbolism in his prose, which unfolds with the cool logic and inexorable force of myth or dream. There was a moment, when the story first transitions from its opening image of an appalled father to the scene of a young girl discovering a knife, where I was a bit unsure about the narrative direction, but Heath draws the story together masterfully; the work is all the more confronting for the way that it subverts those first expectations
Day 18: Ayobami Adebayo, “Charcoal”
I’m fascinated by the story of Litro as a publication: emerging from a free literary magazine to become a major online publisher of fiction, poetry, and commentary, as well as real-life cultural institution (its status is only enhanced in my eyes for its early publication of writing by Eleanor Catton). Along with a range of regular weekly slots dedicated to stories, Litro produce special, themed “World Series Editions.” I turned to one of these for day 18—2016’s Ghana and Nigeria edition—and more particularly to a disarming epistolary story from Ayobami Adebayo.
Just the title of this story, “Charcoal,” was enough to stoke my interest. And I love stories that play with the form of the letter. “Charcoal” certainly makes the most of all the chances to innovate, crossing out certain phrases, creating gaps in the telling of the story, using all the conventions of letter-format to add detail to the tale.
But Adebayo does so much more than just tease out the possibilities of the story’s form; she clearly relishes the chance to develop character through voice, to weave complex relationships between reader and writer, letter-writer and addressee. The brilliant verbal flourishes and wild flow of images coalesce to form a whole, rich life that unfolds across the space of a single, pointedly addressed note from mother to son.
With its personal, focalized perspective on the politics of Ghanan-Nigerian relations, the story sets the tone perfectly for the remainder of this well-curated issue. More than the political, though, it is the private story—an older woman finding happiness in a second marriage—that I’m sure will stay with me.
Day 19: Louise Kennedy, “Ministry of the Interior”
Short Fiction is advertised as “the visual literary journal,” and like another of my favourites, AZURE, it publishes an illustration with each of its stories. The monochrome image that accompanied “Ministry of the Interior” made me think of a photograph by Paul Bowles: human figures reduced to silhouettes, set against de Chirico-like architecture (given a suitably Arabesque flourish). In fact, it was probably this image that drew me to Louise Kennedy’s story as I browsed Short Fiction’s online offerings.
As if the illustration hadn’t been enough, Kennedy’s spare, evocative prose quickly pulled me in; I lingered over an early paragraph describing the protagonist, Khaled, preparing mezze for his guests—but not too long. After all, the surreal yet precise descriptions compel you to keep reading.
By the end of this brief, beautifully measured tale, I felt immensely glad for the illustration. Otherwise, I might not have found myself, alone in a hotel, wrapped in the smell of sandalwood and the lingering tingle of a first-rate story. I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for more of Kennedy.
Day 20: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, “Our Last Guest”
In some ways, it feels a little counterintuitive to round out this week with a story from Granta. After all, this literary heavyweight is such an important player in contemporary print culture. But when it comes to Granta, there is a strong nostalgia factor for me. As a student in Sydney, my parents used to send copies over periodically as part of care packages, and I still feel a sense of warmth, like getting a letter in the post, every time I turn to Granta—especially online, as I can flip through fiction I once read in our little Potts Point flat, and remember the feeling of sunshine on my face.
The story I read today—Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Our Last Guest”—may have been published long after I left Australia, but there is something so particularly Granta about this work that, even in the depths of a nocturnal return to the dim north of England, it brought with it the smell of the ocean, the feeling of warmth.
This is odd, because, in spite of its beachside setting, this story is of a dark, even macabre bent. Five years in to haunting the honeymoon suite of a hotel, Mariko and Ollie are ghosts of limited means: able to mess with electronics, they are otherwise condemned to eternal voyeurism within the confines of the Carmel Beach Resort. Buchanan perfectly captures the voice of a jaded-yet-still-faintly-hopeful ghost: the story is so leached of colour that the few bright splashes burst like fireworks.
There is also a careful tension at play from the start, and it only builds as the action goes on—because it’s almost impossible to tell what kind of story this is going to be. The descriptions hover so tightly between comic and tragic that you cannot pin the tone down until the final sentence. Even if Buchanan had failed to build the empathy towards these doomed lovers that she crafts so well, the story would have been worth reading just for that last payoff.