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Pure Essentials

The Art of the Story reveals the subtle magic of short fiction

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Short stories are wonderfully intimate. And yet they ask so very little. For only a moment, really. Only that you, for one brief moment, allow yourself to be coaxed into whole worlds of revelation. It’s entirely up to you whether you abandon the project. Short stories ask for no commitment, yet the best of them end up involving us heart and soul. It’s a marvel, really when you feel this happening, the unwillingness to put them down until the end, the blurry feeling that causes you to forget, if even for just a moment, who you are and what your most pressing concerns are. The short story is a refuge. At the same time a haven and a ruthless oracle. Before you know it, the short story spits you out the other side leaving you with something, that in the best of them, will resonate in you for a long, long time.

“Unlike a novel,” as the great Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.”

The Art of the Story, an international anthology edited by Daniel Halpern, encompasses a wide range of what Borges referred to as essential. The collection features work by 20th century writers from 35 countries, many of whom are the most highly esteemed writers of our time. Ama Ata Aidoo, Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Raymond Carver, Junot Diaz, Nathan Englander, Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff and Banana Yoshimoto are but a few of the writers whose works make up this formidable collection.

What can sometimes be the greatest challenge of bringing together a selection of works from such disparate sources is the editor’s own sensibility. As a reader, you find you are either aligned with it, or not. But somehow, the stories in The Art of the Story come across as equally dense and poignant, whether the anxious tale of a mother with a sick child in Ghana, as in Ama Ata Aidoo’s “A Gift from Somewhere,” or the keenly funny musings to be found in “G-string” by Nicola Barker. Almost without exception, the stories found here succeed in sweeping away ordinary muddle and bringing into sharper focus those resounding truths that are often so elusive.

The story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” by Richard Bausch revolves around a single telephone conversation between a young woman in college and her middle-aged father. Their painfully awkward dialogue slowly reveals the reason for her call. She’s getting married, she’s pregnant, her fiancé and father of her child was her professor, he’s 20 years older than her father. The tension mounts as each new detail is brought to light before the obvious love and self-restraint of her father a man who has learned that life cannot be what we want it to be, no matter how much we might try to will it so. He is certain the choice she has made, what seems like the most obvious choice to her, may be the biggest mistake of her life. And yet, he must let her do what she will.

Beyond being a classic tale of the wiser older generation, this story asks you to ally yourself with both the daughter and father. It is easy to feel sympathetic to the young woman in love who has as much right to trust her feelings and her sense of things (in her admiration of her fiancé’s mind) as anyone does. And it is even easier to know what the father knows, that there are options his daughter will not exercise because she is uninitiated by life’s relentless ebb, unable to know what seems obvious from another perspective. The story exists at the still point between these two perspectives. It simultaneously connects and divides these people who must struggle, challenge and finally accept one undeniable fact: that our lives are for us to do with what we will, most of all, to expand or diminish in benign ignorance only knowing in retrospect where we might have gone wrong.

This insight, offered up by Bausch’s story, characterizes the sort of subtle and tenuous realms to be explored in The Art of the Story. Also common among the stories in this collection is their particular lithe quality. The way they often leave you to tie up a few loose ends yourself, to engage with a scenario or an idea in a more active fashion than you might initially expect to. It is a credit to the writers’ skill that this occurs almost without your awareness. Without exception, these finely honed tales engulf the reader as if words were saltwater under which lie treasures of immeasurable value. Such treasures cannot be easily lost or forgotten once you find them. It is for this that we look to stories and even choose to read at all.

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