What’s better than a great short story? Nothing, to my mind. I’ve got piles by my bedside when I’d rather a compact work of fiction and several anthologies in my Kindle for a quick fix. I think it’s the hardest form to write well and the most powerful when it’s written well. And I’m constantly amazed at how many great new stories emerge, despite few publications printing the form these days. And I’m also impressed with writers who skillfully shift from the long form to the short.
In the last few years, we’ve been blessed with superlative short story collections by a master like Edith Pearlman and a debut by Robin Black, and now Rebecca Makkai joins that fold. The author of the acclaimed novel “The Borrower” which I highly recommend, and “The Hundred Year House” which is now on my must-read list, this collection is beyond good writing, it is incredible diverse in content. No wonder she’s been included in the best short story anthologies for several years now.
If the earth hangs still in space, does it spin? If the earth were to spin, the space I occupy I will therefore vacate in an instant. This city will leave its spot, and the city to the west will usurp its place. Ergo, this city is all cities. This is Kabul; this is Dresden; this is Johannesburg. I run by standing still.
Yes, she poses serious existential dilemmas, even as she seems to solve the mysteries of the universe. How does one young writer traverse from classical music to reality television, physics and astrology, art, sexual tensions, terrorism and political history, and more, in one slim volume? How does she know so much about so many ways of life? This keeps this collection especially interesting, as every story is distinct – different time frames and landscapes and unique human experience. All incorporated into each tale with precision of detail and elegant prose.
In the bedroom of her Budapest apartment, using the stage makeup left from her acting career, my grandmother painted young women’s faces old. Greasepaint doesn’t go stale, and when properly applied – when a skilled hand traces lines that are not yet lines but the faintest shadows on taut faces – it can achieve the most astonishing prophecies of the body’s eventual self-betrayal. My father, still very young, stood far form the blackout curtains with a candle, and in thanks for this illumination, my grandmother called him her little acolyte. She handed out canes and shawls, taught the girls to walk with the weight of eighty years – and thus superannuated they shuffled through the streets at night, without fear of predatory soldiers. And if they choses to carry things other than yarn in their knitting baskets, so be it. Who would suspect?
I checked out Makkai’s biography which I recommend highly – not only for the insight but the humor, which she regularly interjects into her writing as well. She teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and I imagine she is a terrific teacher. In truth, simply to read these stories is to take a master class, highly recommended for writers, for people without the time to commit to novels, or those of us who just love great storytelling. Brava.
Available in hardcover at Laguna Beach Books and for e-readers.