Friday, January 01, 2010

Favorite short stories of 2009

I didn't read quite as many stories this year as I did last year, but I still managed to read a little over five hundred. Here were my top ten favorites.

"Love," Stephen O'Connor (Electric Literature) My favorite story of the year. EL only started publishing this year (on multiple platforms, no less) and really hit the ground running. O'Connor also had another marvelous story in the New Yorker this year ("Ziggurat"). But this one was the real find. The story's protagonist retreats to a cabin in the woods to work on her dissertation. While there she begins to question her boyfriend's fidelity and, increasingly, her own sanity as she begins to be stalked by an old man who may or may not be a figment of her imagination. I've read few purely literary stories that manage such a high level of tension throughout the way this one does, building and building until an abrupt and puzzling ending that seems like a cop out when you first read it, but reveals its utter perfection on subsequent readings.

"Vast Hell," Guillermo Martinez (New Yorker) The high number of New Yorker stories on this list isn't necessarily an indicator that the magazine had a good year so much as a wildly uneven one. Still, there were some good entries. This one was my favorite, beginning as a murder mystery and then becoming something a lot deeper and more sinister.

"Goodbye," Andrew Wingfield (Antioch Review) This moving story is part of a yet-to-be-published novel-in-stories about life in a transitional neighborhood in a Washington, D.C. suburb. I'm looking very forward to reading more of Wingfield's work.

"None of the Above," Suzanne Rivecca (American Short Fiction) I'm not sure why, but this year I really gravitated towards literary stories that were plotted like thrillers. This one concerns a teacher who becomes alarmed when one of her young students shows up to school with bizarre marks and bruises on his arms. What makes this story great isn't the fact that, when confronted, the student claims that the wounds are from his pet tiger cub. What makes it great is that it turns out he's telling the truth.

"In the Sunset," Lucy Ferriss (Missouri Review) Another "mystery", but one that doesn't seem altogether mysterious at first. A mother moves in with her daughter and becomes convinced that she's leaving home late at night to cheat on her absent husband. What's particularly remarkable here is how utterly unappealing Ferriss manages to make San Francisco look.

"Dog Heaven," Tom Grimes (Narrative) Fine, funny work from one of my former workshop teachers.

"Victory Lap," George Saunders (New Yorker) Both of Saunders' New Yorker stories this year (the other was "Al Roosten") were outstanding, but what pushed this one over the top for me was how Saunders managed to make three different voices (a boy, a girl, and a kidnapper) so distinct from one another, and yet so identifiably "Saunders-esque". Brought back fond memories of "The Falls", one of Saunders' early masterpieces, which also featured multiple perspectives.

"A Tiny Feast," Chris Adrian (New Yorker) In his spare time, Adrian is a physician and a divinity student. His professions inform this fantastical piece, wherein a pair of fairies kidnap a human child only to have that child succumb to leukemia. A devastating story about how we comprehend grief, and how the feelings it provokes are confusing to everyone, not just these creatures.

"Idols," Tim Gautreaux (New Yorker) I have been reading this Louisiana writer for a long time, and he's been writing great fiction for even longer. So it was gratifying to see him recognized in the pages of the New Yorker this past year.

"Scouting for the Reaper," Jacob M. Appel (Virginia Quarterly Review) Another great physician-writer. This story is narrated by a young girl who accompanies her father, who designs tombstones, on one of his sales calls, which happens to take place at the home of an old flame now dying of cancer. While I have no idea if there's an actual connection between the two, Appel's story reminded me a great deal of Alice Munro's classic story "Walker Brothers Cowboy", with one notable exception: instead of the father rejecting the love of the child's mother, as in Munro's story, he reaffirms it here.