This anthology of New American Stories begins with a love letter of an introduction by Ben Marcus, in which his enthusiasm for the short story form is super infectious. His description of the act of reading really shortens your breath and makes you impatient to read his 32 selections. He says that until bookshops are arranged by ‘mood, by emotional complexity, by the amount of energy and attention that might be required’, and not by literary genres, then the anthology exists to fill that gap (much like Alain de Botton’s argument for art galleries).
This proposition returned to my mind as Christmas came around. I was thinking of ideas for gifts and I realised, as I thought back over the stories I had read in the anthology, that many of them reflected the people in my life and where they happened to find themselves. So I photocopied each particular one, wrote a short dedication explaining why I thought the story would resonate, amuse, or console and wrapped them up. I didn’t think too much more about it (there were other, more standard gifts too, in case you think it stingy and piratic (in the literal and intellectual senses)) after that.
Christmas morning arrived and I was with my family. We were all opening our gifts and I had just handed out mine. I was absorbed in unwrapping, avariciously (I love presents) until I suddenly realised that the room had gone silent. I looked up and everyone was staring down at their photocopied bits of paper in various emotional states: tears in eyes, mouths hanging a little open, smiles creasing across faces. It was really beautiful (although I feel a bit bad that I made my sister cry on Christmas day).
A physical embodiment of the power of this art form, as Marcus writes in the introduction: “A story is simply a sequence of language that produces a chemical reaction in our bodies. When it’s done well, it causes sorrow, elation, awe, fascination. It makes us believe in what’s not there, but it also pours color over what is, so that we can feel and see the world anew. It fashions people, makes us care for them, then ladles them with conflict and disappointment. It erects towns, then razes them. A story switches on some unfathomably sophisticated machine inside us and we see, gloriously, what is not possible.”
Perfect for Christmas really, and all the suspended disbelief it requires.