Stay Up With Me

stay up with meI remember when short stories fell out of fashion. For a while there, from the mid-90s onwards, only the most established authors could risk a collection. But now, suddenly, they seem to be back, and I have just read two brilliant volumes in quick succession, with Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress still to come. I can remember that I agreed with the pervasive cultural judgement that a short story was less satisfying than a novel, and yet here I am, actively preferring the ones I’ve been reading to some of the full-length stories I’ve recently read. What’s going on?

Stay Up With Me, Tom Barbash’s debut collection was addictively compulsive. Just one more, I kept saying to myself, as shops closed, meals grew late and bedtime passed. Barbash has the gift of drawing the reader swiftly into his situations, where more often than not, some cherished certainty has just been rudely challenged. Divorced or widowed parents find new love, over-invested relationships fail, self-deception falls apart. It was always essential to know what happened next.

In the opening story, ‘The Break’, a mother is thrilled to have her college-age son home for the Christmas holidays, and then aghast when he begins a slightly clandestine relationship with a local waitress. She stalks him, insists the relationship end, loses it at one point and slaps the girlfriend and then, refusing to look her behaviour in the face, rustles up another girlfriend for him, a more appropriate one. There is so much packed into this with writerly slight of hand. How the mother can’t abide the thought of her son not wanting the things she wants for him, her unwitting projection of her own loneliness and neediness onto the waitress, her rather cunning manipulation of all concerned that runs dangerously close to showing her how badly she is acting out, and in the end, a hesitancy revealing both her hopes that her plans will come out as she wants and a fear that her son will see her behaviour for what it is. The perspective of the story inhabits the woman’s skin – we don’t know what she’ll do next, which creates the fascination, and yet we’re close enough to feel the contradictions in her behaviour, the way our best qualities and our most noble desires run so worryingly close to our worst choices and our most dangerous delusions.

In ‘January’, a teenaged boy is forced into a snowy expedition he does not want by his mother’s new and somewhat heavy-handed partner, a man determined to display his recklessness as a fun quality. The resultant disaster is just what the boy wants, and equally something he has to pay for in physical pain. In ‘Balloon Night’, Timkin decides to pretend his girlfriend hasn’t left him when their annual party takes place before the Macy’s parade. The resultant experience is one of joy that he can overcome disaster, and of constant fear that he may be found out. In one of my favourites, ‘Somebody’s Son’, a real estate con man who is something of a newbie and therefore not quite on board with his job, gets close to an elderly couple whose property he wants to buy for a song. He longs for them to get wind of the situation and keeps stealing small items from their house, displaying them openly in the hope they’ll wise up. But in the end, they shame him in unexpected ways with their impermeable goodness and kindness. The richness of the emotional experience is, in each of these cases and many more, extremely satisfying.

I loved the way that the stories reveal the strange onion-skinned nature of existence. The top layer of what Barbash’s characters think they’re doing, the image they cling to of themselves, is peeled away to show what they are actually doing, the emotions they are working so hard to conceal, and then a further layer remains – the unexpected outcome of their actions because the world always works in ways that are stubbornly mysterious to his characters, so intent are they on their fabled goals. One intriguing example of this is ‘Paris’ in which a journalist with a humanitarian taste for real suffering and disaster visits a poor town in upstate New York. The portrait he paints of it in his subsequent newspaper article as a town fraught with problems of poverty, alienation, addiction and anti-social behaviour is one he considers powerful and hard-hitting. When he’s called to a meeting in the town, he is amazed that the inhabitants are so upset by their representation. He meant it as a call to arms, a wake-up alarm to authorities and inhabitants alike – but was he right, or are the townspeople right to take offence?

I found most of these stories ended on an unresolved chord, a new situation on the point of opening up, for instance, or an unexpected twist that challenged all easy judgements. It was a clever kind of frustration. Though in some of the stories – the last one in particular, in which a young man who has recently lost his mother finds his father’s newfound womanizing hard to cope with – he shows how sometimes we need to go wrong, to suffer and ache and agonise – before we can go right. Ultimately, Barbash’s characters display the unexpected but oh so necessary elasticity of human emotions, the way we can hover near the brink and then snap back into a new version of ourselves. This was just another example of the emotional authenticity that kept me welded to this book until I’d finished it. One of those rare books that make me long to read it again.


18 thoughts on “Stay Up With Me

  1. Great stuff. Check out a guy named Creston Lea. He makes custom guitars now and his website is worth a visit (the FAQ page is a hoot), but at one time he wrote a collection of short (very short) stories that are excellent. And they kind of force the question of what exactly IS a short story?

    • I always love me a recommendation. Thank you – a completely new name to me and one I’ll have to check out. Yes, where exactly does the line between flash fiction and a short story lie? Probably someone out there does have an answer to that!

      • I took a course a couple terms ago and the topic was short stories. We read flash fiction and longer tales, and we asked that same question. There was no unified conclusion from the class, which led me to think that stories are in the eye if the beholder haha. I’m okay with a first page and a last as a story, even if nothing is resolved in the plot, or loose ends give you a cliff hanger; but it still has to seem like it has a stopping point. Like you can walk away from it and never revisit but feel satisfied like listen to someone speak, their life story is not over so there’s no actual
        conclusion. It’s like short stories are vignettes in the human story. That’s okay by me to call each one complete.

      • Well I’m sure you’re right in that there is – and ought to be – a whole lot of flexibility in the idea of the short story. And a really good writer can manage the sort of cliffhanger ending where you still feel you’ve been told all the elements that comprise a story. It IS all about how it’s done. He doesn’t post flash fiction much anymore, but a site I used to like is here:

  2. Good thing I know nothing about literary fashions as I never lost my desire to read stories (if good) of any length (a few pages to a 1000+) at all. I also read some excellent (not flawless of course) collections in the late 1990’s early 2000’s from some new writers so perhaps they hadn’t looked at the fashion pages either! One example was ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” (2000) which I recommend as well as the collection of short stories she published under that title in 2003.

  3. Because I am blind to fashion I don’t know whether the short story is in or out, simply that it is a genre I find very difficult to enjoy. I think if I was to find my way into a collection it would have to be an anthology because should I not appreciate the style of a single author I could move on. Do you know of any good ones?

    • I’d love to read this collection just for the sheer joy that Victoria exhibits, that is so uncharacteristically associated with the idea of the short story.

      Like you Alex, I’ve never enjoyed the short story. I’ve always found it difficult to get emotionally engaged – when I was younger I expressed this as the thought that I was waiting for the author to reveal the story’s “twist” and find out the “answer” and that to me made it a less real thing.

      I think the fact that you leave the characters after a couple of dozen or so pages inherently makes a reader reluctant to invest their emotional energy and time. I don’t think it’s uncommon for readers to say they don’t like stories, and of course publishing short stories is usually an uneconomic exercise. In the light of this, an alternative purpose of short stories seems to have developed, which is competitions for aspiring writers, and with competition comes an element of having to be noticed, rather than producing something organic to be enjoyed in itself. I feel that this type of story can be a bit worthy and frankly sometimes downright “What the hell is this obscure misery fest that I have found myself in?”

      It seems like a vicious cycle – I wonder what would happen if publishers put some effort into promoting the short story and just encouraged writers to create something fantastic to read?

      Having said that all that, the one short story writer I really enjoy is AL Kennedy. She’s great, dislike of short stories or no.

      • Denise, like you there have been very few short story collections that I’ve really enjoyed. I have been getting into the idea of the linked short story collection, like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (that I wasn’t wild about it had in this instance nothing to do with the short story aspect). I think you’re quite right that it can be hard to feel invested enough, and I think the trend for ‘slice of life’ stories rather than something that had a beginning, middle and end, didn’t help that. I have never tried A L Kennedy, though I have heard lots of good things about her writing. On the list she goes!

      • AL Kennedy is on my twitter feed and same as on TV, she is very lively and funny. I never understand why her stories are so comparatively dour! They are good though (don’t let my description put you off.)

        That Karachi book I reviewed was linked short stories. Although some of them had a bit of a bridging feel about them rather than being equally powerful in their own right.

    • Alex, yes I remember you saying that you aren’t fond of short stories. I struggle with anthologies as the (perfectly sensible) idea of including a whole range of styles usually means there’s only a few I like. I think short stories at the moment must just be doing the sort of thing I enjoy. Oh, one thought occurs to me – do you like fairy tales? Because they are just a form of short story. Just wondered.

      • That’s interesting, Litlove. I’ve done a lot if work with fairy tales but mainly because they are short and normally fit the archetypes where structure is concerned. It’s a basic tenet of tagmemics – understand the simple first. Consequently I tend to see them as a tool rather than a short story and I’ve never given much thought as to whether or not I like them.

      • Ha yes, I completely get that. I read so much French fiction to teach and it really never crossed my mind to ask if I liked it or not in that way.

  4. Sounds good with lots of variety. I am not much of a short story reader. I can chow down on essays but short stories, for some reason I have to be in the right mood and it seems I seldom am. Still, I am very much looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s new book.

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