One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an addition twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Within seconds, the debate began among short story enthusiasts. Everyone seemed to want to add their own story or writer. Where were the British writers? Where was Hemingway? Saki? O. Henry? Such a list is so subjective, but the true fun lies is in debating the merits of each story and adding in the stories that resonate personally with each one of us. I had read 18 out of the 36 stories, a mere 50%. Some of the stories I hadn’t read in twenty years. So these have now been included in my ongoing studies. My plan is to read or re-read these stories, research it’s influence, and write up something I learned from the story.
My favorite short stories have always been the ones that leave me stunned at the end. Stories that make me feel like I’ve been clubbed over the head with a larger truth and left dazed. James Joyce’s The Dead is a classic example of a short story that builds to the end.
The first two stories from the One Story list that I tackled were J.D. Salinger stories. For Esme - With Love and Squalor made the top ten list. A Perfect Day for Bananafish made the extended list.
These two stories are interesting to read and compare. They both feature a soldier dealing with the mental costs of war. Both men share a profound experience with a young girl who is a stranger, and in which there is a peculiar sexual undercurrent.
Of the two stories, Bananafish resonated with me more. The violent ending may have been part of it, but I thought the story was more balanced and intriguing. The imagery of the young wife, Muriel, being oblivious to her husband’s mental anguish in the first half of the story is almost comical. The second half, when Seymour Glass plays with the young girl on the beach leaves the reader on edge. It’s not until Seymour is rude to a woman in the elevator do we realize the mother in law’s concerns may be valid.
In Esme, the narrator opens up explaining he received a wedding invitation but cannot travel to the affair. He writes of how he met the bride to be only once some years ago while he was a soldier in Devon, England and she was a young child. The first half of the story is told in first person. When we proceed into “the squalor part” of the story, the narrator explains he will now be known as X and it becomes clear he has experienced a nervous breakdown due to the war. When he opens the letter from Esme, and the broken watch falls out, he is reminded of her innocence and is soothed into sleep.
What I like most about these stories is the oddity of the dialogue between the grown men and the children. Esme’s character is particularly interesting as expressed through dialogue. She’s proper, intelligent, yet a bit aloof as well.
Note: Both stories can be found in J.D. Salinger's collection, Nine Stories.
Next Up: Mother’s Reaction to My Travel Plans by Lydia Davis.