[Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This story opens the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.

It begins with a man visiting his parents, where a chance comment sparks a memory from his childhood. It’s clear, as the story goes on, that the man regrets his action as a child, but the author manages to convey this without ever being as heavy-handed as to say so.

The Opening Line

The story opens with a line that tells us a lot and paints a vivid scene in delicate brush strokes.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

Think about how much we know:

  • The son visits, but is only acting ‘like a dutiful son’. He doesn’t want to be there, but he goes, by rote, because that is what one must do.
  • “Enugu” tells us that where this story is taking place. Even if we don’t know where Enugu is (do you?) it tells us where it is NOT taking place.
  • “Small, over furnished flat” suggests that the parents have downsized after a retirement or other change of circumstances
  • “That grew dark in the afternoon” – the son is not happy with this place. It suggests to me that the parents once had a larger, lighter, more expansive home. The son feels claustrophobic in this new flat – how much of that is real and how much psychological, we can’t know yet, but it certainly introduces the concept straight away.

The second sentence begins

Retirement had changed them…

For me, as a reader, this pulls me in straight away. I know this is not going to be wholly a naval-gazing story about a middle aged man. It’s inviting me to ask questions: how has it changed them? How has/will retirement change me/my parents?

And the changes that the son chooses to focus on are interesting: his parents are more credulous than they used to be. Several times he insists “my parents would have scoffed at these stories”. It’s not clear where the story’s going, but the ‘first act’ of the story ends when a lurid story relayed by his parents bring up a former acquaintance — a servant or ‘house boy’ — from his childhood, who has got into trouble as an adult.

“…the ringleader was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago, I don’t think you’ll remember him.”

I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.

My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”

But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.

And we’re off. Of COURSE we’re going to keep reading, because once again the writer has invited us to ask questions. Why does he remember Raphael? What went down between them? And what does it have to do with his later rabble-rousing?

The rest of the story recounts the narrator’s life as a twelve year old boy, the son of older, intellectual parents who could afford to have servants help raise him and tend the house.

But Aidiche doesn’t really tell the story. She paints it. We live through the boy’s obsession with Kung Fu; we feel the sanded down wood of the nunchucks Raphael makes for him out of old mop handles; we see a still-life of the ‘patient’s altar’ his parents make by his bed when he is sick (“orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray”)

And when the story ends, we know that the seeds of the man’s later regret are planted in the moment the twelve year olds. The author doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to infuse a moral message into a story without making it read like a fable. It also illustrates how to introduce readers to a different culture, without great sections of exposition, but rather through select details and dialect/language choices.

[Reading Room] The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

I found this richly-detailed story in the Nebula Showcase 2016.

This story is structured in sections, each one headed up by a scientific description of one of the states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Each, loosely, represents a theme for the following segment.

The story is deeply personal and universal (dealing with the challenges faced by those living in modern Pakistan) and at the same time veers into a kind of magical realism that opens it up wide.

Reading this story brought home to me the difficulties and rewards of reading stories from different cultures:

  • It’s difficult because the language flows differently, and because cultural details and assumptions can catch you out.
  • It’s rewarding for all the same reasons, plus you get to challenge your own world view and assumptions. Best of all, you hear poetry in the language that you’d never encounter if you only read within your own culture.

This story slowed me down, and rewarded me for savoring it.

Read it online here

[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell

clarkesworldmagazine.com

If you want to read an incredibly skilled story that is engaging and moving and gritty and touching, written by a writer with a sure hand, give The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell a try.

(It was originally published in Science Fiction Age but I found it in Clarkesworld Magazine)

Just look at this opening: Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Fish Merchant by Tobias Buckell”

[Reading Room] The Day We Were Fish by Stephen Koster

Feathertale.com

It’s just an ordinary a day in the office, when suddenly the boss notices his staff are turning into fish…

This engagingly bizarre and whimsical short story by Stephen Koster reminds me why I love the short story. Short stories let you break all the rules. They are amuse-bouche. They are wonderful places for trying out ideas you could never sustain in a novel (or maybe you could, but a short story is certainly a good place to test out the idea).

As with many of the short stories I read, this one wasn’t perfect, but it was amusing and it split my brain open and filled it with all kinds of ideas, and it inspire me to write. Can’t ask for more than that!