(CLASSIC: from The Complete Short Stories, Vintage)
For prophetic power and inexhaustible symbolism alone, I’d have to say one of my favourites would be Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’. Celebrity culture, reality TV and performance art are just three aspects of contemporary 21st century life that this story envisioned a century before. Add to this list of prophesies Kafka’s own tragic demise – starving to death after a throat infection left him unable to eat – and you realise the horror of the story just goes on an on. And yet it isn’t a wholly bleak story, it has humour and wonder in it. That’s the thing about Kafka, the stories are so strange you can see almost anything in them. This story also pulls that masterful conjuring trick that you see elsewhere in stories like ‘In the Penal Colony,’ that of viewing the future from an even more futuristic vantage point, i.e. retrospectively. The future is just a passing fad.
(MODERN: from The Complete Short Stories, )
If I were honest I’d say my favourite modern short would be either David Constantine’s ‘In Another Country’ (from Under the Dam) or Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition’ (from The Madman of Freedom Square), but no one would believe me, since I also happen to be their publisher. So I’ll keep things neutral and plump for J G Ballard’s ‘The Dead Astronaut’ – or at least that’s my favourite this week. The intricate, layered symbolism of this story enables it to be simultaneously about both the betrayal of a relationship and the collapse of a civilisation (namely the American Empire, as fanfared through the space race). ‘Sputnik’ – Murakami tells us (in another book) – is the Russian word for ‘fellow traveler,’ but what happens when your fellow traveler is dead? Ballard’s story even has a classic plot twist and a quite separate reveal which, like all good reveals, isn’t actually explicated. Awesome. If I could do a Dr Frankenstein on modern short story writers it would be to fuse the poetry of Constantine with the ideas of Philip K Dick. This story crash-lands not too far away from that perfect spot.
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