(CLASSIC: from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Abacus)
My favourite short story writer has to be David Foster Wallace, and though it hasn’t been too long since it was published, I’ve heard the word ‘classic’ attached to his work for several years now, particularly in relation to his book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I find it really hard to choose between these stories – some are spoofs of academic writing where the footnotes take over the narrative entirely; some are one-sided interviews where the questioner is silent and you have to work out what the question is from the way the hideous men in the title respond; and some of the stories are brutal little flash fictions. My favourite of these is a seven-line story that opens the book and gives a flavour of the kind of thing to expect from what follows. It’s called ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life.’ But instead of making any effort to give an actual history, Foster Wallace simply describes, in deliberately over-formal way, two people being introduced to each other. Neither person likes the other, but pretends to. The person who introduces them likes neither of them, but pretends to. They all go home. The End. One of my favourite stories of all time.
(MODERN: from Unlikely Stories, Mostly, Penguin)
I’ve chosen this because it was the first story of his that really made me want to write about him, eventually leading me to write a biography about Gray and his work. The story is about two poets, Bohu and Tohu, who live in an unnamed palace in an unnamed Empire. They are taken from their families at an early age and raised in isolation for a single purpose: to one day write a poem to glorify the Emperor, a dictator who has destroyed the country outside his palace walls. Tohu is a comic poet who does exactly as he’s told. Bohu chooses to write a poem condemning the Emperor instead. But when he delivers it, his overlords are delighted. All they need to do to turn it into a poem of praise instead of criticism is to remove one syllable from the title. All at once the story is playful and deadly serious, and even now I’m still not sure what it’s all supposed to mean. But maybe that’s why it’s stayed with me.
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