Published after his death in 2017, Denis Johnson’s final collection of short stories tries to find transcendence in everyday moments. In characters with personalities mirroring his own, Johnson explores our relationship to the past, and how the past’s influence can be felt years down the line.
From a poet devoted to Elvis conspiracy theories to an ad man who, sometimes, reads “something wild and ancient from one of several collections of folk tales I own. Apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again. Then sometimes I get up and don my robe and go out into our quiet neighborhood looking for a magic thread, a magic sword, a magic horse.”
Johnson’s characters are bound in nuance, rebel against conventions, and are designed to challenge any preconceptions we think we can make. Many critics have compared his sparse writing style to that of Hemingway, and the beauty in some of the passages shows the influence. Check out his collection here.
Throughout Hemingway’s writing career you can see the influence that his experiences in war had on him. He couldn’t wrap his head around the sheer level of destruction he witnessed in both World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and other conflicts throughout Europe and Cuba.
As a result, he developed a philosophy that courage was grace under pressure, and challenged the characters in his stories to respond to various pressures. These could take the form of war itself, bullfights, hunting trips, and more.
In this short story, Hemingway is in the prime of career when we meet Francis McComber: a man who just embarrassed himself after he and his tour guide cornered a lion. However, throughout the course of the safari, we see a transformation take place in McComber until he fits the archetypal role of Hemingway.
With a twist at the end, this is a great short story you can finish in one sitting.
Written while she was still in college, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans. The novel focuses on a young doctor and the time she’s spent with her grandfather. In the stories he’s told her, different characters appear like a deaf-mute girl who tamed an escaped tiger. Or a “deathless man” who the grandfather encounters throughout life.
Obreht’s novel examines the Balkan doctor’s relationship to the destruction of the Balkan wars. Both a New York Times Bestseller and Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, The Tiger’s Wife interweaves folktale and history to understand the world. Find it here on Amazon.