While the short story is currently under-going one of its periods of robust, if not rude, health, its two dominant modes — the classical or Chekhovian, and the postmodern or experimental — have become harder to define, with authors happily borrowing tricks from both approaches. None of the collections here can definitively be confined to either camp, and this should be celebrated.
William Boyd’s decision in The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (Viking, £14.99) to jettison conventional character names is gently experimental, if not always successful. From the start we encounter exotics such as Ludo Abernathy and Arkady Lemko. Later, there’s a Zack, a Moxy and a Sholto. Later still, a Max Bassman, a Jurgen Kiel and (boldly) a Raleigh Maltravers. Just when you think Boyd’s ingenuity has been exhausted, he hits you with a Findlay McHarg, a Tarquin Wolde and a Jadranka Juranic.
These ludicrous names inevitably draw attention to themselves and undermine each character’s solidity. Fortunately, they don’t spoil the first eight stories, of which the most satisfying is ‘Humiliation’, a splenetic tale of literary rivalry and revenge. The novella-length title story is also a treat, a feast of Boydian irony and urbane observation.
Fresh Complaint (4th Estate, £16.99), Jeffrey Eugenides’s first collection, ranges widely in subject matter and location, with characters from his novels making startling cameos. In ‘Air Mail’, Mitchell from Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot is transplanted to a tropical island, where he observes, while suffering from an epic bout of amoebic dysentery, traveller girls with ‘truly accomplished suntans’. ‘Baster’ tells the story of the 40-year-old Thomasina, a Manhattan career woman seeking sperm from a dwindling pool of available men, ‘a ragtag gang of adulterers, losers… village-burners’. ‘It’s terrible,’ the narrator observes sardonically, ‘that women need this stuff… It must make them crazy, having everything they need to raise life but this one meagre leaven.’