Houman Barekat

A choice of short stories

Houman Barekat reviews collections from Gordon Lish, Joshua Ferris, Mary Gaitskill and Jim Shepard

It can’t be easy to switch between editing others people’s fiction and writing your own: how do you suspend that intuitive critical impulse? Gordon Lish, who is best known as the editor of Raymond Carver’s short stories but has also written plenty of fiction in his own right, is familiar with this dilemma, and in White Plains (Little Island Press, £18.99) he has fun with it. These stories are replete with parenthetical um-ing and ah-ing over synonyms, punctuation and grammatical solecisms — a prolix testament to the agonies of prose composition: ‘Losing tone here, not retaining purchase on stance here, falling to pieces with the coward’s frolic along the phraseological here.’ When Lish declares, at the outset of one story, that ‘every utterance in this book has been coddled’ he really means it.

The material collected here ranges from short fictions such as ‘Naugahyde’, a terse, elliptical dialogue between a married man and his mistress, to meandering soliloquies such as ‘Declaration of Dependence’, in which the author gives out his personal telephone number and encourages the reader to give him a call ‘only if you are… feeling truly “up” to it and “up” for it’. Lish’s riffing whimsy and winkingly mannered prose style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; readers who wish to preserve their sanity would be well advised to dip in and out of White Plains, rather than read it in one stretch.

Altogether more accessible is Joshua Ferris’s The Dinner Party (Viking, £14.99) which teases wry humour out of stagnant or moribund relationships in contemporary New York. A man who comes clean about an affair pleads, in mitigation, that everybody else is at it too; a woman consoles her sexually underperforming partner with a damning pat on the head.

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