Susan Perabo & Wolff’s Audacious “Bullet”

Susan Perabo
photo: Sha’an Chilson

The short story Susan Perabo has chosen to write about is one of my own favorite short stories, and the thing that draws her to that story is similar to what draws me to “This Is Not That Story,” one of the stories in her new collection, Why They Run the Way They Do. Perabo plays with our recognition of the act of reading a short story, of the expectations that we bring to such an experience, of how it will be told and what it will tell us, and yet when she dodges and weaves past those expectations, the self-consciousness is barely visible, and never distracting. The metafictional elements are front and center, yet it’s the fictional components that have stayed with me long after I’ve finished reading. In her other stories, her technique calls even less attention to itself, but remains at that consistent level of excellence. If you care about short stories, Susan Perabo should be on your radar—if she hasn’t been before, then you’re in for a great surprise.

Great short stories happen to you. In this way, stories are more like poems than like novels. A short story is a singular, uninterrupted experience, an event, occurring all at once. If you are someone who is passionate about literature, you probably have at least one story that’s so profound an event in your life that you recall where you were when you first read it, in the same way you recall where you were when you received some important, life changing piece of news. In the case of the story, maybe your whole life didn’t change, but your reading life, or your writing life did.

One story that happened to me is Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” I was at my job as a literature tutor for the intercollegiate athletes at the University of Arkansas. I was in the women’s study hall, located in the old Barnhill Arena. I was “on call,” which meant I sat around reading magazines until a student needed to talk with me about Oedipus or Gatsby or Marvell’s coy mistress. Most nights I was in the men’s study hall and worked pretty much nonstop, but once a week I was in the women’s study hall and had a lot of time to read. (Not a judgment—just an observation.)

The reading I had that night was the September 25th, 1995 issue of The New Yorker. It included the story “Bullet in the Brain,” which I noted happily was only three pages long. This was good because it meant I likely could read it without interruption.

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7 March 2016 | selling shorts |

Tobias Buckell: Cordwainer Smith’s Otherwordly Stories

Tobias S. Buckell
photo: Marlon James

I’ve known Tobias Buckell for several years now, ever since a mutual friend alerted me to his first two novels, Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. His new collection, Xenowealth, gathers together a number of stories set in the same world as those novels, a future where humanity has settled on other planets, but the cultures that have shaped those settlements aren’t the usual American/Western European templates seen in so much science fiction. When Tobias sent me this essay, I was delighted to see that he was writing about Cordwainer Smith; like him, I was entranced by my very first reading of Smith growing up in the ’80s, but for many years it was next to impossible to find any of his work without diligently hunting through the sci-fi sections of used bookstores… or in the way that he fell into Tobias’s hands.

I have an odd education in that I didn’t have really good access to solid libraries and bookstores growing up. That’s because I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean. So what books I got my hands on were often loaned to me by sailors coming through on boats from places far afield. I met people from the South Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Americas all passing through the harbor I grew up in.

They had these little mini-libraries in marinas or off in the corners here and there. Libraries that were just denoted by a sign that said “take a book, leave a book.” And once I had enough books, I prowled these limited shelves, poring over them for any science fiction or fantasy.

It was rare to find anthologies, but these were always treasured because they had a wide range of instant text nuggets. Stories could vary wildly, from prosaic to mind-blowing, in a single page turn. So when I came across a collection of stories by one Cordwainer Smith I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The book looked old, which was always worrying. I was reading in the late 1980s. The golden age stuff could be fun, but usually read unintentionally funny to me, which its square-jawed, omnicompetent men and 1950s sf-nal vocabulary.

So here’s this story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” that starts off: “Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living.” Humans throw themselves into space, “planoforming” ships skipping through the dark, and begin descended upon by what they perceive as dragons. But to their companion cats, thrown out as attack fighters, they’re rats.

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18 January 2016 | selling shorts |

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