In the matter of few pages, short stories can capture just as resonant a story and characters as the comparatively longer novel. This makes them perfect time-fillers during train trips, during breaks between class, and during your wait in the doctor’s office.
But trying to find short stories that will inspire emotion, provoke deep thought and leave you with a lingering aftertaste of awe and wonder… this in itself can sometimes be a quite a challenging feat. So if you’ve been surfing the web in search of compelling short stories, look no further! Writer’s Edit brings you five contemporary short stories that will take you on a journey to be remembered.
1. ‘Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu
‘Paper Menagerie’ (2011), a heartbreakingly touching story written by Chinese-American science fiction writer Ken Liu, is the first ever fictional piece to win all three prestigious sci-fi/fantasy awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. It is one of Liu’s finest works to date, simply written yet deeply moving. Set against the backdrop of an American society unaccepting of Chinese culture, the story follows the protagonist and narrator, Jack, on his bildungsroman life journey as he struggles to come to terms with himself, with his Chinese mother, and with the jarring world around him.
Adopting a pared back prose form, Liu’s story beautifully explores the timeless themes such as love, family and identity. Equally beautifully, it encapsulates the nuances of cultural clashes existing not only at societal and household levels but also at a profoundly personal level. What makes ‘Paper Menagerie’ so unique is the way Liu embodies human irony and human flaw with such raw emotion that you won’t know what hits until it does.
You can read ‘Paper Menagerie’ here.
2. ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers’ by Yiyun Li
From Yiyun’s award-winning collection of short stories A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) comes this poignant narrative by Chinese-American author Yiyun Li, that brings readers on a deeply reflective journey underlying Mr Shi’s visit to see his recently-divorced daughter in America. In its most basic form, this is a story about isolation, love and happiness, an insightful piece that delves into the very heart of human nature, confronting you when you least expect it to.
Interweaving authentic voices that’ll cut to your bone, Yiyun will make you question everything you think you know about relationships. Fraught with dichotomies and contradictions, ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers’ examines what it means to be simultaneously connected and estranged, to be so trapped in the present that you notice your imprisonment in the past. Beneath her deceptively little movement of plot, Yiyun conceals a tenuous movement across time, space and culture, a kind of interwoven sadness, pain and frustration, harshly beautiful and tragic. This is a story that will stay with you long, long afterwards.
You can read ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers’ here.
3. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx
Riddled with contradictions and juxtapositions, set against the backdrop of Wyoming’s rough, unforgiving terrain comes Annie Proulx’s masterpiece ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (1997), a haunting romantic tale of two ranch-hands Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist who struggle to find a place for their love affair in an uncompromising world that rejects the very nonconformity their homosexuality embodies. First published in the New Yorker, it won an O. Henry prize and a National Magazine Award, and was, in 2005, also adapted into what would in time become a critically-acclaimed, award-winning film.
There is great power and depth in Proulx’s story. Proulx is both compassionate and brutally honest in her treatment of her characters, intertwining universal themes of love, loneliness and insecurity to create something really quite extraordinary and heartbreaking. Elegant and striking in its imagery, this is a tragedy that will grip onto your soul and simply refuse to let go.
You can read ‘Brokeback Mountain’ here.
4. ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver
Considered to be one of his most noteworthy short stories, ‘Cathedral’ (1983) is Raymond Carver’s postmodern narrative of a blind man’s untimely visit to Robert and his wife’s home, filled with metaphors and symbolism you can only ever speculate but never confirm. If there’s one thing that Carver does so brilliantly, it is the way he creates his characters so vividly that you yourself become immersed in their lost, diminished states. An interpretative kind of text, this story will take you on a purely abstract experience all within the confines of a banal, working-class home.
Employing his iconic stripped-down minimalist prose, Carver exerts such honesty and power into his words that you don’t even have to understand his tending-towards-enigmatic message to feel the full force of his narrative. This is a story that will make you think, yet more than that, this is a story that will make you question all those things you would otherwise blindly accept. ‘Cathedral’ will pull you in when you least expect it to, then proceed to leave you in moments of awe-inspiring silence.
You can read ‘Cathedral’ here.
5. ‘All Summer In One Day’ by Ray Bradbury
If there’s ever a story that will simultaneously give you shivers and foggy eyes, ‘All Summer In One Day’ (1954) by Ray Bradbury is that story. Set on Venus, a world of incessant rain where the sun only comes out once every seven years, this sci-fi narrative is subtly reminiscent of a less-gruesome The Lord of the Flies. Beautiful and confronting, ‘All Summer In One Day’ is a story you will not easily forget, “a metaphor” which Bradbury himself described as being “so vivid you can’t get free of [it]”.
Viewed through the lens of contemporary society, this story teaches important lessons about the permanent and very real consequences of bullying. Bradbury draws upon science fiction elements to bring us a fable of some kind, propelling us into a world that is so unfamiliar yet so strangely familiar as well. A short read, but one that really does leave a lasting impression. Whether you’re an avid sci-fi reader or not, this one’s definitely worth a read (or two… or more!).
You can read ‘All Summer In One Day’ here.
Of course, there are many other wonderful short stories not listed here (look here for a more comprehensive list), but the ones that are listed will really give you a taste of some of the more brilliant contemporary short stories available out there for you to read. So have some tissues ready. Time to savour the delights of reading!