The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing
Here, Lessing shows that she can weave a succinct horror story of a child born into the wrong time. The Fifth Child clocks in 500 pages short of The Golden Notebook, but is packed with as much complex domestic nausea and conflicting emotion.
The Former World Record Holder Settles Down, by Courtney Eldridge
The story quickly devolves from hilarious to tragic. What initially appears to be a routine bout of marital ennui turns out to be much more: just wait until you find out what the world record is for. What kills me in this story though, is the way the telling jumps around in time, skipping ahead to give a little hint, and then sneaking back to an event you forgot you were in the middle of. This feels more full than a regular short-story, but it’s not long enough to be a novel.
EVER, by Blake Butler
I don’t know if this is a novel, novella, or an epic prose poem. Does it matter? Is this what this whole top ten list is all about? Making arbitrary distinctions? Well, okay. I want a chance to sing the praises of this here novella. It reads like taking a big gulp of something, and then not having room enough in your mouth to swallow, so you have to let some dribble out. Read me? It’s good. You wanted a gulp that big.
The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac
Listen, I’m known among friends for the statement, “I love not camping,” so as much as I tried to enjoy The Dharma Bums and On the Road, The Subterraneans was really more my speed, complete with night clubs, snazzy clothes, a complicated break-up and dark alleys. This one reads at a city pace and length.
Dragons in Manhattan, by Francesca Lia Block
This is the first time I remember encountering something that was this odd 60 page length. I read the rest of the book, skipped this story, and then went back to the middle, where this monster was sandwiched, resigned to tackling it because I’d enjoyed the other tales so much. The language is lush, the story imaginative yet real. Looking back, it’s maybe a bit flowery, but boy if it wasn’t rewarding to my thirteen-year-old self. It was an epic in the midst of abstracts, traveling across the country with Tuck Budd to find her origins.
Pastoralia, by George Saunders
I read this novella twice right in a row. It took me about 20 pages before I figured out Saunders’ voice. This was my first exposure. Then all I wanted to do was read his work always. But first I wanted to go back and catch what I had missed. Thank goodness this story is as long as it was; slow learners like me need time to catch on.
The Burrow, by Franz Kafka
I wonder what would have happened if he finished this story. Could he have sustained it for much longer? Maybe it would have ended up being a novel. I happen to like it as it stands. The anxiety never relents. “But the most beautiful thing about my burrow is stillness. Of course, that is deceptive. At any moment it may be shattered and then all will be over.”
This section of Three Lives, shows Stein’s ability to tell a story pretty straight, but there are still hints of that repetition that makes her writing so downright soul-crushing. This is a reined in Stein, but it’s a good introduction for people who are suspicious.
Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by David Foster Wallace
This novella is overblown and impeccable, something I think only Wallace could pull off with panache. I’ll be honest, all I really remember from this are interruptions and intersections. That and the fact that by the end I could feel my stomach down in my feet: that’s usually the best sign.
Tumble Home, by Amy Hempel
I’m glad Amy Hempel has stuck with her tried and true story length, but I’m affirmed by her ability to stretch one out a little more. Pretty much every sentence that Hempel writes sends my stomach down into my feet the way WtCoETIW as a whole did. This novella proves it’s not necessarily an issue of only so many of those sentences being strung together.
Jac Jemc sells books, makes monsters, and writes fiction, poetry, and the occasional review. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, finished 2nd place in the Marginalia College Contest and placed as a finalist for the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest. Find her HERE.