1. Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home: a Novella and Short Stories
A must. If you look at the novel as the great white elephant of fiction, then the short short is the fire ant. This collection scares the elephant, bites at feet, and leaves scars. The last story, Tumble Home, the novella within the collection, is a winding drive up and down a long cliff of fighting with the self, which is why I think we love Hempel’s work in part, it feels like she’s always in some kind of treachery with herself. She’s putting herself in danger, on the line every time she admits, “French film. French film.” I spent five years walking around with the sentence “the women did not think shave, they thought: stay” from “Weekend,” a story that is a precursor to the novella in the collection. I’d say it’s to date one of the more influential pieces in all of my writing.
2. The Gambler, by Dostoevsky
I feel like this novella has influenced every gambling, action, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon movie of all time. A tutor is addicted to roulette and has to gamble to pay off his gambling bills. Deviant, fun, exciting, and kinda sad. A good read about a con artist, for whatever reason, overlooked.
3. Pinocchio, by Carlos Collodi
Technically a novella. Calvino said that every writer must start with Pinocchio. I actually just read it for the first time last month and it made me cry and blew my mind, man. Allegory in the original gangsta. Read it, read it proudly. It’s important, particularly if you’re into surrealism, fabulism, and writing.
4. EVER, by Blake Butler
I haven’t read it in my hands yet, just excerpts over the internet (the think box, the quiet keyboard) but I know this man is on the up and up. Contemporary lit needs him and I am proud to call him a contemporary. Read it, we can have a reading group about it via email, when I read it for real, but I’m damn sure about repping this good guy and impressive mind, author, person on the list.
5. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Did you know that Kafka actually died a penniless lawyer? True story. I have an essay forthcoming in Heat which discusses the dream sequence as being shunned by the MFA canon and the world in general, and then, I point to you this novella where a dude wakes up a bug. Or is he dreaming, or is he awake or was he neither at all, or will he be either ever? Was this politics or metaphor or both or neither? Einstein once said, “You’re on a train to Boston at 60 mph. Is Boston coming to you, or are you going to it?” You can write a man as a bug, you can be a bug; you can’t argue against the Kafka.
5. One DOA, One on the Way, by Mary Robison
It’s been like eight to eleven years since anybody’s heard a peep out of this author, who wrote my third favorite collection of short stories, An Amateur’s Guide to the Night. We see threads of Robison’s earlier work throughout the newest piece in formatting and plot. There seems to be someone with a grave illness in every work, but the story is told differently each time. The novella reads like the hot Louisiana air it’s set in, thick.
6. Book 2 of Bolaño’s 2666: The Part about Amalfitano
Each of the five sections in this one giant massive book my friend James Yeh likes to call, “McCarthyish blood and cum,” is technically a novella. Bolaño requested pre-death that the novellas be published as five separate sections, specifically so his estate would reap the financial reward, but his family and editors felt it worked better as one. Bolaño was dying of liver disease while writing 2666 (the title, btw is a nod to the cemetery in his novel, Amulet) and the books read like a man who wanted to say everything he ever wanted to say, crafted like a poet. The Part about Amalfitano is an existential, metaphysical, electrical trip through the psyche of a man who has been left by his wife. Amalfitano is a professor in Santa Theresa Mexico, and going nuts. His wife has supposedly left him for a poet, the poet is in an insane asylum, his daughter has a mystic air of trouble around her at all times, Bolaño’s subtext suggests he was making a point about maternal love and the need for it, but I digress, so Amalfitano is unpacking books one day, and hangs one containing geometry off a clothesline, ala Duchamp, I’d argue, and the book begins to rot, as does Amalfitano’s grip on reality, or maybe he’s getting closer to it, and Bolaño peppers the writing with geometrical diagrams. There’s more, but you have to read it. You must.
7. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
I think—and stop me if you disagree here—that on some small level, in order to play with the paint, we must know how the paint works, even a little. A Christmas Carol is the paint. Dickens is the paint. Dickensian Romanticism to this blue collar girl is like, pretty important. It’s like, can you build it, in your mind, man? Google Metaphysics and Dickens and Romanticism and then tell me the muppet special on A Christmas Carol wasn’t propaganda. In a good way. I think this novella is “the model.”
8. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin.
Listen, if you want to write metaphor for a movement, say, feminism, read this. That’s all, nothing more, nothing less, essential.
9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Again, with the Romanticism and the Industrialism and the Metaphysics and the Allegory and the Metaphor. “DJMH” as I like to call it, is a quadruple-edged sword of psyche and politics. You ever wake up somebody else? How about forced to pick a different ideology? Really thirsty but without water? In the American public school canon, DJMH is taught as a fun read about a kind of scientific-schizo. It’s only higher up on the “acada” food chain that we really begin to delve into why and what RLS was getting at, which was next level good old fashioned earth shattering venting of frustration.
10. Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
Totally surprised? Here’s what I think: a. I love Steve Martin in all forms b. It’s an example of elegant typing. It’s just so pretty. Not totally re-inventing the wheel, but close. I sort of wish it was written from a Cather perspective. Reading it, one gets the distinct feeling Martin could have written it in close first, that the main character for him, Mirabelle, could have been an “I”. I think also read Spinx by Garetta, a love story in which neither character is assigned gender, throughout the entire novel. I think the two go hand in hand, and that all of the hands are human, not man, not woman.