Two Short Stories (or Pint-Sized Prattle about Prose)

You may or may not know that I have a TinyLetter in which I send out short stories I've written to the hapless few who (now likely regret having) signed up for this newsletter. It started out being a biweekly thing but then I got bored, like I do with most things, and now it's a whenever-the-hell-I-feel-like-it deal.

The title of the newsletter is louisa & the bananafish, and I was hurt when not one of my subscribers asked where that title came from. Didn't they wonder who Louisa was? Didn't they wonder what the fuck a bananafish is?

To be honest, I suspect many of them don't actually read anything I send, and that's okay. But I'm actually quite fond of the name of my newsletter and there's a very distinct reason why I chose it. louisa and the bananafish is a combination of part of the titles of my two most favourite short stories ever: "Louisa, Please Come Home" by Shirley Jackson and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger.

The latter I read for the first time when I was about 18 or 19 and was blown away by the impact of its simplicity. My love for Salinger has long since been diffused, but "Bananafish" is still a story that touches me like few others have and, honestly, the chronicles of the Glass family are morbidly fascinating to me.

"Bananafish," at the end of the day, is sentimental crap, more or less. It's a bit of a silly and superficial story about the suicide of the eldest glass child, Seymour. When you're still a teenager and death of any sort has a ring of romance around it, this story is revolutionary. At least, that was the case for me. Like with The Catcher in the Rye, I can't stop loving it because it found me at a time when I needed it, and the feeling of satisfaction from having that need met always returns when I read both this story and Catcher.

Salinger had a lot of influence on me when I was a teenager. That sounds cliched as fuck, I know, but that's the truth of it. I read Catcher when I was an awkward and unattractive 14-year-old who lived in worlds of fiction, mostly those I created myself. These included the worlds I created for the characters in my short stories, but also (unbeknownst to me at the time) the world I had created for myself. In retrospect, I was a sad, quiet, unpopular kids, but the good things about it was that I was oblivious to all that. That ignorance is really the only thing that got me through childhood, which (as I think back on it today) was filled with teasing and bullying and jokes at my expense.

When I read The Catcher in the Rye as a skinny, introverted 14-year-old, I was enamoured with Holden Caulfield. I thought every single thing about him was admirable and fascinating. I developed an instant crush on him and, to this day, I still consider him the fictional love of my life. By the time I was 17 and reading Catcher in class (it must've been my fourth or fifth time reading it by then), I wanted to sock Holden in his whiney, poor-little-rich-boy face. The older I get and the more disdain I muster for the youths, the more annoyed I get at Holden.

But, he holds a soft spot in my heart for being the first literary character I ever connected with. There are parts of Holden's stream of consciousness with which I still 100% agree (namely this line: "Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.") and I like rereading that book because it's a unique form of nostalgia I can only get from that book alone.

Plus, I have to credit it for helping to kickstart the now seemingly lifelong wormhole I've fallen into that leads me from writer to writer and helped me find favourites like my beloved Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Anais Nin, John Steinbeck, Nella Larsen, Carson McCullers and Richard Wright, to name just a few. But before that it led me to "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which I don't consider to be a particularly good story (having had a lot more to compare it to by now), but the tenderness and the perfect exchange between Seymour and the little girl still pulls at something in me. I don't read this story often, and lately I haven't at all, because it breaks my heart and makes me envy Seymour and sends me into a well of melancholia as I'm reminded that everything is hopeless and nothing matters.

I doubt you'll go that deeply into it, but I think "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is worth a read anyway.

Now, "Louisa, Please Come Home" is a whole 'nother story. And it's a fucking perfect story. My admiration for it is a recent acquisition. I read it just this past year in one of the many collections I own of Shirley Jackson's short stories. It's about a girl who runs away from home and three years later, while her family is still looking for her, she ends up returning; but her family's reaction is not what she (or I) expected at all.  

It's not one of Jackson's most shocking or disturbing stories, it's not really even one of her best, in my humble opinion, but it's weird and eerie enough that I've thought of it often since reading it.

Shirley Jackson is one of those writers who I wish had a larger body of work for me to devour, because I love falling into Shirley's eerie little world where everything seems normal but you can feel something is off and there's a secret thrill in embracing that feeling. She's best known for her short stories, of course, but was also a novelist. The Haunting of Hill House is likely her most popular followed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it's her debut novel, The Road Through the Wall that I really love. It's early Jackson, so it's not as shrouded in demon lore and doesn't have the outright horror and ugliness of humanity that she presents in her later books. Road has the same sort of unlikable and troubled characters as the rest of her work, but it's like she was really holding back, but the result was a group of characters so intricately detailed and events so mundane yet fascinating that it forces the reader to really see everyone.

Apologies for that ramble; I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Shirley Jackson that are a mixture of my admiring the hell out of her but also being slightly intimidated by her--she was feisty as fuck and troubled, but managed to run a household with four kids, numerous cats, a adulterous husband while also pumping out fiction that was intricate as lace but sticks to you like glue whether you want it to or not.

That's what happened with me and "Louisa, Please Come Home." Of all Jackson's stories, that one really attached itself to me and I still think of it shudder a little while envying the macabre sense of freedom it details. It's also fine writing, as all of Jackson's prose is, and you definitely should read "Louisa, Please Come Home" and then go read pretty much everything else Shirley Jackson has ever written.

And then, if you're a glutton for punishment and still want more of my ramblings on short fiction I love, here are some short stories I adore but don't adore enough to call my favourites:

  • "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway (I loathe Hemingway but have to admit that his short stories are not as shitty as his books, and this is my favourite of his stories since I can't choose a favourite from the Nick Adams stories.)
  • "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (This is probably Jackson's best-known work and what made her a household name. The story is wild and I'm still shocked every time I read it.)
  • "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker (I always say that Dorothy Parker is the woman I want to grow up to be and that's mostly because I admire the hell out of her acid tongue. But her poetry and short fiction is also fab, and this story is one that always made me laugh both when I was a young girl very much like the narrator of the story and today.)
  • "The Man from the South" by Roald Dahl (When you outgrow his kids books, Dahl ushers you into adulthood with his eerie, quirky short stories for adults. I am kind of obsessed with them and it's hard to choose just one because they're all spectacular, but this one stuck with me.)
  • "Charles" by Shirley Jackson (Yes, I have another Jackson on here; it wasn't just talk when I said I loved the hell out of her. This is not totally a fictional tale though the first time I read it I thought there might be something supernatural about it. It turns out, it's actually a [likely embellished] anecdote about her first-born son, Laurence, which she had included in her brilliant and hilarious memoir, Life Among the Savages.)
  • "Prey" by Richard Matheson (I feel like Richard Matheson, like Ira Levin, is a very underrated writer. He's not "high art," but his work is always engrossing and imaginative as heck. I liken him to Stephen King, whom I also adore for his dedication to the craft and the perfect simplicity of his prose. Matheson, unlike King, is better at the subtle suspense and the building up of a climax that will have your hair standing on end.)
  • "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl (I told you it was hard to pick from Dahl's body of work! This story always tickled the misandrist in me and I just love the ending. I feel like this is what Hannibal Lector would be like if he had been created by Roald Dahl instead of Thomas Harris.)