Story writers

Three brilliant short story writers: Elizabeth McCracken, Rivka Galchen and Lydia Davis

The three American writers in question here are all fiercely original creators of fiction, owners of voices outsized by their idiosyncrasy and ambition. Elizabeth McCracken is perhaps the most conventional of the three, but no less daring or inflexible. The quiet and terrifying stories of “Dumbfounded” (Dial Press, $26) all centered on loss or disaster. In McCracken’s universe, children suffer from illness, abandonment, neglect and other terrible crimes. (If you’re a helicopter parent with an active imagination, this book isn’t for you.)

It is a fiction about the “mapping of the unexploitable”, the emptiness of contemporary life, the frightening gaps in the web of society. How easy it is to disappear. McCracken’s prose navigates with precision until it hits, sickeningly and thrillingly: “They found a body.” “We learned the big news slowly.” “That’s why you had two children.” These stories have the edgy emotional valence of fairy tales, where naming dangers – the Wicked Witch, the Hungry Wolf – somehow comes down to overpowering them. The result is like a set of forgotten tales from the Brothers Grimm translated into the jolting anomie of modern life. “They also had a terrible history, or soon would,” says the narrator of one particularly disheveled story, of an inept young couple. “He would have liked to find this achievement ennobling, but he didn’t: he was furious with them during . . . whatever tragedy was just a beacon on the road ahead.

To read Rivka Galchen is to enter a wonderland where the strange and the banal march at an improbable pace. I’ve spent the better part of a week like a word-mechanic looking under the hood of an exotic car, trying to figure out what makes the weird little fables in “American Innovations” tick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). Part of it has to do with the way Galchen emphasizes the unexpected, like a magician directing your attention one way while the real action is elsewhere. “The whole north side was covered in fire”, for example, opens with a woman discovering that her husband has just left her, her and her unborn child, taking with him “a particularly pleasant parmesan cheese grater” but leaving behind him his winter coat. The woman’s first reaction, of course, is to “look online for a replacement.” . . because I really liked this parmesan grater.

Confronted with utterly puzzling circumstances – ghosts, time travel, possessed possessions – Galchen’s characters react with a literal sense of fact that is funny and heartbreaking. They speak of “the horrible feeling of wanting another life”, of how “our world obeys rules still foreign to our imagination”. It’s their sense of not being quite at home in the world that sticks with the reader, who feels oddly elated after these rambling adventures.

Lydia Davis, meanwhile, continues to expand her inimitable body of work with “I can’t and I don’t want to (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). It brings together more than 100 of her stories, lines, anecdotes, dreams, vignettes and tales of shaggy dogs, as well as a number of passages she translated from Gustave Flaubert’s letters, which strangely seem to fit together with the rest of this collection. Davis’ voice, as readers of his monumental 2009 “Collected Stories” savoir, is immediately identifiable and quite sui generis: his short works range from a sentence to a few paragraphs and usually present a cryptic statement in a dazzlingly naïve conversational style. Here’s “Her Geography: Alabama” in full: “She thinks, for a moment, that Alabama is a city in Georgia: her name is Alabama, Georgia.” Davis’ pieces are a species of conceptual art, similar to the work of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, his contemporaries and peers in the inner-city art world of the 1970s. A masterful piece like “The Cows” plays with the changing nature of perception, time and distance through a sequence of precise and explicitly visual observations. And from one of the last stories in the book, this perfect koan: “Life is too serious for me to keep writing. . . . There are other things I should do instead.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.