So I’m not generally a big fan of short stories. I guess what I love about reading is the opportunity to be carried away by a character or world and in a short story, that doesn’t ahppen as easily. Often it’s because the author doesn’t have to time to develop their story in the way I like. But sometimes it’s because the author DOES carry me away – and then it’s over. When I read something that I really enjoy – something that I’m really transported by – I feel let down hen I’m done and if that story was short, then I’m let down sooner. That being said, I just re-read the most wonderful (and instructive) short story. It was called “Murder Mystery” by Neil Gaiman and it’s in his Smoke and Mirrors anthology.
I’d read this a few years ago when a student of mine discovered Gaiman. When I saw a copy of “American Gods” on his desk, I remarked on it – can you believe it was the first novel he’d ever read for pleasure? Of all the books to start with, right? When he discovered that I’d read it, he started spending a lot of time hanging out by my desk talking about it. He was one of those really smart, insightful kids who hated school – he should have been doing my class assignments (which had nothing to do with literature, in case you’re wondering) but at least he was using his brain for something useful so I let it go. And I love talking about books and I was thrilled that he was showing enthusiasm about something marginally academic.
Anyway, once he finished American Gods, he went and bought all the other books he could find, including the short story anthologies. He loaned them to me so that we could talk about them and I have to tell you, Gaiman is kind of a sicko. I had many very uncomfortable moments reading his often erotic, explicit stories knowing that my 17-year-old male student had read them too. Creepy.
I recently thought that maybe I could write a short story or two to enter a contest and I was reminded of those anthologies. I picked them up as tutorials of a sort, thinking that I could get a few ideas for flow and timing and how to create a world in such a short space. Gaiman is really, really good at that. But what I also realized is that he is a master of voice. From story to story, the voice is different – wildly so in some cases. And yet it’s always him. Its incredible and inspiring. But there was one story in particular that blew my mind. I read it just before going to bed and I had to go downstairs and talk to my husband about it for half an hour before I could sleep.
It starts with the main character reminiscing about the first time he’d been to Los Angeles. He describes how the weather had prevented him from returning home to London for several days and then he hooks up with an old girlfriend, and then he can’t sleep so he walks down the street by where he’s staying and sits on a bus bench to have a cigarette. It’s all very vague and unconnected and you have no idea where the story is going – which is kind of annoying but certainly makes you feel as lost as the character. Then some random guy asks the narrator for a cigarette and, when the narrator won’t accept money, the guy offers to tell him a story as payment. And that’s when the amazing part of the story begins.
So, the guy tells this story about being an angel who investigates a murder in heaven. It’s a cool story all by itself but what really amazed me about it was the way it was written. The language was totally different than in the rest of the story – even when the angel is talking in the contemporary part. Gaiman breaks up the angel’s story with the occasional brief return to the bus stop and you can totally tell when you are because the language is so strikingly different. But not in a gimmiky way – I found it masterful and I only wish that I can someday learn to control my writing so tightly!
Additionally, it’s just a cool story. Gaiman’s language is beautiful and creates such a vivid picture for me and his stories are always so unexpected. I just read this other cool one here, too: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. He also has great titles…