Not all the action in the ’00s was in novels and non-fiction books, so here’s a selection of the decade’s best short-form collections.
Pastoralia, George Saunders (2000)
George Saunders’ prose is a rare thing: It’s deftly funny while deeply perceptive about human nature. His Pastoralia collects a series of stories set in a vague future that could pop up years from now or tomorrow, a place where consumerism and corporate culture account for nearly all human interaction. It could be kind of a drag, or it could be the latest failed spin on Orwellian fear-mongering, but somehow, in Saunders’ hands, it all becomes hilarious before it becomes despairing. Saunders sees the end of the world in the way we’ve been overrun by a corporatism that creeps like kudzu, and his stories offer hope only in that their protagonists, against all odds, somehow remain human and capable of cracking jokes about it.
Best story: The title tale situates two people in a zoo, where they must act like cavemen.
Toast, Charles Stross (2002)
In the past decade, Charles Stross has emerged as maybe the best new writer of hard science fiction in some time: He balances a sure-handed understanding of such far-flung ideas as the Singularity and nanotechnology with a talent for finding recognizable human beings facing these uncertain futures. Toast, which collects all Stross’ short fiction up to its year of publication, contains a few oddities—including a post-apocalyptic tale that uses Y2K as its jumping-off point—but the vast majority of the stories feature Stross’ unique ability to capture flint-edged people on the precipice of a universe filled with possibility and danger. If Toast appeals, try his magnum opus, the novel Glasshouse.
Best story: Stross is fond of stories where secret agents take on the supernatural. “A Colder War” somehow fuses Cold War spycraft with Lovecraft to create an improbable romp.
Novelties & Souvenirs, John Crowley (2004)
Since the publication of Little, Big more than 25 years ago, John Crowley has carved out a reputation for himself as the fantasist who’s so fond of language that the fantasy in his stories creeps in via words, not fairies or elves. His short fiction, collected for the first time in this mass-market publication, tends to be more concrete, and it makes a great jumping-off point for a notoriously difficult author. His command of language and lovely turns of phrase are in full evidence in the collection, but the short-story format forces him to get to the point more often than not, as in…
Best story: “Great Work Of Time.” This novella just might be Crowley’s finest work, blending his aching sense of lost utopia with an ingenious time-travel narrative.
Runaway, Alice Munro (2004)
It would be easy to make an argument for Alice Munro as the world’s finest living writer. She’s certainly the best practitioner of the short-story form at present: She creates tiny jewels of prose that capture striking women in absolute moments of clarity and crisis. While all her collections from the ’00s (including the new Too Much Happiness) contain rich rewards, Runaway remains her big hit and crossover success. Munro tends to focus on stories where not a lot happens externally, but the emotional world roils over and over again, and Runaway, with its delicately expressed internal apocalypses, is her most accessible work.
Best story: It’s honestly hard to pick one (especially as so many are linked), but the title story is one of the best breakup stories ever.
Magic For Beginners, Kelly Link (2005)
Like Munro, Kelly Link is fascinated by the idea of people dealing with the minor calamities that drive modern life. Unlike Munro, Link filters these ideas through a fantastical lens, tossing fantasy and science-fiction elements into a vividly portrayed, deeply weird suburbia. Some of Link’s best stories capture the effects of watching a David Lynch film, and like Lynch, Link gets that the weirdness only has an effect if it also has an emotional hook or particular mood. Look, for example, at the title story, where a boy attempts to cope with his parents’ divorce by immersing himself into a TV show that slowly enters his real life—that tale offers a sense of how Link uses genre tropes to smooth over real life’s unpredictabilities.
Best story: “The Faery Handbag” is a loopily devastating portrayal of a woman whose boyfriend has disappeared.
Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman (2006)
The best thing Neil Gaiman has going for him is his prodigious imagination, which is capable of turning just about any fantasy or fairy-tale cliché on its ear and finding a new expression of truth in it. The best of Gaiman weds that incredible imagination to lyrical prose that recalls the folk tales that so obviously influenced him. The worst tends to get cluttered with idea after idea until it can’t breathe. Like everything else he’s produced, Fragile Things is a bit uneven, but it’s most notable for just how much of Gaiman’s spirit it captures. If you don’t like one story, there are bound to be four others that reach out and grab you.
Best story: “The Problem Of Susan” takes the most problematic element of The Chronicles Of Narnia and invents a defense of modernity and a paean for the entire fantasy genre to go around it.
Twilight Of The Superheroes, Deborah Eisenberg (2006)
Deborah Eisenberg mostly remains a cult figure in literary circles, which is too bad, since she’s something like the American Alice Munro, capable of crafting tiny stories that feel monumental when read. The title story in Twilight Of The Superheroes is most notable for being what amounts to the best direct literary response to 9/11 produced by an American writer: It’s an attempt to capture something of the free-wheeling comic fear of imminent death that so gripped the country in the long winter of 2002. At the same time, Twilight captures other lives in crisis in far-flung places, particularly in…
Best story: “Window,” which depicts how a young woman gradually loses all sense of self when trapped in a backwoods nightmare.
Shakespeare’s Kitchen, Lore Segal (2007)
One of the prominent recent movements in short-story collections has been to create books of interconnected short stories, the better to lull readers into thinking they’re reading a novel. (See, for instance, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winner Olive Kitteridge.) Lore Segal’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen actually almost succeeds at this task. While all the stories are recognizably stories in their own right, the characters are so vivid, and the events so interrelated, that readers get a fuller sense of both the characters (a bunch of snobbish intellectuals) and the setting (upper-class Connecticut) than would normally be the case in a work like this.
Best story: “The Reverse Bug” pits Segal’s often vacuous characters against the question of great evil, of what might cause a people to commit genocide. The original version won an O. Henry prize.
20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill (2007)
Joe Hill’s stories are most easily classified as “horror,” since they feature ghosts, murderers, and yokels bent on slaughter, but what sets his work apart is his dedication to showing how the horrific things his characters encounter are just one more damn thing they have to deal with. Hill’s first short-story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, is remarkable for its sheer breadth: It wanders from romantic fantasy (“Pop Art”) to gut-churning horror (“Best New Horror”) to science-fiction coming-of-age story (“Voluntary Committal”). Along the way, Hill fills in people who are forced by circumstance to confront their own despair.
Best story: “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” is Hill’s most powerful story, using the backdrop of the filming of Dawn Of The Dead to construct a tale about how everybody wants a do-over.
My Father’s Tears And Other Stories, John Updike (2009)
The decade saw a minor resurgence in interest in the work of John Updike, as many of his earliest short stories came back into print. His death this year similarly prompted an interest in his novels, particularly his towering Rabbit books. But his final publication was this spare volume that provided a fitting companion to his earlier stories. While a bit repetitious, My Father’s Tears was a solid reminder of just why Updike became one of the go-to chroniclers of American life in the 20th century and beyond, as his aging characters confront the change that faces them as they turn toward mortality.
Best story: “Blue Light” turns Updike’s gaze even farther forward in time, as his characters examine just how their children will remember them.