Second Chances: Books of Short Stories

I, like almost everyone else, have an enormous to-read list. At last count, I have 200+ print books on standby, and that number doesn’t even include e-books. It’s an ongoing case of tsundoku, and there is no end in sight. (Yet.)

What I don’t talk about as much is my similarly growing “halfway” pile of books — again, we all have one. Those are the books that end up being put aside because I got distracted by new books, returned to my shelves, then forgotten. Through the years, their pages acquire that nice dark yellow color (and that wonderful old-book smell!), but that’s about as much action as they’re ever gonna get. It’s rare for any of these books to get out of the halfway pile, and rarer for me to go back to Page 1 and finish reading them.

These made the rare jump from Halfway-Read to Done.

These three titles — Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, and Collected Novellas by Gabriel García Márquez — are the first to make it out of there in a long, long time. Talk about second chances. And they’ve paid their dues: they’ve seen me through at least three house moves, had makeshift bookmarks stuck in random pages for a decade or more, and have gotten the color and smell down pat.

The most obvious thing they have in common is that they don’t go with the novel treatment, so to speak. Haunted tells one major story through several short stories about different characters’ histories, perspectives, and motives. Fragile Things puts together several of Gaiman’s stories published in other books and media. Collected Novellas serves up, well, three of Márquez’s well-known novellas.

They’re also physical reminders of a time when my interests, literature-wise, were amusingly limited. Collected Novellas was bought during my college years, when everyone went nuts over One Hundred Years of Solitude, along with anything by Kundera and CoelhoHaunted and Fragile Things were additions before or shortly after I graduated; at that time, Gaiman was still busy acquiring “literary rock star” status here in the Philippines, and I was getting to know Palahniuk for things other than Fight Club. In fact, Haunted was my official introduction to him — specifically, via a short story involving human innards. (Thanks, J!)

After taking a long trip down memory lane with these three books, I’ve become aware of four specific things.

I’m now extremely impatient. Even with my books.

I can go and blame all sorts of things, from CliffsNotes to the _______ for Dummies series to Wikipedia to social media and spoilers and anything that gives me the gist of anything in one click. But it won’t change the fact that I don’t have as much patience as I used to, if I had any at all to begin with.

Yes, this (possibly aging-induced) impatience would include full-length, all-text novels. Noticed my recent string of comics reviews? 😁️

In a way, Haunted, Fragile Things, and Collected Novellas made my return to long reads slightly easier. Haunted‘s short-stories-within-a-larger-arc format allowed me to go through smaller tales in manageable installments, but still keep tabs on that whole disastrous “three-month writers’ retreat” plot. I could read one or two of Fragile Things‘ fantasy stories over a cup of coffee, then move on to other things without any cliffhangers. Collected Novellas‘ tales can take longer to read, but I always felt that each novella has reached a natural conclusion at every third of the book.

Then again, shorter doesn’t always mean quicker.

I had assumed that since the books contain short stories, I’d be done with them faster than other books. Man, was I wrong.

“Brutally graphic” is accurate.

Haunted is one of Palahniuk’s earlier works, but there’s no mistaking his writing style — and his preferred topics. There’s plenty of horror, sex and sexuality, violence, death, and depravity in the short stories; for Haunted, expect to read about murder, cannibalism, pretension, dismemberment, masturbation, incest, blackmail, sex dolls, crime, and unique illnesses. It has the distinction of being the only book that has made me dry heave multiple times, and made me afraid of writers’ retreats in general. (No fainting, though.)

It can be hilarious at certain points, but it’s also gruesome, gory, and gross in most parts. Just when you think the story couldn’t get any more gut-wrenching, Palahniuk takes it up several notches. Sometimes I felt like he piles it on just for kicks, to see how far you can go without retching. I advise you not to read this with a full stomach, and to remember that this is a work of fiction.

Amazingly, even with the escalating yuck-fest, I kept reading. Spent three long months, but I did it. There are plenty of human #truths that’ll keep you turning Haunted‘s pages — particularly related to the dark sides of life (e.g., creating drama and seeking a brutal ordeal so you’ll be the kawawa protagonist) and our most evil thoughts and deeds, most of which are never acted upon in normal life. There lies the real fun in Haunted: Palahniuk lines up one disturbing event after another, as he does; and you keep reading because deep down, you enjoy seeing that kind of shitstorm unfold. At least on paper, and fully fictionalized.

As for Fragile Things and Collected Novellas, it took me some time to get in the groove, reading-wise. I haven’t read any of their work in years, and it was like getting reacquainted with old friends. Gaiman and Márquez, like Palahniuk, have such distinct writing styles and excel in different genres, which means some (re)adjustment is required. Márquez, he of magical realism, prefers very long sentences, with everything described down to the very last detail. Gaiman has a more succinct but still free-flowing approach, and gives you room to visualize the scenes in your own way.

I needed a week each for these two books, but that’s because I was recovering from minor surgery, and spent most of my days in bed. Under normal circumstances I’d say I can finish each in a month, which doesn’t support the “shorter stories mean faster reading times” argument, either.

They remind me of something…

Not so fragile.

This applies more to Fragile Things and Collected Novellas. Fragile Things’ short story October in the Chair was reminiscent of A Calendar of Tales, Gaiman’s 2013 social-media campaign with BlackBerry. This same story has been described as a “dry run” for The Graveyard BookThe Monarch in the Glen brings back Shadow from American Gods, off on his own journey in Scotland. This novella and Keepsakes and Treasures also features appearances by Smith and Mr. Alice, two figures from the UK underworld.

Collected Novellas isn’t left behind here. Its three novellas contain references to Colonel Aureliano Buendia of One Hundred Years of Solitude, indicating that they’re in the same “universe” a la MCU, or are situated in Colombia within the same time frame.

Fragile Things goes heavy in cultural references as well. Mystery story A Study in Emerald brings Sherlock Holmes to mind. A key element of The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch is similar to Fuerza Bruta, where guests move to different sections to experience parts of an interactive theater/circus act. The Problem of Susan centers on Susan Pevensie of The Chronicles of Narnia series, decades after she’s been declared “no longer a friend of Narnia” and her entire family dies in a train crash. Goliath was actually written for The Matrix‘s official website. Inventing Aladdin is a tale of how stories (in this case, Aladdin‘s) are formed, and Strange Little Girls is for Tori Amos’ album of the same name.

My taste in books has changed.

That last novella. Amazing.
That last novella. Amazing.

The stories in Haunted, Fragile Things, and Collected Novellas are all wonderfully written, and will keep you reading for hours. I can’t pick a favorite from Haunted because they’re all equally disturbing and provocative. But I do have a few from Fragile Things: Sunbird for its send-up of foodie-ism and immortality, Bitter Grounds for the concept of “taking over” someone else’s life, Feeders and Eaters for its nightmarish take on how others get their sustenance, and Other People for one hell of a torturous cycle in Hell.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold from Collected Novellas had the most impact on me, and it’s also the last story I read for this series. An entire town unable to stop the announced murder of a man falsely accused of destroying a woman’s “honor”? Yeah, there’s plenty of blame to go around in there, from individual characters’ motives to the government to society itself and its laughable expectations and judgments, particularly of women.

As wonderful as they are, these books also showed me that I shouldn’t wait too long to finish a book. A decade or so after I got them, I wasn’t as interested as I thought I’d be. In previous years I would’ve finished off Haunted with glee; now I’m not as adept at handling that kind of work. I found myself thinking of other series to start while reading Fragile Things, and I counted on Collected NovellasLeaf Storm and the first half of the sad, sad No One Writes to the Colonel to put me to sleep.

If you’re hardcore fans of Palahniuk’s brand of horror and satire, Gaiman’s varied fantasy tales, or Márquez’s ability to turn a single event into intricate criticisms and statements, get these books and read ’em ASAP. As for me… I liked them, but maybe I’ll read them again in another few years and see how things go from there.

Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk
Paperback, Vintage Books/Knopf Doubleday
Buy: National Book Store/Kobo Books | Fully BookedAmazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Book Depository | Google Books

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, Neil Gaiman
Hardback, William Morrow/HarperCollins
Buy: National Book Store/Kobo Books | Fully Booked | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Book Depository | Google Books

Collected Novellas, Gabriel García Márquez
Paperback, HarperPerennial/HarperCollins
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository