Books

Short Stories: Beginnings and Endings

These five short stories—by Naguib Mahfouz, Carmen Maria Machado, Niven Govinden, Margaret Atwood, and Wole Talabi—are about new beginnings. They're also about those unsettling endings that aren't really endings.

In Bring Up the Bodies (Picador, 2013), the second book of her Cromwell trilogy, Hilary Mantel writes: "There are no endings. If you think so, you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings." This is as true in real life as it is in fiction.

With fiction, we know the old saw about starting a story in medias res to arrest the reader's attention. Equally as important as "where" we start telling a story is "how" we start telling it. The best beginnings draw us in and make us want to read on. The best endings leave multiple possibilities open as to what might happen next if the writer had continued with the story.

Let's look at five short stories that give us interesting beginnings but, also give us those unsettling endings that aren't really endings. Whether set in a school, a home, or a place of work, each story is about the beginning of a new life or relationship or job. There are certain dramatic rites of passage before unexpected turns lead us to endings that linger within our minds like the promise of unknown possibilities.

The writers here — Naguib Mahfouz, Carmen Maria Machado, Niven Govinden, Margaret Atwood, and Wole Talabi — are masters of their craft and these works deserve several close readings to get the most from them.

Blowfly photo by stevepb (Pixabay License Pixabay)

"Half a Day", by Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz, a Nobel Literature winner, is best known for his Cairo Trilogy novels. However, he also wrote some 350 short stories and excelled in this form too.

"Half a Day" is well-known, well-anthologized, and often-taught because of its brevity and its technical shift from his usual social realism to a more modern, experimental style. Written as a short allegory, it's about a young boy starting school. In the span of half a day, his life has gone by and he leaves as an old man.

Beyond the existential exploration of the cycle of life, Mahfouz' inventive use of time and foreshadowing as literary devices are enduring examples of how it's done. In the end, when the aged protagonist can barely cross the road by himself, we are left to wonder about not just his future and mortality but, indeed, our own.

I proceeded alongside my father, clutching his right hand, running to keep up with the long strides he was taking. All my clothes were new: the black shoes; the green school uniform; and the red tarboosh. My delight in my new clothes, however, was not altogether unmarred, for this was no feast day but the day on which I was to be cast into school for the first time.

Read "Half a Day" online via coachcenglish.

"Horror Story", by Carmen Maria Machado

Published in Granta Magazine in 2015, "Horror Story" is classic Machado with its fabulism and layered themes. A couple begins a new phase of their lives in a new home. Weird supernatural shenanigans ensue. Of course, this puts pressure on an already-strained relationship.

The real clincher comes toward the end, when Machado — also using foreshadowing to great advantage here — gives us the ominous "That final afternoon ..." to make us sit up and pay closer attention. What happens next is worth reading and pondering because it's a beautifully open ending that could mean multiple things. An ending that leaves us wanting more — which is exactly how it should be.

It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window. We'd just moved into the place, but the drain had been working and the glass had been intact, and then one morning they weren't. My wife tapped her fingernail lightly on the crack in the pane and it sounded like something was knocking, asking to be let in.

Read "Horror Story" online via Granta.

"Talent", by Niven Govinden

This flash story is so brilliant that it's almost a prose poem. Govinden revels in and relishes language, creating vivid vignette-like scenes with just a few sentences.

A woman with unusual physical attributes begins a new job in a strip-bar. Govinden uses the passage of time effectively by showing us how, on a day by day basis, the woman overcomes her nerves and her clients eventually take to her. All good things must, as they say, come to an end. Only, the end here leaves a good bit to our imagination.

'Your dancing is sick.' Sweat stains on his lap and bald patch. 'I'm hired?' 'It's time for a fat girl on the poles. BYO tassels.'

First night, they jeer. Think it's the comedy turn whilst the real girls wipe themselves off. Jukebox plays 'Who Let The Dogs Out'. She holds back, intimidated.

Read "Talent" online via University of Chester.

"Happy Endings", by Margaret Atwood

This is another well-anthologized and often-taught short story. "Happy Endings" is meta-fiction at its best: six versions of the same story with, well, the same ending. Atwood's aim is to show how all storytelling is really about the how and why things happen and not so much about what happens.

John and Mary come together as a couple and Atwood gives us versions A through F of their relationship. The unusual storytelling feat is how each of the versions B through F give us different "how" and "why" scenarios, yet end with the same what-happens-in-the-end scenario of version A. Her conclusion in Version F is worth framing and hanging above your desk if you're a writer.

John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.
[...]
So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with.

Read "Happy Endings" online via Napa Valley College.

"Wednesday's Story", by Wole Talabi

Almost all of us of a certain age who went to English schools will recall the little ditty of Solomon Grundy to help us memorize the names of weekdays. In this story, Wole Talabi pulls off a meta-fictional stunt somewhat like Atwood's, above. He takes each line of the ditty apart and constructs the narrative around it. In the process, he gives us not only a story of the complete life of this Solomon Grundy — from his birth beginnings — but also a fair bit of the narrator's and his siblings.

The narrator is one of the days of the week, as the title tells us. His siblings are the other days of the week. There are stories within stories here as Talabi plays games with different middles — not unlike Atwood with "Happy Endings" — but makes them all converge at the same point eventually.

Before getting into the thick of it, Wednesday tells us how he feels after they've all finished their storytelling: "A thin layer of it lingers on my skin like patina and irritates me." Which, of course, is what all the best short stories do to their readers.

My story has two beginnings, I believe. One of them, appropriately enough, is another story; the story of Solomon Grundy. My siblings and I have told his story before, we tell his story all the time, we will tell his story again. Men also tell each other the story of Solomon Grundy, but they never tell it well. How can they? They are not made of stories as we are.

And, to match the Mantel quote on beginnings, let's close with Talabi's thought on endings:

Although I must say, no story truly ends where it does. We choose our endings [...] where, for what is even less than a moment, the characters, the audience, the narrator, and the author of a story can all become equally real to one another, become intimately aware of one another, and maybe, just maybe, even become one another, depending on the shape of the story.

Read "Wednesday's Story" online via Lightspeed Magazine.

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