Books

Short Stories: Surprises and Twists

Five literary short stories with a twist by Alice Munro, Jorge Luis Borges, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lee Martin, and Jennifer Lynne Christie.

In her recent book, Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot, Vera Tobin writes about how the "well-made surprise", or the complex plot twist in fiction, can actually be a skilled art rather than a shallow gimmick. That such narrative surprises never fail to hold us captive again and again, even after we know how the stories end, is a testament to their power. (For more about well-made surprises, read the book review and the interview with Vera Tobin.)

Short story readers will be familiar with the twists and surprises in the works of popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe; O. Henry; Shirley Jackson; Stephen King; and almost all detective and mystery fiction. In the literary genre, a couple of examples of well-known short story writers who craft stunning surprises are Flannery O'Connor and, in present times, George Saunders.

Here are five enduring stories from writers not typically associated with "well-made surprises" (which makes these works all the more interesting): Alice Munro, Jorge Luis Borges, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lee Martin, and Jennifer Lynn Christie.

"Child's Play", by Alice Munro (Harper's Magazine)

Munro is not typically associated with stories that have twists in them. Yet, every now and then, she has woven a surprise or two into a story in a way that leaves readers in awe. On the surface, this is a story about how children form cliques, how they can be cruel to each other, and how adults often underestimate them. However, as with all Munro stories, there's a lot going on below the surface. It's also clever how the narrator is a grown woman looking back to when she was nine or ten years old, which allows for all kinds of questions and observations about the behaviors and motivations of children versus adults. Of course, true to form, Munro uses these musings more as ways to reveal character and plot rather than any kind of platitudinous moralizing.

Two schoolgirls become friends. They torment a third, who is mentally disabled. Things take a dark turn. The main narrative strategies to bring us to the surprise are "frame shifts" as the narrator moves from present to past and back again throughout and the "managed reveal".

I suppose there was talk in our house, afterwards.

How sad, how awful (My mother.)

There should have been supervision. Where were the Counselors? (My father.)

Just think, it might have -- it might have been -- (My mother.)

It wasn't. Just put that idea out of your head. It wasn't. (My father.)

It is even possible that if we ever passed the yellow house my mother said, "Remember? Remember you used to be so scared of her? The poor thing."

My mother had a habit of hanging on to — even treasuring — the foibles of my distant infantile state.


"The Aleph", by Jorge Luis Borges (MIT Press)

Borges' stories are, typically, explorations about the big mysteries of the world. This story is no different. Also, the protagonist, as tends to be the case in many Borges stories, is a fictionalized version of Borges himself. And yes, there are several literary allusions that a Borges fan will enjoy stumbling over. There are some interesting analyses of the story online but it's best read with a fresh mind first.

The narrator's lover has died and he becomes friends with her first cousin, who is writing an epic poem to describe every location in the world. This cousin claims he has an "aleph" in his cellar, which is his secret tool for this project. The narrator thinks the man is crazy, of course. Then, things move in interesting directions. Borges' strategies for narrative surprise here are probably in the "finessing misinformation" or "burying information" categories that Tobin has described in her book.

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humiliation. I recalled that the thirtieth of April was her birthday; on that day to visit her house on Garay Street and pay my respects to her father and to Carlos Argentino Daneri, her first cousin, would be an irreproachable and perhaps unavoidable act of politeness.

"Apollo", by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The New Yorker)

The ending of this story makes you see the beginning in a whole new light, as Adichie herself has explained. It's no small feat to do this in a way that still makes the surprise seem real and plausible. Besides that, as always, Adichie gives us beautiful descriptions with interesting little character details.

The story is about that confusing, often forbidden, first love in adolescence. It is the grownup man, however, looking back and telling us the story of a particular childhood episode. Further, due to the way Adichie unfolds the narrative with fine layers and lovely language, we readers see and understand more about what happened than, perhaps, the narrator.

Tobin would call this the "pleasures of the text" strategy in her "poetics of surprise". Also, there is a bit of a "managed reveal" strategy in this twist.

This story was also included in the 2016 Best American Short Stories anthology.

Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village. The houseboy before him, Hyginus, had been sent home for insulting my mother. Before Hyginus was John, whom I remembered because he had not been sent away; he had broken a plate while washing it and, fearing my mother's anger, had packed his things and fled before she came home from work. All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say — I don't want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting. How difficult could it be to remember to fry the eggs differently, my father's plain and hers with onions, or to put the Russian dolls back on the same shelf after dusting, or to iron my school uniform properly?

"The Last Civilized House", by Lee Martin (The Rumpus)

This is one of those stories that will stay with you long after reading. You may not remember the exact phrases or sequence of events, but all through the reading a palpable atmosphere and mood are created that linger on.

An old married couple have secrets from one another. Which longtime couple does not? But, more than the secrets, they also have things they are unable to articulate to each other and that is heartbreaking. The story goes back and forth between the viewpoints of husband and wife as we see their relationship and how they see each other — what Tobin would call the "frame shift" strategy.

The twist here is rather clever in how it takes something from the past and something from the present and weaves them both together. It's also interesting how the characters' "curse of knowledge" and memories play into the surprise. The "recognition" or "revelation", when it arrives for one of the characters only makes us empathize more with both of them.

He found the tracks in the snow one evening shortly after New Year's, when he went out to the burn barrel with the trash. The temperature was fifteen, according to the old Prairie Farms thermometer tacked to the doorframe, and the wind was out of the north. It blew in over the empty field that stretched back to the railroad trestle and stung his eyes. He hunched his shoulders, drawing the upturned collar of his barn coat toward his ears. He looked down at the ground—they'd had snow cover since mid-December—and that's when he saw the tracks, where none had been that morning when he'd come out to fill the bird feeders.

"Alien Love" by Jennifer Lynn Christie (Atticus Review; Winner of the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology)

This is a beautifully-told story about a young man who is falsely, it seems, accused of a juvenile crime. Yet, his childlike soul makes a coworker trust him to babysit her little boy. We have the "unreliable narrator" voice here, so there's a good bit of ambiguity and a need to read between the lines. The surprise or twist, though fairly well-foreshadowed, still comes as quite a shock, at least on the first read.

Christie does a great job with balancing the present-time visual details and happenings with the narrator's inner monologue of past memories. When you have a complex protagonist coupled with a fairly fast-moving story arc, anything can happen. Read on to find out.

I'd never been in love until after I'd been accused of a crime.

Not the biggest crime. Not something they could actually pin on me. This was the type of crime, I told the judge, of the wrongly accused.

I'm not particularly smart. I knew this from an early age. I don't know how to set a pool on fire.

And I'm gentle. I never did a thing to any animals in all my life. When I was three, for example, I would leave a trail of tuna treats from the kitten's water bowl to the foot of my bed, the place the kitten felt the safest, like a safety line through a coal tunnel.

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