Short Stories for Millennials

Another pure coincidence: in the same week, I read short story collections by an American and a British millennial trying to find themselves, love and a purpose to life. But, oh, how different their approach!

slutLauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People

One story is told from a male point of view, another from a dog’s perspective, but in fact all the stories share the same first-person angsty young person’s voice, recognisably white American female and from a privileged background (regardless of how broke they might be at present). The stories are also not really constructed as stories, more as a slice of life, with no seeming conclusion or character development. They almost feel like writing exercises to me – and, as such, they do succeed. They are funny, often outrageous, with that deadpan honesty and wide-eyed egocentricity that is often endearing even if it makes you squirm a little.

I particularly liked: ‘New Girls’, the story of a youngster moving from America to Germany with her family and having to fit into her new school – although it did feel a little superficial; ‘Desert Hearts’ about a young woman who pretends to be a lesbian to get a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop; the interaction with a confused patient at a sex clinic in ‘Mike Anonymous’; and the title story ‘Barbara the Slut’, which seems almost like a nasty fairytale about American high schools. The 16-year-old Barbara is an absolutely brilliant student but also somewhat indiscriminate with her sexual favours (because she doesn’t believe in men and love), until she turns down one of the boys and gets labelled a slut and publicly bullied/shamed. Oddly enough, another recently read book, Viral by Helen Fitzgerald handles the same topic of labelling and bullying, although in that case it’s largely internet-based.

Perhaps my own high-school years were too long ago or not traumatic enough, perhaps I can no longer relate to the aimless and self-centred rambling of young people (at least as depicted in these stories), but I struggled to empathise with the characters in Lauren Holmes’ stories. The situations described were often quite sad, quite hopeless, yet I never felt emotionally involved.

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye

blinkBy contrast, these stories punched me in my emotional gut!

We come back to the grey shores of Great Britain, except there is nothing ‘great’ about it. It is perceived as a diminished, impoverished island, with fearful people and dysfunctional families, in this collection of loosely related short stories. We find here stories about birth and death, love and work, stories of violence and unfulfilled needs, of having hope leached out of you again and again. This is a much bleaker view of life, and there are many different and distinct voices, of all ages.

In ‘Bad Company’ we first meet Alex, the person who appears in almost all of the stories and acts as a sort of connection. He is a young man working on a building site and hurts his back badly, but dreams of becoming a poet. In a separate story, ‘Keep Still’, we meet Rupal, stuck in a violent marriage with a drug addict husband. This is a virtuoso monologue chronicling her life of abuse and her feelings of abandonment. In the third story, ‘Building Six’, these two characters come together in a rather unexpected way, seen through the eyes of a young security guard working in an office building. Alex is his older colleague and a stickler for correct procedure: with his inflexibility, he torments Rupal when she forgets her ID pass. She has a nervous breakdown as she attempts to humanise the unforgiving Cerberus. The third time we encounter Rupal, she is dead, viciously stabbed by her husband, whose time in prison we witness in ‘Yellow Daffodil’. Alex reappears in another story, ‘Cowboy’, which seems to take place earlier. He is waiting patiently in the car for his girlfriend to say goodbye to her mother as she prepares to leave home and move in with him, but in the next story their ‘great gamble of life and love’ is falling apart in a morass of expectations drenched in failure, shame and reproaches. Alex then tries to work for a charity dealing with patients with brain injuries and meets Arthur, an old man who shows him ‘an entire universe trapped in a wheelchair’.

I read this book before I met Anthony, but I was familiar with his poetry. This short story collection is certainly the work of a poet: despite the gritty subject matter, there is something so right about the choice of words and the emotional fireworks we are witnessing. These are stories made to be read out loud and to be reread.

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20 thoughts on “Short Stories for Millennials”

    1. The contrast really struck me, but at the same time there was a sense of alienation and displacement which I thought was quite eloquent about this generation born in the 1980s+.

  1. Your comments on Barbara the Slut reminded me of a book I read on holiday, Michelle Hainoff’s These Days Are Ours, about a bunch of rich kids. I wanted to think it was satirical but I’m not so sure!

    1. From my own relatively privileged position, I can handle other accounts of ‘privilege’ (especially if they are slightly self-ironical or satirical), although it’s not my preferred reading. But it was the sameness of the tone which grated after a while.

  2. How interesting that these are such different perspectives, Marina Sofia. I think reading such different stories gives a broader view of the millennial way of looking at the world. And The Blink… sounds fascinating!

    1. Millennials have sometimes been derided for being superficial and materialistic, but I think two such different collections show, as you say, a much broader perspective.

  3. As you possibly know I’m not really a fan of short stories but I am really taken with your review of The Blink that Killed the Eye – I like linked stories much more and this sounds so powerful that I’m going to have to get a copy to check out the emotional fireworks for myself.

  4. Wonderful review, Marina! I loved your comparison of both the books. I also love the cover of ‘The Blink that Killed the Eye’. So nice to know that Anthony Anaxagorou is a poet. Poets write beautiful prose.

    1. That’s true – there is an economy and power of language that a poet brings to prose. Thank you for your kind words. It struck me as a real contrast in styles, these two books.

  5. I am a Millenial, not a huge fan of short stories, and I love the sound of Barbara the Slut and other people. Thank you for diversifying my TBR universe, MarinaSofia x

      1. I think one of Millenials’ problems is that we lack role models since it’s quite difficult for us to find a connection with our parents’ generation – being the Spanish case a special one, because the X Generation was born and educated during a fascist dictatorship. I’ll give it a try as soon as possible. Thanks!

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