The Perfect Short Story

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock

There’s something undeniably aesthetically right about a good Jackson Pollock painting. You might not like his abstract drips and splodges but as a piece of artistic performance they are compositionally intriguing—perfect asymmetric explosions. Why are they ‘perfect’ and not just ‘very good’ or ‘interesting’. Because, every element has been flicked or thrown into place and yet it looks like it was predestined. You might call it visual Jazz, or say that Pollock was using ‘the force’ or something—whatever you attribute it to, he perfectly expressed: the atomic age, modernity, and angst. And he did it in an artistically satisfying way, without resorting to representations of the human form. How did he do this? Magic.

The writer must call on the same ‘magic’ to create a ‘perfect’ short story: from Raymond Carver’s perfectly observed moments, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Cell One, and Etgar Keret’s Jetlag. Why are they ‘perfect’? For me, the answer to that question is that everything seems so damned right about them—all the elements have magically fallen into place, but the result is neither ‘safe’ nor predictable and the story works on multiple levels.

Take Cell One as an example, it’s lightly comic, understated, but dealing with the troubling phenomenon of police brutality. On one level it’s the story of a young sister’s adulation of her older brother, while she also hints at the sexist privilege of males in Nigerian society. It’s also a story about Nigeria—turning a blind-eye to corruption, living with the normalisation of extreme violence, and systematic injustice. All the elements appear to have fallen perfectly into place to create a brilliant dynamic; the brother’s character, his transformation from petty thief to becoming the person he must be—discovering his sense of values—and the dichotomy between the laidback storytelling of the younger sister (the narrator) and the increasingly shocking events. The brother personifies Nigeria, itself struggling to find a better version of itself.

How many stories about police brutality and injustice would begin with the unfortunate prisoner being chased by the police, already inside the cell, or being beaten-up from the get-go? Quite a few. And, how many stories about alienation and loneliness begin with a debauched sex-romp on a plane flying over the Atlantic? Only one that I know of. This is exactly where Etgar Keret starts his unlikely exploration of a tragicomic character—the survivor of a horrific trauma—coming to terms with his detachment from the world.

Perfect paintings and perfect short stories are difficult to pull off. They’re paradoxical: sophisticated and yet obvious, multi-layered and yet accessible, simple and complicated.

Categories Writing

Adrian Graham blogs and writes fiction. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing.