This Week in Short Fiction


In the wake of the Charleston church shooting last week and with Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in the news, the world seems full of nothing but hate and intolerance, violence, and terror. But as families of the Charleston victims and the members of Emanuel AME Church know, as the bombing survivors and the citizens of Boston know, the world also holds forgiveness and love, strength and unity, and these are far more powerful than hate. So this week, let’s focus on two new short stories that remind us of one of the things that makes this often ugly, sometimes beautiful life worth it: love.

Just in time for when we need it most, on Wednesday Hunger Mountain released an entire issue on the theme, appropriately titled, “The Love Issue.” With excellent nonfiction, poetry, and even young adult and children’s literature, the entire issue is well worth a read, but Lam Pham’s story, “Lovesaw,” stands out above the rest. The story is told in second person that feels so integral to the story that you don’t even notice it at first. The narrator isn’t addressing you, the reader, but addressing himself as he re-contextualizes his life to make room for the possibility of love, something he didn’t think was possible.

You think about the clock maker you met in Berlin; the teaching assistant in your sophomore literature course who spoke seven different languages; your former roommate who joined the Peace Corps and never came back. You remember little things about all of them, tokens of memory that would occasionally resurface to the forefront of your mind like old photographs you’ve forgotten . . . But you don’t remember any of their names, not even the farm boy you loved so many summers ago. It was easier to live that way, sawing away the parts that make you feel and expecting nothing from anyone.

Like so many of us, the narrator has been disappointed in the past, has been hurt, and finds it easier not to feel and not to hope. His family didn’t accept him because he’s gay; his first love didn’t return his feelings; his best friend entered a self-destructive spiral that ended in his death after a teacher molested him. Our narrator has felt the sting of the wrong end of love and is scared to make himself vulnerable again. But then he meets Patrick, a man almost two decades older, with two children and a wife who hasn’t signed the divorce papers—a situation that would sound alarm bells in anyone’s head. The narrator tries to resist but finds himself picking Patrick’s kids up from school, showing his daughter how to apply makeup, teaching them both about X-Men and Simone de Beauvoir and Kurosawa films. He finds himself not just with a boyfriend, but with a family.

The way Pham writes these characters, you can feel their love for each other radiating off the page. “Lovesaw” isn’t just about romantic love, it’s also about the love of family, and how that family is not necessarily the one you’re born into. It’s about all the ways love hurts us and saves us, about the ache of love withheld and the power of love freely given. It’s about trusting yourself and trusting someone else and doing the scariest and best thing of all: giving in to love.

Our second story comes from Rebecca Makkai’s first story collection, Music for Wartime, which came out on Tuesday. (Makkai, by the way, will be writing our next Letter in the Mail!) “Cross,” which you can read at Michigan Quarterly Review, follows a cellist named Celine who returns home from a seven-week music workshop to find a memorial set up on her front lawn where a girl apparently died in a motorcycle accident while she was away. Celine feels off-balance and in disarray, but not only because of the sprawling memorial of plastic flowers and mildewing teddy bears in her yard. She also seems to be falling for someone.

Celine was married for twelve years and has been divorced now for three, and she is “fully and finally settled into her decision to be on her own . . . She’d decided who she was, and this was what allowed her to move forward.” So this new man, a violinist named Gregory, poses a problem. Like the narrator in Pham’s “Lovesaw,” Celine has been hurt and decided that love isn’t worth it. She knows who she is alone and doesn’t want to confuse her identity by being entangled with another person. But how do you refuse something like this:

He had wedged his thigh between her legs, and she felt her feet leave the earth, felt the dampness of the building soak through the back of her dress. Gravity rearranged itself so that leaning back against the theater’s slippery verticality was enough to keep from floating off into the night.

Both “Lovesaw” and “Cross” acknowledge the dangers of love. They show the devastation unrequited love can wreak, the years failed love can steal, the mistakes young love can tempt you into. But in the end, both stories decide to give love another shot. While these two stories do of course end, the endings aren’t truly known. Neither story shows us the relationships ten years down the road; we don’t see the characters holding hands in the nursing home. There is no assurance of a happily ever after. It is rare to read a short story with a happy ending, but the endings of these two stories are moving towards happiness. Both stories end in a choice, and that choice is love.

Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →