A couple weeks ago, I asked if y’all would be interested in semi-regular “short fiction playlists,” and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of the idea! While the five stories I picked for that first one were just stories I’d read recently and liked, moving forward, these are going to have more of a themed mixtape feel! I’ll pick a theme or vibe or throughline and build a playlist of five stories around it. I also welcome requests in the comments!
This playlist’s theme is “sad-funny,” which is different than “funny-sad,” a distinction in my mind that I could probably write a stupid little essay about and won’t bore you with here. I am kind of cheating with this first theme, because probably about 90% of the short fiction I’m drawn to could fit into this category. I like stories of grief, loss, despair, loneliness, heartbreak, and upheaval that also find space for strange bursts of humor. I simply love to laugh at the agony of existence :’)
“Cold Turkey” by Jean Chen Ho, published in LitHub
Lately, it seemed anger trembled under the surface of my skin, behind my eyeballs: hot emotion lying in wait for any opportunity to erupt. It was what happened with Carly, too. Without thinking, I’d slapped her. Said things I regret now. Won was right. Cold-ass, rock-hard, freezer-burned turkey was the way it had to be. Not like I had a choice, anyway. She wasn’t returning my calls or emails.
This is an excerpt from the new linked story collection Fiona and Jane. Jane reckons with a recent breakup and her ex’s biphobia. The dialogue between Jane and her friend and self-appointed life coach Won is bouncy and funny and piercingly intimate. These are two characters who deeply enjoy and annoy each other, the way longtime friends can start to feel more like siblings. Jane is dealing with much more than the breakup, little bits of her past and a familial tragedy poking through with sharp edges. There’s discomfort here, even between Jane and Won. The excerpt does a lot in such a tight space, serving just a lil taste of what Fiona and Jane has to offer.
“Bump” by Morgan Thomas, published in The Atlantic
To those who accuse me of immoderate desire, I say look at the oil executives. Look at the Gold Rush. Look at all the women who want a ring and romance and lifelong commitment, and then look again at me. Me, I just want a person to dance the two-step with on Friday nights, a person who won’t mind if I wear a shirt with maroon sequins or, occasionally, a strap-on pregnancy bump. In return, I offer a woman who can get by on little. I keep myself spotless. My car and my nails and my résumé, I polish. I polish myself until I shine.
It took me so long to pick a part to excerpt above, which is how you know it’s a really fucking good story. On the sentence level, it’s breathtaking. I ultimately went with the opening, because damn what an opening! If that doesn’t make you click through to the full story, I cannot relate!
If you missed it, Abeni interviewed Morgan about their new story collection Manywhere, asking sharp questions about this story in particular. It follows Louie, a trans woman who decides to lean into her coworker mistaking her for pregnant by wearing a pregnancy bump. Morgan spoke about the origins of the story at their book launch event, saying it was born out of conversations with other queer, genderqueer, and trans folks about the grief they’ve experienced around expectations of family and parenting and how they get left out of dominant narratives on the subject.
Indeed, Louie is bereft throughout the story. But even among the longing and hurt and thwarted desire, there’s still humor here that ranges from the everyday to the heightened: an overeager coworker who loves an excuse for an office party, a coding group for mothers that serves nonalcoholic schnapps and offers yoga taught by a yogi who is also a hacker at its meetings, tension between Louie and Louie’s boyfriend Len’s wife Melinda that culminates in a Facebook diatribe vs. mommy blogger post battle. The dialogue is natural, full of tension.
“Bowerbird” by Antonia Angress, published in Joyland
Karina shrugged. The truth was, Louisa would’ve liked to draw her. She wore elegant, billowy clothing, wide-legged trousers and floor-grazing skirts, patterned shawls and complicated wraps. Her face had an austere, graven quality, like an ancient statue, and she had the most magnificent hair Louisa had ever seen: thick and silky, a sort of icy blond. Once, Louisa dreamed she’d cut it all off with her X-acto knife while Karina slept. Another night she dreamed about kissing her.
Here is another excerpt, this one from the forthcoming novel Sirens and Muses by Antonia Angress. It’s set at a small prestigious arts college, and the art-student-specific humor speaks extremely to me. The novel alternates points of view between four characters, and the two sections of this excerpt are from the perspectives of Karina and Louisa, roommates who are, let’s say, drawn to each other. There’s funny scene work here, including a fraught crit session where try-hard art students make lofty remarks about Louisa’s painting. But we also get strokes of Louisa’s homesickness and Karina’s unhappy if charmed upbringing.
“Strip mall triptych” by K-Ming Chang, published in Haydens Ferry Review
The strip mall has a ghost and it lives in the sex shop. My aunt hangs the dildos along the back wall, some plastic, some glass, some ceramic. She says, it turns out anything can be severed into a penis.
Yes, I know there was a K-Ming story in the last playlist, but this is my feature, and I can do what I want! This triptych has it all: strip mall sex shops, swallowed bathwater and skin, flying dildos, and fingering in a Pontiac. It also has the truly brilliant description “the ass-cleft of a mountain.” In its third section, it veers into the fantastic, a strange and funny image smashed up against the pang of an aunt’s grief. It’s an excellent glimpse into the intricacies and mythologies of family, humor and ache dancing together. K-Ming’s upcoming collection of short stories, Gods Of Want, is currently available for preorder.
“Wild Failure” by Zoe Whittall, published in Granta
They’re driving their failing relationship into the desert.
Note: While I will try to mostly include stories available for free online in these playlists, this is one that’s partially behind a paywall. A lengthy preview is available for free at the link above, but to read the story in full, a Granta subscription is required.
Here is another instance where it felt obvious to make my excerpt the opening. I mean…….that first sentence?! Literally perfect! The sentence in and of itself is something I’d describe as sad-funny. In addition to being sad-funny, the story is also sexy-sad. The story follows Teprine and Jasper, a couple who should most certainly break up, on a road trip. There’s great sex writing, great place writing, and great character work. The story’s steeped in the messiness of a relationship in decline. There are so many quick-punch sentences like that opening one. Take, for example, the section that begins: “They have tried to break up, but they can’t stop having sex.”
Now that these short fiction playlists are officially a recurring thing, feel free to send any requests my way! Have you read anything good lately? Are you a queer writer who recently had fiction published online? Hit me up!