2017 was an unusual year for short fiction, in that one story — “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian — became a viral sensation. This seemed to prove that the form still has the power to inspire mainstream audiences and prompt critique and defense from critics. 2017 was also the year that saw the death of one of America’s most treasured short story writers, Denis Johnson, and the release of game-changing debut collections from Jenny Zhang, Otessa Moshfegh, and Carmen Maria Machado. Stories responded to the intellectual and political climate of the country, including the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Trump presidency, with a distinct trend toward brilliant writing by young women of color. Here are 11 of the best short stories of 2017, selected for their relevance, unique ingenuity, and technical accomplishment.
“Early Music” by Jeffrey Eugenides
The author of the Virgin Suicides and Middlesex released his first short story collection, Fresh Complaint, in 2017. “Early Music” is indicative of Eugenides’ light touch in these stories. He introduces us to Rebecca and Rodney, two cash-strapped students fresh out of grad school. Their marriage and finances are tested by Rodney’s restless drive to hold on to his beloved clavichord. The story is Eugenides at his bittersweet best.
“Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” by Jenny Zhang
Hands down one of the most exciting releases of 2017 was Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. It depicts an aggregate vision of Chinese American girlhood in New York City, often beset by grinding poverty and generational and cultural conflicts. “Why Were They Throwing Bricks?” centers on the narrator’s grandmother and her life in Shanghai and the U.S., laying bare the history that colors the experience of immigrant life. Originally published in n+1, it is just one of Zhang’s staggering yet playful stories, making her a talent to watch.
“Beast Leave” by Trevor Shikaze
The weird and resonant “Beast Leave” by Trevor Shikaze is narrated by Wesley. Prompted by his best friend Parm, Wesley decides to build a beast, one organ at a time. This variation on Frankenstein is a handy metaphor for the creative life, but the weirdest thing about it might be how natural and normal Shikaze makes the mad experiment seem.
“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
Originally published in Granta, “The Husband Stitch” leads off Carmen Maria Machado’s National Book Award-nominated Her Body and Other Parties. It is the wry yet quietly crushing story of a woman’s life as a mother, daughter, and wife, and how these roles reduce and constrain her. The narrator says, “Of all the stories I know about mothers, this is the most real”. Indeed, “The Husband Stitch” is amazingly candid on the subject of femininity, and tremendously affecting in its depiction of the endless trade-offs of maternity and matrimony.
“A Love Story” by Samantha Hunt
The terrors and compromises of motherhood have seldom been treated as vividly as in Samantha Hunt’s “A Love Story,” which appeared in The New Yorker and is featured in her collection The Dark Dark. “I glimpsed a huge beyond when I became a mother,” Hunt writes. She populates that void with coyotes, drugs, nightmares and the quiet terror of a mother reflecting on her marriage, sanity, and the fate of her newborn child.
“Strangler Bob” by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson, the author of Jesus’ Son, died in 2017, leaving behind the stories that will be collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, due in early 2018. One of these stories, “Strangler Bob”, appeared in The New Yorker. It features Johnson’s typical cast of hardscrabble lowlifes, in this case a young perp coming of age in prison, and the lifelong friendships he forms with his fellow inmates.
“Pure Hollywood” by Christine Schutt
The title story of Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood is the tale of an alcoholic Hollywood burnout who ventures from her massive estate to encounter madness and violence in the California desert. The story is unexpected and emotive in its rendering of a family of disappointed actors and comedians, dating back to the golden age of Hollywood. The real star of the show is Schutt’s style, as her utterly unique approach to the sentence astonishes the reader line after line.
“My 19th Century” by Justin Taylor
While many short stories romanticize or extoll the literary life of the mind, Justin Taylor’s “My 19th Century” bucks the trend. Published online by n+1, Taylor’s story gives us a jobless, single, mostly friendless writer who sells off the last of his books before writing a poem titled “The Shitfucker Vulture.” The rest of the story details further adventures in the wreckage of a life that is all too familiar to the vast majority of writers.
“A Better Place” by Otessa Moshfegh
Tucked into the very end of Otessa Moshfegh’s acclaimed collection Homesick for Another World, “A Better Place” is an astounding, strange, almost mythic story. It’s about two children born with knowledge of another life, another planet, and programmed with a mission to kill a stranger named Jarek Jaskolka. Unfolding with dreamlike logic and Moshfegh’s always-stellar prose, it’s the unforgettable jewel of the collection.
“I Am the Brother of XX” by Fleur Jaeggy
Death and melancholy haunt the stories of Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy, who writes in Italian. The title story of her newly-translated collection I Am the Brother of XX is no exception. The relationship between two siblings threatens to destroy them — in fact, it is entirely possible that the narrator is a suicide telling his story from beyond the grave. As in all of Jaeggey’s stories, stark and cutting prose reveals a heart laid totally bare.
“Supervision” by Noa Jones
There’s something extremely contemporary about Noa Jones’ “Supervision,” published in VICE’s fiction issue. A professional prankster accepts an assignment from a heartbroken young woman and sets about ruining the life of a dreadlocked hipster. Cathartic and somehow simultaneously sweet and mean, it’s a story that could only have emerged from the present moment.