New Sudden Fiction
edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

WW Norton & Co

"This is the limit of my limits: here it is. You don’t ever know for sure where it is and then you bump against it and bam, you’re there. Because I cannot bear to look down into the water and not be able to find him at all, to search the tiny clear waves with a microscope lens and to locate my lover, the one-celled wonder, bloated and bordered, brainless, benign, heading clear and small like an eye-floater into nothingness."

From The Rememberer by Aimee Bender

Reviewed by James Murray-White

New Sudden Fiction is probably the definitive anthology of short short fiction published up to 2007. The editors have gathered together 60 stories, all under 2,000 words, within the genre of "sudden" fiction, not flash or merely short, but sudden, and most of them are arresting, jolting to the senses even. On their two-year reading and collecting journey, James Thomas and Robert Shapard brought together many of the biggest literary names: Joyce Carol Oates, Yann Martel, Nobel-winning Nadine Gordimer, Sam Shepard, Peter Orner, Roy Kesey and David Foster Wallace to name just a few, as well as providing a crucial platform for many others who have now made a name for themselves, and also the complete unknowns whose stories are absolute firecrackers.

On the third reading of this book, lots of social history within fiction jumps out at me: Jenny Holloway's wonderful A Short History of Everything, Including You, which marries the bigger picture of human existence with a personal narrative, and then the creeping nature of "forgetting" as the end draws near. Also Ronald F. Currie Jr's Loving The Dead, with its cracking opening line: "Autumn comes to Maine, and I begin to hate freely again". After such a great start the story pounds along – it's a potted personal history that encompasses failed expectations, the highs and extreme lows of the American class system, and much disappointment and sadness in between.

Sam Shepard's Berlin Wall Piece also explores time, social and personal history, here through the prism of an adolescent's changing relationship with their father and sister. A sharp and concise piece, nagging at the underbelly of society, as I've come to expect from Shepard, perhaps the Harold Pinter of American writing.

The delightful and ever-surprising Aimee Bender contributes a human/social history story through her specialism of magical realism. In The Rememberer the female narrator experiences an evolutionary shift in her relationship, beyond the scale I can imagine of human experience, and copes with it poetically: "We're all getting too smart. Our brains are just getting bigger and bigger, and the world dries up and dies when there's too much thought and not enough heart."

But this 368-page paperback collection doesn't rest there, it spins off into first person narrative – check out Toure's I Shot the Sheriff, absolutely riffing on Bob Marley's song, Roy Kesey's Scroll, as gritty and as enthralling as the painter is determined, with his "seventy nine thousand, six hundred and eighteen pound" load, that is simply, "a painting, scrolled, end of story." Ron Hansen manages to inject humour into the death of a pet in My Kid's Dog, and Robin Hemley's Reply All had me cringing with embarrassment at his tale of shenanigans and emerging truths at the Poetry Association of the Western Suburbs, PAWS for short! A must-read story amongst very many of those gathered here, this one had me squirming in my airplane seat during a recent flight, and vowing to check and double-check any group emails I ever send.

Some stories don't quite deliver that expectant jolt: Ronald Frame's A Piece of Sky got me back in my beloved Edinburgh with it's "crowning glory" of sky, and the slow burn of a relationship dying over a jigsaw, but didn't deliver a stunning story from all the pieces it threw out. Also Zdravka Evitmova's Blood has visceral power in its story, but doesn't quite deliver. Mole's blood? That's a great image, but I felt the story could have moved beyond the pet shop and its limiting range.

Nadine Gordimer's Homage however has that slow burn of a sudden story: creepiness and indefinableness, despite a coldly described assassination at its core. There are few expositions of a hired gun's perspective – here I felt sorry for this nomadic assassin, cut loose after his despicable crime, returning to lay a "cheap bunch of roses held by an elastic band wound tight between their crushed leaves and wet thorns [……..] where my name is buried with him."

As I've tried to convey, this is a big collection with such a range of emotions, characters, stories and situations both funny and tragic and wavering between. It is a classic collection, perhaps the classic collection, one that should be on everyone's shelf, be they a writer, a reader, or simply a keen anthropologist of the human heart. Congratulations to the editors for such a tremendous job: I feel New Sudden Fiction more than qualifies for the Friedrich Medal (many thanks to author Patricia Marx for inaugurating this landmark).

Read a story by Aimee Bender from this collection on

James Murray-White writes, films, and cogitates upon the human spirit. .
James' other Short Reviews: "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

"Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"

"Ox Tales: Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

John Updike "My Father's Tears"

Thomas Lynch "Apparitions"

Fred McGavran "The Butterfly Collector"

James Kaelan "We're Getting On"

Tracy Chevalier (ed) "Why Willows Weep"
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Editors Robert Shapard teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Hawaii, and has edited a number of anthologies including Sudden Fiction, Sudden Fiction International, Sudden Fiction Latino and Flash Fiction Forward together with James Thomas, who teaches literature and creative writing in Yellow Springs, Ohio.