When I thought about two writers to approach for this issue of West Branch Wired, I wanted to find stories I couldn’t to pull away from. The more I read, the more I crave the unexpected, the more I crave that ever-elusive “new way of telling an old story.”
Both of the stories I selected are, in a sense, old stories—people struggling with the present and the past, framed by marriage troubles. Generally, these are the kinds of stories I would normally shy away from because really, who needs to read another story about a marriage? But to consider these two stories as merely marriage stories, would be to do them and these writers a great disservice. These are stories that are exquisitely written, both in terms of how they are crafted and how they resonate.
Terese Mailhot is a colleague of mine at Purdue—currently teaching on a postdoc fellowship. I published her once before at The Butter, an online magazine I used to edit, and there was something about her narrative voice I could not get enough of. She did not disappoint with the story she sent me—“Tender Thing.” The title, though, is a bit deceptive. The tenderness of this story is not what you might expect.
The narrator of this story is a woman at odds with herself, with her life, with where she came from, with her husband, while trying to hold herself together at the seams. This is a story that demands the reader’s attention and I admire the confidence of the brutalist prose, where like brutalist architecture, you can see the things that make the story work interwoven with the prose. You can never lose yourself in the story. The narrative voice is consistent but the cadence shifts anytime you feel yourself settling comfortably. The narrator is prickly, difficult, quietly terrifying in her self-regard and how she regards those around her. And oh, how this story ends. My god, it will take your breath away.
Brandon Taylor is a writer I first encountered on Twitter. He intrigued me because he was pursuing a PhD in some complicated science field but seemed deeply connected to the writing world. I had to know more so I started paying more attention to his tweets and then I started reading his stories, and when I knew I could solicit work from two writers, Brandon was the other writer at the top of my list. For one, he introduced me to the word thicc, but also, he has such style, and this really elegant acerbic wit. He is now getting an MFA at the mothership, I mean, the Iowa Writing Workshop.
The story Brandon sent me, “The Larger World,” is also a story about a marriage, or, at least a committed relationship. It is never explicitly stated that Conny, the narrator, and his partner Gerald are married but marriage is implied. They have children. The premise of the story is that the family is headed to the lake in August but Conny begs off the trip. And then we see there are tensions between this couple. And then this story unfolds into something so much sadder than a fractured relationship. Conny, too, is difficult, prickly, unwilling to put himself or his loved ones at ease. Again, we are confronted with the unexpected and a breathtaking ending.
“Tender Things,” and “The Larger World,” are exceptional short stories, created by writers with such immense talent. I can hardly wait for each reader who absorbs these stories to be changed by such masterful prose.
Roxane Gay's writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney's, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, the nationally bestselling Difficult Women and the New York Times bestselling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. She has several books forthcoming and is also at work on television and film projects.