One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies

By SARAH MANGUSO, DAVE EGGERS, and DEB OLIN UNFERTH

Here’s a theory. If more of us took public transport, short stories would become the latest micro-trend. Glance around next time you ride. The John Cheevers and Flannery O’Connors of this world wouldn’t have much competition: newspapers stain your fingers, hardcover biographies are unwieldy, and poetry can make you quit your job and move to an ashram. In fact, there’s nothing so invigorating and stabilizing as a good story — one that begins, middles, and ends all by the end of your commute.

In a perfect world, metro-rail lines would mail you a volume of short fiction every time you renewed a monthly pass. (Enlightened mayors: call me). If this ever happens, towns and cities should start off with One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Box, which isn’t one collection but three, packaged Neapolitan-style in a handsome cardboard slipcase covered with a silvery blue ink drawing. The whole thing was so good looking I simply placed it on my entryway table and admired it for several weeks.

One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories quickly proves to be more than just a pretty object, though. Unwrapped, it leaps off the pages with energy and inventiveness. The trio of authors — Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth — aren’t practicing short fiction but short-short fiction, or what was once unfortunately called flash fiction. The grande dame of this form is Lydia Davis; if you haven’t read her yet, I must compel you to stop right here and go buy her book Breaking It Down, to read the title story, perhaps the best breakup tale ever written.

As in Davis’s work, many of the stories herein run to just a page, some less. “Once a year, she remembers that she is insignificant,” begins one of Eggers’s stories, which concludes in the next sentence: “Then she forgets again, because more than she is insignificant, she is forgetful.” Catch a good story like this, with its tiny, unexpected pirouette of meaning lurking at the end, and you want to read another one, and then another. It’s amazing that such short tales can create momentum, but they do. It’s as if the period parked at the bottom of the page becomes a kind of lodestar, drawing you toward it, faster and faster. Before long, you’ll find yourself rationing the things out or skipping among the three books.

This, perhaps, is the best way to read One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories, as each of the writers collected herein has different gifts. Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and a transcendent novel, What Is the What, among other volumes, is a great sprinter. He can pile and repeat phrases, varying their cadence, hustling you down the page to a conclusion he has set like a trap. “Older Than,” his collection’s mini-masterpiece, plays upon the fact that younger siblings never become older than their older sisters or brothers — until one of them dies. “Then you will be older,” Eggers writes.

Eggers is also extremely adept at turning your head with an unexpected piece of whimsy. “How the Water Feels to the Fishes,” his contribution to the box, is full of talking bears (“Talk about Dickens, and they start eating bark”), angry horses (“Let’s kill all the rabbits, they said, their black eyes alight”), Zen-like fish, and really mean birds. (“They peck us in the eye and laugh wickedly”). Strange things occur and become normal. The Big One finally hits San Andreas, and California floats from the U.S., “two miles away, with everything else pretty much the same — the lettuce farms, the skiing. They built a few new bridges, and the airline added some flights.”

Sarah Manguso stays a little closer to the earth but hugs the darkness more voluptuously. The 81 stories in her collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, often revolve around lies told to the self, the ineffable awkwardness of sex, and the way love rationalizes itself. A poet, Manguso also writes to the heart of a matter fiercely. Her book is full of aphoristic gut-checks. “My shame feels like love to me,” she writes in one particularly sad tale. “This shame is the best part of my life. If I call it love, it will no longer be shameful.”

Manguso writes in the first person, which to a small degree limits her range. Her stories sometimes read like journal entries, shards of an ongoing drama to which the reader is only partially privy. There’s a beguiling mystery to this type of storytelling — what’s missing takes on a palpable, sometimes menacing presence. In one story, the narrator trades mix tapes with a man who thinks his favorite music is angrier than hers. “What did he think of the tape?” she asks. “My music is so angry he doesn’t even know how to listen to it,” the story ends. “It makes no sense to him at all.”

Due to its length, the short-short story is a terrific vehicle for tales of dislocation and missed connections, as well as for unequivocal endings. Deb Olin Unferth, the third writer gathered herein, breaks the form down to the component parts in her book Minor Robberies. Indeed, the story “Brevity” reveals all the nuts and bolts of a tale in one sentence stories. Beneath the word “Romance,” Unferth writes: “I will not go back to him, she says.” Underneath “Revision”: “Some changes need to be made around here.” And most cleverly, she follows “Postmodern” with “You are reading.”

One of the great dangers of short-short fiction is that, in its effort to refract language, it can become cutesy or shabbily strange. Unferth occasionally stumbles into these traps, but the beauty of this form — and this type of trio of books — is that you simply can skip ahead for more successful efforts, of which there are several in Minor Robberies, especially “Another One,” a devastating story about a woman and her paralyzed lover.

The man still lives with his mother and occasionally tells his melancholic girlfriend hateful things, like his wish that she had a different nose. We know this will end badly, that it will in fact end in tears. And when it does, we can turn the page and find a whole new, perhaps happier, world waiting for us. The great marvel of these three collections is that, more often than not, they force us to pause and to savor the hurt.