One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The latest offering from McSweeney’s is a box that contains three separate hardbound volumes of ultrashort-story collections by Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso and Deb Olin Unferth. Eggers needs no introduction, but those expecting his usual sprawling style will be surprised by how well he inhabits a more-condensed format. His book, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, combines twisted logic and quirky detail in ways that call to mind short-story master Lydia Davis (a debt that Eggers readily acknowledges in his afterword). These sketches bring a heightened awareness to mundane situations—people with too many friends, the contents of someone’s kitchen.

Unferth’s genre-busting Minor Robberies specializes in dark fairy-tale-like stories and wickedly clever narratives such as “Brevity,” a dissection of fiction-writing terminology (“unreliable narrator,” “subplot”). Many of these skewed tales play up the impossibility of reaching a truth (one turns the theft of a bar of soap into a metaphysical inquiry). But even when she’s at her most atmospheric, Unferth captures a distinctly tragic and funny off-kilter world.

Manguso’s volume, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, differs from the other two in that its stories explain far less—a technical inheritance of the author’s day job as a poet. Instead, she presents us with a series of mysterious, sometimes comically cranky speakers who convey a novel’s worth of romantic frustration in 200 or less.

People seeking tactile, descriptive prose, be warned. Like Davis’s, these writers’ prose is stripped of most imagery: They pivot on ideas. These minimalist quickies are best admired for their offbeat style and compression.

By Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso and Deb Olin Unferth. McSweeney’s, $25.