Selected Shorts and the stories we tell ourselves

At Symphony Space, when you finally get to the front of the slow-moving concessions line and order a beer, it might be handed to you in a red plastic Solo cup. (It might not; I saw a great exchange take place when a man accidentally pinged an older gent with his beer cap.)

There’s something even funnier about the red plastic Solo cup — the ubiquitous cup of keg parties, sometimes offered in an equally cheery shade of blue — than about what usually happens at the kind of events that have intermissions and tiny bars. More than once, I’ve gotten in line, gotten a hastily mixed cocktail, and found I have about two minutes to chug the thing before making my way back to my seat. It doesn’t fit, this little ritual, and I love that. I love imagining that at city operas the world over, fancy-dressed attendees are throwing back overpriced wine and weaving back to their box seats, just a tiny bit tipsy.

But at Symphony Space, they don’t make you finish your drink before you sit, which is nice when you’d rather be clear-headed for what’s to come. Not that clear-headedness helped me much.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was at Symphony Space because Neil Gaiman posted on Facebook that he was doing an event there. I was skimming Facebook while sitting at a bar, waiting to see The King’s Speech, and before I knew it I was ordering tickets on my phone, pushing at the tiny buttons impatiently. Gaiman events are never a letdown, and while I didn’t know anything about Selected Shorts, I knew it wouldn’t be dull.

What happens at Selected Shorts, as I understand it from last week, is this: Someone chooses stories. Other people read them. Last Wednesday, Gaiman read one of his stories; the other readers were actors. Two of the stories were not his, and two were. One, I’d never heard or read before.

One, I couldn’t focus on at all. In his introduction to the evening, Gaiman mentioned Jorge Luis Borges and Angela Carter. The theme was magical realism, in a sort of whatever-that-means kind of way; one way to describe the included pieces might be as stories that are rooted here, but have elements of elsewhere. The first post-intermission story was Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” read by Boyd Gaines. It began with a man, and there was dreaming, and woodcutters…

And then I have no idea. I couldn’t lock into the story’s pace, but I almost didn’t mind; I was busy thinking about all the stories I’d ever abandoned or never written, and things I had, and how they could be better and maybe actually work as stories, and I was staring at the blue curtain behind the stage and thinking how odd the readers’ shadows looked there, wobbly and glazed. I was thinking about fairy tales and retellings and what makes a troll a troll. I was somewhere else.

I kind of wished it had been an Angela Carter story instead, and I was kind of glad for the unhinging.

My favorite of the night’s four stories was “Troll Bridge,” but that’s almost cheating, because no one reads Neil Gaiman stories like Neil Gaiman, who has mastered all the perfect pauses and whose present-but-not-too-strong English accent highlights the jokes an American voice might gloss over, and tweaks the characters’ voices just so. “Troll Bridge” is one of those stories in which you don’t expect the protagonist will become an adult — that would be weird; it’s a fairy tale, or near to — and then he does, and the discomfort pushes the whole thing into a different place entirely. Living, not living, wandering and finding, arguing and discovering — there are a lot of things to do in “Troll Bridge,” and I didn’t realize until I got home that I knew that story, which appears in Smoke and Mirrors. It was different this way. It echoed around the space until Gaiman’s shadow was the troll, lonely and lurking under the bridge, and until the rest of the audience disappeared, each of us alone on a long path that was once a railroad.

The first story was a first story in more ways than one, as Gaiman explained in his introduction; it was the first piece sold by Kat Howard, a former Clarion student of his (he chose it for an anthology). As read by Marin Ireland, it was wry and funny and steely, which is to say it had the feel of a story that couldn’t possibly have gone any other way — a story recounted rather than written, lived rather than imagined. “A Life in Fictions” does very clever things with the notion of a muse, and of living in fiction (a phrase that always gets Idlewild’s  “These Are Just Years” in my head), and it made me very curious to see what else Howard writes in the future.

Josh Hamilton — with the help of a reappearing Marin Ireland — read the last story, another Gaiman piece called “The Thing About Cassandra” (which appears in Songs of Love and Death: All Original Tales  of Star-Crossed Love). The thing I liked first about “The Thing About Cassandra” is how it tips the reader, or listener, off to the relevance of truth in the tale; you can’t name a character Cassandra without acknowledging the baggage that comes with. The thing I liked second? That it was, like “Troll Bridge,” another magical story that grows up, though this one starts in adulthood, veers backwards and skips right up again. It’s a life wrapped around a story and a story woven into a life, short and pointed and all coming back to the way that the stories we tell ourselves have a habit of coming true.

I’m going to tell myself a story in which I start writing more, and find a really cool job, and don’t even mind when it rains for the fourteenth day in a row. Because the other story — the one where the internet eats my days and I let it, and working on a resume is cause for mild panic — is no good at all.

Selected Shorts and the stories we tell ourselves

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