In journalism, creative nonfiction, and in poetry, the list form has a long and celebrated history. But in fiction, the listing of thought, emotion, or action is often considered a shortcut. The list implies economy — however, in fiction, the goal is to slow the reader down and make her pay attention. Critics of the list point to the form’s supposed lack of concentrated thought.
What I am saying? Lists are, like, shallow.
It won't come as a surprise to learn that our brains process and retain organized information better than un-arranged blocks of text. Easy access is why list articles (i.e. listicles, like this one) are so irresistible. The list feels right, intuitively — it makes infinity comprehensible. Imagine visiting Whole Foods with a novella of uncategorized items. No, thanks.
For me, nothing quite gets my blood pumping like a really good list story. The list format satiates my rational desire for order, while also awakening my secret hunger for chaos — a story… with numbers… poppycock! When done well, the list story can dazzle us with its movement and restraint. The 10 stories below challenge our expectations of narrative and illustrate the form’s effectiveness in conveying complex ideas. These 10 list stories (excerpted below) vindicate our love of lists!
“Oranges” by Miranda July
1.Are you the favorite person of anybody?What?Are you anyone’s favorite person?Oh.I can give you more time to think about it.No, no, that’s okay.Some very prominent people are not anyone’s favorite, it doesn’t necessarily mean—I am.You are?Yes. My ex-girlfriend’s. Christina …
Are you the favorite person of anybody?
Are you anyone’s favorite person?
Okay, I’m not interested.
It’s just a survey
Yeah, I don’t vote.
It’s not political—
Yeah, I understand, I’m not interested in that sort of stuff.
What sort of stuff?
Free love and all that.
What? That’s not what it’s about!
In Miranda July’s fictionalized interview, “Oranges,” numbers substitute character introductions. Without the bother of a detailed physical description, we’re free to focus on other elements of the story, the subversion of the impersonal survey format, for example.
“Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood
John and Mary meet.What happens next?If you want a happy ending, try A.A. John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.B. Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary. He merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind. He comes to her apartment twice a week and she cooks him dinner, you’ll notice he doesn’t even consider her worth the price of a dinner out.
Rather than appease our fragile sensibilities with finitude, Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” uses the list format to illustrate the complexity of relationships. In Atwood’s story, as in life, no simple formula will ever contain the lovers’ travails.
“The Year of Silence” by Kevin Brockmeier
1.Shortly after two in the afternoon, on Monday the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind seemed to hesitate. We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw the repercussions.
That the city’s whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city before. But it was not so hard to believe that it would.
A speculative story about a town’s waffling desires, Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Year of Silence” makes use of numbered sections to highlight one of the primary thematic thrusts — control. The highly structured format, the list, mirrors the collective, “we” narrator’s outright obsession with governing the town’s noise levels.
“The Solution to Brian’s Problem” by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Solution #1Connie said she was going out to the store to buy formula and diapers. While she’s gone, load up the truck with the surround-sound home-entertainment system and your excellent collection of power tools, put the baby boy in the car seat, and drive away from this home you built with your own hands. Expect that after you leave, she will break all the windows in this living room, including the big picture window, as well as the big mirror over the fireplace, which you’ve already replaced twice. The furnace will run and run. Then she will go to your mother’s looking for you, and when she does not find you, she will curse at your mother and possibly attempt to burn your mother’s house down. Connie has long admired the old three-story farmhouse for its west-facing dining room with window seats and the cupola with a view for miles around. You and Connie have discussed living there some day.
Wait until Connie comes back from the “store,” distract her with the baby, and then cut her meth with Drano, so that when she shoots it up, she dies.
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Solution to Brian’s Problem” cuts to the quick of the problem with lists. We see Brian agonize over the futility of his situation. He lists reasonable solutions, despite the painful knowledge that reason can never supplant the twisted logic of an addict.
“Flying Lessons” by Kelly Link
1. Going to hell. Instructions and advice.
Listen, because I’m only going to do this once. You’ll have to get there by way of London. Take the overnight rain from Waverly. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.
When you arrive at Kings Cross, go down into the Underground. Get on the Northern line. Sit in the last car. Speak to no one. Don’t fall asleep.
The Northern line stops at Angel, at London Bridge, at Elephant and Castle, Tooting Broadway. The last marked station is Morden: stay in your seat. Other passengers will remain with you in the car. Speak to no one …
2. June in Edinburgh in June
June stole £7 from Rooms Two and Three. That would be trainfare, with some left over for a birthday present for Lily. Room Three was American again, and Americans never knew how much currency they had in the first place. They left pound coins lying upon the dresser. It made her fingers itchy.
Kelly Link’s “Flying Lessons” harnesses the power of the imperative. The list format allows Link to weave instructions for June’s adventure into a more traditional narrative, heightening the urgency, suspense, and mystery surrounding June’s anticipated journey to hell.
“Orange” by Neil Gaiman
(Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire)
1. Jemima Glorfindel Petula Remsey.
2. 17 on June the 9th.
3. The last 5 years. Before that we lived in Glasgow (Scotland). Before that, Cardiff (Wales).
4. I don’t know. I think he’s in magazine publishing now. He doesn’t talk to us anymore. The divorce was pretty bad and Mum wound up paying him a lot of money. Which seems sort of wrong to me. But maybe it was worth it just to get shot of him.
5. An inventor and entrepreneur. She invented the Stuffed Muffin(TM), and started the Stuffed Muffin chain. I used to like them when I was a kid, but you can get kind of sick of stuffed muffins for every meal, especially because Mum used us as guinea pigs. The Complete Turkey Dinner Christmas Stuffed Muffin was the worst. But she sold out her interest in the Stuffed Muffin chain about five years ago, to start work on My Mum’s Colored Bubbles (not actually TM yet).
The great power of the list, as Neil Gaiman’s story “Orange” demonstrates, rests with its ability to imply off-list information. What didn’t make the cut? “Orange” nags at our desire for inclusion, as the entire world around the story lingers in a specterlike haze.
“Charley’s Idea” by Richard Brautigan
After Fred left it felt good to get back to writing again, to dip my pen inwatermelonseed ink and write upon these sheets of sweet-smelling wood made by Bill down at the shingle factory. Here is a list of the things that I will tell you about in this book. There’s no use saving it until later. I might as well tell you now where you’re at — 1: iDEATH. (A good place.) 2: Charley (My friend.) 3: The tigers and how they lived and how beautiful they were and how they died and how they talked to me while they ate my parents, and how I talked back to them and how they stopped eating my parents, though it did not help my parents any, nothing could help them by then, and we talked for a long time and one of the tigers helped me with my arithmetic, then they told me to go away while they finished eating my parents, and I went away. I returned later that night to burn the shack down. That’s what we did in those days. 4: The Statue of Mirrors. 5: Old Chuck.
“Charley’s Idea” by Richard Brautigan lives up to the author’s reputation as a postmodernist. This list, which is embedded in the narrative, surprises us with its un-list-like qualities. Brautigan experiments with parentheses, rambling sentences, and exotic objects (The Statue of Mirrors?) in order to gratify our lust for the unknown.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
2. And so I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
Though Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
is technically categorized as an essay, its protracted list form (over 200 entries) merits its inclusion. Here, numbers simultaneously cohere and fragment the narrative. They provide structure while allowing Nelson to meander between related topics without the usual transitions.
“Blue-Bearded Lover” by Joyce Carol Oates
When we walked together he held my hand unnaturally high, at the level of his chest, as no man had done before. In this way he made his claim.
When we stood at night beneath the great winking sky he instructed me gently in its deceit. The stars you see above you, he said, have vanished thousands of millions of years ago; it is precisely the stars you cannot see that exist, and exert their influence upon you.
When we lay together in the tall cold grasses the grasses curled lightly over us as if to hide us.
A man’s passion in his triumph, I have learned. And to be the receptacle of a man’s passion is a woman’s triumph.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blue-Bearded Lover,” the tone of the narrator shifts between numerals. Oates reveals the narrator’s victimhood — as expected — but also her power, necessarily compartmentalized from her lover, who remains unaware of her dominance.
“The Glass Mountain” by Donald Barthelme
1. I was trying to climb the glass mountain.2. The glass mountain stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eighth Avenue.3. I had attained the lower slope.4. People were looking up at me.5. I was new in the neighborhood.6. Nevertheless I had acquaintances. 7. I had strapped climbing irons to my feet and each hand grasped sturdy plumber's friend. 8. I was 200 feet up. 9. The wind was bitter. 10. My acquaintances had gathered at the bottom of the mountain to offer encouragement. 11. "Shithead." 12. "Asshole."13. Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain.
One of the primary operatives of the list is speed. In “The Glass Mountain,” Donald Barthelme mimics the sensation of levering oneself up a mountain with the stilted list format. Each number represents a step toward the story’s peak — we race toward the climax, expectations in tow, only to have them wrecked, of course. We should know by now to read the eccentric list format as a clue to the story's nonconformist resolution.
Images: fncll/Flickr; Giphy