Professor Charles E. May: What Makes a Great Short Story? (no.1 ‘An Anxious Man’ by James Lasdun)

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Article by Professor Charles E. May


Several years ago, American author Lorrie Moore said, “There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story.”  Shockingly, says, Moore, “people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes.  And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way”

I agree. Short stories seldom get read with the concentration and seriousness they deserve. Indeed, it may be that “close readings” have received such short shrift in recent years – both in the popular press and academia – that few lovers of literature even want to know what that process feels like—which may, in part account for the decline of interest in the short story in years past.

The National Short Story Prize, now called the BBC National Short Story Award, was established in 2006 to revive interest and respect for the neglected short story with an incentive that was taken seriously—the largest financial reward for a single short story on the planet.

One might assume that a story chosen for such a generous reward out of the thousands submitted for consideration might qualify as a “great short story,” maybe even a “perfect story.” 

So what I propose over the next few months is a careful reading of the stories that have won the BBC National Short Story Award—posing the puzzle that inquiring, even envious, minds might want to know:  What makes these stories so great?  The answers I pose are, of course, not the only answers—maybe not even the best answers.  But, at least they will be answers that reflect an attempt at a scrupulous reading that tries to deserve the scrupulous effort that went into the writing of these stories.


James Lasdun’s “An Anxious Man”: 2006 National Short Story Award Winner

Read Lasun’s short story on Prospect Magazine here. 

In his essay on Chekhov in The Guardian in 2010, James Lasdun said that although Chekhov has his own distinct tone and manner, the impression he leaves is “curiously elusive,” a “series of moods rather than a discernible attitude to life.” Conrad Aiken was perhaps the first critic to recognize this about Chekhov. Noting that his stories offer an unparalleled “range of states of consciousness,” Aiken says that whereas Poe manipulates plot and James manipulates thought, Chekhov “manipulates feeling or mood.”  If, says Aiken, we find his characters have a strange way of evaporating, “it is because our view of them was never permitted for a moment to be external–we saw them only as infinitely fine and truthful sequences of mood.”

Francine Stock, the Chair of the judges of the first National Short Story Prize, said that what the judges kept coming back to was the “visceral resonance” of Lasdun’s story “The Anxious Man”—a phrase that suggests that the way Lasdun’s story affects the reader is, like Lasdun’s view of Chekhov, “curiously elusive.”

A number of reviewers summed up “The Anxious Man” by saying it was a story about a man with money problems, or financial woes.  But Joseph Nagel is not suffering from lack of money; he is suffering from not being able to control events outside himself and impulses inside himself going up and going down for no discernible reason. The story begins with Joseph lamenting to his wife about the losses they are experiencing on the stock market—losses for which he blames her, although he knows that it is not her fault. When his wife reminds him that he did not complain when they were ahead in the market, he says “that’s not the point,” but he cannot think what the point is; he feels “walled in a thick grief that seemed for a moment unaccounted for by money or anything else he could put his finger on.” And it is just this unnamable, primitive mystery that lies at the heart of Joseph Nagel’s anxiety and James Lasdun’s story.

The money is a windfall—the result of an unexpected inheritance that has come to his wife. It has worked like some sort of magic, arousing “volatile forces,” waking him to “new and urgent responsibilities,” forming the basis of  “real riches,” and he has found himself, quite unexpectedly “susceptible to this dream.” Things he had previously thought to be “desirable” now seem absolutely “necessary.”

What to do with this magical manifestation? Nagel and his wife go to a shaman, a money manager, who  regales them with stories of wondrous “transformations” he has wrought upon his clients, and Joseph is “mesmerized” by this “mighty personage” who might spring  his “magic” on their modest $250,000 of capital. However, after the meeting, Joseph is stunned to find out that while he has been impressed by the manager, his wife Elise thinks him a creep and would not trust him with their daughter’s piggy bank. It makes Joseph doubt his own judgment of people. He tended to like people on principle but “his sense of what they were, essentially, was vague, unstable—qualities he suspected might be linked to some corresponding instability in himself.” Liking people on “principle” actually means nothing—knowing what individuals are “essentially” is impossible. Having confidence in who one is “essentially” is always problematic.

By the time he and Elise get home, he has reversed his view of the money manager entirely and suggests that Elise handle the investments. Just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City—another mysterious invasion from out of nowhere–Elise takes advantage of the instability of the market and buys, while Joseph is torn between a fearful uncertainty that the entire capitalist system was about to collapse and a guilty terror of “being punished by the gods” for attempting to profit from disaster. When the market starts to fall, he is filled with anxiety again.  He feels that his wife has “attached him by invisible filaments to some vast, seething collective psyche that never rested.” The “management of his entire “sense of reality” seems to have been handed over to the markets.

Joseph has made a “nightmarish discovery” that once you were in the market you cannot get out—cannot sell when ahead because you might miss getting further ahead, cannot sell when behind because the market might come back; when the market continued to tank, you wanted to tear your hair out for not having the humility to get out when you had the chance. “Whatever you did, it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner. It was as though some malicious higher power, having inspected the workings of the human mind, had calibrate a torment for it based on precisely the instincts of desire and caution that were supposed to enable it to survive.” The image he  comes up with is a chickadee outside their living room attacking its own reflection in the window all day and being unable to stop no matter how “baffling and terrible every headlong slam against the glass must have felt.” The metaphor is one of attacking one’s own image, plunging into the self, only to come smack up against an invisible wall.

‘Plot is merely a means of manipulating Joseph’s anxiety.’

Joseph witnesses an “incident” at the fish market. An “immaculately constructed” woman has taken advantage of another woman’s distraction to get the last two lobsters. Joseph feels he should have stood up for the distracted woman and leaves feeling “fractionally ashamed.” Getting the scallops seems like a “minor triumph.” When he comes home and his wife and daughter are not there he feels “a slight anxiety.” When he swims across the  pond, he congratulates himself for not having looked back; he climbs out of the water “half-believing” he would be rewarded for his self-control by seeing his wife and daughter on the jetty below their house. Because he has no convictions of his own to give him support, he feels he has gone adrift “in a realm of pure superstition” complete with its own doctrine of rules; for example, he feels that if he holds his breath for seventeen strokes, he will open his eyes and see his wife and daughter on the jetty.

At this point, we have what seems like a long digression on the nature of light, which Joseph feels is something to relish here. In the afternoons it is a creamy silver. “Then it was the light itself one became aware of , rather than the things in it. Right now, in fact, as Joseph looked across the pond, the gleam of direct and water-reflected light was so bright he could no longer see the far shore.” He deliberately stops trying to squint through the dazzle of the light, surrendering to it. The light has some “mysterious, elevating splendor about it that took you out of yourself.  Everything seemed purely an occurrence of light.” He feels that for a moment his senses are emptied of everything but the light, and has the impression he not only could see the light but also taste, smell, feel it on his skin and hear it ringing all around “ like shaken bells.” But this is not a digression. It is another metaphor for the difficulty of knowing what is truly real. Is it that which we perceive through the invisible lens of light?  Or is what we really seek that which makes our experience of reality possible?

When Joseph sees his wife and daughter, he tries to resist the “joyful relief” he felt– relief being just the “obverse of the irrational anxiety of which he was trying to cure himself.” He feels a “surge of love” and with it a feeling of shame. He feels guilty for allowing things to get “crazily out of perspective,” for allowing his worries about money to “loom larger” in this mind than his daughter.

Then an inexplicable coincidence occurs, another invasion from the mysterious world that governs our life: the mother of the child his daughter has become friends with is the woman he saw take the lobsters in the market. She and her husband offer the possibilities of adventure: she with her flirtatious behavior and the husband with his suggestions that the market is going to go back up “like a rocket.” When Joseph takes the bands off the lobsters, the woman gives him a sly smile and puts them on the coals alive. “The sight of them convulsing and hissing over the red-hot coals sent a reflexive shudder of horror through him, though a few minutes later he was happily eating his share.”  The primitive gods that govern Joseph’s life demand a living sacrifice, or at least a metaphor of one.

He feels a “murky sensation, compounded of guilt and dim apprehension.” The woman’s flirting had “deftly set a little subterranean current flowing between the two of them over dinner.”  By the end of the evening, he is exhilarated—his vanity flattered by the woman, and his mind filled with dreams of the market shooting back “like a rocket.” But once again, he is deflated, having misread Elise’s reaction to “those people” and ignoring her wishes. Once again he feels “the familiar sense of uncertainty about his own instincts” and a sense of wonder at his wife’s intuitive powers.

‘What Lasdun does so brilliantly in this story is put a man in a situation in which he knows he has no control.’

The next morning when Elise goes over and finds everyone gone, there is the fear of the unthinkable—that they have taken their daughter. Joseph panics and runs out searching for his daughter, looking down at the shore, which on sunny days in the area between the dunes and the waves would be filled with  towels and beach umbrellas and little human figures in swimsuits—“a touching image, it always seemed to Joseph: life blossoming frailly between two inhospitable elements.”

He fears this is the “catastrophe” he had felt coming. “His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty and he was being punished. A feeling of dread gripped him. Childlike thoughts arose in his mind: propitiation, sacrifice.” He thinks of a valuable clock  he had bought for a bargain to help pay for this holiday and promises if his daughter is at home when he gets back, he will shatter it or return it to the dealer, asking forgiveness for taking advantage of him. He feels he has fallen into a “primitive religious state” and vows to change his entire life—devote himself to the poor, give up drinking and flirting, obsessing about the markets.” All this fills him with almost painful elation, the possibility of a new existence.  Even though he knows there is no real chance of his keeping any of these promises, he fills full of faith and hope.

The story ends with all being well, for plot is merely a means of manipulating Joseph’s anxiety. And Joseph goes into the house, feeling shameful at being so panicked. He turns on the radio to hear the latest market reports and takes a watermelon from the fridge, cutting a thick slice. “He ate it nervously while he listened.” This is an obvious tribute to the Chekhovian nature of Lasdun’s story. In Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog,” Anna Sergeyevna assumes the pose of a repentant sinner in some classical painting and laments that she is a wicked, fallen woman. “On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it.”

What Lasdun does so brilliantly in this story is put a man in a situation in which he knows he has no control—either over the world around him or over the emotions within himself.  He is tossed back and forth between anxiety and relief, between being in his wife’s good graces and being out of favor with her, between feeling confident and feeling inadequate. Lasdun captures that familiar feeling we all have when we make promises to some invisible power outside ourselves, saying, “please, if you will only…, I promise I will …..” There is always that sense that there is something out there or in me that I cannot control, no matter how hard I try. I want to be strong, but I am often weak.  I want to be honest with myself, but sometimes I do not see myself clearly. I don’t believe in mysterious ominous forces in the world, but sometimes there seems no other explanation. 

“An Anxious Man” reaffirms my long-held conviction that short stories are not about specific events, social movements, concepts, ideas, themes, etc., but rather about some ineffable, complex, universal, human experience. At the end of the story, when Joseph is sitting there eating that thick slice of watermelon, it is just right that he is eating it “nervously.” He has a right to be nervous. Who knows what’s going to happen next?  Who knows if I can handle it or if it will have its way with me. What do I do now?

We all should be very, very nervous.

Prof. Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story.