9 Stories About the Magic of Cities

Metropolitan reveries by Steven Millhauser, Jane Bowles, Héctor Tobar, and more.

We at Electric Lit call New York City our home, but in our reading as well as our travel choices, we’re enthralled by cities far-flung and across continents. In the dark labyrinth of a city at night, a mystery, a love affair, a crime might take seed at any moment. In the bald light of an urban morning, millions of characters wake to swarm the avenues. Often, a city becomes an illustrious and capricious character in and of itself. In their wildness, cities contain heartbreak and ambition, art and loneliness, poverty and dreams. It’s hard to think of a more fecund plot in which short stories might grow.

So in homage to our city and yours, we’ve unlocked 9 stories from the Recommended Reading archives for a limited time — cities are, after all, home to transients. For just $5 a month, members of Electric Literature get access to the complete Recommended Reading archives of over 250 stories — and year-round open submissions. Membership is tax-deductible, helps us pay writers, and keeps all of our new content free. So if you like what you’ve read, please join today!

The Dirty Kid by Mariana Enriquez, recommended by McSweeney’s

In the of Constitución, the most dangerous neighborhood in city of Buenos Aires, a woman has chosen to return to and live in her family home, her grandparents’ house. She forms an acquaintance with a child who she has seen outside the window of her home, sleeping on a mattress in the street with his mother, an addict. The body of a decapitated child shows up in the streets days after an altercation with the mother, and the narrator is sure it is the mother’s child. Through the scaffolding of a crime story, the author of the acclaimed collection Things We Lost In the Fire moves through issues of class, gender, politics and lineage.

The Time Machine by Dino Buzzati, recommended by Kevin Brockmeier

Buzzati imagines a city, Diacosia, built around a special electrostatic field called “Field C” which slows down the growth rate of living beings. Humans within an 800-meter radius of the field’s center can live for two centuries, giving the city it’s ancient-sounding name. Buzzati grounds this fantastical premise in language that reads with the clarity of anthropology, but, as Kevin Brockmeier writes, “shades gradually over into poetry.”

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, recommended by Chinelo Okparanta

Okparanta, acclaimed author of Under the Udala Trees, describes the novel from which this excerpt comes as a Lagos-based retelling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “A young man wakes up to the realization that he is no longer who he once was, but has become a different kind of ‘being.’ In Barrett’s version, the young man goes to bed a black man and wakes up white.” When Furo’s skin color-changes, he must renegotiate a city and relationships with which he was once intimately familiar, but has now become foreign.

Tiny Cities Made of Ashes by Sam Allingham, recommended by A Strange Object

Eddie is new to the suburban town of Elverton, where he finds friendship with Trevor, a fellow outsider. But Trevor proves to be more unusual than Eddie bargained for: his hobby of rigorously recording the buildings and homes of Elverton so that he can rebuild them precise miniatures makes him an outcast. Despite constant ridicule, Trevor never gives up on his project. In this musical story of boyhood and loneliness, the question surfaces: are we destined to our environment, or can we create the domain of our dreams?

Everything is Nice by Jane Bowles, recommended by Lynne Tillman

After leaving the city she was born in, Jeanie has chosen a life of alienation: she moved away from her mother to the “blue Moslem [sic] town” and spends half her time in a Muslim house and half with Nazarenes. “The highest street in the blue Moslem town skirted the edge of a cliff,” the story begins, and it is here, overlooking rock and seawater, that Jeanie meets her one friend, Zodelia, everyday. As Lynne Tillman writes, Bowles “never [writes] an unnecessary word.” While “Everything is Nice” conveys the airy confusion of being a stranger in your environment, it is Bowles’s precise language that shows the beauty of being lost in the world.

10 Stories For the 5 Stages of Grief

Gogarty by Michael Deagler, recommended by Electric Literature

The title character, Gogarty, lives in a Hamburg Süd shipping container in the West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Recommended Reading’s Editor in Chief Halimah Marcus is a Philly native, and can attest that Gogarty is “a character representative of that city you know and love despite also knowing everything that’s fucked up about it.” Like those characters and those cities, “Gogarty” is a story that anticipates grit and violence, and finds something compassionate and humbling instead.

Secret Stream by Héctor Tobar, recommended by ZYZZYVA

Riding his bike down a busy road, Nathan happens upon Sofia, her clothing caught on a roadside fence. On the other side of the fence, there is a concealed stream that Sofia is on a private mission to track. Though it rings with the curiosity and possibility of childhood summer adventures, this story is set in contemporary L.A., with two adult protagonists guiding us through the story. If cities are playgrounds for grownups, then this is a story that insists adventure and make-believe are ageless.

The Unraveling by A.N. Devers, recommended by David Gates

The endeavor to find an apartment in New York City is enough to convince some people they should live somewhere else. In Devers’ story, the horror of the apartment search sinks to a new level of darkness. Told through the correspondence of emails, husband and wife Cecelia and Gregory enlist one Edward Askew, known broker of a desirable Brooklyn neighborhood, to help them find a new home. As the messages from Edward grow increasingly unsettling, and the happy couple are warned to avoid Mr. Askew, the story takes on an eerie tone, somewhere between a fable and a nightmare.

Cathay by Steven Millhauser, recommended by Aimee Bender

Through a series of micro chapters, each of which, Aimee Bender notes, is “as carefully tended as a Japanese garden,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel Martin Dressler delivers a portrait of an Emperor ruling his city. The vignettes such as “Birds,” “Eyelids,” “Dragons,” and “Ugly Women” wander through mystery, sadness, art, and imagination. As Bender writes, this is a story that “uplifts, and saddens, and bewilders, and shimmers.”

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