KJ Orr's top 10 stories of crossing boundaries

From Turgenev to Tobias Wolff and John Cheever to Alice Munro, many of the best short stories hinge around borders being transgressed

For me, part of the compelling energy of short stories comes from the way they can cross boundaries. More than simply geographic, these boundaries can be crossed in acts of transgression or empathy, in shifts of understanding or emotion and formal innovation.

Sometimes, when a boundary has been breached, it becomes clear that there is no going back. At other times, both characters and reader are placed in an uncanny limbo, where they wrangle with a sense of dislocation, or unreality – maybe exhilarating, maybe alarming.

Whether exploring transgressive acts or life-death moments, the best short stories can powerfully communicate the shock of change. But they are also able to take their time, to trace transformations in slow motion, to delineate states of limbo with precision detail. Emotionally and psychologically, this is rich territory for writers and readers.

In my collection of stories, Light Box, this is the territory I chose to explore. Outer landscapes and settings are often reflective of the borderlands of inner lives: a path beside a canal at night, a frozen lake, a foreign city, an island on the other side of the earth. I wanted to explore the ways my characters would respond when their perception of themselves and the narratives of their lives were challenged. I wanted to linger on those moments when the lines are no longer clear and it can feel like anything might happen.

1. Axolotl by Julio Cortázar
Tracing the metamorphosis of a man into a reptile, this can be read as a love letter to literature – to the connective power of writing and reading. What is at stake here is the awareness of “the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing”. In meticulous detail, the narrator describes the shift of perception that takes him from watching axolotls through a pane of glass in to their alien experience.

2. Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
This falls into a subcategory of short story where time is stretched and slowed. In this case the boundary – between life and death – is crossed slowly enough for the dying man’s brain to experience one last vivid memory. Wolff creates a dark but humorous portrait of a jaded man, who, at the moment of his violent death, remembers a moment of deeply-felt, long-forgotten joy. Wolff also includes an account of everything the man does not remember in his final moment, giving the reader, in the space of a few paragraphs, a poignant summary of a life.

3. Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice by Nam Le
Should a writer take on a subject and a history that isn’t their own? What constitutes inappropriate appropriation – personal or cultural – and what might be considered an act of empathetic extension? Le casts himself as a character in his own story, as he explores the act of creative transgression that would allow him to tell his father’s story of emigration, dating back to the Vietnam war.

4. Bezhin Lea by Ivan Turgenev
A hunter who has lost his way listens to peasant boys scaring one another around the fire with tales of the supernatural. Turgenev sets his exploration of the delicate threshold between the living and the dead in a vivid landscape. A great ghost story that also suggests, with wry warmth, the fragility of life and the swiftness with which it can be taken away.

5. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
From Gappah’s celebrated debut collection, this is an unforgettable portrait of life in a shanty town in Zimbabwe – one which has “erupted without City permission”, and which at the end of the story is bulldozed. The vulnerability of those living in this limbo “of pole and mud, of thick black plastic sheeting” is clear: when one woman’s longing for a child leads her to steal a newborn from its dying mother, the transgression goes unnoticed.

A scene from Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, which was based on Akutagawa’s book In a Bamboo Grove.
A scene from Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, which was based on Akutagawa’s book In a Bamboo Grove. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

6. In a Bamboo Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Here, the reader crosses boundaries of perspective through the multiple and contradictory testimonies of a single event: the murder of a samurai. The possibility of any single, reliable truth is undermined. Each account seems both real and unreal, making the events recounted increasingly amorphous and dreamlike.

7. Wenlock Edge by Alice Munro
A young female student agrees to spend an evening with her roommate’s controlling older lover. Boundaries of body and mind are challenged in a disturbing rite of passage, made more powerful by the girl’s visceral retrospective realisation of what has happened to her. Munro is masterful at testing boundaries, both literal and metaphorical.

8. Last Night by James Salter
A couple, Walter and Marit, are spending the evening with a friend. It is the couple’s last evening together because Marit, who has cancer, has chosen to die. This story is a devastating exploration of transgression, and involves the uneasy compression of a life-death moment with infidelity. Everything happens in the space of a few pages and with an economy of style that only accentuates the impact.

9. The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
This prescient 1947 story speaks to contemporary concerns about the boundary between the private and the public. When Jim Westcott buys a new radio for his wife Irene, it is with her happiness in mind. However, the radio has the capacity to tune in to the lives of the other residents in their apartment block. Initially, the couple are entertained by their newfound ability to eavesdrop, but with time the fractured boundary between lives leads to an escalation of unhappiness and paranoia.

10. Forgotten Journey by Silvina Ocampo
A girl wants to remember and understand her own birth. When the narrative that she has accepted for so long – that babies come from “a large department store in Paris” – is challenged by a more accurate version, this challenge feels to her “atrocious” and “bloodthirsty”. What I love is the speed with which Ocampo establishes the fraught border territory associated with the stories we tell ourselves: where security meets vulnerability, where a threatening energy is associated with a fresh perspective. As the story ends – after only two pages – she is in a strange limbo: she is told the sun is out, but she can see that it is dark.

• Light Box by KJ Orr is published by Daunt Books, priced £9.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £7.99.

KJ Orr

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