Sunday, October 25, 2015
Aspiring writers often mistakenly think that in order to write fiction they must go out and get real-life experience so that they will have interesting things to write about. However, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has one of his characters say, "Stories only happen to those who know how to tell them," suggesting that it is not the event that makes a story, but rather the story-telling technique.
Creative writing teachers often tell their students to write about what they know best, and that is sometimes good advice. However, just because someone knows an experience well does not necessarily mean that he or she will be able to create a story about it. Inexperienced writers may indeed write about experiences they know well—experiences that have had powerful emotional impacts on them—such as the death of a grandparent, the divorce of a parents, or the loss of a friend--but if they are not familiar with how stories work, the experience they tell may be just a series of events, one thing after another, with no point of significance.
If you ask professional fiction writers what they know best, they are most likely to answer "stories," because they usually have read a great many stories, so many in fact that they have internalized and made the devices, conventions, techniques, and themes of those writers whom they have read their own.
It is a common legend that Ernest Hemingway was a great writer because he engaged in many interesting experiences—fighting bulls in Spain, hunting wild animals in Africa, and catching big game fish in the ocean. However, Hemingway knew that what made him an effective writer was the fact that the studied many other writers and spent a great deal of his early writing career learning how to describe things and how to recount events in such a way as to give them meaning. Stories, therefore, do not come merely from life, they also come from other stories, and because writers know stories probably better than anything else, they are often likely to write stories about stories.
However, it is not merely because writers known stories well that they often write about storytelling or draw stories from stories they know. Many modern stories are about the nature of storytelling because of a basic philosophic shift that took place in the late twentieth century—a shift from a realistic, common-sense assumption that reality is merely "out there" waiting for us to stub our toe on it. If we accept that reality is as much a result of our point of view as it is of mere external existence, then we may feel that reality comes from a sort of fiction-making process. Writers who accept this may, in their desire to write about true reality, write about the fiction-making process itself rather than about some solid stuff out there in the external world.
"The Faber Book of Adultery."
A number of stories in Best British Short Stories have this so-called "self-reflexive" characteristic to them. The most obvious one in the 2014 volume is Jonathan Gibbs' "The Faber Book of Adultery." We know we are in for a story about writing fiction right away when we find out that the main character, Mark, is a writer who, at a dinner party, takes Richard Ford's mediocre collection of fiction Women With Men out of the bookcase. When he asks Elizabeth, a woman he knows, if she has read the book, she says it is often difficult to distinguish between the stories because of the endless adulteries. This leads to a brief discussion of adultery and the short story and Mark's whimsical notion of editing a book called The Faber Book of Adultery. It also leads Mark to think about flirtation, which he believes is all about "the navigation of invisible boundaries and contours."
In the weeks that follow the party, Mark thinks about adultery in fiction more and gets out his Oxford Concise Dictionary, as "he felt an idea coming, beginning to take up residence in the part of him that wrote, that made him a writer." He begins to think about how a story about adultery might work, especially in the world of smartphones and itemised bills. He wonders if he were going to have an affair with Elizabeth, how he could make it happen
When he goes to Elizabeth's house for a babysitting swap, he goes to the bed room and begins his research by fondling her clothes, giving himself an erection. "This is what he did, he thought, he vampirised other people's lives, sucking up incident and detail and squirrelling it away."
He begins to write about having an affair, describing the curves of Elizabeth's backside, but crosses that out and writes about the "downward curve of her back" which once again arouses him. When Elizabeth comes home, he follows her into the kitchen, still mentally writing, but he says whereas he can do dialogue and drama and introspection, these transitional moments he is not good at. Getting a character into a room or out of a car is laborious, self-conscious work.
When he risks a kiss with Elizabeth, he continues to transform his actions into writing. Once again getting aroused, he feels something like the power he feels when he is writing and it was going well, "the words revealing themselves one after the other on the screen, the text shifting up, line by line, to accommodate him." Later when he watches the material of her dress "shift to accommodate the flow of the anatomy beneath it," he recalls that he has already used the word "accommodate," which he thinks of as a horrific, unforgivable word.
As she stands on tiptoe, her hand on his waist, he shifts his stance to stop her getting near the pages of his story—"not a story, not yet; just notes, really," this brings the front of his jeans in contact with the front of her, and he searches for a word settling on "the declivity of her."
The translation of action into language becomes more emphatic when he pushes harder against her, "hating himself, but wanting above all to find some way of expressing himself, his intentions, his delicate reservations, past history, world view, thoughts on the nature of signification, the problem of endings, Wittgenstein, Kelly Brook, the de Stijl movement, the novels of Michel Houellebecq and Christ Cleave, any or all of this."
As the encounter becomes more intimate until she has unzipped his pants, he sees hundreds of books, none of them his, but all full of adultery, even the ones entirely free of it, and he thinks "This can't be what it's like."
The story is an interesting play with the relationship between reality and fiction as a writer obsessively sees experience in terms of its potential for fiction, and, even as he engages in an activity, transforms that activity into language. The question of whether the actual experience is like a language construct of that experience, raises, albeit whimsically here, a basic issue about the nature of fiction itself.
Tides: Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told"
Elizabeth Baines' "Tides: Or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told" suggests its self-reflexivity in the title and the first paragraph. The narrator thinks of a scene that keeps coming back to her of herself and partner as two figures in a tableau--the hero and the heroine of the story to be told; the scene is the focus of their story, "the point from which the tale could go backwards to all that happened before, and forwards, beyond that night." Then she says that although she sees this scene, she cannot decide how to tell the story or where to go from that moment of the two of them together at a wall by the sea.
Because the narrator is a writer who is trying to figure out a way to tell the story, she feels distracted from the story of the couple by the sea by other stories—the historical context of stories—of Roman invaders, and Celtic monks, the Norman king who built castles there. She then thinks of her childhood stories when she lived nearby featuring custard made from powder and canings at school—"which can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir," depending on her mood.
She gets back to the day by the sea and recalls earlier that day in the town when she saw a young mother struggling with a pushchair and kid, as her own mother once did. "And I couldn’t' decide if it was a bad end to a story—a culture and a language swamped, in spite of the educational and heritage initiatives, by the Englishness sweeping down the new roads and the TV channels—or actually a good one, riddance of the differences that crated old enmities." But then she shifts from this Welsh/English social issue to the possibility of telling the story of when she ended it between them. "I could make it a feminist re-telling of a fairy tale: the waking princess kicking the prince away from the glass coffin."
She sees a teenage girl and thinks of herself at that age when "all the narratives were open" and she could not imagine being here with a man she almost lost once because he nearly died, thinking she could tell that story also—a grim, realist tale: "the symbolic slam of the ambulance door, the ice-rink of the hospital corridor." She ends thinking: "Would I mention my sense then that nothing had meaning and that my life after all was no story, or would I lie, since he recovered, and make those symbols fit a narrative arc with a happy ending?"
A thoughtful story about a writer dealing with the so-called "reality" of her life the way writers do when they write fiction—making choices, determining generic approaches, using narrative technique to make meaning how of their experience.
Philip Langeskov's "Barcelona" is the longest story in this year's collection. At about 13,500 words it is almost the length of Melville's famous "Bartleby the Scrivener." Because it was published separately as a single volume, it has been called a "novella" by some reviewers. I have written about the novella form in other places on this blog.
The story is about Daniel's plans to take his wife Isla to Barcelona where they spent their honeymoon for their tenth wedding anniversary. Because the hotels are full, he must make plans to stay at the home of Josep, an old boyfriend of his wife years ago when they were students. Although at first Isla says she cannot go because she has a conference to attend, she changes her mind.
At the last minute before they leave, Daniel grabs a copy of Graham Greene's collected stories which a colleague had lent him months ago so as to have something to read on the plane. Once on board, he looks through the book to find the shortest story in the collection, which turns out to be "The Overnight Bag," about a man named Henry Cooper travelling from Nice to London with a carry-on bag about which he is very particular. When he puts it on the seat beside him and secures it with a seatbelt, a woman sitting beside him asks why he is so particular, to which he replies, "It's a matter of respect" because it contains a dead baby.
Langeskov summarizes the entire Greene story, including a comic conversation with a cab driver who drives Cooper home, and his encounter with his mother during which he tells a tale about finding a severed human toe in a marmalade jar when he was dining. The Greene story ends with Cooper going to unpack his bag. Langeskov notes, "There is no further mention of a wife, a baby, and the true contents of the bag are left unresolved at the end of the story."
Daniel is still thinking about the story as he and his wife land and go through passport control He is troubled but cannot say precisely why the story bothers him. "The obvious thing to think would be that it was the suggestion of the dead baby, that this in some way hinted to an unspoken sense of loss within him regarding the decision he and Isla had taken—long ago, before they were married—not to have children." The more Daniel thinks about it, the more he thinks the story is offensive. "Some coldness at its heart had made him shiver and he was not grateful for the effect." He wishes he had never read it.
As he thinks more about it, he realizes there is no baby in the story, nor a wife for Cooper, which makes his distaste ever worse. He knows the baby and wife are constructs of Cooper's imagination. He thinks it is this duplicity that troubles him and he cannot understand why except that it was as if he has been introduced to some quality in himself that he either had not known about or had chosen to ignore or worked hard to suppress."
Later, Daniel is annoyed that Cooper never got his "comeuppance," feeling that he invented the baby, creating for the woman and the taxi driver a trauma that had not taken place. "Cooper's just deserts, Daniel realised, would have been to find himself suffering precisely the traumatic experience he had called into being for others." Still after he still has the image in his mind of Cooper unpacking his bag while his mother sets out a shepherd's pie.
When Isla gets a pain in her abdomen, he is concerned and thinks he cannot imagine life without her. Later he watches her come toward the hotel with groceries and panics when he sees her stumble to catch her falling sunglasses. The story suddenly shifts to a completely different story of a man named Luis who receives a call from his wife Penelope that her water has broken. He jumps on his motor bike and on the way thinks of their choice to give up one kind of life and choose this one with a child. Ahead he sees a woman walking across the street stumbling to catch her sunglasses, but he is travelling too fast to stop. By some instinct he manages to shift the bike and miss her by the narrowest margin, and then speeds on to the hospital "towards his wife; towards the woman who had transformed him."
It's a long story and seems to be filled with many trivial details that add up to nothing. Although the Graham Greene tale, which critic Walter Allen once called "no more than a good macabre joke," takes up a great deal of the story, its relevance not clear. Obviously, however, whatever "Barcelona" is about, it is inextricably tied to the Graham Greene story.
In an interview that appeared in the Journal of the Short Story in English, Graham Greene said he did not feel at home in the short story because some of the charm of writing a novel is that you don't known everything that is going to happen, whereas with the short story he said he had not found the method of surprising himself and therefore reviving his interest.
When the interviewer, Philippe Sejourne, asked Greene if he felt the short story had to deal with something extraordinary, Greene said no, noting that the stories of Chekhov, V.S Pritchett, or James Joyce did not do so. When Sejourne said he was thinking about the extraordinary event in "The Overnight Bag" of a man who brings back the body of his little son in a plane, Greene, said, "Oh, there is nothing in his bag. He is not really bringing a child back in his bag. It's in his imagination."
However, to say that it is in his imagination suggests at least two different possibilities: that the man purposely invents the baby in the bag to shock others, or that in his imagination there is a baby in the bag. The character Daniel in "Barcelona" obviously believes the former and is angry at the fictional character Cooper for his duplicity and angry at the story for not creating some "poetic justice" for the man, making him suffer the discomfort the woman on the plane and the taxi-driver experienced. The appropriate poetic justice would be to have Cooper believe something that does not really exist and be disturbed about it.
The issue about fiction the Greene story raises is that even though the reader knows there is no dead baby in the bag, he or she cannot think of the bag without a dead baby in it. The French interviewer obviously felt this way when he cited the story as being about a dead baby in a bag and Greene had to remind him that there was no dead baby.
I pulled out my old collection of Graham Green stories and read "The Overnight Bag" a couple of times. And I cannot now think of the bag as empty, even though I know it was empty, even though Graham Green has told me it was empty. Something that is not there affects me as if it were there. That, of course, is one of the key elements of a fiction.
"Barcelona" is filled with events or actions that seem to happen or are going to happen, but that do not happen. At first Isla says she cannot go on holiday with Daniel because of a previous engagement, but then decides she will go. Daniel suspects that Isla's old boyfriend has something to do with her not going on holiday with him, but finds out that is not true. When they arrive, it seems that their luggage is lost, but then it is not. When Isla develops a pain in her abdomen, Daniel worries about her, but then it goes away When he comes back to the hotel, he finds Isla missing and feels the ground crumbling beneath his feet, only to find out that she has simply gone out for groceries. Finally, when it seems that she is going to be hit by a motorbike on the street (a sort of deus ex machina that appears out of nowhere in the story), the bike misses her.
What is the quality Daniel thinks that Greene's story has introduced in himself that he did not know he had or that he had ignored? Well, surely, it must have something to do with creating a fiction and acting as if it were a reality, which is what writers do. Or believing that something is real when it is a fiction, which is what readers do.
"The Overnight Bag" and "Barcelona" are both stories about things that fill us with fear or shock or horror that do not really exist. If they do not exist, there is nothing we can do about them, except disbelieve them. But once we believe them, how can we disbelieve them? The result is to be like Daniel—to be suspicious, to be afraid, to doubt, to be anxious. Only to understand finally that what we thought happened did not happen, except that in some very basic way, it did—the mysterious power of fiction.
Monday, October 19, 2015
In his Introduction to Best British Short Stories 2013, Nicholas Royle opined that the widely-used phrase "Flash Fiction" was an inappropriate term to describe stories that happened to be "rather short."
I agree. In my opinion, it is the shortness of a short story that usually determines its unique qualities. And the shorter the story the more it may embody these unique qualities: e.g. more language precision than language mimesis, more implication than clarification, and more mystery than manners.
For various reasons, some short stories just need to be shorter than others; they do not constitute a separate genre. When I was trying to teach students the art of the short story, I often found it helpful to use relatively short examples to compel them to read not merely for plot, but for precision—to focus on a short story as an art object that signified something—not merely a "mirror in the roadway" realistically reflecting so-called real life. I even created a software program called "Hyperstory" to force them to read in this careful and intense way.
I found this so helpful that when I edited a collection of short stories for classroom use, I chose a large percentage of short stories ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 words—for example Anton Chekhov's "Misery" (2,000 words), Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" (2,000 words), Katherine Ann Porter's "The Grave" (2,500 words), Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" (1,500 words), and Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" (1,500 words).
Other well-known stories of this length I included were: Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," Updike's "A&P," Stephen Crane's "Episode of War," Joyce's "Araby," Sherwood Anderson's "Hands," Welty's "A Memory," Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Grace Paley's "A Conversation with My Father," and many more.
Although these stories could be "read" once through in about 15 minutes, Hyperstory encouraged my students to spend much more time with them than that.
Since Royle has called attention to the fact that the 2013 volume of BBSS includes a few more "really-rather-short stories" than previous volumes, I thought this week I would comment on what I think makes my favorite three of those "rather-short" stories work.
Alison Moore, "The Smell of the Slaughterhouse"
A writer doesn't have a lot of time to waste on background in a short story, and Moore makes it clear in the first few lines that this is a story of a woman who has left her husband and come back home to stay with her father.
Whatever detail one uses in such a short piece must be thematically significant, not merely mimetically real. Rachel's bringing in a bit of dirt or shite into the house on her shoe, making her leave the "offending shoe" outside, is a detail that the reader should register. The word "offending" and the fact that her father fetches paper towels and carpet freshener plus his curt remark "Is that it?" to refer to her small suitcase suggests her feeling of being childlike and her father's lack of kindness and concern.
The suggestion of dirt is echoed when Rachel washes her hands with her father's soap, an important motif, for the one background detail in the story is Rachel's memory of her father's heavy carbolic smell in a brief sterile scene with her mother. And all it takes is the one reference to "bruising" that she covers up with foundation to indicate why she has left her husband.
Her feeling of fragility and childlikeness is further indicated by her sense that her room has not changed, almost as if she has never been away. And there is some pathos for Rachel in the father's question when he brings in the tea and lemon sponge fingers on a tray, "Shall I be mother?" for we know the mother is gone.
Rachel's memory of her mother focuses on her tending to the father's needs when he comes home from work: a cloth on the table, something home-baked, quiet jazz on the stereo. The simple query about his day, and the couple's one-word remarks, suggest, if not the father's cruelty, his indifference.
The story ends with the metaphor of the smell of the carbolic soap, as Rachel looked at her father's well-washed hands and thought no one would know he had just come from the abattoir. "Except that the smell of the carbolic soap with which he scrubbed himself daily, and whose reek is on her own skin now, has come to seem to her, over the years, like the smell of the slaughterhouse itself."
The story works the way many good short stories work—suggesting some universal truth about the mystery of the human condition with the bare minimum of detail, giving the reader just enough to encourage him or her to identify with the main character's emotions and new knowledge. Beneath the smell of cleanliness there is the residue of dirt, the smell of flesh and death and indifference. Always there is the secret of human coldness and human vulnerability.
Adam Marek, "The Stormchasers"
Short stories often cannot be "read" the first time. One needs to have the end firmly in mind before one can read the story meaningfully from the beginning. It is only when the reader sees the storm the mother has created at the end of this story that the father and son's searching for storms outside the house takes on significance.
Thematically, the story deals with what happens in reality vs. what happens in the imagination. When the boy asks if a storm can suck up a person, the father knows he is "imagining the tornado like a straw in the sky's mouth." When the boy comes down wearing his Macintosh and yellow sou'wester, the father recalls he bought them for him before he was born, "when he was just in my imagination. When they return home to find the house trashed, the father wants the boy to think it was caused by a tornado, not the result of the storm in the mother's mind. Finally, we find out that the father's story that the mother had four wisdom teeth pulled out is a lie, a construct of the imagination to protect the boy from the mother's instability.
The storm very economically suggests the gap between the world shared by the boy and the father and the silent, withdrawn world of the mother. This tension is also suggested by the house, which is buffeted by the storm, the wind playing the chimney like a flute, and blowing around the walls like a ghost, but which the father has photographed from the air as a calm green triangle surrounded by a yellow sea of rapeseed.
The father tells the boy they will go out into the physical reality of the storm and he will show him there is nothing to be afraid of. But what is really to fear is the storm inside the imagination of the mother. The fact that the mother feels cut off from the father and son is also indicated by the fact that they both has cornfield blond hair rather than the black hair of the mother—"Yet another thing he got from you, not me," she sometimes says. They listen to pop music on the radio, which the mother likes but the father does not. They go around the roundabout three times, a game they play when the mother is not with them.
When they return home and find the living room in a shambles—the photos swept off the mantel, the television face down on the floor, the boy's toys tipped from his box and the mother sitting on the floor with her head on her knees, her knuckles all bloody—we know what the real storm is—and no game of playing stormchaser can ever catch it. Still trying to protect the boy, it is the father, not the son, who asks, "You okay, mummy? Did you see it, the tornado? When it came through?"
Alex Preston, "The Swimmer in the Desert"
Sometimes a short story focuses on a moment between reality and desire. The title of "A Swimmer in the Desert" embodies these two opposites and introduces the tension between desert actuality and the desire for water in the first few lines.
The context of the story is one of the conflicts in Northern Africa or the Middle East, suggested by the fact that the main character is a soldier and by the references to wadis, the Kush, and IEDs. The object of the soldier's desire is connected to a memory of swimming with his girlfriend Marie back home. He has not swum since he has been here, and he feels "an urgent need" to swim. More than anything he wants to feel water on his body. He knows there is a "religion of water" in this part of the world, and he can see that "God is dancing in the water under the levee. He recalls kissing Marie and it felt like they were swimming, "nervelessly, over deep water."
He is standing watch in a watchtower in a compound, and feels a sudden instinct to walk out. He is so caught up in this escape from reality into desire that he ignores a momentary flash of sun on glass in the mountains above him, and when he hears a crack, it corresponds to the sound of his body plunging into the water and the sound of a rifle from the hill country. The water becomes spiritual reality, carrying in it all that have participated in it—the petals of flowers from a wedding, the sweat of a man who bathed in it at dawn. "Despite the weight of all this, the water bounds along the stream bed, dancing and tear-clear."
The stream the man has plunged into carries traces of the world around him, religiously joining him to that world. It carries his body over jagged shallows into deeper pools where swimming creatures congregate and insect larvae thrust themselves into green depths.
We don't really need the last sentence to know the man has merged with his desire: "A plume of blood escapes like the ghost of a water snake from the hole in his head, is caught by the current, and carried away."
These stories work because what they are about is not specific situations of individual people, but rather the universality of human loneliness, fear, and desire. The fact that they are quite short does not mean they are different than longer short stories—just that the qualities of what makes a good short story are accentuated in them by being honed and polished to give off a glow of significance.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
These are my favorite stories from the 2012 edition of Best British Short Stories, with a brief attempt to explain why.
"Half-mown Lawn," by Dan Powell: Sometimes it is the simplicity and restraint of a story that affects me both emotionally and aesthetically. In Dan Powell's story of a woman whose husband has died recently of a heart attack while mowing the lawn, Powell creates just the right balance between the woman's effort to reconcile the past with the present, juxtaposing everyday needs (a shopping list) and breathless loss (a list of everyday things she will miss about her husband), keeping things the same (preventing her son from finishing the lawn) and adjusting to change (missing the smell of her husband in the bed sheets her daughter has thoughtfully washed). And then the ending, often the most important part of a short story. Sometimes in short stories, the emotional pain is so inexpressible that the only way it can be dealt with is in a gesture, even a foolish gesture, that becomes a metaphor for the emotional complexity of the story. When the woman lies down in the outline of her husband in the fresh mown grass, it seems both aesthetically and emotionally inevitable.
Sometimes a story exists for no other reason than to explore an idea in the cleverest way possible. I usually don't like such stories, but I couldn't resist" 'I'm the Guy Who Wrote the Wild Bunch'," by Julian Gough, a first-person account (supposedly stitched together from interviews with the screenwriter who worked with Sam Peckinpah when he first tried to film the iconic film The Wild Bunch in 1965). It just kept getting funnier and funnier as I started trying to anticipate what fantastic changes the studios would urge on the writer and Peckinpah as The Wild Bunch ultimately became that other iconic film of the sixties The Sound of Music. How in the hell could that happen? you ask. Well it begins when the producers ask them to write in a sexy woman to put on the posters and still follow Peckinpah's insistence that there be no love interest; they make her a nun, and since a singing nun was very popular at the time, they give her songs. With that, can Julie Andrews be far from the scene? Nothing but silly fun and satire of the movie business, but hey, you gotta have a little variety.
I have to admit that ever since I discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, I have been a sucker for stories that seem to exist somewhere between reality and dream that seem fraught with mystery and significance. "The Room Beyond" by Ramsey Campbell is such a story. The reader knows from the first sentence that, like the narrator in the first sentence of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" he or she has left the so-called "real" world and entered a nether world: "As soon as Todd drove off the motorway it vanished from the mirror, and so did the sun across the moor." The second sentence inhabits this world with strange denizens: "On both sides of the street the slender terraced houses huddled together like old folk afraid of descending the precipitous slope." One of my favorite prototypes of this technique is Robert Browning's "Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which has been used in many short stories since.
Campbell uses various techniques to pull the main character, ominously named "Todd," into the ultimate mystery of death. Here are some examples:
The figures on a clock outside a jewelry store are "paralysed on their track, and one stood in a miniature doorway as if he were loath to venture beyond."
The receptionist at the hotel purses her lips so hard "that the surrounding skin turned grey along with them." The sight of her greyish scalp through the irregular part in her hair "put him in mind of a crack in weedy stone." Todd is in the town for a funeral, and the graveyard is just around the corner. She tells him he has little time to get dressed for dinner, saying "Better look alive." He says he will be done as "soon as I'm fit to kill."
The waiter is dressed more "somberly than Todd" and the dining room is as hushed as a church. The waiter is given to serious priestly pronouncements: "They say we ae all related, don't they?" and "We always have [choices] while we're alive."
The wind moves the floor-length curtains as someone is lurking there, making Todd recall that he once thought God lived behind the curtains above the altar in the church."
The dinner buffet has been set all for Todd; no one else is there. He begins to feel as a child—that everyone around him knew a secret he would not learn until he was older.
When he lies down in bed that night, the indentation in the mattress makes it easiest for him to lie on his back, "hands crossed on his breastbone. He hears sounds in the room next to him, but no one answers when he pounds on the door. He picks up the phone but it is "dead as a bone."
He opens the connecting door between his room and the next one and like a "child determined to learn a secret."
The ending is predictable with Todd going through another door to a room containing a long unlidded box and he hears a voice saying… well you know what the voice says.
Stories like this are risky business, for they attempt to capture those unknowable final moments before death. But as rigged as the story is, I found myself mesmerized as I often was by Poe stories when I was an adolescent.
Sometimes you read a story that catches your attention because it is located in an area with which you are familiar. I found "Sad, Dark Thing," by Michael Marshall Smith irresistible because it takes place in the rural area near Santa Cruz, California. All three of my children went to the University of California at Santa Cruz; I once bought some property in the area near Boulder Creek with some friends back in the day when folks planned to build communes and live communally. It didn't happen, thank God. But I know the area where this story takes place.
It's a story announced in the first couple of paragraphs as being motivated by, or derived from, a sense of "aimlessness," which the storyteller takes a bit of time to define as being without purpose or direction, something that is perhaps like being dead. "It is the aimless who find the wrong roads, and go down them, simply because they have nowhere else to go."
And this, of course is what happens to the man named Miller while out driving on a Saturday afternoon, aimlessly. This time he drives south-east of Scott's Valley and sees a narrow road overhung with tall trees, giving no indication of leading anywhere at all, so he turns down the road. Of course, when one goes down a mysterious road, mysterious things are bound to happen. He stops at an old farmhouse and encounters a man who charges him a dollar to "see something." The man points him toward a small hut and gives him a key, saying "It's in there"—"A sad, dark thing."
Inside the hut, Miller senses something "that said underneath the shadows it wrapped around itself like a pair of dark angel's wings, it knew despair, bitter madness and melancholy better than he did. He knew that beneath those shadows it was naked and not male."
Whatever it is, Miller buys it, puts in in his trunk and takes it home. "It was night, and it was dark, and they were both inside and that felt right." He recalls meeting and marrying his wife and having a child and then her leaving and taking the child with her.
The last section of the story, of course, must twist into a motivational knot the event that has taken place so far and somehow justify the creature and why he has taken it into his house. It is at this point that the story shifts fully into fantasy mode, and we sense Miller's despair and his need for the "sad, dark thing" to embrace it in the night.
I am still enjoying my rereading the stories in the Best British Short Stories series. A few comments on some favorites in the 2013 edition next week.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
I am sorry to hear that Brian Friel died Friday in Donegal at age 86. The obits in both Los Angeles Times and The New York Times called him "The Irish Chekhov," but neither obit mentions his short stories.
The author of thirty-one stories in two collections, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), eighteen of which were selected and republished in The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (1969), Friel once made a distinction between the relationship between the storyteller he began as and the playwright that he became. Whereas the playwright must always be concerned with using stealth to evoke a fresh response from the complacent theater audience, the storyteller mimics a personal conversation implicitly prefaced with, "Come here till I whisper in your ear."
However, there is perhaps more similarity between Friel's stories and his plays than there are differences. First of all, his stories are conventionally organized, built on the substructure of a relatively straightforward thematic idea that can be illustrated by moving relatively simple characters about on a limited stage. Although Friel has been compared to Chekhov and Turgenev, whereas there is a surface similarity, he lacks the character complexity of Chekhov and Turgenev's lyricism. Here are some thumbnail remarks on some of his best-known stories:
"Among the Ruins"
A typical Friel story, "Among The Ruins" is structured conventionally around the main character's discovery about the irretrievable nature of the past. Margo, Joe's wife, arranges, for the children's sake, for a family day-trip to Donegal where Joe was born and raised. Although at first he resists the idea, saying he is not sentimental and that he does not see the point in the trip, on the way he becomes excited, not because he wants to show his children where he played as a boy, but because he wants to recapture some lost magic.
However, when he tries to explain to his wife the significance of the imaginative games he once played in a secret bower with his sister, he realizes that the past is an illusion, a mirage that allows an escape from the present. When he finds his son playing his own imaginative game in the woods, he understands that ironically the past belongs not to him, but to his son, in a long line of generations, all finding some meaning in their magic of unrecapturable childhood. Thematically, the story suggests that the past has meaning not as something that once happened, but as something that continues to happen, repeating itself over and over again.
The Irish stereotypes of the alcoholic husband and the shamed and embarrassed wife form the basis of "The Diviner." The twist that Friel plays on the story is that Nelly Devenny, the shamed wife, is freed from her alcoholic husband in the first paragraph of the story and, after a suitable period of mourning, decides to marry again, this time to a respectable retired man from the West of Ireland. The story actually begins when, three months after Nelly marries the man, he is drowned in a lake. After frogmen fail to find the body, a diviner is brought in, who, like a priest, can smell out the truth. And the truth, which Friel saves until the end of the story is revealed when the body is brought to the surface and two whisky bottles are found in his pocket. Nelly's wailing that ends the story is not so much for the dead husband as it is for the respectability she had almost gained but which now is lost once again.
"Foundry House" is Friel's best-known and most widely respected story, primarily because it features a cast of well-balanced characters in a dramatic scene that presages Friel's later triumphs in stage drama. The story is also appealing to many readers because the dramatic oppositions in the story derive from Irish history and reflect a clearly defined class distinction that once was known as the "Big House" system, in which English Protestants lived in the large manor homes with Irish Catholic peasants dependant on them. However, because Friel is not really interested in these political or religious distinctions, he makes both Joe Brennan, the working class descendant of the peasant class, and the Hogan family, who still live in the big house, Irish Catholic.
Friel symbolizes the difference between the dying old way and the competent new industrial world by making the Hogans aging and sterile and Joe a radio-television repairman. When Joe is called to the house to show the family how to play a tape recording from one of the daughters, a nun in Africa, he is asked to stay and listen, but the father, now infirm, snaps at him, calling him "boy," as in the old days. However, when Joe returns home and is queried by his curious wife about the big house, he can only say, as he dresses his baby for bed, that they are a great, grand family.
"The Saucer of Larks"
The magic of the natural world and its momentary superiority over the public world of rules and protocol dominates "The Saucer of Larks." The protagonist is a police Sergeant in Donegal who escorts two German officials to disinter the body of a young German soldier who has crashed in the area during World War II. The landscape has a significant effect on the Sergeant, making him feel that he would not mind being buried out here, for with so much life around you, you don't have a chance to be really dead. When they reach the grave site, they hear hundreds of larks singing, which inspires the Sergeant further in his lyrical response to nature. Arguing that when you are buried in one of the big cemeteries in Dublin, you're finished and complaining about how man destroys such beautiful areas as the place known as the saucer of larks, he tries to convince the Germans to leave the young pilot where he is; but the Germans, in stereotyped fashion, can think only of orders and duty. At the end of the story, when the Sergeant is back at the station, he wonders what came over him out there, puzzling that he had never done anything like that ever before, blaming it on the heat and his age.
"My Father and the Sergeant"
The title of this Friel story sufficiently signifies its meaning, for the Father and the Sergeant are one and the same; the story is told by a young man whose father, a teacher at the school in Donegal where he attends, is secretly nicknamed the Sergeant by his students; thus he is both a kind, silent man troubled by ambition and a stern, hard-driving, humorless task-master. The story is not so much dependent on theme or complexity of character as it is on a reminiscent tone of gentle sad memory. When passed over for a better post, the father decides he will show his superiors what a good teacher he is by preparing four of his students for the regional scholarship exams. However, when he is stricken by pleurisy and a substitute must be called in, the young man becomes so popular with his charges that the father's position is made even more fragile. The story comes to a climax when the new teacher is accused of kissing one of the young girls, the protagonist's girlfriend, and is sent packing by the priest. When the father returns and some of the boys tease the young girl, saying that she will be wrestling on the couch with the Sergeant next, the protagonist knocks him down, crying "He's my father." However, rather than tell his father what the boys have said, the protagonist says only that he hit the boy because he called him the Sergeant.
Friel has been criticized by some critics for writing stories that, although they often are situated on the politically charged boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Friel acts pretty much as if the boundary and the bloody history that stains it did not exist. The conflicts that beset his characters are not political but personal; and the past that Friel evokes is romantic rather than rebellious. Although such slighting of political rhetoric by Friel in favor of universal longings and romantic illusion may irritate social critics who want fiction to carry political freight, Friel's short fiction is firmly within the Irish tradition of universal folk.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Compiling a "Best of" collection is a risky business. I have never been asked to do such a thing, but can guess what pressures the compiler must consider. There is the problem of "making a book," which usually necessitates some variety as to subject matter and style—not all experimental, not all conventional realism. Then there is the issue of a mixed representation of authors—not all well-knowns, not all unknowns.
Foremost, of course, there is the issue of subjectivity. Everyone has his or her own particular preferences about favorite kinds of stories, favorite styles, approaches, etc. I have read all five volumes of The Best British Short Stories and have enjoyed the experience. I admire and respect Nicholas Royle's editorial expertise and appreciate his efforts to stimulate interest in the short story among British writers and readers.
However, as my last post indicates, I do not always have the same opinion of some of the stories in the 2011 collection as he perhaps does. Of course, although I have read thousands of stories in my career, I have not read the hundreds of stories he read from which he chose the twenty in the collection. So I cannot question his judgment that he has chosen the twenty best stories published in England in 2010.
The best I can do in this final post on the 2011 edition of The Best British Short Stories is to come clean about my own personal preferences about some of the stories—those that I liked and those that I did not particularly like—and try to explain why.
Lee Rourke's "Emergency Exit" is a second-person point of view story that places the narrator in a no-exit situation seeing himself as if he were outside himself, feeling unsettled and not caring what he is doing. His detachment from reality is suggested by his noting that the Emergency Exit sign is in Helvitica or maybe Microsoft Sans Serif. He feels empty, as if he does not exist, as if nothing exists. A man's eyes are like "two dark pools of nothingness." "Finally, you feel nothing." Everything is without consequence or meaning. "I don't know where I'm going," he says. The story reads a bit like a classroom exercise in which the professor has asked students to write a story about meaninglessness. It raises the old conundrum of whether one can write about meaninglessness with the story becoming meaningless.
"Foreigner," which springs from the Falklands War, is a relatively transparent story about the horrors of war and thus lends itself to generalized polemic. Inevitably, in such a story, the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier and cannot get it out of his mind. Also inevitably, men talk about wars being about freedom, while mothers say their son did not die for freedom . "There was nothing noble about the way he was sacrificed," a mother says, putting polemical statements in the mouths of characters. And as the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier, he has a taste in his mouth like a "rotting tooth." Such a story makes set pieces and clichés seem inevitable as the woman says about her lost son, "Our marriage is past. Even Alex is in the past now. And we've got to live in the present." Getting tangled in such generalities then leads to more clichés, and bad metaphors like "the word cracked like ice beneath too heavy a weight." The story illustrates an important truth—that just because the story deals with an important subject does not make it an important story. War stories are often guilty of this, for war is such a huge and important subject. But it does not make for an important story unless the language controls it, as it does, for example in American writer Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Sometimes stories just want to be clever and smart and satiric. In Adam Marek's "Dinner of the Dead Alumni." England's Trinity College at Cambridge is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its most famous alumnus, Isaac Newton, and the 100th anniversary of Ludwig Wittgenstein's attendance at the college. This gives Marek the opportunity to make use of some research and evoke ghosts of AA Milne, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aleister Crowley, John Dryden, and Francis Bacon. This context backgrounds a story about the narrator recalling an old girlfriend telling him that for every person there is a partner so perfect that if you touch that person you'll both have an immediate simultaneous orgasm. Although this seems like a most inconvenient gift, he yearns for it, for "an orgasm that one did not have to work for, that came unsolicited at some unsuspecting moment, would surely be the most wondrous of all." The story exists for the two concepts. It is clever, but is that enough to create a good story?.
Sometimes stories just want to play around with writing conventions. Philip Langeskov's "Notes on a Love Story1" is a very brief story about a man who has just got his first short story published in in Paris Review; when he shares this news with his girlfriend they see a huge flock of geese. It is the eleven academic style endnotes that make up the real story. Some just supply information, e.g. who is George Plimpton and William Maxwell? But most of them provide personal information about the narrator/author and his relationship with his girlfriend. It strikes me as a gimmick that does not seem essential other than to suggest that the narrator is first and foremost a writer.
The fact that I like SJ Butler's "The Swimmer" probably gives me away as a reader who prefers stories driven by an emotion, a mysterious obsession and written in a lyrical fashion without lots of explanation or ideology or sociology. The story is about a woman who decides to go swimming in the river that she can see from her study. I like the prose that creates her situation:
"Down here at water level, she realises, not only is she invisible to the rest of the world, but it is invisible to her. The tops of the banks are at least ten feet above her so all she can see is the river, the banks and the sky. Her focus narrowed, she begins to notice tiny details; here where the river is kinked around a root, there are weeds with narrow dark green leaves. In places the banksides have been scraped back to bare earth by the spring floods , and high up there are clusters of miniature animal holes"
During her swim, she sees a swan: "She had never before realised the sheer size of a swan. Down here, on its level, she is insignificant." The woman begins to spend more and more time in the river, becoming more and more obsessed with the swan. Many days later, she swims nearer to the swan and sees it is trapped in a nylon fishing line. She swims round and round the swan unraveling the thread, until she frees the bird and it drifts away from her in the current. She lets the current take her too and catches a faint glimpse of the swan a white puff in the distance. "And at the next bend she cannot tell it from the mist rising from the water."
Call me a romantic and be damned. But I like this lyrical obsessive connection between the woman and the water and the swan. I don't know anything more about the woman, nor do I need to to participate in her magical and mysterious union with a rhythm and reality of the natural/ world.
I also like Heather Leach's "So Much Time in a Life," mainly because its fairy-tale language lures me in: "To begin with there were three children. The first, a girl with hair so dark and wet that, as she came out of me, it looked like a seal pelt: the sleek fur of a creature slipping from its underwater world onto the soft rock of my breast." The story plays a bit with point of view: "When is the moment when she becomes I? Is this it? They say that most people hate it, the author stepping into her story, spoiling the fictional dream. I hate it too, but here she is, here I am, breaking, breaking, breaking the frame." The story is, like a few others in the collection, about the writing process, but here, rather than being just a gimmick, it seems right for a story that is about the relationship between reality and the life of the imagination, a story about a woman creating her children and losing them, about a woman's netherworld of what is real and what is imagined.
Alan Beard, "Staff Development." Just too much meaningless language and meaningless sex.
Kirsty Logan, "The Rental Heart" A clever trope derived from a futuristic technology of being about to rent a heart, but the story exists only for the extended metaphor.
I liked Bernie McGill's "No Angel, "from the first sentence: "The first time I saw my father after he died, I was in the shower, hair plastered with conditioner , when the water stuttered and turned cold." I liked the rest of the story because of the restrained way it deals with death in Northern Ireland. But, sometimes I like a story because it strikes a personal note. I liked this story because my mother-in-law, a wonderful woman who came to America from Belfast after WWII to marry an American soldier she met at a dance, had just died at age 90 when I read it. She was a wonderful woman who my wife and I cared for the last few years. Purely personal reason, but unavoidable.
John Burnside, "Slut's Hair" is another favorite for me because of my empathy with a woman who is married to a brutish husband who insists on pulling out one of her bad teeth with a pair of pliers. The woman feels helpless against the man, so she creates something to save from him, since she cannot save herself—an imaginary mouse she constructs out of a fistful of dust that her mother called "slut's hair."
Sometimes I read a story that I like, but am unable to say why, for example, Alison Moore's "When the Door Closed, It Was Dark" about a young British au pair girl who is hired by a family in a foreign country. There is a baby in the family she is to help care for, but the mother is mysteriously not there. The atmosphere is oppressive, even threatening, and the story is loaded with premonitions about something happening to the baby, but even though I feel the story is too self-consciously wired, there is something about the vulnerability of the young woman that arouses my sympathy, and then the expected unexpectedly happens at the end. Hard to resist.
I don't care for stories that feel they have to explain everything. Sally Vickers's "Epiphany," for example, "He had mourned his absent father, fiercely, inconsolably, endlessly, desperately." "The note of whimsy was terrible." "Charlie…felt a further rush of absolving relief." "He felt nothing. Not even contempt." "He could never have envisaged this hesitant man with the unsettle squeak and tremor in his voice. Sharply, fervently, he wished this newly recovered parent to the bottom of the sea." Just too much explanation of feelings.
I am going to try to talk about other volumes in the Best British Short Stories series in future blogs, but I will probably only focus on those that are my favorites. My mother always said, "If you can't say something nice about some thing, don't say anything at all." That isn't easy, Mom, but I will try.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
It seems tautological, not to mention obvious, to say, but the basic reason the short story is not a popular form nowadays is that most people don't like stories that are short, but rather stories that are long. There have been times in the past when short stories were widely read—in England during the 1890s and in America in the 1920s—but today? not so much, although there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in England recently.
Some of this drop in popularity has to do with media, for short stories used to be widely read when periodical magazines were the main means of print distribution.
Short fiction films, defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an original motion picture with a running time of 40 minutes or less, have never had a wide distribution in theaters. They are usually made by independent film makers for nonprofit, with a low budget, usually funded by grants.
In the so-called "Golden Age of Television" in the 1950, anthology shows, such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were very popular. Now folks watch scripted series shows on television with different stories each week, but with the same main characters, often engaged in a continuing back story about their lives. For example, the popular American series How to Get Away with Murder features a tough professor/lawyer with a small group of smart student followers in which, behind separate cases each week, there runs a continuous story of the murder of the lawyer's husband by the students.
The growing trend to watch a number of episodes of a series on Netflix or Amazon featuring the same characters in what has been called binge viewing is just one more indication that folks like long continuous stories rather than short individual ones.
Writers who write short stories in the hopes that they will find readers thus always face the problem of distribution. It usually goes this way. A writer submits a story to various small journals, usually sponsored by universities or nonprofits, and if he or she can publish at least a dozen stories this way, an agent or publisher might be willing to publish them in a collection of stories, that is if the author looks promising and promises a novel next time. It helps if some of the stories are picked up by one of the "Best" anthologies. The collection will probably sell better if the author strings the stories together around the same characters and the publisher can promote the book a novel in stories.
It is next to impossible to make a living this way, which usually means that writers have to teach in the growing number of MFA programs in England and American. Sometimes it seems as if there are more writers of short stories than there are readers. Or, put another way, it seems that aspiring short story writers are the primary audience for published short stories.
The Internet has made possible some new technological means by which authors can get stories in print and in front of an audience—on special websites devoted to story publication and on blogs. However, Nicholas Royle has taken an old-fashioned 16th century approach to getting short stories out there. He started Nightjar Press and began publishing short stories as chapbooks in limited, numbered editions, autographed by the authors. At my last count, there are twenty titles in the series. Mr. Royle was kind enough to send me the following five for my reading pleasure.
Christopher Kenworthy, "sullom hill"
Tom Fletcher, "The Home"
Elizabeth Stout, "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers"
Joel Lane, "black country" (now out of print)
Alison Moore, "The Harvestman"
I have read all five of the books (stories), enjoying them all. And "enjoy" is the keyword here. My impression of the stories is that they were chosen to be read once with some pleasure, not to be studied and savored through rereadings. They strike me as that hybrid form combining characteristics of the popular plot-based story with some characteristics of the language-based literary story. Sometimes the weight is more toward literary, as in Alison Moore's "The Harvestman," and sometimes more toward the popular, as with Elizabeth Stout's "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers." Sometimes the weight shifts toward genre story, albeit with literary characteristics, as with the traditional hard-bitten detective story of Joel Lane's "black country," and sometimes a bit more toward the experimental as with Tom Fletcher's "The Home" or the literary with Christopher Kenworthy's "sullom hill."
Because these stories are a pleasure to read for their plot, it would spoil your pleasure if I were to give those plots away. Suffice to say, I liked reading these stories and I give Mr. Royle great credit for promoting interest in the short story by making them available. I assume that if all but seven of the twenty titles in the series are out of print, he must have succeeded in his plans and made enough money to defray publication costs. It is nice to have a single thin volume with a nice cover and an author autograph inside.
A July Facebook post indicates that three other titles are still in print: "Puck" by David Rose, "The Jungle," by Conrad Williams, and "M" by Hilary Scudder.
You can email email@example.com to place an order for any of the seven titles that may still be in print. Thanks to Nicholas Royle, a true champion of the short story in England, for sharing these chapbooks with me.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Last year at the Independent Bath Literature festival, Hanif Kureishi raised a bit of musty dust by declaring that creative writing courses were a waste of time. Whether anyone can teach another to be a "creative writer" is an old fuss and doesn't interest me. The answer is, of course, both "yes" and "no."
What most caught my eye in the report of Kureishi's rant was his claim that students don't understand that it's the story that really counts. "They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'"
Maybe Kureishi is right about many novels that, eager to make money and get on to what happens next, consist of piss-poor prose—but certainly not a real short story—at least a short story that aims to be more than a mere time-passer on the bus or on the pot.
I agree with George Saunders, a much better short-story writer than Kureishi, who says that the litmus test for him is always the language. In his essay, “Thank You, Esther Forbes," Saunders says a sentence is more than just a fact-conveyor; it also makes a certain sound, and could have a thrilling quality of being over-full, saying more than its length should permit it to say. A sequence of such sentences exploding in the brain makes the invented world almost unbearably real. Saunders says, and I agree, by honing the sentences you use to describe the world, you change the inflection of your mind, which changes your perceptions.
To claim that all readers that want to do is to find out what happens next shows a lack of respect for the reader. I want to comment briefly today on a few stories in the 2011 Best British Short Stories that raise Kureishi's "fuck the prose" condescension.
If you don't think precision of language and a perfectly controlled and coherent tone is important in a story; if you think plot is important or realism or raw emotion is important, read Leone Ross's "Love Silk Food" and consider how language is the key to a great story. Here is her opening sentence:
"Mrs. Neecy Brown's husband is falling in love. She can tell because the love is stuck to the walls of the house, making the wallpaper sticky, and it seeps into the calendar in her kitchen, so bad that she can't see what the date is and the love keeps ruining the food: whatever she does or however hard she concentrates, everything turns to mush."
Outrageous metaphors work if, when you really think about them, they have an irresistible logic. The problem this story raises and solves is how to create the emotions of a woman whose husband is cheating on her without making it a cliché, or sentimental, or sad, or tedious. Language does it here. For example, Mrs. Brown has six daughters, all born geometric in shape: cube, heptagon, rectangle and two triangles so prickly "that she locked up shop on Mr. Brown for nearly seven months. He was careful when he finally got back in that their last daughter was a perfectly satisfactory and smooth-sided sphere."
And if you want an example of how a story weakens when the writer feels the necessity of plot, notice how this story loses energy when the woman encounters a man who seems interested in what she has to say and she finds herself in the role of the kind of "excitement women" her husband chases. This reduction to plot does not wreck the story, but it does make it limp a bit at the end.
Then there is Hilary Mantel. I am not sure how revered Mantel is in England, although I suspect that a two-time winner of the Booker for well-researched historical novels would quite possibly be publicly adored. Good for her. But that doesn't mean she can write a decent short story. Although I guess it would be hard to resist including two stories by one of England's most respected novelists, I just cannot see that either of her two stories in the 2001 Best British Short Stories are anything but dashed-off, plot-based, pot-boilers.
The first thing that distracts me about the story "Winter Break" is the use of novelistic detail that has nothing to do with the significance of the story, just minor observations to make the reader nod knowingly that the writer is most perceptive. For example, when the couple arrive, the woman picks the cloth of her T-shirt away from her back, prompting Mantel to observe: "We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we've seen the forecast." Mantel then wisely notes that there are two types of taxi men: the garrulous ones with a niece in Dagenham who want to talk and the ones who "needed every grunt racked out of them" and wouldn't tell you where their niece lived under torture. Again, the reader smiles wryly at such perceptive observation.
The fact that Mantel notes several times that the husband finds small children unbearable should alert us that this is what the story is going to be about in some way. So it is no surprise when the driver hits something, that the husband assumes, "kid." When the driver picks up a rock and pounds on what he hit, the wife assumes it is "Tomorrow's dinner". The story ends when the driver takes their luggage out of the boot and the wife sees not a cloven hoof of an animal, but the "grubby hand of a human child."
That, I suggest, makes for a grubby little horror story. Obviously, the dead child is a reminder to the woman of her husband's distaste for children. And the cloven hoof reference is a "devilish" allusion. But what is this story about? Nothing, just poor prose and a plot that shocks. Kureishi would probably like it.
Mantel's "Comma" is a predictable childhood buddies, good girl/bad girl, poor girl/middle-class girl story. In case we might miss that, Mantel announces it flatly in the second paragraph as the girls ask each other if they are rich.
The most common convention Mantel uses in the story is that of the fairy-tale, which she lays on so heavily that she perhaps thinks we have never read one. The first-person narrator announces that in a fairytale picture book you live in the forest under dripping cables with a thatch roof, and you have a basket with a patchwork cover with which you visit your grandma. When she says she is not supposed to mention her friend Mary Joplin's name, she images her as a two-dimensional character from a picture book, "beaten thin and flat"—such a shadow-like figure that the narrator is not sure if she even exists when she is not with her. These bookish references culminate in the central metaphor of the mysterious creature shaped like a comma. And then again, when the narrator relates the story of Mary's mother who spat in a stew a woman brought to her and says if it were not the persistence of the story, she might have thought she dreamed Mary and that time has sprinkled the story with mercies like fairy dust.
Claire Massey's "Feather Girls" is a better use of the fairy tale motif than "Comma" precisely because of the restraint and control of the language that makes it shimmer with significance rather than clamor with cliché. The story is about an old mythic notion that women are somehow magical, mysterious creatures that comes from a world of nature and myth and that somehow men—who are merely men--must capture the creature and make it human by stealing that aspect of it that binds it to the magical world. Mermaid stories are such myths. John Sayles' film The Secret of Roan Innish, based on the children's novel by Rosalie K. Fry, is about this legend. If it is not a selkie or seal whose skin is taken away, then it is the feathers of a swan, as in Claire Massey's story. The story works because of the universality of the myth and Massey's restraint in framing it in the simplest of situations of one man who always fails to be worthy of the feather girl he desires.
Michele Roberts' "Tristram and Isolde" raises another issue about the relationship of language to plot. I had to read the story several times because I was not really sure at first who the narrator is. The story sounds as if it is told by a young woman with her lover, as he sighs to her, Izzy, my darling" and she sleeps in his arms with her legs wrapped around him. He plunges his hands into her "mop" of curls, telling her she has pointed ears like an elf. When he eats meat, the smell from his body makes her feel a wolf is hugging her. This metaphor is followed up by her knotting a pieces of string around his wrist like a leash; he jumps up and down and growls, pawing her, pretending to lick her nose.
The language is insufferably adolescent: "Love, like sap, a green juice, coursed from his heart down his arm through our joined hand sup my arm into my heart." "This morning I felt I could eat the whole world, roll it on my tongue crisp as pastry, tart and sweet as oranges."
When they walk in the forest, branches are like the ears of deers pricking up and become transformed into a red stag, his antlers like a "tall crown, candelabra of bone." The stag is like a king of the woods, and she wants to fall down on the ground and salute him. They come to an oak tree that has a hollow trunk—"our secret room"—and she says it is like the chapter when Tristram and Isolde run away and live in the forest secretly. She says to her herself that they are married now. She says she is his real wife, the one he secretly loved best and his other wife is far away where she could not see them.
The language is so thickly adolescent that I find myself skimming, for it goes on and on repeating the same kind of romantic fantasy. "We'd hold our breath when the searchers cam past: they'd never guess what strange creatures nested" in the trees and they were one single "creature of shared love." "Time stopped. The world broke in two and the fragments flying apart hit me in the face, in the mouth, in the teeth."
Then abruptly the fantasy is broken when the man says "Look at the time" and she knows that lovers have to part, especially secret lovers outlaw lovers. Then we find out what has been going on, for on the bus she says he puts on a fake charming voice so all the old ladies would think what a good father he is. "You want to see Mummy, don't you, Izzy darling" And your new little brother."
Now we know it is a child and she is jealous of the new baby as she kicks its cot. The story ends with a final fantasy of escape as the child becomes invisible, leaps up to the windowsill and flies out back to the green park, merging with the undergrowth, dissolving to become her new true self, calling to her deer to surround her, then vanishing with them into the "heart of the forest."
The problem the story raises for me is that it deceives the reader into thinking one thing—that a young woman is with her lover—and then "surprises the reader by letting us know it is a female child fantasying about her father. If you had known it was a child from the beginning, how would you have reacted? If the only thing that makes the story a story is the plot trick, is that enough to justify wading through the childish romanticism of the rest of it, even if that romanticism is satire?
After all this talk about plot vs. prose, I wonder if it is possible to like a story with ordinary prose because of the compelling nature of the plot. On the other hand, is it possible to like a story with an inconsequential plot because it has very fine prose?
"Moving Day" by Robert Edric is, for me, a story that has little plot interest, but I like the sentences: "A fly flew across the small apartment and tapped against the glass as though testing it for a flaw, searching for an escape."
"It was another beginning—a time before the first ending, before the last decade—before the upper floors had finally been abandoned to the heat and the dust and when the inhabitants of the hightree apartments had congregated on the walled roof of the tower."
And the concluding paragraph:
"Proctor repeated the names, mesmerized by what he'd retrieved, and this time, Miller joined him, the two men word-and emphasis-perfect in their shared mantra, smiles on their faces, their eyes closed, boys together, conducing themselves with the vague and liquid movement of their fingers, and hearing somewhere in the room, somewhere across the forty years which at once divided and connected them, the muted time-keeping tapping of the solitary fly as it resumed its own unstoppable journey into the light that had for so long remained beyond its reach."
"Looted" by Dai Vaughan is a brief story about a soldier in World War II who takes a small landscape painting from a shelled apartment. Many years later he sees a photograph of the apartment with the painting visible. He surrenders the painting to the German authorities and then begins trying to copy the painting from memory. Then one day when his eldest son takes him and his wife for a drive in the British countryside; he sees a landscape that looks like the lost painting. The story ends with a moment when he feels he must decide whether to enter the landscape or not. The complexity of this moment is whether by entering the landscape he might delete the memory of the painting. He thinks that by turning away he can allow the remembered painting to remain as it was, but is not sure whether or not it is already too late. The last line is: "He hesitates. And then his family calls him to the car." Although the prose is fairly transparent, the concept is intriguing, for it explores the complex relationship between art and reality.
I will post one more brief essay on issues raised for me by the remaining stories in Best British Short Stories 2011.