Real Time Short Stories

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Sara Maitland1.jpgNot simply because it’s been a miserably long time since I last posted here but because of the subject to hand, talking about Sara Maitland’s fusions of science and fiction is truly a long-overdue pleasure. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of short stories that came across as such a joy to have written. To be frank, the writerly envy Moss Witch and other stories inspires is enough to play merry hell with your entire molecular structure. Having said that, you read a story like A Geological History of Feminism, and you’re very glad that the writer who got to have all this joy was one who can extract from the material a passage of prose as lithe, accomplished and thrillingly quixotic as this:

And one dawn, so bright that the rising run pushed a shadow-Elsie through the waves and the solid, real Elsie seemed to be chasing it, she had felt a deep surge of energy, more powerful and precise than she had ever felt before. It pushed her up and forward, making her want to sing, to cry out for the beauty and freshness and loveliness of the future. Later, peering down over the charts on the cabin table, she knew what it was. She was sailing over the mid-Atlantic ridge and deep, deep below her, through first blue, then green and down into black water, down below where no one had ever been or could ever go, there was new liquid rock welling up, pouring out, exploding into the cold dark, and crawling east and west either side of the ridge, forming a new, thin dynamic crust, pushing the Americas away from Africa and Europe, changing everything, changing the world. A plate boundary where new rocks are born out of the cauldron below.

This is audacious stuff: the story has Ann, the sole crew member of ‘Elsie’, recounting this journey many years later to her niece Tish, to illuminate how deeply entrenched were the struggles undertaken by the early feminists and to illustrate the resolve they needed to bring about the ground-breaking changes taken for granted today. The image of tectonic plates clashing, oceans breaking and continents shifting is more than a metaphor, though – it’s the real thing, and our involvement in story and character is met in equal measure by a head-spinning tutorial in scientific theory.

jim alkaliliEach of Maitland’s stories has come about in consultation with an appropriate scientific expert, ranging across the scientific disciplines to include Earth Scientist Dr Linda Kirstein, consultant for the story quoted above, as well as an ornithologist, an astrophysicist, a mathematician, a stem cell researcher, one of the particle physicists at CERN, and the University of Surrey’s professor of theoretical physics, Jim al-Kalili, who’s famous enough to get to pose for photographs in which he ruminates towards the sunset like he’s a bowl cut short of a Brian Cox. How these dialogues have fed into Maitland’s process is explained in part by an afterword, accompanying each story, by the relevant consultant. So Dr Tara Shears from CERN explains Dirac’s equation – “a simple, far-reaching collection of symbols that led to the prediction of anti-matter” – which is the basis for Maitland’s troubled twins parable, The Beautiful Equation.dirac_equ
In her acknowledgements, Maitland thanks the scientists and muses, “I wish I believed they had as much fun as I did.” It’s easy to characterise the relationship between a writer and a scientist in this sort of collaboration – and it’s one I’ve experienced, with Liverpool University’s Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Greg Hurst and very recently with the robotics pioneer, Francesco Mondada – as resembling that between an adult and a very clever child. Most of the child’s questions are easy enough to answer, but you’re delighted at her fascination with the subject – and every now and then, she’ll come up with a fresh insight that goes beyond the limits of the workaday. It might leave the scientist with a warm glow and a pocketful of inspiration – during our work together on the 2009 Evolving Words project, Greg wrote more poems than anyone else – but the impact on the writer is seismic. If I experienced that within either one of my scientific contexts, imagine something similar but fourteen times over and you get a sense of the excitement surging through Maitland’s writing.

The spectrum of scientific disciplines commandeered for Moss Witch is matched by Maitland’s range of storytelling textures. There are trace elements of Jorge Luis Borges in the willingness to converse with the prehistory of the modern short story. Though there are no explicit pastiches, we brush up against Biblical legend, Greek mythology, Gothic dysmorphia – in the beguiling Double Vision, which had previously surfaced in Comma’s The New Uncanny – and the pitch-dark charm of the title story’s eponymous candidate for a belated place in the Grimm fairy tale canon, where we might expect her to beat the crap out of any bold young princes who dare to come riding by:

The evening came and with it the chill of March air. Venus hung low in the sky, following the sun down behind the hill, and the high white stars came out one by one, visible through the tree branches. She worked all through the darkness. First, she dehydrated the body by stuffing all his orifices with dry sphagnum, more biodegradable than J-cloth and more native than sponge, of which, like all Moss Witches, she kept a regular supply for domestic purposes. It sucked up his body fluids through mouth and ears and anus. She thought too its antiseptic quality might protect her mosses from his contamination after she was gone.

Rumpelstiltskin, we can note, was a rank amateur.

This is as much about the discoverers as the discoveries and another storytelling element is the speculative biography, similar to the approach used by Zoe Lambert for several stories in her The War Tour collection. One example of a story containing a scoop or two from a real life is the heartbreaking – but so beautiful it manages to be uplifting as well – The Mathematics of Magic Carpets, about the ninth century inventor of algebra, Abū‘Abdallāh Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. Maitland’s writing, whether veering towards myth or folklore, biography or contemporary (and indeed future-facing) short fiction, has the ability to charm and cheer even when there is a dark or sorrowful human story to be told. Science is so often the villain in fiction or at best the well-meaning catalyst for a disastrous future (see the James Franco character in the 2011 film Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes as an example of the latter) but Sara Maitland’s collection speaks with a stirring optimism that has been a major influence on my own recent experiments blending science and short fiction. My consultation with Francesco Mondada has produced The Longhand Option, one of the stories in Comma’s Beta-Life: Stories From An A-life Future, launching shortly in Lancaster and Manchester – more details should appear very soon on this blog. greatskua8

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Iraqi-ChristTen years ago, the particular context in which the British government chose to make April Fools of its citizens was the war in Iraq. This year, Iraq would seem a very exotic focal point for our denigration when the current government is so busy reducing our domestic certainties – a health service, a welfare state, a justice system – to the status of a blooper reel among the Extras on Michael Gove’s History of Great Britain DVD. When we’re losing track of who we are, of why we even exist as social animals, it is a challenge to contemplate the experience of Iraqis, by whom reality has, during these ten years, been viewed in a perpetual nightmarish REM. Yet Hassan Blasim‘s second collection for Comma Press speaks to our own, particularlised sensations of powerlessness, as much as to the self-evident contexts of war, exile and the way these narratives of suffering become absorbed into a nation’s culture and myths.

A simple summary of The Iraqi Christ: this is the most urgent writing you will read in short fiction or any other literary format this year. To read these stories is to immerse yourself in tragedy and horror. The imprint of real lives – Blasim’s and those he has encountered – is as evident on the printed page here as lipstick traces on a cigarette, exacerbating the sense of grief that accompanies each story. Blasim’s debut collection for Comma, 2009’s The Madman Of Freedom Square (from which “The Reality and the Record” provided a previous post for this site), was an eloquent, retching cry of disgust; The Iraqi Christ seems to be steeped more in sorrow. And the incredible part is that, from this unimaginable sorrow, what emerges is a savage, unbearable beauty.

The stories portray characters locked in states of fretful, at times lurid, sensory dissonance. If you knew nothing of this book or Blasim’s literary antecedents other than David Eckersall’s cover design, pictured above, you might guess that Franz Kafka sits somewhere in the frame of reference. Short fiction routinely converses with its ghosts and Kafka’s presence is almost that of a recurring character, most conspicuously in The Dung Beetle, an overt reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, with the concerns of the changeling Gregor Samsa, conceived during the First World War, transposed onto those of an Iraqi now residing in Finland, inside a ball of dung. In relating his fictional counterpoint’s story, Blasim makes what I take to be a more direct authorial interjection:

A young Finnish novelist once asked me, with a look of genuine curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as if I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen. In the same way, I might have asked, ‘Did you read Kafka in Finnish?’

Such is the sense of dislocation and depersonalisation, of inurement to brutality and reduction to absurdity, reading Kafka seems less of a choice or privilege than a routine motor function. The Dung Beetle quotes in full Kafka’s Little Fable in which a mouse articulates the essential condition of the Kafkaesque protagonist:

The mouse said, ‘Alas, the world gets smaller every day. It used to be so big that I was frightened. I would run and run, and I was pleased when I finally saw the walls appear on the horizon in every direction, but these long walls run fast to meet each other, and here I am at the end of the room, and in front of me I can see a trap that I must run into.,

‘You only have to change direction,’ said the cat, and tore the mouse up.

The earlier Ali Baba reference directs us to Blasim’s coupling of Kafka with Sheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights tales, for which the narrative of the young bride using her powers of storytelling to stave off the daily threat of execution is the framing device, an appropriate analogy when claiming asylum. scheherazade-and-shahriyar The deadpan depravity in The Hole exemplifies how these strands become twisted together. The narrator, on the run from masked gunmen as chaos greets the collapse of the government, falls into a hole and encounters a “decrepit old man”, claiming to be a djinni (genie) and calmly carving chunks of flesh to eat from the corpse of a soldier who has previously fallen down the hole. There is no escape and the company only emphasises how divorced this place is from the reality the narrator has known.

In the 1001 Nights tale of Sinbad’s fourth voyage – several years into his latest enforced sojourn in a land in which he has initially been made to feel welcome and has become happily married – he learns of the bizarre local custom that, when a married man or woman dies, the living spouse is also thrown into the huge pit, that serves as a mass grave, accompanied by the humane provision of a spartan packed lunch for pre-death nourishment. Sinbad’s wife falls ill and dies and, sure enough, both her body and the breathing, protesting form of Sinbad are thrown in the pit. Sinbad survives in his pit of corpses by clubbing any newly-widowed arrival to death with a leg-bone and taking their bread and water for sustenance. These echoes cement Blasim’s storytelling within the traditions of the region but the stories that fuel his writing are timeless and universal, relating to the stark choices facing humans when everything that betokens their humanity has been stripped away. Italo Calvino is another writer cited, via his Mr Palomar character, who painstakingly seeks to quantify the contents of a disparate universe; when ‘Hassan Blasim’ appears as a character, shifting the boundaries of reality in Why Don’t You Write A Novel Instead Of Talking About All These Characters?, there are shades of Paul Auster’s introspections about the nature of truth and story. Where – in, for example, the meta-gumshoe story City Of Glass, itself Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man Of The Crowd by way of, yes, Kafka – Auster will use a character called ‘Paul Auster’ to interrogate the identity of the “I” in whose Point of View the story is being told, it’s couched within the ‘what-if?’ framework we might expect to find in any fictional narrative. Blasim operates from a starting-point in which life has already become that fiction. This is an object lesson for those who assume that it would be enough to transcribe and dust-jacket the extraordinary circumstances of their own lives in order to produce a compelling narrative. Blasim’s life enters Blasim’s fiction as a kind of exorcism: you don’t want to explore how much is actually a record of the truth because you can’t bear to look. In Why Don’t You Write A Novel…?, the narrator makes a prison visit to the man with whom he made the journey to escape Iraq and claim asylum in Europe. Along the way, this companion, Adel Salim, inexplicably murdered a drowning man whom they had met on the refugee trail:

‘Okay, I don’t understand, Adel,’ I said. ‘What were you thinking? Why did you strangle him? What I’m saying may be mad, but why didn’t you let him drown by himself?’
After a short while, he answered hatefully from behind the bars. ‘You’re an arsehole and a fraud. Your name’s Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein. You come here and lecture me. Go fuck yourself, you prick.’

The narrator, aware only of his work as a translator working in the reception centre for asylum seekers, retreats in confusion and struggles to recover memories from before his border crossing. In an encounter on a train, a man, carrying a mouse, identifies him as the author of several stories, including some of those contained in this collection. I don’t know whether Blasim was setting out to articulate this but there’s a particular bleakness to the writing life when you feel you’re holding the weight of all the blood and bones in the world but the only place you have to set it down is something so light and flimsy as the page of a book.

APTOPIX Iraq ViolenceFor all the postmodernism and the literary conversations, and the insect and, for Dear Beto, canine narrators, we are taken goosebump-close to what happens in everyday human lives in a protracted war situation, with Jonathan Wright’s translations ensuring no walls remain between these characters and the reader. The Iraqi Christ is eye-catchingly provocative as a title for the book but the story bearing that name provides a more straightforward explanation: it’s a reference to Daniel, an Iraqi soldier who’s a practising Christian and committed gum-chewer so known to his fellow soldiers as the Chewgum Christ, Christ for short. The story, though, we come to realise, is a kind of gospel told by a beyond-the-grave narrator who relates the miraculous, almost unconscious prescience with which this Iraqi Christ manages to evade death, to the point that he takes on a talismanic role among his comrades. A life avoiding death isn’t quite the same as a life, though, and there is sacrifice and redemption to follow in an ending that is built on tragic irony but has a strangely uplifting choreography to it.

Further evidence of unexpected uplift comes in the final story, A Thousand and One Knives, a magic realist story of a team of street magicians whose ability to make knives disappear into thin air and then bring them back operates as a twin process of exorcism (again) and healing. The team have found one another through their gifts and rub along as a dysfunctional family group. In an attempt to understand what the trick of disappearing and reappearing knives might mean, the narrator is charged with researching the subject:

It was religious books that I first examined to find references to the trick. Most of the houses in our sector and around had a handful of books and other publications, primarily the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet, stories about Heaven and Hell, and texts about prophets and infidels. It’s true I found many references to knives in these books but they struck me as just laughable. They only had knives for jihad, for treachery, for torture and terror. Swords and blood. Symbols of desert battles and the battles of the future. Victory banners stamped with the name of God, and knives of war.

In the face of this understanding of knives, the group use their skills very little for show and not at all for profit but as a compulsion, like the stories of Sheherazade, because there are things that need to happen, because not doing it is too horrific to contemplate. When we learn of the baby born to the narrator and Souad, the only woman in the group and the only one able to make knives reappear, we see that they have cut themselves into one another’s flesh as well, in acts of transformative love and friendship that – remarkably, by the end of this remarkable collection – allow the reader to emerge with hope still intact, battered, but somehow reinforced.
Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (4)

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, supported by the English PEN Writers In Translation programme, is published by Comma Press and available in book and e-book form.

It’s a curious business, when the content of a short story anthology is made up of stories in competition with one another. If you haven’t heard the BBC Radio 4 broadcasts of each of the ten shortlisted stories in the annual, BBC/Booktrust-sponsored, increasingly high profile and, for this Olympic year only, International Short Story Award, or if you’ve not yet caught up with the podcasts or got hold of the anthology, stewarded by Comma Press, featuring all ten finalists, you may now be curious as to why the Bulgarian writer, Miroslav Penkov was declared the winner of the £15000 prize. In one sense, the answer is simple to the point of idiocy: the judges got it right. Penkov’s story, East Of The West was the best of the bunch, and the runner-up, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Sanctuary, was entirely deserving of that recognition. That’s easily declared, but the reasons why you might reach that conclusion, from reading the anthology, are a whole lot more complicated.

To read an anthology compiled in these circumstances at this precise time is to seek to pick out a winner, but once the fifteen grand’s worth of kerfuffle has passed on by, the book remains a short story anthology. Even though no overlying thematic concern has guided the writing of the ten stories; even though, beyond what the selection says about the judges,

Clive Anderson, chair of the judges

the programming of the stories as they appear in the anthology derived from no stronger editorial line than the alphabetical order of the writers’ surnames: still, the stories speak to each other, as in any other collection. Writerly concerns overlap and individual creative decisions coalesce by the accident of their mutual proximity into something that resembles a trend. Emotions, gathered in one place, spill out in another and it becomes hard to work out if the story in front of you can take sole credit for your response. Leave aside all this, and we still have the essential truth about short stories that the best grow in their absence: it’s not when we scrutinise them but in those sudden, private moments when we find that they are scrutinising us, that the power of an individual piece is felt. In such a context, picking a winner should be like punting on raindrops sliding down a windowpane: this one may win, or that one, but all that tells you is that it’s raining outside. There was little to guide us as to the outcome from the previous year’s winner, D.W. Wilson’s The Dead Roads, nor from 2010’s selection by, David Constantine, so it all comes down to the stories themselves. Read as a form guide, the anthology mocks the very process it belongs to, while, read as an anthology, it exceeds its reach.

That there are stand-out stories shouldn’t deter anyone from investigating what is going on, thematically and within the writing, in the eight also-reads. Escape plays a persistent role in just about all the stories, the tone set by Lucy Caldwell’s opener, Escape Routes and reinforced by Julian Gough’s The iHole. Escape here – and in the closing story, A Lovely and Terrible Thing by Chris Womersley – is the objective itself, with a destination, or life beyond the moment of release, not a consideration. Caldwell’s Belfast story of the friendship between a young girl and her babysitter, whose ability to connect to the narrator through gaming contrasts with his wider sense of alienation. It articulates a world that’s very close to that of adults but utterly cut off from it as well. The references to gaming and youth depression suggest a nowness to Caldwell’s writing, but Gough’s lovely take on a post-CERN near-future, in which recycling is replaced by the mass production of personal, portable black holes, stands out more clearly as the shortlist’s outstanding depiction of the Way We Live Now. I felt Gough’s pursued the grand narrative arc of his satire too far, and the detail and comedy became too broad, in comparison with a recent Will Self story, iAnna, which makes the comment on technology and contemporary culture while remaining with the characters.

The three stories set in Australia each capture painful hours in the breaking up and holding together of families. M.J. Hyland has a tense father-son rapprochement in Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes. Carrie Tiffany depicts a child negotiating a path to a future with an absent father in Before He Left The Family. Womersley balances a supernatural tale, that might almost be lifted from an M.R. James treasury (and evokes Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo), with a portrait of a father cut off from his family due to his daughter’s medical condition. Each manages to present a reality more convincing than is conveyed by Adam Ross, whose In The Basement uses the device of the extended dinner party anecdote rather more theatrically than I was comfortable with, though it’s equally the type of thing Truman Capote or, again, Auster might have done with the same yarn to spin.

Krys Lee’s The Goose Father has wonderful touches in the slow (but, even allowing for the form, perhaps not quite as slow as the situation demands) epiphany of an austere middle-aged man encountering an unstable but sprite-like young man. This South Korean narrative was the story that gathered me in the most, outside of the top two and the opening half of Gough’s The iHole. Deborah Levy, denied a league and cup double but now freed to concentrate on the Man Booker Prize, lets off the most fireworks in her prose for Black Vodka and, in her narrator, has a character who absolutely commands our attention. It’s adventurous, playful writing but ultimately it’s a sketch of a character that Levy might lend to aspects of future novels. It will also, incidentally, give you a raging thirst for flavoured vodkas.

In the alphabetical sequencing of the anthology, Rose-Innes follows Penkov and dramas viewed from across – and swimming in – rivers feature in both. It’s another example of the emotional chords that can be struck accidentally between stories which each have plenty of their own weight to carry. If there is an arc a reader goes through in reading a short story collection, there might be a science to my being especially receptive to these two stories. So, yes, judging is complex but the most instinctive personal responses have authority in this regard. There are stories that grab hold: Rose-Innes did this with Sanctuary, a family tragedy observed from a series of vantage-points, each one projecting a role onto the narrator of innocent bystander, unwitting voyeur, detective and eventually protector. The detail and intimacy with the land, in this case the South African veldt, has the kind of clarity we’d associate with John Steinbeck, and Rose-Innes would have been my winner had the decision been made on immediate completion of the task of reading all the stories.

What also happens with stories, though, is this: they won’t let you go. East Of The West hefts the history of a people, the Kosovan war, and twenty years of a love story into what still manages to be a concentrated, complete short story. I mentioned the breaking up and coming together of families in other stories but, here, those moments of crisis are the natural order for a family divided by the width of a river but, in that division, also split into two nations and between prosperity and struggle. Tragedy hovers, ill-defined at first but, over the years, it acquires names and accompanies the narrator, Nose, in his every footstep through adolescence and the plans he has for his adulthood. Penkov gives us a character whose emotions, in the extraordinary circumstances of his life and the history framing it, are utterly real. It’s a credit to the BBC’s award and the good fortune that the Olympic celebration made it eligible that this funny and moving short story will come to wider attention.

Each city is unique in countless ways but there is a language of city life, in the narratives of collective living and individual existence, that is understood in any dialect. The Manchester short story specialists, Comma, understood this when they published the 2006 anthology, Decapolis, which featured ten stories by ten writers, each set in one of ten European cities, and the 2008 Middle Eastern equivalent, Madinah. Shi Cheng (which means “ten cities”) is the latest such experiment, with the stories taking the reader northward across China, from Hong Kong to Harbin. Edited by Liu Ding, Carol Yinhua Liu and Ra Page, these stories in translation demonstrate to English-speaking readers that contemporary China’s cities are adequately stocked with the particular and the universal.

This, of course, makes Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Wuhan, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenyang and Harbin all eminently suited to short fiction, would they but know it. Short story writing (as distinct from its direct ancestor, the oral folk tale) is not an automatic cultural component in the way that novels, poetry and drama are essential ingredients of what a society needs in order to understand that it’s a society, to go alongside systems of government or belief, the means to house and feed the populace, transport, criminal justice and all that carry-on. Short stories develop in a cellular fashion and if you find as many as ten writers in one place – and that place can be a book – working in the form, it’s likely that some, if not all, have needed persuasion and nurturing before trying out the form. Several of the writers in Shi Cheng have more prominent backgrounds as poets, journalists and novelists than as short story writers. This is hardly a new nor an exclusively Chinese phenomenon: in Comma’s 2008 The Book of Liverpool, over forty years after he was first published, Brian Patten’s contribution was his short story debut.

The diversity of backgrounds among the contributors, as much as the geographical spread, gives Shi Cheng a distinctive texture. There is a sense of adolescence about some of the stories here, with Jie Chen’s Chengdu-set Kangkang’s Gonna Kill That Fucker Zhao Lilu a particularly revelatory example. Adolescence, in this context, is a quality of tone and narrative energy within which we can see a radical, transgressive approach but also quite a callow approach to the short story form. The comic timing – in the self-absorbed narrator’s commentary on her frantic but nonetheless meandering dash over to her friend, Kangkang’s, home to facilitate the killing of Kangkang’s philandering husband, “That Fucker Zhao Lilu” – is beautifully judged in Josh Steinberg’s translation:

I left home at 5:20. I washed my face with a cleanser, and then put on moisturiser and liquid foundation even though it was still uneven on my nose. My nose has the texture of orange peel, and unless I spend twenty or thirty minutes putting foundation on, it looks awful. But, for Kangkang’s sake, I had to risk it.

The story evolves through this running commentary, knitting together a three-way conflict, but gives us a lingering image rather than resolution. This tells of a playfulness with narrative, and it’s there also in Yi Sha’s Rendezvous At The Castle Hotel, set in Xi’an, which changes tack like an episode of The Simpsons from a literary take on the All About Eve template of a veteran sidelined by a younger rival, via a murder mystery, to a consideration of the unreliable narrator. Ding Liying’s feather-light yet slyly macabre Family Secrets and Cao Kou’s urgent, colloquial And What About The Red Indians? similarly toy with the set-up, the telling and the completion of the story. The effect is that of writers, collectively, finding their way around short fiction and simultaneously finding uses for this most ancient and conservative form to say something about the China that’s as it ever was and the China that changes by the day. The characters, across all ten stories, come across as hungover from all the changes in their society, and the sense of alienation is overwhelming.

This alienation is most memorably depicted by Han Dong (pictured) in This Moron Is Dead and Diao Dou in Squatting. “This Moron Is Dead” are the words written on a piece of cardboard placed over the head of a dead man lying on the pavement at a Nanjing bus stop. This is satire that should be surreal and Pythonesque but Han Dong convinces us – much like a George Saunders – that the people going about their daily business, taking no notice of the dead fellow human, other than to take precautions against the body becoming an obstacle or distraction, are lifted straight from the street and slotted onto the page.

Diao Dou manages a still more extravagant satire in Squatting which brilliantly revolves around the earnest and civilised, if a little bumptious, efforts of a group of socially-concerned intellectuals to issue checks and balances, by means of letter-writing campaigns, on the way in which Shenyang society is managed and policed. When a crime-fighting decree forces everyone out on the streets after dusk to move only in a squatting position, Animal Farm and the world of Avaaz create a narrative blend that hollows out your laughter as it leaves your throat.

You can’t make this journey in just ten stories and the Damon Runyan-type figures populating Xu Zechen’s Wheels Are Round, Ho Sin Tung and Zhu Wen’s nods to the ethnic juxtapositions at the northern and southern extremities of the collection, and the very dark treatment of love throughout, give a taster of the life and literature there is to appreciate in contemporary China. This collection is a lively primer: This Moron Is Dead and especially Squatting make it an essential purchase.

There is currently no indication in the Wikipedia entry on Invermere, British Columbia, a destination for summer retreats held like a slingshot by the Rocky Mountains around Windermere Lake, of the town’s literary significance. We may not be operating on the level of pilgrimages to addresses on Baker Street or for dérives through Dublin, but the small Canadian town has made an emphatic claim to a place on the short fiction map. The backdrop to D.W Wilson’s 2011 BBC National Short Story Award-winner, The Dead Roads, which I looked at back in October and which is included here, is examined in closer detail throughout Wilson’s debut collection. Invermere, the town out from which The Dead Road‘s protagonists are taking a road trip, is a constant presence throughout. The primary subject matter, though, is less the town, more its menfolk.

Each of the stories in Once You Break A Knuckle features a male protagonist, and Wilson very often examines them within their relationship with other men: fathers and sons, childhood friends, brothers, mentors, employers. Some characters recur at different moments in their lives while others unfold over years within the one story. An example of the latter is Winch, who emerges from the shadow, and initial narrative Point of View, of his father, Conner, in Valley Echo. The father here, as elsewhere in the story cycle, represents at various times – and often simultaneously – an aspirational role model and a booby trap to avoid. Conner and Winch have in common abandonment by Winch’s mother and, when the sixteen year-old Winch develops a crush on a teacher, Miss Hawk, he is disturbed to discover more common ground with his father. Miss Hawk’s presence in this story is typical of the way women feature throughout the collection. Neither irrelevant nor invisble, Invermere’s women represent additional spurs and challenges to the men, occasional comforts and somewhat baffling certainty alongside the other constants of their lives, like the trucks, the beer, the frozen lake, the condominiums in construction and the slippage of time. This is perhaps articulated most clearly in The Persistence, where women are central to the gaze of the protagonist, Ray, as can be seen in the memorable economy of this description of Alex, the attractive wife of Ray’s friend and current employer, Mud:

She wore track pants and a windbreaker, had probably been out running – one of those fitness women with legs like nautical rope.

Ray has returned to the area from what seems to have been a self-imposed exile following the breakdown of his relationship with Tracey, who left him for a rival building contractor. Now, with Mud and Alex in support, he begins to consider a new start and a possible relationship with a co-worker, Kelly. The reason for leaving and the reason for staying: the women are irrevocably linked to the emotions the men associate with the town itself.

The machinery of the town is wrought from masculinity. This is best exemplified in the person of John Crease, mounted policeman, security ‘consultant’ in post-war Kosovo, single father, martial artist, a man who, we learn in the opening story, The Elasticity of Bone:

[has] fists…named “Six Months in the Hospital” and “Instant Death”, and he referred to himself as the Kid of Granite, though the last was a bit of humour most people don’t quite get. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt with a picture of two bears in bandanas gnawing human bones. The caption read: Don’t Write Cheques Your Body Can’t Cash.

The description is courtesy of Will, John’s son. Their relationship is claustrophobic, the tenderness expressed in verbal and often physical sparring, and the impression grows across the various stories in which they appear that the bond is built on a stand-off between each man’s occult adherence to his own concept of male-ness. Although his father’s profession beckons, Will is, could be, might become a writer. It’s the time-honoured route out of the small town so much fiction and drama has taken, and which was so wonderfully lampooned by the Monty Python Working-class Playwright sketch (“Aye, ‘ampstead wasn’t good enough for you, was it? … you had to go poncing off to Barnsley, you and yer coal-mining friends.”). Wilson never targets the obvious dramatic flashpoint, never takes a Billy Elliot path by making Will’s writing a fetishised focal point – he just allows the slow resolution to roll into view. When this happens – as with other characters when we catch up with them after encountering their younger selves in earlier stories – the effect is slightly shocking but feels true. This may be because, while the where of these stories is unchanging, the when dances about, evading scrutiny of its larger contemporary narratives and instead presenting the community in moments of temporal suspension: what, in the title story, Will’s loyal friend Mitch describes as “days like these with Will and his dad, looking forward in time or something, just the bullshit of it.” It’s a pretty workable summary of what I mean by real time short stories, and certainly what is a particular trait of short fiction: presenting moments that may be lifted out of the specifics of time and space in their settings but that manage to illuminate something more elemental about the human condition.

The small town location provides the grammar for this story cycle. We’ve seen how other contemporary writers have pursued unifying themes for their short story collections – Hassan Blasim and Zoe Lambert‘s variations on war; Anthony Doerr‘s employment of memory as a framing device – but this thematic approach, while it offers publishers of single author collections the selling point of a hook, that makes it very much suited to our times, has a formidable history. With his story cycle based around one location, Wilson is making a connection with James Joyce’s The Dubliners or, more specifically in the small town context, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio where –

The town lies in the midst of open fields, but beyond the fields are pleasant patches of woodlands. In the wooded places are many little cloistered nooks, quiet places where lovers go to sit on Sunday afternoons.

– but where, in this story, Adventure, Anderson tells of a young woman, Alice, who does not join her contemporaries in the woods but instead –

As she stood looking out over the land something, perhaps the thought of never ceasing life as it expresses itself in the flow of the seasons, fixed her mind on the passing years.

Such is the inevitable fictional loop of the small town narrative, where characters are defined by place, and thereby defined by their bond to or desire to liberate themselves from the “never ceasing life” with its circular dramas and choreographed quirks.

The men in Invermere push and pull one another in various directions but, in the main, they seem scooped up from the same gravel. Difference relates to disorder in a context like this, as in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep, where the alienation endured by the middle-aged Smiths fan mounts, through grief at his mother’s long illness and death, and his own quiff-kitemarked loneliness, to a beautiful, baleful crescendo of resolution. In Wilson’s The Mathematics of Friedrich Gauss, the first person narrative builds up a similar momentum, though the emotional surge at the end merely serves to clear away the narrator’s denial and reveal his truth to devastating effect. Along the way, we learn about the narrator’s inability, as the local mathematics teacher, to live up to the physical expectations of the manually proficient locals – such as his eminently capable wife – and we learn of his project, writing a biography of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the inventor of the heliotrope, who managed to combine mathematical genius with a labourer’s physicality:

The day after we met, on that beach near Saskatoon, my wife showed me how to gather barnacles for protein. She shanked a pocket knife between the rock and the shell and popped the creature off like a coat snap, this grin on her face like nothing could be more fun. I never got the hang of it. She has stopped showing me how.

– We’re not unhappy, I tell my wife.
– Don’t you ever wonder if you could have done better? she says, and she looks at me with eyes grown wide and disappointed.

Gauss’s first wife died in 1809, complications from childbirth. A number of people have recounted the scene on her deathbed – how he squandered her final moments, how he spent precious hours preoccupied with a new puzzle in number theory. These tales are all apocryphal. These are the tales of a lonely man. Picture them, Gauss, with his labourer’s shoulders juddering, Johanna in bed with her angel’s hair around her like a skimmer dress, his cheek on the bedside, snub nose grazing her ribs.

It’s one thing to write about the business of being a man with prose that strides into the room, waves its Jeremy Clarkson arse in your face by way of manly humour, and makes a Charlton Heston grab for Chekhov’s gun, placing it in the grip of its cold, dead narrative – but a writer who understands men will be able to depict emotion the way Wilson does in the passage above, and throughout Once You Break A Knuckle. There are versions of being a man here so alien to my sensibilities, Bruce Parry‘s inductions into shamanism in Borneo seem, in comparision, as complicated as setting up a Twitter account. Yet the alchemy at work in D.W. Wilson’s writing is such that, when I think about each of the characters in each of the stories, I can’t help feeling that I have been, at some point in life, some small part of every one of them.

D.W. Wilson‘s Once You Break A Knuckle is published by Bloomsbury Press.

Zoe Lambert’s debut collection, The War Tour, places horror and banality in uncomfortable proximity. The title suggests this: if we are not the direct participants or, for the sake of greater moral comfort, the victims in warfare, how do we stand in relation to the horror? As tourists, turning the bloodshed into a photo opportunity? As writers, notebooks and dictaphones poised so we might appropriate the voices of those who were actually there? The book is not designed to offer a settling response to this queasy feeling that we are somehow implicated in the actions that shape Lambert’s narratives.

In her opening story, These Words are No More Than a Story About a Woman on a Bus, Lambert deploys the second person narrative voice – “you” – to place the reader inside the crawling skin of a suited, briefcase-wielding commuter latched onto by an elderly Lithuanian woman, keen to share her memories of her country’s invasion by the Russian army. “You’re not sure what to do with this story,” the narrative tells you. It’s a pertinent observation. The woman’s story does not belong to us – none of these stories does – so what is going on when we take possession of them? Lambert acknowledges that her literary ventriloquism could be interpreted as an unwarranted, even imperialist, intervention. The collection ends with a chapter of Notes, in which Lambert responds to (her own, as much as anyone else’s) concerns that her approach risks being seen in terms of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak‘s objection to the well-meaning idea of “speaking for” the disempowered. The Notes then snake away from the theoretical question to give an illuminating picture of Lambert’s poetics. She considers the notion of appropriating the voices of historical figures by considering the diaries of the imperialist Captain John Hanning Speke and the botanist Charlotte Manning. The diaries serve as fictions – not everything is told or understood by their writers; they remain versions within which Lambert weaves her own imaginings as a writer, experiencing the process as a profound collaboration. If appropriation is taking place, that’s because that’s what writers do. I’ll do it to you if we ever met, and I do it to myself every time I write.

I do, however, find truth in Spivak’s point when reading a story like Road Song, by Joanne Harris, which appears in a 2010 Vintage collection, Because I Am A Girl, for which seven renowned authors spoke to young girls in different continents in order to represent their stories and situations. The proceeds from the collection support the charity, Plan, which aims to support self-empowerment in the developing world so the stories can be accepted as an elegant stump for a worthy cause. However, in a passage like this, set in her character Adjo’s local market, I find the prose Harris constructs less of a vehicle for the young girl’s cultural experience and more a giddy, exotic rickshaw ride for a tourist sensibility:

Adjo likes the market. There are so many things to see there. Young men riding mopeds; women riding pillion. Sellers of manioc and fried plantain. Flatbed trucks bearing timber. Vaudou men selling spells and charms. Dough-ball stands by the roadside. Pancakes and foufou; yams and bananas; mountains of millet and peppers and rice. Fabrics of all colours; sarongs and scarves and dupattas. Bead necklaces, bronze earrings; tins of harissa; bangles; pottery dishes; bottles and gourds; spices and salt; garlands of chillies; cooking pots; brooms; baskets; plastic buckets; knives; Coca-Cola; engine oil and sandals made from plaited grass.

Lambert is not concerned with the thrilling wordiness of her diverse subjects: she is concerned with character. What bothers her, as a short story obsessive, is the problem of collapsing War – that emesis of human struggle, conflict, which shatters life in half a second and hangs onto lives for years and through generations; that pitches your street against mine in the next block along and then follows us across oceans and sets itself up in a new continent – into the tidy sealed boxes we call stories. The collection takes its cue from Trotsky’s assertion that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Though there was a point when I was wondering how many more ways Lambert could find to write the sudden explosion or hail of gunfire that seemed to arrive like a narrative epiphany in a succession of the stories, the collection as a whole examines war – and shows how war examines us – from many more angles than just direct armed conflict.

The characters, conflicts and locations manouevre around one another in the stories. Two stories cross paths on Manchester’s Langworthy Road: in From Kandahar, squaddie Phil returns from a tour of duty, decorated but unable to reconcile his hero’s status with the knowledge he has acquired; in We’ll Meet Again, Rwandan care home assistant Leon leads an ordinary life yet it is one consistently shadowed by genocide. As a Manchester writer, the setting and therefore the stories are available to Lambert; she also allows the reader to detect an autobiographical veracity in the snapshots of the squabbling interrailing couple, Yvonne and James, traipsing around central Europe’s ancient and recent war zones in the title story and Our Backs To The Fort. If Lambert’s city and travel history have Hitchcockian cameos in these stories, it is the level of research, the desire to bring to light hidden, forgotten or sidelined stories of war, and the willingness to showcase her writerly concerns that form the basis of Lambert’s personal hallmark.

The effect can be polemic. There is, in 33 Bullets a welcome if shaming illustration of the conditions in which failed asylum seekers are detained in Britain, and the intractable barriers they face during the appeals process. This would not work if the characters were ciphers for a political argument. As it is, the central character of 33 Bullets, Devrim, is one of the most compelling in the book, an academic of insufficient standing to be considered at risk should he be returned to Iran, desperate to finish and publish a study of the Kurdish poet, Ahmed Arif, in order to demonstrate his credentials:

No-one understood that if his work was accepted by a journal, he might get a book contract, and when he was recognised as an authority on Kurdish literature he might get special dispensation to stay in the UK. ‘With this,’ he said, holding up his work, ‘they won’t deport me!’

Japhet [his cellmate] frowned. ‘Deport,’ he said. ‘They deport you…me… ‘ He gestured around the room. ‘Tout le monde. Est-ce que vous comprendez?’

Ultimately, Devrim finds a purpose in his futile paper-chase, influenced by Japhet’s steely pragmatism. There is a conversation between Arif’s words and Devrim’s attempts to write about them (“Poems are necessary to survival. We all make them out of the words we have.“) and there is a conversation between the words already written and the words Lambert is trying to find to map and make sense of these experiences. It’s a bold writer who works in full acceptance of the inevitable failure of her project, but failure in this case is also the most honorable and necessary response: to completely understand the workings of people’s minds in wartime would demand from us madness or monstrosity. We encounter Japhet again in When The Truck Came, a tense and powerful rites of passage from the schoolboy stumbling into and then through the ranks of a militia to being one of the personal bodyguards of the unit’s leader,’The General’, a figure who will, from this week on, inevitably bring to mind Joseph Kony. Here’s where the gap with full understanding comes in, though. What we now know of Kony exceeds even the sickening demonstrations of nihilism to which Japhet is privy, just as, in From Kandahar, Phil’s existential turbulence couldn’t compete for horror with the latest news of British casualties in Afghanistan. War is interested in you, but it’s more interested in excising the pus from its own scabs, using a rusty nail, than with attending to your emotional bruises. And Lambert is attempting to take on neither Andy McNabb nor Sun Tzu here: as the collection progresses, the observation of how a writer finds points of contact and communication with her subjects becomes increasingly engrossing.

Some of Lambert’s characters offer easy skins into which a contemporary British writer may slip: both Senka, the Serbian narrator of Turbofolk, and Phil, disembarking the bus on Langworthy Road, are every prodigal child returning home after growing to adulthood elsewhere, and having to deal with overbearing relations and hometown ghosts. Without experience of the Balkan conflict, we still can recognise Senka’s response to her mother’s anxiety over the post-war recriminations directed at journalists seen as having supported genocide – journalists like Senka’s seriously ill father:

I really want to lie down, drink some beer, check my email. But I sigh and pick up the print out of the article: ‘Media Warmongers Should Face Prosecution at the ICTY.’

Even more ambitious are the stories based on primary source material from major episodes in the lives of two women who would have been extraordinary figures for their work alone, but are all the more so because each was operating in a male-dominated environment. One of the pioneers of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner, struggles to emerge as a proactive character in Crystal Night, though dynamism and resolve must have been facets of her personality. The period covered by the story, though, is when Meitner, an Austrian Jew in pre-war Berlin, was belatedly forced into exile having, by her own admission, been so wrapped up in the work that she failed to respond to the Nazi regime’s growing menace. Her disconnection as a character has therefore some consistency. More rounded is the characterisation of the German revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, in The Spartacist League. This captures her during the momentary promise of a sweeping social revolution in Germany, following the end of World War One and the removal of the Kaiser, which was brutally put down by the government of erstwhile radicals, the Social Democrats. I confess that my view of this story was tinted by the memory of the theoretical arguments I used to stage when I was studying for my History degree in the 80s. The debates would pit Lenin against Trotsky – and Luxemburg would always win, nipping in with a tract from The Mass Strike, so I felt oddly starstruck to be in her company during the story. Lambert’s methodology – when she wrote what she wrote, this is the scene I see – is clear in this passage, where we can feel history trickling through the cracks in the woodwork:

It is nearly 2a.m. and Rosa is working in the attic room on Friedrichstraße. She is sitting at a large desk with an oil lamp burning beside her. She picks at a plate of cheese and rye bread, which Mathilde bought a few hours ago. She will ironically call the article: ‘Order Prevails In Berlin.’ The tone must be defiant and angry about the Ebert government’s so called victory when even now she can hear gunfire on the street.

The War Tour offers repeated encounters like this, between the intimate bodily experience of war and the remote writer’s imagination about its characters and situations. It is the nature of a themed collection that larger narratives are hinted at. In the short story business, we need a strong cadre of the willing to fight the cause. The novel-writing careers of Ali Smith or Michel Faber are developments I’d only ever praise through gritted teeth. Yet it’s possible to detect in Lambert, despite her dedication to the short form, the novelistic skills of research and organisation of her material that would serve her well should she ever decide to abandon the virtue of concision.

The War Tour by Zoe Lambert is published by Comma Press in paperback and for Kindle.
Reviews of short story collections are a new, occasional feature on Real Time Short Stories. Authors and publishers are invited to get in touch to arrange reviews of new work


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