Archive for the ‘Real Time Reads’ Category
Posted October 16, 2014on:
Not 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.
Each 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.
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.
I’ve found that people who’ve read stories by Roberto Bolaño tend to have stories to tell about Roberto Bolaño. These stories are inevitably about ourselves, our own life stories and the stories of those in our lives.
The first time anyone ever told me about Bolaño was when I had a chance meeting with my friend K, on Bold Street, which anyone in the Liverpool art scene knows is the street on which chance meetings are inevitable, so not really chance at all, and it’s really the only place I see K these days. K is a Glaswegian former Situationist, a playwright and DJ – at the legendary Eric’s in the punk era and on Toxteth pirate radio stations in the 90s, which is when I got to know him well, though our paths had first crossed as adult literacy tutors in the back end of the 80s. He set up the annual African and Latin American music festival in Liverpool and I’m used to him recommending artists to me whose names sound like songs – Orchestre Baobab, Oumou Sangaré, Lisandro Meza, Zaiko Langa Langa – and, to be truthful, the words “Roberto Bolaño” similarly washed over me as a melodic statement rather than a name to follow up. What did stick with me was that there was a buzz about a novel by this writer, that the work was unfeasibly ambitious and certainly messy but, K told me, “some of the things he does with prose” justified the hype. Slightly closer attention to the susurrus from the literary salon told me that the novel was Bolaño’s five-part, posthumously published 2666, so I got hold of a copy. In the spring of 2009, I began reading it in the café of Liverpool’s World Museum while waiting for a meeting about the Charles Darwin-inspired Evolving Words workshops I would be facilitating there over the summer.
The story of how I came by Bolaño now becomes a different story, not really a story about friendship and meetings and work and time, but a story about writing; it’s about reading and it’s about being a writer; it’s about being this writer and not being that writer. That’s why I am using these stories as a preamble – in case you were losing faith in my remembering the title of this post – to talking about Bolaño’s short story, A Literary Adventure from the similarly posthumous 2008 collection, Last Evenings On Earth: because any story I tell about Bolaño should rightfully mention the story about when I was reading 2666 and my head spun round in a complete circle.
I began reading with thoughts of K’s paean about the quality of ideas in the prose. For eight-and-a-half pages, I was conscious of the lack of spectacle. The writing was fluid, engaging, and the story was interesting. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for – I had the experience built up as something akin to a first hearing of a musical revolutionary like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, but what might that be like in prose fiction, with words on the mortuary slab of a page? If a work of prose is like a building, then in these early few pages I was still in the hallway of the prose, able to admire only the basic masonry and door hinges of the text. Then, on page 9, a character called Liz Norton, an English academic in an Oxford college, began reading a novel by an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi:
She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Italian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs, or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
[translation by Natasha Wimmer]
And that was when my head performed a 360.
The willingness to perform prosal trapeze acts is the facet of Bolaño that first grabbed me but even the rococo stylings of the above passage give indications of some of the staple concerns in his writing. There, creeping in at the last in the reference to peyote, is the Latin American sensibility, one that is dropped – here via the Englishwoman reading the “German with an Italian name” – into a European setting where such identities drift, maybe disappear, maybe re-settle, often co-ordinate themselves in a foreign place around a sense of artistic belonging, yet are always in the grip of home. Bolaño was 20 when, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup deposed the government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to brutalise the Chilean people for the next seventeen years. As one of the exiled, Bolaño carried into his writing the certainty of impermanence – endings rarely provide closure – and the sense that somehow life is a thing that’s already been lost. As liver failure led towards his early death, aged 50, this must have darkened the shadows under each tender observation of the artistic existence.The disposition towards melancholia related to exile and to illness but it was there in Bolaño’s essential literary condition, that of the lesser known poet. From the passage quoted, you can see that poetry underpins his prose. Fiction was also the strategy he turned to in order to achieve a modicum of financial success – to support a young family – of the kind poetry had never been able to provide him. Key to the first story you are told about Bolaño is his intended structuring of 2666 as a series of separate books to be released as posthumous publications over successive years, ensuring a regular dribble of revenue. When the time came, the decision instead to polish up the working draft of the fifth book and publish them all in a single volume was vindicated by the subsequent Bolaño fever, which in turn made his previous writing viable again. He even started to be recognised as a poet. As a commentary on this writing life, it was a very Bolaño-like plot development. Wry observations on literary fortunes, bordering bitterness, run through much of his writing. How could he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was Nicanor Parra, a pricklier presence in Chilean poetry, in whose lines (as below) we can get a sense of Bolaño’s own poetic disposition:
I Take Back Everything I’ve Said
Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.
[Nicanor Parra; translated by Miller Williams]
It’s possible that a story like A Literary Adventure, translated by Chris Andrews, might seem a meandering tale of obsession, a more loosely-structured take on Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal shadow-chaser, The Man Of The Crowd but without the pay-off of Poe’s final, frustrated confrontation. This is more than a case of Bolaño spinning a shaggy dog story: the marginalised writer moves with a shambling gait through most of Bolaño’s stories, whether as stand-ins for the writer himself, or personified by the almost mythic figure of Archimboldo, or emerging from the pages of forgotten literary journals picked up in thrift shops by the characters in the short stories. It’s not difficult, as a writer, to relate to such figures because we all have our sense of marginalisation; of being overlooked in favour of other lesser, or if not lesser then luckier, or if not luckier then simply younger talents; or of – whatever level of satisfaction we may have with our own relative status – griping that there is insufficient regard for what we do because the public is misdirected as to why, how and what to read. For the most part, these miseries can be absorbed, comfortably and productively, into a world-view laced with a generous and genial scepticism but Bolaño provides catharsis because he never absorbed that stuff: it bounced straight onto the page.Benjamin Samuel, blogging about literary feuds, cites Bolaño’s pronouncement on the Argentinian writer, Osvaldo Soriano: “You have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built.”
It’s in this context of affronted ego mixed with wounded self-doubt that A Literary Adventure takes shape. As elsewhere in his short stories, Bolaño’s protagonist is simply identified as B. There is an antagonist, as unwitting a nemesis as the suspicious-looking old man trailed by Poe’s narrator, referred to as A. These may well be substitutes for Bolaño and a specific contemporary, but they are archetypes as well. A is:
a writer of about B’s age, but who, unlike B, is famous, well-off and has a large readership; in other words he has achieved the three highest goals (in that order) to which a man of letters can aspire. B is not famous, he has no money and his poems are published in little magazines.
I know I’m a B; to my friends and acquaintances and Facetwitter whatever whatevers, if I’m more in the A category to you, then I beg your forgiveness but, you know, you should get out more because there are some real As out there and each of them considers his or herself a B in relation to someone else again. The details that inject this story with the pain of a chord played by Victor Jara are phrases like the “in that order” ranking of writerly aspirations, or the heartbreaking diminuitive “little magazines”. So personal disappointment is fused with a righteous sense that success is lavished on the undeserving, or that it corrupts. B notices “a sanctimonious tone” appearing in A’s writing as his recognition grows and it’s this pomposity he attacks when creating Medina Mena, a thinly-veiled representation of A, for one chapter of a novel he is writing (presumably because poetry isn’t paying). The novel is picked up for publication and sent out for reviews. A is a reviewer – an influential one, at that – and he loves B’s book. While singing its praises, he appears not to recognise, or at least publicly to acknowledge, the satirical version of himself B has written.
The story revolves around the moral crisis A’s enthusiastic review triggers in B’s conscience and imagination. The layering of speculation upon assumption here is an utterly believable depiction of B’s mounting paranoia:
He’s praising my book to the skies, thinks B, so he can let it drop back to earth later on. Or he’s praising my book to make sure no one will identify him with Medina Mena. Or he hasn’t even realised, and it was a case of genuine appreciation, a simple meeting of minds. None of these possibilities seems to bode well.
Neurosis makes for great, bleak comedy and there’s a Picaresque feel – B as a hapless Gulliver in the land of Spanish literature – to the way the plot spools through B’s efforts to get to know A and thereby get to the truth of exactly what he felt about the Medina Mena character. There is the publication of B’s second novel and A’s equally warm, though suspiciously swift, review of that. There is a party in which a meeting with A seems about to take place in a dark recess of a garden which Chekhov might have fashioned to represent a soul in torment. And there are phonecalls made at inappropriate times, visits planned, voices overheard, all of which seem to be inching us towards a resolution.
But B’s identity as a writer must leave agonies like this unresolved. This story isn’t what matters anyway: what matters are the stories that happen in the corner of your eye while you’re keeping watch on something you should ignore. When following A but deliberating on whether to try to speak to him, B goes to a restaurant and, for a few minutes as he eats, we sense a respite from the literary frustration that’s eating away at him. Could the story have been here instead?
B sits down next to the window, in a corner away from the fireplace, which is feebly warming the room. A girl asks him what he would like. B says he would like to have dinner. The girl is very pretty. Her hair is long and messy, as if she just got out of bed. B orders soup, and a meat and vegetable dish to follow.
The next sentence – “While he is waiting he reads the review again.” – sucks him back into his grim quest but in that sliver of life in the restaurant, that moment of survival and possible hope for more than mere survival, we glimpse the beauty of Bolaño’s storytelling. We get that his stories and our own swim around one another, with beginnings that are impossible to trace and no resolution in the endings, just these moments that happen on the way to the end.
My good friend O, a songwriter, guitarist and drummer, was another Chilean who left the country after youthful struggles against Pinochet. Before he arrived in Liverpool, he spent some time in Spain, where A Literary Adventure and other Bolaño stories are set. He hasn’t read Bolaño but he has a story he wants to tell about the beautiful Madrileña daughter who recently stepped out of his past. I want him to read Last Evenings On Earth as he sets about writing down his stories. Because he’s in Bolaño’s stories and because Roberto Bolaño is in his. Because that’s the way Bolaño’s writing works: it’s intravenous. I read Bolaño and I glimpse beauty in small moments of survival but I read Bolaño and I feel the volume of self-doubt that’s in all writers’ libraries easing itself off the shelf and dropping onto my lap. And that’s too overwrought a metaphor, isn’t it, making the process sound like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And I’ve made this blog too long so readers will probably cut out after they click on the Sun Ra link I inserted earlier, so then that’ll be yet another thing to add to the list of all the other things.
It’s been marking season, blending into the new teaching semester at the various universities in and out of whose payroll I flit, leaving this blog short of even the single hand it normally occupies. If I had three wishes, it would be for a few extra days each week to remember the life that one’s work is meant to support and supplement. However, the story I’ve been using for teaching purposes this week has taught me to be wary of wishes.
W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 macabre masterpiece, The Monkey’s Paw, was Hammer horror back when cinema was old enough only for the PGs. That it’s an object lesson in how to while away a cold, dark night, when a fearsome wind is gathering, is evident by the adaptations, copycat narratives and Simpsons Halloween hommages it has inspired over the years. Jacobs, a whimsical Londoner whose stock-in-trade as a writer was humour, had a light enough touch to issue stagey winks to the gallery while ratcheting up the terror:
Mr. White took the paw from his pocket and eyed it dubiously. “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact,” he said slowly. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”
“If you only cleared the house, you’d be quite happy, wouldn’t you?” said Herbert, with his hand on his shoulder. “Well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.”
His father, smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity, held up the talisman, as his son, with a solemn face somewhat marred by a wink at his mother, sat down at the piano and struck a few impressive chords.
“I wish for two hundred pounds,” said the old man distinctly.
A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him.
“It moved, he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. “As I wished it twisted in my hands like a snake.”
“Well, I don’t see the money,” said his son, as he picked it up and placed it on the table, “and I bet I never shall.”
It’s the stuff of spoof sketch shows, when Bernard Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Psycho plays while a young woman takes a shower: as the music builds, so does her anxiety until with a shriek she pulls back the curtain…to reveal a sheepish string quartet. Herbert White’s ironic piano tells us that this is no primitive discovery of the spine chiller but a knowing piece of writing, whose three-act structure enables the hermetic space of the small parlour in Laburnam Villa to waver and warp like the minds of poor Mr and Mrs White after Sergeant-Major Morris offers them a furry fist-pound.
The story’s three acts work in the manner of a stage illusion. We have the pledge in act one, locating us in the type of story this is, with enough eye-catching vagary to stop us looking too hard: the ghostly ambience (but what part really does the foul weather and remote location play in the events that follow?); the traumatised visitor with the harrowing tale relating to his mysterious gift (why has he not burned it himself? why does he give it to them? what happened to him?); the first, modest wish for two hundred pounds, the equivalent of the sort of money that, on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? would do very nicely, Chris, to pay off the debts and maybe get a little holiday. The third act, the prestige, tells us what the illusionist has done: in this case, have the Whites – or the readers, or all – believing in magic monkey paws engineering freak fatal workplace accidents and bringing mutilated zombies out of the ground to bang on front doors, but answering no questions as to what actually has taken place.
It’s the middle act, the turn, that deserves more attention for its writing sleight-of-hand. In narrative terms, the point of this section is to show us that, when the Whites wish on the monkey’s paw for two hundred pounds, the consequences were that their son, Herbert, was tragically and horrifically killed (“Caught in the machinery” of both factory and plot – a zeugma so satisfying, Jacobs makes sure it’s repeated in the dialogue), the compensation amounting to the very sum for which they wished. It’s a development that could have been reported in a couple of sentences but instead Jacobs gives a bravura display of dramatic irony, heightening every moment as the contentment built over a shared lifetime is cut away from the Whites like the paw from the monkey’s arm, and shredded like Herbert on the Maw and Meggins’ factory floor.
We’ve bolted down the jovial family breakfast, laughing off the silliness of the previous evening before Herbert takes his comedy routine off to work with him, but when, later, Mrs White is distracted by a strange, well-dressed young man at the front gate, Fate shudders to a halt and turns, slowly, gravely, to set off on its new direction:
His wife made no reply. She was watching the mysterious movements of a man outside, who, peering in an undecided fashion at the house, appeared to be trying to make up his mind to enter. In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she noticed that the stranger was well dressed and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. Three times he paused at the gate, and then walked on again. The fourth time he stood with his hand upon it, and then with sudden resolution flung it open and walked up the path. Mrs. White at the same moment placed her hands behind her, and hurriedly unfastening the strings of her apron, put that useful article of apparel beneath the cushion of her chair.
There are so many joys in this paragraph. We’ve earlier learned that only two houses on the road are let so why paying a visit to one of them should be the cause of such uncertainty is beyond me. Of course, the reason for the young man’s dithering is to stoke Mrs White’s anticipation – she senses money in the young man’s dress – and foreboding. Note how the phrases are stretched out like pizza dough: “a silk hat of glossy newness” rather than a new silk hat; the absurd but brilliant aside about the apron – “that useful article of apparel” – as its strings are unfastened (ever tried doing that in a hurry behind your back?) and it’s shoved behind a cushion because you don’t receive visitors looking like you’re in the middle of the housework. Even when he’s inside, the visitor is given a quick inventory of everything in the house that’s not as spick and span as it ought to be, and when he starts to tell them about Herbert, he stammers, hesitates, and throws in a really bloody helpful riddle, about how Herbert is not in any pain, before getting round to the terrible news. Mr White’s reaction is beautiful:
He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.
In this instant, the two of them revert to a time when they were filled with hope for the future, that has since come and is now gone; they are back to when it was just the two of them, as it will be again from now on; and they are reminded of being the age Herbert was until the machinery got hold of him. It’s immaculate use of a detail whose humanity would be stunning to encounter in any story, let alone one with generic supernatural trappings. The subject of compensation comes up and Mr White’s reaction is again one to cherish, a true ‘is this your card?’ moment as he recognises the trick that Fate has played on his family and
His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”
When you see the naked simplicity of that phrase – no artificial guesstimate of what his face might be doing or what particular omens the tone of his voice might carry; no he asked, worriedly, he asked with an anguished grimace, he asked but knew the answer already – and realise that the fussiness of the “silk hat of glossy newness” phrase was not archaic over-writing but a deliberate and mischievous effect, you should recognise why Jacobs’ story endures. The grand illusion of the monkey’s paw is a durable narrative, no doubt, but – especially in the second act, there is close-up magic in the writing.
We associate the loss of memory with old age, illness, trauma, and thereby with disruptions to our lives, the decay of our existence as individuals. Yet, in considering all the details of the lives we have led, we forget with more aptitude than we remember. Indeed, our memories, those possessions we come about by virtue of remembering, are sculpted from forgetfulness (My lasting memory…; the memory I take from those years is of that one day…): it is only through all that voracious forgetting that we can identify, retrieve and encapsulate the moments we call memories that may be taken to amount to the stories of our lives.
The idea of “real time” that lies behind this blog relates to this idea of the single moment, that forms the basis of the short story and manages to present a passage of life that moves along much as our experience of living does. If (unlike Mrs Scum here!) you’re familiar with Henri Bergson‘s theories of Duration, you will have a sense of the discrepancy between real time, which is what we experience internally, and “mathematical time”, which is external, standardised and measurable but which, Bergson suggests, doesn’t provide a framework for understanding life. Instead, we have the accretion of consciousness – the knowledge, I suppose, of first how to live and then, within the ongoing process, of having lived – which itself depends on the accumulation of memory.
It’s appealing, from a short story point of view, to think of life as a collection of encapsulated happenings or intense bursts of consciousness, because that may be seen to equate to the stuff that generates and frames short stories. My preoccupation with the café story is a perfect example: the time spent in a café allows for a self-contained narrative to rise and fall; it is enough time for a memory to take shape, for an epiphany (an idea associated in short fiction with James Joyce) to take place; it is not so long that external mechanisms are needed to move the story along. A similar concentration of real time, physical space and circumstance is provided by a train journey, as depicted in a story appearing in this week’s Guardian by Helen Simpson; in the Ernest Hemingway classic, Hills Like White Elephants, the central characters are both in a bar and waiting for a train, and their euphemistic conversation would lose all its power if we then witnessed them go on to enact the thing they are discussing. These are hermetic spaces – enclosed in time and/or space, beyond the effects of an external world, within which we can witness experiences of life that ring true. So the stories are self-contained and their shortness is a necessity of their entirely natural status as fragments of consciousness.
Anthony Doerr‘s title story from his debut collection, published this year by Fourth Estate in the UK, Memory Wall, provides an immediate challenge to the simple adoption of hermetic narrative space as a short phase of time, or a confined area of physical space. It also challenges the apparently superficial but nonetheless troublesome boundaries between short, not quite as short and long versions of fiction. Memory Wall is a novella, by virtue of the fact that it comfortably exceeds the notional 8,000-word limit for what would be considered a short story, but it is not the length, nor has it the construction, of a novel. Novellas, typically defined as works of fewer than approximately 50,000 words, are troubling to short fiction because – unlike the Legoworld of short short stories or flash fiction, Hemingway’s six-word stories (“For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”) and tweet-length stories – they are not seen as a sub-let within the building of short fiction but in a different block. They are novellas because they are not short stories; they are not short stories because they are not short.
In his essay, Notes On The Novella (in Charles E. May ed. The New Short Story Theories), Graham Good makes the case that the focus on word count makes the definition of the novella arbitrary, that the roots of the word are in European literary traditions which didn’t necessarily determine a division of fiction into three archetypes defined by length, and that by defining a novella in terms of its properties places it at odds with the novel but within the same bracket as the erstwhile short story – which Good argues may as well be called a novella in order to eradicate the irrelevant element of size-ism. Having already called into question the nature of time, I’ll just say that this blog is called Real Time Short Stories and, unless Graham Good wants to pay for me to re-market it, that’s how it’s staying. However, we can be persuaded that our understanding of story length can be flexible where my notion of hermetic space is presented and examined. And it is in the way that Anthony Doerr’s novella deals with the encapsulation of experiences, not to mention the prose that’s so intimate it stings, that makes Memory Wall an essential reference point.
Alma Konachek is old, 74; she is ill with Alzheimer’s; and she has experienced the traumatic death of her paleontologist husband, Harold. Moreover, and not unlike her husband’s fossils, she is a remnant of a South Africa that has gone and is now best treated with selective amnesia. Named with a heavy nod to the post-apartheid Truth and Renconciliation Commission, the pioneering Dr Amnesty is enabling Alma to piece back together her past by accessing her memories via a library of cassettes, whose spools give witness to the moments of Alma’s life lying fossilised in her subconscious. Through the cassettes, Alma is reconnected to her younger self; through them, her Harold is still alive and talking to her:
“We think we’re supposed to be here,” he continued, “but it’s all just dumb luck, isn’t it?” He turned to her, about to explain, and as he did shadows rushed in from the edges like ink, flowering over the entire scene, blotting the vaulted ceiling, and the schoolgirl who’d been spitting into the fountain, and finally young Harold himself in his too small khakis. The remote device whined; the cartridge ejected; the memory crumpled in on itself.
Alma blinked and found herself clutching the footboard of her guest bed, out of breath, three miles and five decades away. She unscrewed the headgear. Out the window a thrush sang chee-chweeeoo. Pain swung through the roots of Alma’s teeth. “My god,” she said.
The cassettes fill a wall – the Memory Wall of the title – of her home in suburban Cape Town and somewhere among their number is the memory that will reveal the location of a gorgon skull and fossilised skeleton discovered by Harold just before his death and Alma’s subsequent regression. Memories – not least the floral, fragrant memories of affluent, elderly white women – have an illicit street value in the new South Africa. There is a parallel with soma, the drug of choice in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Alma’s memory has added value, though, with a historic find awaiting the owners of the cassette. Roger, a softer version of Bill Sikes, has enlisted fifteen-year-old Luvo to help him steal the cassette. Every night, they break into Alma’s home, disrupt her sleep and add new layers of confusion to her already fluctuating grasp of reality. While Roger detains the old woman, Luvo plugs himself into cassette after cassette, a 15-year-old black boy with the multiplicity of life experiences of a 74-year-old white woman shuddering through his brain each night.
Luvo stands in Alma’s upstairs bedroom in the middle of the night and hears Harold Konachek whispering as if from the grave: We all swirl slowly down into the muck. We all go back to the mud. Until we rise again in ribbons of light.
This wind, Luvo realizes, right now careering around Alma’s garden, has come to Cape Town every November that he can remember, and every November Alma can remember, and it will come next November, too, and the next, and on and on, for centuries to come, until everyone they have ever known and everyone they will ever know is gone.
With its near-future concept of technology to harvest the recesses of the mind, and its criminal story dynamic, Memory Wall had every right to have been a dystopian, sci-fi thriller and be done with that. Depicted by a writer from Idaho, the South African setting could easily have been rendered with the same cosy exotica as Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana. It’s not for reasons of length that the story provides a challenging but rewarding detour in our travels around the hermetic spaces of short fiction (although it’s worth noting that, of the six beautifully-crafted stories in his collection, the two that would qualify as novellas – the other one being the finale, Afterword – are the most mesmeric): what Doerr manages to do is move beyond the clear outlines demarcating confined narrative space and time yet he advances the sense of complete stories fitting within sealed perceptual units.
Alma and Luvo, also Pheko, who came to work as the Konacheks’ houseboy in the apartheid era and who struggles to raise his five-year-old son, Temba, in their township accommodation, and the amoral Roger, not to mention the Harold and the gorgon fossil, all occupy a space in which each possesses an element of one another’s existence. There is to be no movement beyond this encapsulated existence until a resolution has been reached, achieved primarily through Luvo’s weary, bittersweet epiphany and a journey to the coast, where waves will wash away these memories that keep dead loves alive; those that scientists invent machines in order to excavate and that criminals plot to steal; eroded memories that are craved by those with no future and barely even a present.
The afternoon was spent preparing for a lecture on John Steinbeck’s Breakfast. Solidarity; the dignity of labour; Steinbeck’s prose always working up from the land and the people, coming back always to the land and the people; the synapses of the American Left passing this ideal via Steinbeck from the Wobblies and Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie, and on to Bob Dylan, to Gil Scott-Heron, to Angela Davis, to John Sayle, to Michael Moore. Stepping out of this aesthetic into D.W. Wilson‘s 2011 BBC National Short Story Prize-winning The Dead Roads felt a brutal re-entry into the nihilistic realpolitik of 21st century getting high and getting by.
Animal had a way of not caring too much and a way of hitting on Vic. He was twenty-six and hunted looking, with engine-grease stubble and red eyes sunk past his cheekbones. In his commie hat and Converses he had that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag, dragging foot after foot with his knees loose and his shoulders slumped. He’d drink a garden hose under the table if it looked at him wrong. He once boned a girl in some poison ivy bushes, but was a gentleman about it. An ugly dent caved his forehead and rumours around Invermere said he’d been booted by a cow and then survived.
The retina-grabbing intensity in this description of Animal Brooks – road trip companion to the narrator, Dunc, and Dunc’s sometime girlfriend Vic – is somewhat hard-boiled and somewhat in the transgressive vein of a Hubert Selby Jr or Chuck Palahniuk. It’s an impression that barely makes it into the second paragraph, though, as the three companions head across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, towards the Northern Lights, and it becomes clear that it’s the emotions stirred up by their adventures, rather than the adventures themselves, that will define this story.
The difficulty, and danger, with analysing a prizewinning story is that you could grab hold of it with the trembling, clenched fist of the struggling writer and view it in terms of: “So this is the style and subject matter my prose has to sleep with if I want it to win any prizes.” Alternatively, there’s the news media reading of the story, which will focus on the money that one writer has won, and the names of the slightly better known writers that were passed over by the judges. It was a syndrome that found perfect expression recently when the Nobel Prize for Literature went, not to Bob Dylan, nor even the likes of Thomas Pynchon or Les Murray, but to Tomas Tranströmer. I compared the deflated response of headline writers – expecting a Dylan v Keats Revisited pseudbath – to that of the papers ten years ago when a Premier League footballer revealed to have had an extramarital affair, having hitherto been masked by privacy laws with speculation growing, was revealed not to be an international superstar but the journeyman midfielder and Blackburn Rovers captain, Garry Flitcroft. The Sun‘s banner headline – “IT’S GARRY FLITCROFT” – was an Ozymandian masterpiece.As silly as the discussions can get when short stories are subject to the supertrooper beams from an event that news editors consider might interest the public, let’s not pretend that any light at all shone on the form doesn’t make a welcome change. The scope for “IT’S D.W. WILSON” headlines was off-set by a week of scheduling, within Radio 4’s Front Row, of a reading and podcast of each of the five shortlisted stories. Listeners had the opportunity to form unfiltered opinions of the works themselves, within a medium which has traditionally bypassed literary hierarchies to allow the stories themselves to flourish. Fresh from completing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, the prize represents a hell of a way to announce your entry into the industry and – while it’s hard to shake the idea that Wilson is casting himself as the “university kid” with whom Vic “bops around [on the West Coast]…who wears a sweater and carries a man purse. Her dad showed me a picture of the guy, all milk-jug ears and a pinched nose that’d bust easy in a fight.” – you can imagine the man purse being put to good use with the cash prize. We can celebrate his good fortune but we can’t afford to have it colour our reading of the story.
It’s the way Wilson gets the machine of the story to work that makes The Dead Roads a significant new presence in our short story universe. The story is told with the benefit of hindsight – it’s set in 2002 and the potentially fatal dramatic high point, that turns out to be merely chastening, is flagged up in the breezy opening sentence – but it’s withheld from us what that benefit provides. By the end, Dunc appears suspended in a moment we know has gone by. He’s arrived at what seems a resolution regarding his relationship with Animal, the archetypal small town childhood friend you never grow up fast enough to get away from, and thereby his passing into adulthood; particularly definitive is his awareness of how he feels about Vic, who seems to slip like mercury between the gazes of all the men in the story. Yet there’s no sense of to what, beyond this moment, any of this has led. We just know that, on a mountaintop, Dunc has acquired a vantage point on his life he may never attain again.
Wilson prods the themes along with each new disclosure of character among the three road trippers, and Walla, the Native who acts as a mirror to the group and a plot catalyst for the story. If our initial impression of Animal was of a thuggish creature of base instinct, egregious in his overt pursuit of Vic, Wilson provides him with stepping stones towards a greater complexity:
He’d packed nothing but his wallet and a bottle-rimmed copy of The Once and Future King, and he threatened to beat me to death with the Camaro’s dipstick if he caught me touching his book. His brother used to read it to him before bed, and that made it an item of certain value, a real point of civic pride.
The role of the T.H. White re-telling of the Arthurian legend seems to reach beyond Animal’s protection of it as an emblem of family comforts. We later see him struggle through it, “finger under each sentence”, and for all its painstaking nature, his attachment to the book is a notable contrast with the more intelligent but infuriatingly passive Dunc, who senses he should have been able to accompany Vic to university but instead has ceded that side of Vic to the man purse carrier, just as he seems to be ceding her raw, pleasure-seeking side to Animal. Vic clearly seems to be a Guinevere in this equation but Wilson avoids too easy and crass signposting of plot parallels with White’s epic.
For all the Arthurian overtones, for all that it steers away from the transgressive towards something nearer the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff, for all the Hemingwayesque nada of the competitive posturing pit where men try to show that they are men, for all, indeed, that the shadow of Steinbeck doesn’t entirely depart over the course of a reading, a story lives and dies in the quality of its sentences. In Animal’s reaction when Walla points out that he’s just put diesel in a petrol tank, we can see how this story, about seeing things the way they actually are, will stay with us when we’ve forgotten how we came across it in the first place:
Animal stared straight at the Native guy, as if in a game of chicken instead of wrecking his engine with the wrong fuel, as if he just needed to overcome something besides the way things actually were, as if he could just be stubborn enough.
Family and your favourite bands provide you with the love affairs you’ll have to make do with until it’s time to have love affairs with real people. They do not qualify as real people themselves, living in symbiosis with your sense of self, and your commitment to them is, accordingly, contingent on neither party changing, growing, maturing or ever really improving. There is a subtly chilling moment in Frode Grytten‘s Sing Me To Sleep in which the 40-year-old narrator remarks on the sartorial evolution of his idol, Morrissey, as a preamble to a description of himself getting ready to go out:
Morrissey is so bloody stylish. He always has been. He has more style than the whole pop industry put together. Some people think that he lost it after The Smiths, but that’s just bullshit. He’s still got what it takes.
I put on my black suit, a black t-shirt and my NHS glasses. The same glasses that Morrissey is wearing on the gatefold of Hatful Of Hollow.
Even though Morrissey is allowed to grow up and reflect his affluence in his dress style, the obsessive Smiths fan remains locked within the mid-80s uniform for disconnected young men and women.
Grytten’s story provides a superb example of a first person narrative in which the narrator manages to be a three-dimensional character whom we can study from all angles, rather than an avatar of the author. An example of the avatar-narrator might be Rob, from Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, whose list-making attitude to music, first, and then other people, is an indoors version of the football-watching, psychological self-portrait Hornby painted in Fever Pitch. Autobiograpical details aren’t a factor: Grytten is a 40-something from the small Norwegian town of Odda, where the story is set, with a quiff and glasses (more Richard Hawley than Morrissey) and a taste for 1980s post-punk and indie music, but the maudlin, stilted, repetitive prose, that we see in Kari Dickson’s translation, serves first to build the character and then throw him towards the definitive moment in his life: the death of his beloved mother.
In this way, the short story has much in common with the dramatic monologue and, although Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are unlikely ever to quote from Please Please Let Me Get What I Want or the other Smiths lyrics peppering the text, we can recognise Grytten’s narrator as a Scandanavian cousin of the Bennett creations. The main difference, though, is that the Talking Heads talk to us, whereas Grytten’s character is largely talking to himself. He details the regimen of care for his mother and his accompanying feelings about her love for him, the devastation of her divorce from his belligerent father, the prospect of her death and how that will leave him bereft yet liberated – and we witness his affection, infuriation, shame and pride at the same time as he admits these feelings to himself. So, if you like, we are watching his soul in performance – very much in the vein of a solo work of drama – but the short story additionally has recourse to movement and action, the new dynamics that come with a change of scene; and Sing Me To Sleep makes the transition from character study to a classic, plot-driven Quest in less time than it takes Johnny Marr to take the tedious self-pity in a Morrissey lyric and transform it into something heroic.
Sing Me To Sleep is a contender for future analysis in our Reel Time Short Stories series as it’s been adapted for the screen in a 2010 Polish/Norwegian co-production, the watchful, ruminative longeurs of Polish cinema a good partner for the breathing spaces inhabiting short fiction. Grytten’s narrator and his mother share a mutual frustration at the life each other has ended up with, and this results in a sad, tender paso doble in their dialogue which leads to him blurting out the lie that he has a girlfriend, and that he’ll bring her to meet his mother the next day. It’s the moment when drama replaces characterisation, and it draws comparison with Wolfgang Becker’s 2002 film, Goodbye Lenin, in which an East German son nurses his loyal Communist mother back to health while hoping to prevent the news of the Berlin Wall’s collapse from shocking her into a relapse; in the Grytten story, the narrator has to navigate the understanding that, were his mother to die overnight, this would save him from his lie, but that finding out the truth would kill her, and he’d be the murderer. Another connection can be made with Paul Auster’s short, Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story – which has also appeared on film, within Wayne Wang’s Smoke with Harvey Keitel as Auggie – a seasonal tale of a palliative white lie between people who understand that the fantasy provides all the truth that’s going to be needed in that situation.
As well as the plot, the settings in these comparable narratives shape what’s being told. The tumult of Berlin in 1989 and the enduring affection Auster repeatedly display for his Brooklyn neighbourhood are what makes those stories happen. This is no less the case with Sing Me To Sleep, which appeared in Comma’s 2007 Elsewhere anthology of stories from small town Europe. Odda is the source of conflict and it’s the relationship that will never change, the love affair that will never provide relief or escape. While his mother’s demise is inevitable and the changes Morrissey has made to his look and his music can be celebrated, when Odda changes to become the Anytown that all our towns and cities are marketing their way towards, it only provides more confinement:
I have an inner picture of Odda, and it’s a beautiful Odda, a dirty and rusty and old Odda, but a beautiful Odda all the same. I don’t want to see the other Odda, the new Odda that is trying to be not-Odda.
“The rain falls down on a humdrum town,” somebody once sang. Until the clouds break, if ever they will, or you find some rain in a town less humdrum, bringing a fake girlfriend home to fool your dying mother can be the action of a hero.
Sometimes time simply passes but sometimes it rushes up to us, stops, grabs hold and drags us along with it. In Britain, we’ve been having some of that type of time. The determination – not to add to the huffing, the puffing, the analysis and the splenosis – is undercut by the perversity of avoiding the conversation.
One of the contentions of this blog is that short fiction is ideally equipped to relay our own lives back to us. It is intimate with the people we are, and its pacing means it can fall into step with us, its narratives alive in our world, travelling in real time. While this enables the form to reflect social and political narratives as they emerge, we can’t claim that we’re dealing in immediate commentary. Poetry, music, some theatre, film and most definitely photography will provide the most instananeous artistic responses to the disturbances in London and other UK cities. Short fiction will have to step back and assess what are the enduring narratives, after the clearance of smoke and the clean-up, after every possible agent of delinquency has been fitted up for the criminal rampage – witness David Starkey’s post hoc ergo propter hoc argument that effectively blamed it on the boogie, or the voices in Parliament and elsewhere deciding social media are to blame because rioters used Twitter and Blackberry messaging for mobilisation. What to ban next? The bicycles that got them there? The bottles used for firebombs? Glass itself?
Margaret Murphy‘s Low Visibility, published by Comma Press in the 2008 Book Of Liverpool (eds. Maria Crossan and Eleanor Rees), would seem an obvious point of comparison with the narratives of early August 2011 and, let’s face it, it owes the timing of its presence on this blog to the fact that we can’t yet look away from the theme. The 1981 riots, or uprising, in Liverpool 8 (you’ll know it as Toxteth, as the result of one of those curious early 80s re-orderings of the media’s lexicon that seemed to stick, like Argentinians suddenly and forever becoming “Argentines”) was the long-overdue explosion of a powder keg. Poverty, deprivation, criminal justice, racism and the legacy of the slave trade in the area, and across the city, came under the microscope; Loosen The Shackles, Lord Gifford, Wally Brown and Ruth Bundey’s 1988 report into the riots, served to ratify the idea that the violence of ’81 contained a political programme; strategic investment and development in the most marginalised communities and European funding for regeneration had a direct effect on the city’s capacity to produce and promote cultural activity. When the slogan “The World in One City” was adopted for the successful European Capital of Culture bid, it was almost by way of tacit acknowledgement that the uprising/riots had passed over in the city’s mythology from shameful blight to necessary corrective.
While community mobilisation “to find a resolution to the unrest” may come to secure a cherished status in the civic memory, it’s unlikely that this week’s copycat flurries of destruction themselves will serve writers as well as the scenes from 1981 have done. In Murphy’s story, the violence provides an orchestral backdrop to the emotional choreography for a woman struggling within an abusive relationship:
The television cameras switch to Upper Parliament Street. A wide stretch of road, a barrier built from a van, a burnt-out milk float, a VW Beetle, the silvery sheen of its metallic finish peeled off like plastic in the heat. The reporter sounds afraid. A baker’s delivery van turns into the road, brakes hard and starts to reverse, fishtailing wildly back the way it came. But it hits a pothole and loses control, smashes into the wall of a derelict building. The mob is on him. They drag the driver from the van and beat him. His van is overturned and set alight as the fire brigade sirens wail inconsolably beyond the police line.
‘Animals,’ mutters John, feasting on her pain.
It’s not a profound engagement with the politics of the riot, nor should we expect it to stand up to rigorous analysis: it’s not reportage. Writing a prose fiction descriptive overview of a riot might well be up there with fictional acts of sex or war as inevitable disappointments – there’s simply too much going on to do it justice. Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy and Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man contain examples of attempts to capture riots and what they and other writers invariably find is that the individual story wins out. Murphy ensures that the central character is always the conductor for how we receive information about what is happening in Liverpool 8. The character in turn mediates her experiences through the television via the remote control held in John’s hand while he rests “the other [hand] on her thigh. She keeps very still.” The violence is framed by the television report and John’s hostility but we can see its metaphorical stock rising as she reflects on her own sense of alienation:
She is wordless, stripped of language, or the liberty of expression. She doesn’t know the right thing to say, because he changes the rules each time. So she says nothing. It’s safer – less painful.
It’s a desire for liberty and it’s about to crash through John’s domestic fortress:
Shouts drift up from the street and he points the remote control at the TV, lowering the volume. Three solid thuds rattle chunks of plaster from the ceiling, then a cheer, and the sound of footsteps on bare board.
Note the vulnerability of the bare board and the sequence of onomataopoeia in “thuds rattle chunks” – what this does is emphasise the visceral aspect of the riot, while the timing – just as John has escalated his abusive treatment of his partner, the street violence moves from the TV into his shop downstairs – is an illustration of why I talk about “choreography” in relation to short story narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it was a riot or an uprising; whether it was the springboard for rebuilding Liverpool or an explosive prelude to thirty years of false dawns; whether any of what happened in ’81 could be identified in the Blu-ray DVD re-release of that inner-city strife in 2011. We read Low Visibility and find a small but definitive moment in the story of one couple, that very basic human framework for short fiction. All we take away are the individual narratives. The rest is just scenery.