Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘james joyce

9780141180403_p0_v1_s260x420If you write stories, you will be asked what your stories are about and, unless you’re one of the people who can answer that they are about a boy wizard, this makes for a tough conversation. You could lay down a clueless cross-stitch of parameters – regarding form, genre, theme, plot, setting, motifs – that equate to saying ’round and red like a cricket ball, juicy like a rare steak and as good in soups as a mushroom’ in order to communicate the taste of a tomato. Assuming your inquisitor has had the patience to wait for your paroxysm of bitterness and self-loathing to subside and is still listening, you might get to explain that the remorseless necessity of living is what the fiction is about, and all the rest of it is just costume, props and lighting.

This points to what makes the café such fertile ground for the short story. In my first post about cafés on this blog, I said that “I suspect there are answers to be found here as to why short stories never really progress as a form – and why, conversely, they are always relevant.” The lack of progression in short fiction may be better expressed as an aesthetic conservatism: reliant on long-established virtues; in constant conversation with its own past. The relevance, on the other hand, is configured in its enduring functionality, the way the genre has always shaped itself to form part of an essential ‘kit’ for modern living, whenever and whatever ‘modern’ was at the time. A desultory glance through its contemporary history shows periods in which the short story has functioned as modern myth and parable, amiable commercial distraction, a format for bringing the stories of ordinary people into the literary salon, training ground for the writers of the Next Great Novel, and, in this digital age, its current status as the perfect literary accompaniment for portable, hand-held, capsule living – exemplified in Comma’s promotion of the Gimbal app.

The Gimbal enables you to access text and audio versions of short stories from (at last count) more than two dozen cities, simultaneously locating some of the stories’ settings and journeys in map and guidebook form. Like the mapping of Dublin in James Joyce’s proto-Gimbal, Ulysses, celebrated each June 16th on Bloomsday, and like Dante’s choice of Virgil the poet – rather than, say, Frommer’s – as his tour guide, there is an understanding here that you might discover the setting through the story, but that you might find a way to get lost regardless.

The reason short stories work in this context is because we can see ourselves so clearly in them that whatever seems alien or remote about the fictional landscape begins to make sense: we understand, at least, the characters’ relationship with it all. The reason a café setting works is because we understand what goes on there, without the gauze of a local or historical context. At about the mid-point of time between the first appearance of Ulysses and last Sunday’s Bloomsday festivities, Mary Lavin was one of the writers mapping Dublin and other parts of Ireland in her stories. But we can see, when we join her protagonist Mary, that this café, in Dublin in the early 1960s, could easily be in any other city at any other time:

The walls were distempered red above and the lower part was boarded, with the boards painted white. It was probably the boarded walls that gave it the peculiarly functional look you get in the snuggery of a public house or in the confessional of a small and poor parish church. For furniture there were only deal tables and chairs, with black-and-white checked tablecloths that were either unironed or badly ironed. But there was a decided feeling that money was not so much in short supply as dedicated to other purposes – as witness the paintings on the walls, and a notice over the fire-grate to say that there were others on view in a studio overhead, in rather the same way as pictures in an exhibition. They were for the most part experimental in their technique.

It’s not difficult to see that, though this is not the opening paragraph of the story, it’s likely to have been the beginning of the writing. In those first two sentences, we have the writer taking stock of where she has found herself and discovering, in the physicality of the café, a personality. This personality is crucial because it enables a lone character to be seen in interaction. When there are other characters around, it’s easy to set them up in counterpoint to one another (and this will happen as In A Café progresses) and define them accordingly, but Lavin shows how it can be done when your character is in solitude. The character’s gaze is what’s important here, and it can be read in the way the physical detail is presented. We are in Mary’s Point of View and, in addition to being told what she is seeing, we are invited to observed how she sees. The observation of the ‘either unironed or badly ironed’ tablecloths, for example, is revelatory, not as a critique of the tablecloths but for the trouble taken to distinguish between the two explanations for their creases. The thought process is apparent here: this is the sort of place where they aren’t preoccupied with appearance, simply that the tablecloths function to cover the tables, and this is because the people here have removed themselves from the way of life in which formalities of appearance are a priority; or this isn’t a question of a lack of care but of a lack of competence, and someone has tried to iron the tablecloths but these aren’t people equipped to fit their café out to the standard that would meet normal commercial expectations – the money, it is noted, goes elsewhere.

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961


The automatic reading of this passage is of the author’s own first impression observations of The Clog, the Dublin café on which this is based, re-framed to suit the character and story she’s found. We can see close-up, though, that Lavin has fine-tuned the language to her character’s mind-set, enabling us to understand and know her so easily and well that each nuance within every phrase makes like the wind and cries Mary.

In this, her Mary is a worthy addition to the short story’s roster of great, sequestered heroines, such as Katherine Mansfield’s perpetually marginalised Miss Brill or the suddenly, temporarily single Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s The Story Of An Hour. She is a widow. Her husband, Richard, died when she was still a young woman, though evidently close enough to middle age for her new identity to accelerate that transition. I use the word ‘identity’, rather than status, because Richard’s death has been a fact of her life long enough for widow to have become absorbed within her sense of self. The very reason she is in the café relates to her widowhood. She is due to meet Martha, a younger woman widowed only the year before – the meeting ostensibly a recognition that they have sufficient common ground to bond. As she waits and we follow her gaze around the café, she considers that Richard and she, living in Meath on a large farm, would have been out of place there, having acquired the ‘faintly snobby’ bearing of landowners:

But it was a different matter to come here alone. There was nothing – oh, nothing – snobby about being a widow. Just by being one, she fitted into this kind of café.

Mary’s concise navigation through her thoughts about the tablecloth and, shortly after, her inspection of the ‘certainly stimulating’ abstract paintings on the walls tell us how the café is prompting her towards an understanding of what the identity of widowhood has done to her. The consideration of whether she fits into the café is linked to an overall preoccupation with what belonging even means anymore. Has ‘widow’ taken away the identity she had bound up with Richard but left nothing in its place? She decides what she thinks Johann van Stiegler’s artwork depicts but realises that this is definition and not opinion:

She knew what Richard would have said about them. But she and Richard were no longer one. So what would she say about them. She would say – what would she say?

In A Café, and Lavin’s writing as a whole, is full to the brim with moments like this, in which she articulates the uncomfortable nuances that sit between our better natures and the raw truth of our feelings. The conversation between Mary and the beautiful, young widow Maudie is immediately a kinetic surge of shared understanding which then acquires an awkward edge, utterly removed from any expectation of forlorn, noble suffering. 251 When a male customer, who turns out to be the café artist, Johann van Stiegler, joins in their conversation, the unease between Mary and Maudie escalates. The reason for going to the café disintegrates and the action, unusually for a story in our Café Shorts series, moves outside.

You get the feeling that Mary would prefer the company of Louise Mallard from Kate Chopin’s story. Like Chopin, Lavin was widowed at a relatively early age and what she took from this experience contributed to her most sharply observed stories. A Mary, who has lost a husband named Richard, though more recently, begins to come to terms with her solitude in In The Middle Of The Field, set on a large farm in Meath. It scarcely matters whether the Mary of this story is the protagonist of In A Café, nor whether the broad brushstrokes of synchronicity with Lavin’s life are matched in the finer detail: Lavin’s achievement is not that she drew her stories from her own truth, but that her stories touch upon fleeting, ambiguous truths within all our lives.

‘I’m lonely.’ That was all she could have said. ‘I’m lonely. Are you?’

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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.

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.


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