Real Time Short Stories

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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.

Nicanor Parra

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:
Generous reader
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.

Osvaldo Soriano

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.

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Paris is old enough not to be fooled by the same old lines. For every lovestruck idiot who washes up at a café table and sees a city built for romance – and romantic fiction – there’s a clear-eyed realist on the Metro who recognises the city of La Haine, of the Engrenages (Spiral) series, which are the spiritual descendants of Gerard Depardieu’s hard-boiled Police, of the bourgeois paranoia in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). It may not be all about Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron walking in step along the banks of the Seine; Audrey Hepburn rhyming ‘Montmartre’ with ‘Sartre’ courtesy of Ira Gershwin in Funny Face; or about dishevelled intellectuals chatting through the night in films by Erich Rohmer or Richard Linklater; or even Michelin-starred rats…

Nonetheless, the enchanting, captivating, romantic Paris is an eternal verity of fiction, and Woody Allen is a film-maker who is comfortable with eternal verities. He used a Greek chorus in one of his films, Mighty Aphrodite, which is about as eternal you can get in the dramatic arts. Allen’s name comes with its own Greek chorus these days, whether commenting on the publicity that flared around his private life for a period in the 1990s, the truth/fiction blur associated with the younger women he may marry, kiss on screen or simply cast for others to kiss, or adopting a position on his film-making capabilities as he continues to release roughly a film a year, rarely (apart from 2009’s Whatever Works) returning to his comic heartland of New York. Against these debates, we risk losing sight of the work Allen has been building up for about 60 years. Including works in production, he has written 45 films, only ceding the director’s chair to somebody else for two of them. Since talking pictures arrived, has there been another great, or very good, film-maker who has made as many – often very good and sometimes great – films as that?

As unique a cinematic figure as Allen is, though, it’s important to recognise that film is a medium for which he had to adapt an already established voice as a stand-up performer. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, even though his work is self-evidently steeped in a love of cinema, his first instincts are driven by the pen, not the camera. Hence, instead of doing the film-maker thing and construct distinctive projects or franchises to encase his ideas, he’ll do the writer thing and explore, develop and often re-cycle tropes around which the individual films take shape. This is one reason why A Twenties Memory, an enjoyably daft short story idea published in the 1971 collection, Getting Even, gets to feed, forty years later, into Allen’s most successful film from his recent ‘European tour’ period: Midnight In Paris. More fundamentally, I think there is an argument to be made that the writer’s eye Allen brings to his film-making, and indeed his comedy, is specifically that of a short story writer.

Midnight In Paris can barely be called an adaptation of A Twenties Memory; the screenwriting Oscar it was awarded this year was in the Original Screenplay category. What it owes the story – which touches down in Chicago, the South of France, Italy and Kenya before passing through Paris en route to Spain – is the conceit of being a friend and companion to Modernism’s most celebrated artists and writers. The film achieves this through a deft insertion of a what if? sci-fi device into the familiar portrait of the protagonist, at odds with the here and now, and trapped within an unsatisfactory relationship. For Owen Wilson’s anxious screenwriter, whose holiday in Paris is courtesy of the conservative parents of his materialistic, WASP fiancée (Rachel McAdam), and whose hankering after the 1920s jazz age becomes a completely different proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s downtrodden movie-loving housewife, ill-treated by her brutal husband Danny Aiello, and shown a magical alternative when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with the technicalities that brought them about.

In A Twenties Memory, there is no time-travelling device. The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole crazy gang. It’s a blancmange of a piece, stringing together one-liners that play on the personality cults and “I was there when…” name-dropping of the literary or showbiz memoir writer seeking immortality by association. The legend of Hemingway’s fondness for brawling forms a slender running joke, with the narrator having his nose broken at regular junctures, and the prose format allows the wordplay and more subtle gags room to stow themselves away in the text the way they couldn’t in performance:

That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

The film is at least a zabaglione – as light as the story but with more of an intoxicating effect. Wilson’s Gil finds the romance lacking in his modern life when he meets Picasso and Hemingway’s sometime mistress, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This sets up an interesting little essay as Gil’s obsession with the jazz age dislocates him from his own time, whereas Adriana, whom Gil believes to be living through the most monumental period in artistic history, surrounded by the greatest minds, is herself caught in an unrequited nostalgia for the Paris of La Belle Époque when the Post-Impressionists held sway. That the film’s resolution is located in this intellectual hall of mirrors, and doesn’t rely upon Gil performing some Herculanean mission to transcend the boundaries of time in order to be with Adriana forever, tells me that Allen’s storytelling revolves around the beguiling notion – the comic idea that may be laced with tragedy; the dramatic idea that can ultimately be shrugged off as just another of life’s episodes. The latter is definitely the case in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also offers an over-thinking American tourist (Rebecca Hall) a surprising confrontation with old Europe, though this time with no magic portals. Broadway Danny Rose, Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Lowdown, meanwhile, showcase the yarn-spinning aspect of Allen’s writing. The joy is in the telling, even if that goes nowhere, as in the short story The Whore of Mensa, in which the brilliant comic idea of a call girl racket whereby men pay for intellectual stimulation from widely-read professionals is played out as standard pulp hardboiled fiction. Reading Woody Allen, in print, stand-up or film, as a composer of short stories gives us a new muscle with which to respond to his work.

Even if none of it is still as funny as the guy slipping on the giant banana skin in Sleeper.


Like the lucky Robert Pattinson, who gets to be pictured above with Sara, a “seat-filler” at some awards ceremony [edit: it has since come to my attention that this isn’t Sara. It is somebody famous filling Sara’s seat while she pays a visit to the bar. I can’t be bothered changing anything else about what I’ve written and, by this stage, would you care either way?], you get to read this post, which simply exists, like the Porter in Macbeth, to occupy space in between the important business of murdering a king and becoming a king – or, in my case, blogging about short stories and blogging about short stories. And just as the Porter’s attempt at humour is an example of dramatic irony, because we know something not very funny at all has just taken place, we have an element of dramatic irony here because what’s keeping me from pontificating on creative writing is having to pontificate on the creative writing of the University students whose work I’m marking most waking hours at the moment. There’s further irony in that the picture of Robert Pattinson will probably earn me more hits than any other post I’ve created since this blog started.

But while you’re here, you can if you wish amuse yourself in the comments section because what I want to know is this: is there a line or passage of short fiction to which you keep coming back? Or, put another way, what is the most memorable moment you’ve encountered in a short story?

When I get me some spare (real) time, I’ll be back with more of the usual…

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.

IT'S D.W. WILSON

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.

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.


As listed here last month, my short stories The Prisoners & Overnight appear together as one of three titles published online by Flax/Lancaster Litfest as Flax Singles Nos. 023/024/025. The chapbooks are available to download for free HERE but the Kindle editions are also now ready and available from Amazon.

Click on tke blurb and it’ll take you to the relevant page on the Amazon UK site:

The Prisoners and Overnight Flax023 by Dinesh Allirajah
Two stories that deal with how war affects civilians in contemporary England. Within authentic and assured narratives, Dinesh Allirajah presents ordinary lives against a backdrop of world events spinning beyond our control, that still affect us in both miniscule and obsessive ways.

The Red Balloon Flax024 by Sarah Dobbs
Leah King is a woman who defends herself emotionally and physically against any potential threat. While we’re not told exactly why, small clues lead a quiet parallel path alongside her powerwalk, that is bound to cross her sooner rather than later.

Amore Mio Flax025 by Ian Seed
A deft, honest and sometime uncomfortable story of a relationship growing beyond its first blind flush. As Italy grows familiar to Englishman Martin, his girlfriend Silvana’s exoticness dulls. What attracted him initially no longer holds his heart, yet admitting this is not so easy.

I’m not a Kindle-fiddler myself so if anyone’s able to report back from the badlands of the new technology about getting hold of a copy (the price is 69p), I’d be interested to hear from you. Moreover, if anyone with a free or Amazon-bought copy of The Prisoners & Overnight would be willing to add a customer review of the chapbook on the Amazon site, the ‘my new best friend’ crown will pass to your safe keeping!

We left our three generations of tika-taka park footballers on the verge of a story. By interrogating the scene, fantasising about its emotional backdrop and thereby injecting a narrative kinesis into the mundane moment, we can occasionally find quick routes to a story.

When Hubert Selby Jr saw a newspaper story about a man who locked his mother in a closet, he had not only an opening line –

Harry locked his mother in the closet.

– but the whole novel of Requiem For The Dream. Asking and answering questions about this curious turn-of-events in a parent-child relationship allowed him to map out characters, back-stories and the parallel plots of the son’s heroin addiction and the mother’s Valium dependancy. What Selby did with the newspaper story, what we might do with our father and adult son going through their muffled rituals of playtime, is identify a central dynamic from which all else can be developed. We can actually strip away the rest. We can kick the football
into touch, close the park gates, send the kid off to boarding school, and build on whatever we’ve found in the father-son relationship that makes this a story worth telling. That story dynamic can be further deconstructed, though. Perhaps this isn’t about a father and son but about two different generations. Perhaps it’s not a personal tension between the two men but a case of each locked within the preoccupations that govern the life he is leading and the time of life he has reached.

So perhaps we can sit “in the corner of a tea-room, café, coffee shop; nursing cup after cup; observing the comings and goings…” and find our story dynamic in the contrasting attitudes of the two waiters on duty.

Ernest Hemingway was a champion coffee shop sitter-and-writer so it’s only right we should turn to him for the second of our occasional Café Shorts series. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, the dimensions of the place in question are fundamental to the dynamic Hemingway is exploring. As the last customer, a suicidal, deaf drunkard throws back brandies and prevents the waiters from closing up for the night, we see in their conversation the tension between one who views the café as a place of work and the other, older waiter, who understands it as a place to be.

“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two.”

“I want to go home to bed.”

“What is an hour?”

“More to me than to him.”

“An hour is the same.”

“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”

“It’s not the same.”

The story beautifully articulates the kind of philosophy that can only be perfected by sitting on your arse and keeping your throat lubricated. The younger waiter has everything but appreciates nothing: he has all the time in the world but he lets it go, hurries it past, allows it to fritter away while he waits for a better time to come. The older waiter has nothing, knows he has nothing and knows there is nothing – Hemingway gives him the bravura recital of the Lord’s Prayer with each noun replaced by “nada” – so he understands what the old man seeks in a clean, well-lighted place, where the task of being can be reduced to its most passive elements, where the act of living can be summed up, as the older waiter seems to do at the end, as “probably only insomnia. Many must have it.”

There is a profound anguish being portrayed here and yet the light remains. We continue to sit and watch, speculating on the lives of those in our field of vision, and waiting until the next story makes itself known to us.


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