Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘novella

He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.

If there is one element – and it’s easy to argue that there is just the one – that remains constant in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, it’s the horror visited upon the human characters by the frenzied blitzkrieg of bird after bird after bird. The respective dates of release for the story and film give a clue as to what might have governed their many differences: Du Maurier’s backdrop of post-war austerity contrasts with the technicolour permissiveness depicted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter, embodied by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. For all that, and to say nothing of the vast differences in setting, plot, characters, themes and even the explanation given for the birds’ attack, both works are merciless in the way they peck at our vulnerability.

In the Reel Time Short Stories series, the issue of adaptation – detecting what exists within the short story that lends it to visualisation and expansion – is accompanied by the question of whether and how we might identify generic short fiction traits in the story told on film. Du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca had previously found their way into the cinema under Hitchcock’s direction, was said to have disliked Hitchcock’s reinvention of her story. She wasn’t, in fairness, known to be a fan of very many of the screen adaptations of her fiction (Hitch’s far more faithful Rebecca among the few exceptions) but it’s also reasonable to suggest that a pretty decent movie could have been made using far more ingredients from the story of farm worker Nat Hocken and his efforts to protect his family from the waves of bird attacks that have swept across Europe and the rest of Britain, as far as Nat’s home on the Cornish peninsula. It’s a taut, naturally horrific narrative of survival. It would have made perfect sense to the readership so soon after a war which had been experienced on the Home Front in terms of battening down the hatches against bombing raids, clinging to the wireless for scraps of information and guidance, and the privations, still partially active in 1952, of rationing. Each is present and correct in Du Maurier’s story; indeed, the film, which prioritises diegetic sound over Bernard Herrmann’s more familiarly Hitchcockian musical prompts, suggests a wartime air raid when we first see the birds attack en masse at Cathy’s birthday party, the wing beats like strafes of gunfire, mixed with explosive squawks and popping balloons. Through Nat Hocken, Du Maurier goes beyond the sensation of such wartime sieges to represent the constant mustering of new resolve to resist, protect and then cajole and organise and take action to go through it all again:

He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.

Nat sets about bringing mattresses downstairs and maintaining a reassuring commentary for his family. We then hear his thoughts:

“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”

I see strong parallels with the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, steering his son towards whatever temporary, relative safety they can find, and also away from the worst kinds of barbarism they encounter, aware that there’s again a brutal relativity in those choices. In The Birds, the morning after his first battle in the dark with invading birds, Nat is sickened at the sight of the “little corpses [of]…robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings”, erstwhile companions to his work out of doors, that he has been forced to kill. Later, having gone to the farm and discovered the dead bodies of his supervisor, Jim Trigg, and of Mrs Trigg, the priority of survival over sentiment is not exactly easier, but more immediate and instinctive. The manner in which this new knowledge of his capabilities is absorbed can be seen in this tiny, powerful detail as his wife serves him food:

She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.

Du Maurier’s portrait of a man engaged in a struggle against nature, almost more than the horrifying images of the crazed flocks, is what makes The Birds utterly engrossing. Hitchcock and Hunter tend to allow brief glimpses of what Du Maurier contemplates at length in her text, though the sense of a man measuring his own masculinity by his ability to take control at a time of heightened danger, and to resist invaders, comes through when Rod Taylor’s Mitch barricades his mother’s house. Hitherto, his rugged exterior has belied a suspicion that he lacks the qualities to step into his recently deceased father’s shoes as the man of the house. In this, he shares a horror movie lineage with, among others, Duane Jones’ Ben Huss in The Night Of The Living Dead – whose masculinity is not in question but, as a black man, his right to address as an equal and even command other men in inherently challenged – and Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead. John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road may also be said to link Viggo Mortensen’s father to these characters in a way the book didn’t, by presenting more images of the family life, hinting at the clean-shaven Mortensen’s intellectualism and ‘soft’ white collar credentials, before entering the narrative’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Nat Hocken doesn’t need to prove himself in those ways; nonetheless, there is a sense of pride in the way he regards the emergency measures he’s taking:

He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed.

In Jon McGregor‘s 2012 story, If It Keeps On Raining, we can detect a similar satisfaction in the handiwork of another man building a defence against nature, in this case a tree house to evade the floods he expects to surge across the fenland of Eastern England:

It might not be the finest treehouse ever built but it does what it needs to. It’s difficult to get the details right when you’re fifty foot up in the air. It’s hard enough getting all the wood up there in the first place. It would be easier with two people. But it’s just him, now, so it takes careful planning. Some forethought. And hard work.

Daphne Du Maurier’s focus is on one man, and his family, engaged in a struggle for survival, and she chooses to leave the Hockens in that state. Short fiction, even in the somewhat longer form employed here, does tend to leave suggestive gaps which several film adaptations tend to want to fill. What’s interesting about the wholesale changes made to Du Maurier’s story by Hitchcock – for which he engaged Hunter, whom we’ve come to know better as the crime writer Ed McBain, preferring an imaginative re-working by an established storyteller to the technical workmanship of a hack screenwriter – is the amount of short story tropes inserted as the story re-locates to California. Whereas Du Maurier’s birds were terrorising a whole country and possibly a continent, Hitchcock’s terror is localised, allowing a familiar small town narrative to play out. After the San Francisco opening in which Hedren’s Melanie and Taylor’s Mitch play off one another like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a romantic comedy, the film offers a luxurious prototype of the Simpsons Plot Detour as Melanie brings her couture and her sense of entitlement to Bodega Bay in an initially straightforward pursuit of Mitch. Then a bird swoops to peck her forehead and she is sealed up inside this world in which she is seen as more of a malevolent outsider than the vindictive birds.

Du Maurier pits man against nature, though not, I suspect, in an especially gendered way: it’s just difficult to envisage, in her story’s social context, the main character being other than a man like Nat. Although the exact reason for the bird attacks in the story is a cause for speculation rather than firm knowledge – consistent with the first hours of any disaster – there is at least a gesture towards logic in the wintry climate and bitter winds which seem to be demolishing territorial distinctions between different types of birds and whipping them all up to a desperate feeding frenzy. The calm which returns whenever they’ve eaten their fill is echoed at the end of the film but the Bodega Bay birds seem motivated by a range of moral considerations. Melanie’s arrival in the Bay, carrying two caged love birds, might explain the first injury she receives, solidarity among the avian classes, but this repugnance doesn’t explain the demonic energy that continues to be unleashed. The suggestion – and this will not be news to anyone who has read Camille Paglia’s 1998 BFI Classics critical analysis of the film – is that Melanie’s most damaging import is her female glamour and sexuality. The birds are therefore akin to a feathered militia of Daily Mail columnists – and this can, of course, only make sense on a symbolic level. Paglia’s rich depiction of Hedren’s screen presence and remarkable performance (in her feature film debut) present such a compelling case that it’s hard to imagine her reading of the film not to have been the common perception throughout its lifetime. And there are moments when it seems impossible to believe that any other reading is possible. When Melanie, lodging with Mitch’s old flame Annie – whose black hair and smoky voice suggest she’s more the one who’s been flamed, cauterised for having dared in the past to do what Melanie is attempting now – notes that there’s a full moon, the two women exchange a look of knowing trepidation. They might not understand the reasoning of birds but they need no reminder of the mythical power of the female menstrual cycle. When a delirious woman blames Melanie’s presence in their town for the bird attacks, screaming “Evil!” in her face, it’s an experience with which other types of outsider would relate but the particulars of Melanie’s evil, once again, are possession of a loaded sexuality, with intent to use.

Hitchcock’s The Birds is a horror and it does sample riffs from Du Maurier’s war allegory but its short story credentials are that it’s a small town chamber piece concerning the presence within a tight community of a vibrant outsider. In particular, the narrative resolves itself around Melanie’s effect on the other women: the tragic Annie, a walking ghost of spent sexuality, who allows Melanie to step around while she clings to a nurturing role in Mitch’s life; Jessica Tandy’s Lydia, Mitch’s mum and an elective crone; and young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), for whom Melanie is an immediately aspirational figure. As with Nat’s heroic struggles against his fate, we don’t know by the end if Melanie has succumbed to the forces against her. As with much short fiction, we don’t seek to take away certainties, just a measure more of understanding. And, perhaps, a catapult, just in case it gets crowded on the jungle gym outside the school.

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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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