Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘poly styrene

<A-D E-K L-R

S is for Shut Up and Deal

[also for Spoiler if you’ve never the seen the film, so beware…]
Writer/director Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon had combined two years earlier (with Joe E. Brown delivering the killer line) to create the immortal “Nobody’s perfect” dialogue at the end of Some Like It Hot. In 1960’s The Apartment, there’s something approaching perfection in the stuttering path Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine take, through endless work and love-based misdirections, to the romcom moment of epiphany depicted at the start of this closing sequence. But from the moment MacLaine enquires after the deck of cards, the brief remainder of the film becomes an outstanding example of letting the action speak for itself, that any writer would do well to heed. Yes, Lemmon attempts a gushing declaration of love but he’s cut short and handed the deck: “Shut up and deal.” Note MacLaine’s expert shuffle, a story in a few hand movements, and then, as the end credit appears, the way Lemmon follws that instruction, cards flying everywhere and bliss taking hold:

T is for Twist…Bust
Shirley’s just dumped Fred McMurray to see in the 1960s with you, she’s got the pixie haircut and she’s wearing that dress…those cards aren’t getting picked up anytime soon – it’s not as if you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple for another eight years. Should Jack and Shirl eventually return to their game, they might get round to playing some blackjack, and they’ll know that, when you’re aiming for 21, if you twist too many times, you could end up bust. T could be for Tortuous Analogy because, as in card games, so it is in the short story: twist if you need to, but exercise caution. Writers approaching the short story via a Tales of the Unexpected, Guy de Maupassant or, indeed, Scooby Doo route, might believe that a twist in the tail is essential to a short story’s DNA.

Maupassant’s influence, as one of the 19th century architects of what we now understand as the short story and the leading pioneer of the twist (and you thought it was Chubby Checker!), is powerful. Yes, he may wrong-foot the reader, but his characters aren’t constructs purely for the purpose of concealing the surprise at the ending: these are people living real lives. In The Necklace, the unfortunate, impoverished Mathilde, having borrowed a glittering diamond necklace to mask her poverty when attending a function related to her husband’s work, loses the necklace and she and her husband spend ten years raising the funds to buy a replacement to give back to the owner. The twist is that, when the owner has the dreadful secret explained to her, she tells Mathilde that the original necklace was a cheap fake. It’s a shock to the character, definitely, but the story isn’t about that shock: they’ve crippled themselves with debt and worked hard for ten years to pay for something they could have replaced for less than 500 francs – that’s a story about how crap life is when you’re skint. It’s not a twist at all: it’s a boorish, droning inevitability. Get the reader to understand your story, and the ending may momentarily startle but it won’t seem to have come from nowhere. Set out at every turn to fox and confuse your reader and it won’t just be the disgruntled old retainer in a phantom mask who’s plotting your downfall.

U is for “Uno, Dos…Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro…”

Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken count-in to The Bottle; Little Richard’s “A Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” into Tutti Frutti; George Harrison’s double-tracked guitar intro to I Wanna Hold Your Hand: if they were short stories and not songs, they’d read something like –

And then, after six years, she saw him again.
[Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle]

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
[Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen]

Miss Cicely Rodgers strapped her cock and balls into the Miracle Deluxe Vagina, which was made from skin-like flesh-coloured latex and came with fully adjustable straps to ensure a perfect fit and to hide any last sign of maleness.
[Alexei Sayle, Who Died And Left You In Charge?]

V is for Velázquez
It wasn’t just that he’d paint a dwarf as well as a Pope. It was that the depictions of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano or the beggars and lowly workers, in the grounds around the royal or papal palaces, were proper portraits, investing the subjects with dignity unattainable in everyday society. It was also that Pope Innocent X could be portrayed in such a storytelling way, the terse, malevolent executive overflowing with human power but without too much divine grace in evidence. Stories can work like paintings in as many ways as there have been artistic movements, but the humanity in a Velázquez should be high on the list of aspirations.

W is for Watermelon

Thank you, the sex was lovely and, as you know, I’ve been very keen for it to happen for some time. And how delightful that the hotel puts watermelons in the room – so refreshing! I’m going to cut myself a slice. Would you like one?. I tell you what – this is lovely, but those black pips get on my nerves.

In Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, none of this is spoken by the male protagonist, Gurov, to his titular sexual conquest. He does cut himself a slice of the watermelon, which he eats slowly. And then Chekhov creates an image so excruciating, it’s enough to put you off the fruit for life: “At least half an hour passed in silence.” Girls, if he’s not at the very least asking you whether he’s got any pips stuck in his teeth within the first ten minutes, (a) get the message and get out of there, but not before (b) you shove the rest of the watermelon into him, not sliced up, and not necessarily via his mouth either.

X is for X-Ray Spex
Acknowledging the passing of Poly Styrene and celebrating the concise characterisation displayed in Warrior in Woolworth’s:

Y is for Yeast
That idea you’ve got, that you think would work in a story but you’ve not got a plot yet, or characters, or a setting or a way to begin or end it. It’s still there, still at work, and it’ll grow, so give it time.

Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald
The epitome of the writer’s muse. The ethics of drawing from your own life, and thereby the lives and personalities of those who share that life, are in a constant state of push-me-pull-me within each writer. You use your non-writing hand to wipe away the tears shed at the worst moments of your life because the other hand’s twitching for the nearest pen. Zelda was not simply a muse but an incisive writer herself. Scott knew this, of course, but does the selfishness required by a writer instinctively seek to overshadow this apparent equity in their relationship? Is there room for a second writer in your house? I’m only asking because I write short stories for a living, and I think my landlord might have got wind of this….

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We’ll only know of our own deaths when someone hacks into our Facebook accounts and changes our status to “Deceased”. It was no surprise, therefore, that I learned about the death of Poly Styrene from seeing it mentioned on someone else’s Facebook status.

More thought-provoking was the way, within a few hours, the news served to provide the kind of generational stratification today’s come-one-come-all kidult playgrounds more usually eliminate. The “RIP” comments, quoted lyrics and YouTube links to X-Ray Spex videos started appearing with regularity and you could throw a blanket of no more than 10 or 15 years over the ages of the people making the comments. X-Ray Spex came and went and never became the mass media definition of punk the Sex Pistols had been; never grew to the global profile earned by The Clash; never became a pop act like Adam and the Ants; never had the 80s hits of The Damned, The Jam, Siouxsie or The Stranglers; were never re-discovered by younger fans to quite the same extent as The Buzzcocks. This means that they necessarily remain a detail of memory, a reminder of what formed “us”.

Of course, it’s unfair to label Poly Styrene a simple late 70s period detail, like Spangles, and not just because she had recently released a new album. The old punks shedding a tear of appreciation this week would have recognised that this was an outspoken feminist, unapologetic and uncompromising in Pan’s People Britain; that her identity as a mixed-race woman fuelled her activism but was not the most conspicuous feature about her public profile; that the music itself was instead the thing that mattered, anti-consumerist satires delivered with a ferocity that could be equated with Ginsberg’s beat poetry or The Watts Prophets’ declamatory Black nationalism, backed with a sound defined by a saxophone seemingly lifted from a manic klezmer band. There are sound arguments to be made about the influence Poly Styrene had on the music industry and on British culture, but there’s no escaping the feeling that hers was the sort of death that makes a group of people, who can be quite precisely identified as the John Peel generation, reflect on their own lives, their own development.

And this has made me think about the way influence works, how slow, often dormant, and then suddenly packed with coincidence, is the journey of an idea to the point where it becomes a piece of writing. This week, I also saw Wim Wenders’ astonishing 3D documentary, Pina, and it has nothing much to do with Poly Styrene’s death except that both happened at roughly the same time, and Poly happened to me when I was 11 or 12 and still taking shape, and then Pina Bausch happened to me about five years later. It’s another marker of a particular generation that I can remember when Channel 4 was known for its arts programming. I watched 1980 by Pina Bausch over two nights on Channel 4 at the age of 16 or 17. I had no knowledge of dance theatre; I don’t believe I even knew beforehand that what I was watching was dance theatre: it was simply the strangest and most captivating performance I had come across.

I’ve not really explored Pina’s work much since then – I treated it instead like a buried childhood treasure, something to create excitement if glimpsed again, as in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her. Yet projected by Wenders into the midst of the dance, I was able to recognise how much influence that brief introduction half a lifetime ago had exerted on my approaches to performance over the years. I also realised that one of the key works featured in the film, Cafe Muller, speaks to this blog’s present fixation with cafe-frame short fiction, as illustrated by the empty chairs and tables witnessing this terribly beautiful sequence from the stage production:

I’m not just saying see the film (but see it). The coincidence of having the space to think about these two women, how each set ideas in motion in my young mind and then left them there, and what these reminders of their lives have made me think about this week – like a pinch of saffron in a pan of paella, these will form a part of the ingredients for a work of fiction, at some point. What else goes in, I will – I hope – be able to record here as and when they make themselves known to me.


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