Posts Tagged ‘POV’
Ten years ago, the particular context in which the British government chose to make April Fools of its citizens was the war in Iraq. This year, Iraq would seem a very exotic focal point for our denigration when the current government is so busy reducing our domestic certainties – a health service, a welfare state, a justice system – to the status of a blooper reel among the Extras on Michael Gove’s History of Great Britain DVD. When we’re losing track of who we are, of why we even exist as social animals, it is a challenge to contemplate the experience of Iraqis, by whom reality has, during these ten years, been viewed in a perpetual nightmarish REM. Yet Hassan Blasim‘s second collection for Comma Press speaks to our own, particularlised sensations of powerlessness, as much as to the self-evident contexts of war, exile and the way these narratives of suffering become absorbed into a nation’s culture and myths.
A simple summary of The Iraqi Christ: this is the most urgent writing you will read in short fiction or any other literary format this year. To read these stories is to immerse yourself in tragedy and horror. The imprint of real lives – Blasim’s and those he has encountered – is as evident on the printed page here as lipstick traces on a cigarette, exacerbating the sense of grief that accompanies each story. Blasim’s debut collection for Comma, 2009’s The Madman Of Freedom Square (from which “The Reality and the Record” provided a previous post for this site), was an eloquent, retching cry of disgust; The Iraqi Christ seems to be steeped more in sorrow. And the incredible part is that, from this unimaginable sorrow, what emerges is a savage, unbearable beauty.
The stories portray characters locked in states of fretful, at times lurid, sensory dissonance. If you knew nothing of this book or Blasim’s literary antecedents other than David Eckersall’s cover design, pictured above, you might guess that Franz Kafka sits somewhere in the frame of reference. Short fiction routinely converses with its ghosts and Kafka’s presence is almost that of a recurring character, most conspicuously in The Dung Beetle, an overt reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, with the concerns of the changeling Gregor Samsa, conceived during the First World War, transposed onto those of an Iraqi now residing in Finland, inside a ball of dung. In relating his fictional counterpoint’s story, Blasim makes what I take to be a more direct authorial interjection:
A young Finnish novelist once asked me, with a look of genuine curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as if I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen. In the same way, I might have asked, ‘Did you read Kafka in Finnish?’
Such is the sense of dislocation and depersonalisation, of inurement to brutality and reduction to absurdity, reading Kafka seems less of a choice or privilege than a routine motor function. The Dung Beetle quotes in full Kafka’s Little Fable in which a mouse articulates the essential condition of the Kafkaesque protagonist:
The mouse said, ‘Alas, the world gets smaller every day. It used to be so big that I was frightened. I would run and run, and I was pleased when I finally saw the walls appear on the horizon in every direction, but these long walls run fast to meet each other, and here I am at the end of the room, and in front of me I can see a trap that I must run into.,
‘You only have to change direction,’ said the cat, and tore the mouse up.
The earlier Ali Baba reference directs us to Blasim’s coupling of Kafka with Sheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights tales, for which the narrative of the young bride using her powers of storytelling to stave off the daily threat of execution is the framing device, an appropriate analogy when claiming asylum. The deadpan depravity in The Hole exemplifies how these strands become twisted together. The narrator, on the run from masked gunmen as chaos greets the collapse of the government, falls into a hole and encounters a “decrepit old man”, claiming to be a djinni (genie) and calmly carving chunks of flesh to eat from the corpse of a soldier who has previously fallen down the hole. There is no escape and the company only emphasises how divorced this place is from the reality the narrator has known.
In the 1001 Nights tale of Sinbad’s fourth voyage – several years into his latest enforced sojourn in a land in which he has initially been made to feel welcome and has become happily married – he learns of the bizarre local custom that, when a married man or woman dies, the living spouse is also thrown into the huge pit, that serves as a mass grave, accompanied by the humane provision of a spartan packed lunch for pre-death nourishment. Sinbad’s wife falls ill and dies and, sure enough, both her body and the breathing, protesting form of Sinbad are thrown in the pit. Sinbad survives in his pit of corpses by clubbing any newly-widowed arrival to death with a leg-bone and taking their bread and water for sustenance. These echoes cement Blasim’s storytelling within the traditions of the region but the stories that fuel his writing are timeless and universal, relating to the stark choices facing humans when everything that betokens their humanity has been stripped away. Italo Calvino is another writer cited, via his Mr Palomar character, who painstakingly seeks to quantify the contents of a disparate universe; when ‘Hassan Blasim’ appears as a character, shifting the boundaries of reality in Why Don’t You Write A Novel Instead Of Talking About All These Characters?, there are shades of Paul Auster’s introspections about the nature of truth and story. Where – in, for example, the meta-gumshoe story City Of Glass, itself Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man Of The Crowd by way of, yes, Kafka – Auster will use a character called ‘Paul Auster’ to interrogate the identity of the “I” in whose Point of View the story is being told, it’s couched within the ‘what-if?’ framework we might expect to find in any fictional narrative. Blasim operates from a starting-point in which life has already become that fiction. This is an object lesson for those who assume that it would be enough to transcribe and dust-jacket the extraordinary circumstances of their own lives in order to produce a compelling narrative. Blasim’s life enters Blasim’s fiction as a kind of exorcism: you don’t want to explore how much is actually a record of the truth because you can’t bear to look. In Why Don’t You Write A Novel…?, the narrator makes a prison visit to the man with whom he made the journey to escape Iraq and claim asylum in Europe. Along the way, this companion, Adel Salim, inexplicably murdered a drowning man whom they had met on the refugee trail:
‘Okay, I don’t understand, Adel,’ I said. ‘What were you thinking? Why did you strangle him? What I’m saying may be mad, but why didn’t you let him drown by himself?’
After a short while, he answered hatefully from behind the bars. ‘You’re an arsehole and a fraud. Your name’s Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein. You come here and lecture me. Go fuck yourself, you prick.’
The narrator, aware only of his work as a translator working in the reception centre for asylum seekers, retreats in confusion and struggles to recover memories from before his border crossing. In an encounter on a train, a man, carrying a mouse, identifies him as the author of several stories, including some of those contained in this collection. I don’t know whether Blasim was setting out to articulate this but there’s a particular bleakness to the writing life when you feel you’re holding the weight of all the blood and bones in the world but the only place you have to set it down is something so light and flimsy as the page of a book.
For all the postmodernism and the literary conversations, and the insect and, for Dear Beto, canine narrators, we are taken goosebump-close to what happens in everyday human lives in a protracted war situation, with Jonathan Wright’s translations ensuring no walls remain between these characters and the reader. The Iraqi Christ is eye-catchingly provocative as a title for the book but the story bearing that name provides a more straightforward explanation: it’s a reference to Daniel, an Iraqi soldier who’s a practising Christian and committed gum-chewer so known to his fellow soldiers as the Chewgum Christ, Christ for short. The story, though, we come to realise, is a kind of gospel told by a beyond-the-grave narrator who relates the miraculous, almost unconscious prescience with which this Iraqi Christ manages to evade death, to the point that he takes on a talismanic role among his comrades. A life avoiding death isn’t quite the same as a life, though, and there is sacrifice and redemption to follow in an ending that is built on tragic irony but has a strangely uplifting choreography to it.
Further evidence of unexpected uplift comes in the final story, A Thousand and One Knives, a magic realist story of a team of street magicians whose ability to make knives disappear into thin air and then bring them back operates as a twin process of exorcism (again) and healing. The team have found one another through their gifts and rub along as a dysfunctional family group. In an attempt to understand what the trick of disappearing and reappearing knives might mean, the narrator is charged with researching the subject:
It was religious books that I first examined to find references to the trick. Most of the houses in our sector and around had a handful of books and other publications, primarily the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet, stories about Heaven and Hell, and texts about prophets and infidels. It’s true I found many references to knives in these books but they struck me as just laughable. They only had knives for jihad, for treachery, for torture and terror. Swords and blood. Symbols of desert battles and the battles of the future. Victory banners stamped with the name of God, and knives of war.
In the face of this understanding of knives, the group use their skills very little for show and not at all for profit but as a compulsion, like the stories of Sheherazade, because there are things that need to happen, because not doing it is too horrific to contemplate. When we learn of the baby born to the narrator and Souad, the only woman in the group and the only one able to make knives reappear, we see that they have cut themselves into one another’s flesh as well, in acts of transformative love and friendship that – remarkably, by the end of this remarkable collection – allow the reader to emerge with hope still intact, battered, but somehow reinforced.
The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, supported by the English PEN Writers In Translation programme, is published by Comma Press and available in book and e-book form.
Zoe Lambert’s debut collection, The War Tour, places horror and banality in uncomfortable proximity. The title suggests this: if we are not the direct participants or, for the sake of greater moral comfort, the victims in warfare, how do we stand in relation to the horror? As tourists, turning the bloodshed into a photo opportunity? As writers, notebooks and dictaphones poised so we might appropriate the voices of those who were actually there? The book is not designed to offer a settling response to this queasy feeling that we are somehow implicated in the actions that shape Lambert’s narratives.
In her opening story, These Words are No More Than a Story About a Woman on a Bus, Lambert deploys the second person narrative voice – “you” – to place the reader inside the crawling skin of a suited, briefcase-wielding commuter latched onto by an elderly Lithuanian woman, keen to share her memories of her country’s invasion by the Russian army. “You’re not sure what to do with this story,” the narrative tells you. It’s a pertinent observation. The woman’s story does not belong to us – none of these stories does – so what is going on when we take possession of them? Lambert acknowledges that her literary ventriloquism could be interpreted as an unwarranted, even imperialist, intervention. The collection ends with a chapter of Notes, in which Lambert responds to (her own, as much as anyone else’s) concerns that her approach risks being seen in terms of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak‘s objection to the well-meaning idea of “speaking for” the disempowered. The Notes then snake away from the theoretical question to give an illuminating picture of Lambert’s poetics. She considers the notion of appropriating the voices of historical figures by considering the diaries of the imperialist Captain John Hanning Speke and the botanist Charlotte Manning. The diaries serve as fictions – not everything is told or understood by their writers; they remain versions within which Lambert weaves her own imaginings as a writer, experiencing the process as a profound collaboration. If appropriation is taking place, that’s because that’s what writers do. I’ll do it to you if we ever met, and I do it to myself every time I write.
I do, however, find truth in Spivak’s point when reading a story like Road Song, by Joanne Harris, which appears in a 2010 Vintage collection, Because I Am A Girl, for which seven renowned authors spoke to young girls in different continents in order to represent their stories and situations. The proceeds from the collection support the charity, Plan, which aims to support self-empowerment in the developing world so the stories can be accepted as an elegant stump for a worthy cause. However, in a passage like this, set in her character Adjo’s local market, I find the prose Harris constructs less of a vehicle for the young girl’s cultural experience and more a giddy, exotic rickshaw ride for a tourist sensibility:
Adjo likes the market. There are so many things to see there. Young men riding mopeds; women riding pillion. Sellers of manioc and fried plantain. Flatbed trucks bearing timber. Vaudou men selling spells and charms. Dough-ball stands by the roadside. Pancakes and foufou; yams and bananas; mountains of millet and peppers and rice. Fabrics of all colours; sarongs and scarves and dupattas. Bead necklaces, bronze earrings; tins of harissa; bangles; pottery dishes; bottles and gourds; spices and salt; garlands of chillies; cooking pots; brooms; baskets; plastic buckets; knives; Coca-Cola; engine oil and sandals made from plaited grass.
Lambert is not concerned with the thrilling wordiness of her diverse subjects: she is concerned with character. What bothers her, as a short story obsessive, is the problem of collapsing War – that emesis of human struggle, conflict, which shatters life in half a second and hangs onto lives for years and through generations; that pitches your street against mine in the next block along and then follows us across oceans and sets itself up in a new continent – into the tidy sealed boxes we call stories. The collection takes its cue from Trotsky’s assertion that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Though there was a point when I was wondering how many more ways Lambert could find to write the sudden explosion or hail of gunfire that seemed to arrive like a narrative epiphany in a succession of the stories, the collection as a whole examines war – and shows how war examines us – from many more angles than just direct armed conflict.
The characters, conflicts and locations manouevre around one another in the stories. Two stories cross paths on Manchester’s Langworthy Road: in From Kandahar, squaddie Phil returns from a tour of duty, decorated but unable to reconcile his hero’s status with the knowledge he has acquired; in We’ll Meet Again, Rwandan care home assistant Leon leads an ordinary life yet it is one consistently shadowed by genocide. As a Manchester writer, the setting and therefore the stories are available to Lambert; she also allows the reader to detect an autobiographical veracity in the snapshots of the squabbling interrailing couple, Yvonne and James, traipsing around central Europe’s ancient and recent war zones in the title story and Our Backs To The Fort. If Lambert’s city and travel history have Hitchcockian cameos in these stories, it is the level of research, the desire to bring to light hidden, forgotten or sidelined stories of war, and the willingness to showcase her writerly concerns that form the basis of Lambert’s personal hallmark.
The effect can be polemic. There is, in 33 Bullets a welcome if shaming illustration of the conditions in which failed asylum seekers are detained in Britain, and the intractable barriers they face during the appeals process. This would not work if the characters were ciphers for a political argument. As it is, the central character of 33 Bullets, Devrim, is one of the most compelling in the book, an academic of insufficient standing to be considered at risk should he be returned to Iran, desperate to finish and publish a study of the Kurdish poet, Ahmed Arif, in order to demonstrate his credentials:
No-one understood that if his work was accepted by a journal, he might get a book contract, and when he was recognised as an authority on Kurdish literature he might get special dispensation to stay in the UK. ‘With this,’ he said, holding up his work, ‘they won’t deport me!’
Japhet [his cellmate] frowned. ‘Deport,’ he said. ‘They deport you…me… ‘ He gestured around the room. ‘Tout le monde. Est-ce que vous comprendez?’
Ultimately, Devrim finds a purpose in his futile paper-chase, influenced by Japhet’s steely pragmatism. There is a conversation between Arif’s words and Devrim’s attempts to write about them (“Poems are necessary to survival. We all make them out of the words we have.“) and there is a conversation between the words already written and the words Lambert is trying to find to map and make sense of these experiences. It’s a bold writer who works in full acceptance of the inevitable failure of her project, but failure in this case is also the most honorable and necessary response: to completely understand the workings of people’s minds in wartime would demand from us madness or monstrosity. We encounter Japhet again in When The Truck Came, a tense and powerful rites of passage from the schoolboy stumbling into and then through the ranks of a militia to being one of the personal bodyguards of the unit’s leader,’The General’, a figure who will, from this week on, inevitably bring to mind Joseph Kony. Here’s where the gap with full understanding comes in, though. What we now know of Kony exceeds even the sickening demonstrations of nihilism to which Japhet is privy, just as, in From Kandahar, Phil’s existential turbulence couldn’t compete for horror with the latest news of British casualties in Afghanistan. War is interested in you, but it’s more interested in excising the pus from its own scabs, using a rusty nail, than with attending to your emotional bruises. And Lambert is attempting to take on neither Andy McNabb nor Sun Tzu here: as the collection progresses, the observation of how a writer finds points of contact and communication with her subjects becomes increasingly engrossing.
Some of Lambert’s characters offer easy skins into which a contemporary British writer may slip: both Senka, the Serbian narrator of Turbofolk, and Phil, disembarking the bus on Langworthy Road, are every prodigal child returning home after growing to adulthood elsewhere, and having to deal with overbearing relations and hometown ghosts. Without experience of the Balkan conflict, we still can recognise Senka’s response to her mother’s anxiety over the post-war recriminations directed at journalists seen as having supported genocide – journalists like Senka’s seriously ill father:
I really want to lie down, drink some beer, check my email. But I sigh and pick up the print out of the article: ‘Media Warmongers Should Face Prosecution at the ICTY.’
Even more ambitious are the stories based on primary source material from major episodes in the lives of two women who would have been extraordinary figures for their work alone, but are all the more so because each was operating in a male-dominated environment. One of the pioneers of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner, struggles to emerge as a proactive character in Crystal Night, though dynamism and resolve must have been facets of her personality. The period covered by the story, though, is when Meitner, an Austrian Jew in pre-war Berlin, was belatedly forced into exile having, by her own admission, been so wrapped up in the work that she failed to respond to the Nazi regime’s growing menace. Her disconnection as a character has therefore some consistency. More rounded is the characterisation of the German revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, in The Spartacist League. This captures her during the momentary promise of a sweeping social revolution in Germany, following the end of World War One and the removal of the Kaiser, which was brutally put down by the government of erstwhile radicals, the Social Democrats. I confess that my view of this story was tinted by the memory of the theoretical arguments I used to stage when I was studying for my History degree in the 80s. The debates would pit Lenin against Trotsky – and Luxemburg would always win, nipping in with a tract from The Mass Strike, so I felt oddly starstruck to be in her company during the story. Lambert’s methodology – when she wrote what she wrote, this is the scene I see – is clear in this passage, where we can feel history trickling through the cracks in the woodwork:
It is nearly 2a.m. and Rosa is working in the attic room on Friedrichstraße. She is sitting at a large desk with an oil lamp burning beside her. She picks at a plate of cheese and rye bread, which Mathilde bought a few hours ago. She will ironically call the article: ‘Order Prevails In Berlin.’ The tone must be defiant and angry about the Ebert government’s so called victory when even now she can hear gunfire on the street.
The War Tour offers repeated encounters like this, between the intimate bodily experience of war and the remote writer’s imagination about its characters and situations. It is the nature of a themed collection that larger narratives are hinted at. In the short story business, we need a strong cadre of the willing to fight the cause. The novel-writing careers of Ali Smith or Michel Faber are developments I’d only ever praise through gritted teeth. Yet it’s possible to detect in Lambert, despite her dedication to the short form, the novelistic skills of research and organisation of her material that would serve her well should she ever decide to abandon the virtue of concision.
The War Tour by Zoe Lambert is published by Comma Press in paperback and for Kindle.
Reviews of short story collections are a new, occasional feature on Real Time Short Stories. Authors and publishers are invited to get in touch to arrange reviews of new work
Emmanuel Benhiby and Claudie Ossard’s productions under the Cities of Love banner first announced themselves in 2006 with the cinematic release of Paris, Je t’Aime, which was followed in 2009 by New York, I Love You. Rio, Shanghai and Jerusalem are each due to receive a similar declaration of love in the coming years. The films bring together a coruscating array of directors and actors, as cosmopolitan as the cities themselves, who create a series of loosely-linked vignettes. Paris… has as its organising structure the twenty arrondissements of the city, with a different short narrative in each (only eighteen made the final cut), stitched together with a cluster of transitory images. For New York…, there were fewer stories, more superficial crossover between characters from different stories, and a character depicted as the ‘eye’ seeing the transitional sequences.The smörgåsbord of international directorial visions and acting talent has been witnessed before by filmgoers. Each June during my childhood, I seem to have watched and been engrossed by The Longest Day, and its blend of Hollywood, Ealing and European film-making flavours telling the story of the D-Day landings from multiple points of view. Both the Cities of Love so far depicted have (in addition to their countless other cinematic interventions, appearing somewhere between the moon and before sunset) been backdrops to a small compendium of narratives. New York Stories presented a triptych from local masters, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The result was hit and miss, or rather, respectively, hit, miss, and make it stop. A legend of French cinema, Eric Rohmer, made the beguiling Rendezvous In Paris in 1995, splicing together three contrasting love stories with the city in common. However, it is reasonable to suggest that, above all these, Cities of Love owes something to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which succeeded in translating the sensibility and distilled short story technique of Raymond Carver into a cinematic language. What Cities of Love owes Short Cuts, to be honest, is an apology.
The cities are more than appropriate crucibles for the multiple narratives, images and characterisations that should form a themed anthology. All of the locations are stylish; most of the cast is gorgeous; in each film, there are diverting passages and exquisite moments. What, however, is gained in a book of short stories – at the expense of a novel’s grander narrative sweep and deeper exploration of ideas and language – is the sense of taking the time to fall into step with the lives of complete strangers, of having that serial absorption in different currents of humanity. Short story pacing slows the reader down and, in adaptation, can slow the film-maker down. No-one is racing towards a resolution. With the NY and Parisian vignettes, on the other hand, each segment feels either abandoned mid-resolution or that it carries, all the way through, an overbearing sense of being about to pull a rabbit from a hat – or, more appropriately, a pack-shot of the product being advertised.
In attempting to pare back the expanse of film narrative into something resembling a series of short stories, the film-makers have ended up with a showreel of adverts and music videos. The contributors parade past and, as stylish as several are, the contributions end up resembling nothing so much as a charity auction selling celebrity-customised t-shirts. The appeal isn’t in the artwork but the fact that someone that famous made a donation.
I maintain that a cinematic language, away from that developed within adaptations, can be found that matches the qualities I ascribe to the short story. In Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, for example, the non-linear narrative allows for a very long and seemingly impressionistic sequence in which Sean Penn’s character is haunted by, or seen to be grappling with, his childhood memories and specifically his and his parents’ unresolved grief over the death of his brother. The moments of childhood and family, particular to this story but fiercely familiar, are depicted with such intense honesty that it’s the viewer who projects a narrative text onto, say, the taut, wounded, burdened stance and facial expressions of Hunter McCracken [pictured here in the background, playing Penn’s character as a boy], the eldest of three children.
As ever, the short story connection is built upon a thirst for detail, not a coincidence of brevity.
Each of us, it would seem, orbits one another across ever-widening tracts of space. Is it that society, community, is what takes place in the furthest hinterland of our consciousness, or is it each one of us who is at the periphery of the larger narrative? Can writing, that adventure in solipsism, cope with the understanding that none of us was ever the story?
Even fiction, which has long since ceased to be based purely on the mythologies of Gods, Rulers and Heroes, can’t cope with absolute democracy. In any piece of fiction, characters will be central, secondary or peripheral. This even applies to stories told over several years, with dozens of characters engaged in hundreds of storylines: for a quarter of a century, on BBC TV’s Eastenders, whenever a major character has been called away to attend to a plot development, Tracey [played by Jane Slaughter, above] has covered for them on their stall or in their shift behind the bar of the Queen Vic. In NBC’s The West Wing, in a belt-and-braces expression of periphery, Renée Estevez – a member of the Sheen acting dynasty who wasn’t sent to assassinate Marlon Brando, wasn’t in The Breakfast Club and isn’t the internet’s own Charlie Sheen – held down, as “Nancy”, a desk job in the Whitehouse during seven seasons of the drama about the Presidency of Jed Bartlet, played by her father. She greeted members of the staff and guests going in and out of the Oval Office and had not one moment of plot devoted to her life or work. This was in a series in which there were fully-fledged peripheral characters (economic advisers Ed and Larry; personal assistants Carol, Bonnie and Ginger) who also had no plots of their own but they at least got to engage in significant dialogue and do the occasional trademark walk’n’talk scene with the lead actors. Nancy said “Good morning, Mr President” and opened doors, and that was it. As viewers, we follow the lights that shine most brightly but, as writers, if we look to the shadows, to the lives of the Traceys and the Nancys, that’s where we can find our narratives.
Writing in The Guardian in May about Tracey Emin, Ali Smith – one of the key voices in contemporary short fiction – referenced a 1935 quote from Gertrude Stein in which she discussed how centuries of use in poetry had gradually sapped the “excitingness of pure being” from words which had once held tremendous resonance: “they were just rather stale literary words.” Narratives, too, grow stale and we need to pay attention to the ways in which storytellers will circumvent the glaring and the obvious. I’ve discussed the Simpsons Plot Detour previously, in reference to the way a typical Simpsons episode might embark on a narrative and then veer into a different story altogether after about five minutes. We can identify this as a device by the storytellers but it could also be a recognition of how the audience responds to narrative.
On our right, we have the 1947 painting, La Naissance de Vénus by the Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. It’s a depiction of an event, a happening, and therefore it’s a story. And, in keeping with the narratives that our ancestors used to define and order our societies, it’s a story about a Deity. We can recognise Venus from the positioning of her hands and the tilt of her head but even a quick glance to our left at Botticelli’s canonical Birth of Venus shows us that Delvaux is drawing our gaze elsewhere. Delvaux’s goddess is not centrally located and is foregrounded to such a degree, she almost acts like a pillar blocking our view of part of the action at a sports ground. Almost immediately, we start to look past her – to the expression of exquisite sorrow on the face of what seems to be the maid to the right, to the naked bathers, the figures in the middle distance, the ghosts of giant faces suggested in the rock in the far distance, the ship which appears to lack a crew but must be piloted by someone…I’m guessing it’s Tracey from Eastenders.
In this late age for storytelling, the most effective route to a story may be to look to the edge of the crowd. The sense of what makes the world has changed to such a degree in the past century, we now have no doubts that, in society as in literature, the margins can reinvigorate the main page. Evolution tells us we’re all part of one sequence of molecular oscillation so no one story carries a ‘better’ truth than any other. Short stories must recognise this, because they rise and fall with the momentary, the illusory, the peripheral and the incidental.
Here’s an exercise for you: the recent story about the legendary French actor, Gérard Depardieu, urinating onto a CityJet plane’s carpet when refused permission to use the toilets prior to takeoff, was never going to be struggling for narrative potential. Like the appearance of the legendary footballer, Paul Gascoigne, at the fatal seige of a serial killer last summer, the nexus of spectacular human drama and a particular category of larger-than-life celebrity figure, immediately appeals to the sense that this was exactly what we used to expect of the ‘silly season’ and exactly what we used to expect from celebrities. The initial act, and the subsequent manner in which the story has played out in the media, may titillate or outrage us as consumers but needn’t concern us as writers. A fellow passenger’s eyewitness account of Depardieu’s actions on being caught short, in which she explained that “it all happened with courtesy,” is far more encouraging to our peripheral vision…
Consider that mood of courtesy. Look past the embarrassed superstar, peeved cabin staff and bewildered passengers. Move down the aisle. Pause for a moment at the woman paying close attention to the scene, noting the levels of courtesy and preparing the statement she’ll make to reporters. Think about her spreading this observation back through the plane so that those, who were unable to see the kerfuffle or hear the splash into and out of an inadequately-sized Evian bottle, have acquired a sense of having been there, of having been privy to the courtesy, and part of the story. And then there’s one passenger for whom none of this has an impact. For this passenger, the famous man, his bladder, the plane’s carpet – that’s all the periphery. What is this passenger’s story?
I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.
Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.
The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:
On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.
Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.
It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:
Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
– We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.
What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.
This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.
In the Wikipedia entry for the season 6 episode of The Simpsons entitled “‘Round Springfield”, the plot summary begins thus:
Bart gets a stomachache after accidentally eating a jagged metal Krusty-O with his breakfast cereal. Lisa is the only one who believes him, however, and Homer and Marge send him to school. Bart struggles through the test, and after finally convincing Mrs. Krabappel that he is actually ill, she lets him go and see the nurse. Bart collapses on the medical room floor, and is taken to Springfield General Hospital where he undergoes surgery from Dr. Hibbert and Dr. Nick, as it emerges he has appendicitis. While visiting Bart in the hospital, Lisa meets her hero, jazzman Bleeding Gums Murphy, in a bed in another ward.
This was a notable episode. Bleeding Gums Murphy became the first recurring character to be killed off in The Simpsons, just one of an untold number of demonstrations the show has given over the years of its capacity to transgress expectations, not only of what we expect from cartoon animation but also within the conventions of storytelling. What is typical about the above plot set-up for “‘Round Springfield” (the title makes oblique reference to the Thelonious Monk composition, ‘Round Midnight) is that the main narrative in the episode is only signalled by the final sentence of the paragraph.
This device – “The Simpsons Plot Detour” – has not, to my knowledge, been given due acknowledgement in critical texts about structure in fiction so I have no idea if anyone has given a name to the device. If you know of any writing on this subject, I’d be grateful to hear about it; if not, I’m calling it for The Simpsons Plot Detour (SPD). The SPD will allow us to become involved in a storyline – here, the box of cereal, the metal Krusty-O and Bart’s hospitalisation – through regular functions of linear narrative: establishing the setting (home) and central characters (Bart and the family); introducing the motor for the plot (the cereal); and engaging our emotions in the plot developments that follow (Lisa standing up for Bart; Bart’s struggle with the school test; the anxiety of the operation). At this point, the detour occurs and Lisa’s wander down the hospital corridor takes us to the bedside of Bleeding Gums. The story that will unfold for the remainder of the episode is now one in which the story dynamic is the relationship between Lisa and Bleeding Gums, his mentorship of her, even from beyond the grave, and her advocacy to keep his memory alive. It’s a disruption of narrative convention but we’ve learned to accept it because it’s The Simpsons and that’s the way they tell stories.
As it happens, the misdirection of Bart’s encounter with the metal Krusty O isn’t completely discarded. He goes on to earn compensation money, which helps Lisa to purchase Bleeding Gums’ only LP, and so that eventual sub-plot manages to serve the main narrative. In the same way, Bleeding Gums’ celestial reappearance to Lisa has resonance with the story that is the main reason for this post. Nevertheless, I bring up the structural device of the SPD solely as a means of arriving at this instructive point: the decisions you make about the structure of your story are as important as the idea for the story itself.
This week, the short story specialists, Comma Press, have been pushing their call for submissions to their next anthology, The Reveal. Previous anthologies, drawn from open submissions, have presented an over-arching theme within which the writer needed to work. Although largely commissioned, some of the stories in the 2009 anthology, Re-Berth, including my piece, Scent, came from a submission process. The theme was “Cities On The Edge”, itself the theme of a civic, commercial and cultural partnership between the six European port cities represented in the book. So writing the story involved first solving a puzzle as to how to make this a Liverpool story, a story about being “on the edge”, being marginalised in some way, and a story that I would be able to tell. The remits from publishers and competitions can appear daunting or irksome but they can often provide the pinch of sugar needed to activate the yeast. An idea or even a whole draft that may not quite have been coming to life can, with the introduction of this new imperative, suddenly start to breathe. Rather than a theme, the publishers here are building their anthology around a structural device: the “reveal” of a disguised narrative (not a surprise twist) at the denouement of a story. What Comma has recognised is the role of structure in making a story work.
Structure is about how you organise the storytelling and this, in turn, encompasses factors such as the chronology of the narrative and the Point of View. When he emerged in the 1990s. one of the aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s film-making that showed off his cineaste credentials was his approach to structure: the three-card trick of shuffling the heist movie plot strands in Reservoir Dogs so that the heist itself was never shown; the even more radical liberties taken with linear structure in Pulp Fiction (whereby John Travolta could be killed off a third of the way through and then reappear in a different, earlier episode placed at the end of the film); and, in Dusk Till Dawn, for which he wrote the screenplay, the near-Simpsons Plot Detour of a road movie turning into a vampire flick halfway through.
Making the audience or readers think about how the story is being told freshens the information you present to them. The “it was all a dream” ending Comma outlaws, on the other hand, can make previously fresh narratives seem tired, as can the structure of “thing that’s happening now – extended flashback to explain in a wholly linear fashion what has happened before now – back to the now to end with a platitude about what has been learned from the experience” that should make readers weep with rage if they encounter it from a professional writer.
Point Of View (POV), similarly, can coax unexpected depths from material that might otherwise belong on charity shop bookshelves next to hastily-discarded paperbacks by breakfast TV presenters-turned-authors. It’s important to think about POV not simply as the voice chosen to tell the story. In relation to the way the story’s information is structured for the reader’s absorption, it’s also about the level of knowledge about events in the story and life beyond it, and the emotional and intellectual perspective from which it’s told.
I know every inch of Christina’s body and mind, each sensation, each mood. I know every one of her likes and dislikes, her favourite band, the place on her neck where she likes to be touched when a man is kissing her. I know the exact strength she likes her coffee and the words her grandmother whispered to her in the hospital just before she died. I also know the effect the handful of bitter pills will have on her physiology after she swallows them. I know every name of every chemical Christina will synthesise as each complex molecule of each pill starts to bond with receptors in her weary, stricken brain.
In Hari Kunzru’s Deus Ex Machina, a young woman named Christina attempts to kill herself after an unhappy affair with a man named Robert. She doesn’t die, though: a man named Yukio chances upon her just in time and this signals a future, far happier romance. Told from Christina’s POV, this might have been a darker Bridget Jones but the POV Kunzru brings in lifts it – I’m tempted to say, literally – into a different realm. The narrator is Christina’s Guardian Angel, which allows Kunzru to indulge in a comedic, metaphysical preamble which skewers some and confirms other myths that have built up over centuries about such beings:
Yes, we angels do dance on pinheads, and the usual number we fit on is one-hundred and seventy six for a standard gauge pin. This is not because of some restriction in size. As I say, we are entirely immaterial. It’s just that for pin-head dancing, one-seven-six just feels like the right number. Call it tradition.
There are parallels with Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Wings Of Desire and its tender images of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander resting their heads on the shoulders of Berlin residents and thereby hearing their thoughts, in the loving devotion, the “almost luminous love”, our narrator has to Christina. The contrivance of the Angel’s POV – and the further contrivances this then works into the plot – allows Kunzru to make a distinctive statement about a woman like Christina, whose low self-esteem, poor body image and weepy vulnerability to awful men would make her a Chick-lit cliché. She is beautiful. There are no qualifying remarks to add to that fact. Kunzru uses the trappings of religious imagery to lead us to this understanding but the fundamental device here is literary – the title is, of course, the name of a literary device.
This is a story that puts us back in touch with the core of our humanity. Christina’s redemption is from the mediated ideologies that distract and diminish us. It shows how love is the tool we’ve found and named for the impulse to save, preserve and celebrate our lives.
And it’s a message that gets across because the story structure, for all its transcendental flourishes, shines a true spotlight on the moments that we can recognise from our real lives.