Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘story dynamic

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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There’s no bettering Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to articulating the nebulous pursuit of a philosophy of writing. The objective of this series is to express nothing as grand as a writing philosophy nor as self-defeating as an attempt to pin down the ingredients of my, or anyone else’s, fiction. This is just a glossary that will gather together a series of creative touchstones in order to locate a system of shorthand for “the things I mean when I say the things I say that make you say ‘I guess you had to have been there’ when I say things about short story writing.” It’s not a reading list, because it’s clear that continued, wide and deep reading offers its own best system for understanding how writing works, but it rounds up some of the other stuff: the not-always-literary, bespoke moments that become the mantras.

In some of these, I’ll be reprising ideas I’ve floated in previous posts but shall include here so you can cut the pixels from your screen and reassemble them in a handy binder to file next to your Oxford English, your Roget and your dutiful copies of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please

    A-D

A is for Albert Brooks in Broadcast News
It’s for everything he does as Aaron, the flop-sweating, unrequited, intellectual pinnacle and moral centre of Taxi creator James L. Brooks’ 1987 TV newsroom satire-cum-romcom which, if it didn’t directly influence Drop The Dead Donkey, recent BBC drama The Hour and Aaron Sorkin in general, must have slipped something into their water supply. But it’s mainly for this contender for both the Film Speech You Most Wished You’d Written and The Line You Most Want To Come Out With In Real Life, namely “Don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.” An object lesson in how to make an enduringly salient point about capitalism and managerialism within an act of romantic emotional grandstanding, and it even finds a way to reference the subversion: “How d’you like that? I buried the lead.” If you’ve never been Aaron in this scene, you have no place at my table. If you’re Tom, see you in every workplace in the land next week; don’t forget the twee bloody biscuits you insist on bringing to the team meetings.

B is for the Bridge in A Night In Tunisia

Charlie Parker on A Night In Tunisia performs a precarious highwire act to get from the tune’s main theme into his opening solo. It’s one of the most famous “bridges” in jazz history. The composition of fiction can have a fractal quality as you visualise the story in discrete moments or plot points. Crossing the bridge from one of these moments to the next needn’t be as spectacular as Parker makes it but without a successful crossing, the coherence of your piece may never recover. There isn’t a single method for crossing your story’s bridges: sometimes it’ll be a compact, unfussy, functional action or description; sometimes you might want to elaborate. But knowing that you have these crossings to make can be the important first step.

C is for Cup of Tea
We’ve been here before: 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.

D is for dice and women and jazz and booze

Beale Street by Langston Hughes

The dream is vague
And all confused
By dice and women
And jazz and booze.

The dream is vague
Without a name
Yet warm and wavering
And soft as a flame

The loss
Of the dream
Leaves nothing
The same

And D here dovetails with another significant inspiration from Langston Hughes, his narrative for the Charles Mingus jazz piece, Scenes In The City, a pitch-perfect portrait of low-rent bohemia, chiseling out a recipe for survival from a life of struggle, shortage and disappointment: “And with the blues, whether I like it or not, I love the idea of living.”

E-K L-R S-Z >

It’s a short story blog. We were going to get here at some point. And after this we’ll move on some place else. But this will be there wherever we go. That man will be there. The one with the cigarette covering his face.

There is no steering around Raymond Carver. A collision with his short fiction will have a lasting impact and, if you write short stories, your relationship with the form will share at least a postcode with your relationship with Carver. Whether the “brevity and intensity” (his description of his own writing inclinations) of Carver’s stories have acted like stabilisers on the child’s bicycle of your own fiction or you make a dash towards rococo palaces of the imagination whenever faced with one of his realist portraits of quiet, incremental disappointment, he is a major short fiction landmark. Consequently, I can approach one of his stories, A Small Good Thing, knowing any other one would do perfectly well as a primer to that cold-pressed technique. On the other hand, with this particular theme of short fiction and cinema, Carver’s significance works against easy choices: which of the Carver stories spliced together by Robert Altman for his 1993 portmanteau, Short Cuts, deserves special attention?
Altman was a cinematic figure every bit as singular and towering among directors as Carver was to short fiction writers. From a classic Hollywood generation, he was a senior figure among the group of US independent writers and directors who channelled the personal approach and styles of the French nouvelle vague. Altman’s films in the 1970s most embodied that bridge between naturalistic European sensibilities and the new counterculture-influenced Hollywood and, after the routine fallow period of the 1980s (Popeye being his own take on the Stevie Wonder I Just Called To Say I Love You parable about the creative drain that was the Reagan/Thatcher era), his 1992 ensemble piece, The Player, reaffirmed his artistry and renewed his relevance. When he mobilised a large, impressive and eclectic cast to bring a cluster of Carver’s stories to the screen, it was an intoxicating opportunity to catch two great American storytellers of the ordinary and everyday, working in harmony.

Looking back on what was undoubtedly a cultural highlight at the time – and fulfilling viewing for a writer whose short story universe was then almost entirely Carver-shaped – I wonder what time and a deeper grounding in the form will reveal about how one of the key stories fared in adaptation. A Small Good Thing is pivotal to the way the film works, providing the one element of truly high drama (other than the resolution of the Lori Singer/Annie Ross strand, written for the screen by Altman’s collaborator, Frank Barhydt, to link the Carver pieces, and not a direct adaptation) in over three hours of slow-moving, finely-tuned character study. The movie’s length – I remember it being presented with an intermission on its cinema release – wasn’t wholly out of keeping with current trends in film drama; two hour running times were routinely exceeded and that year’s Oscar went to Schindler’s List, a film even longer than Short Cuts. However, it would seem to act against the “brevity” part of Carver’s watchword. Then again, A Small Good Thing is on the long side for a Carver story and its very pronounced three-act structure means it can more readily be stretched as opposed to sketched.

She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child’s party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he’d ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker’s age-a man old enough to be her father-must have children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her-not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-western music.

The baker finished printing the information on the special order card and closed up the binder. He looked at her and said, “Monday morning.” She thanked him and drove home.

The early attempts by Ann Weiss to engage with the taciturn baker, to have some of her excitement about her son’s birthday reflected back to her and simply for her to be liked in any given situation, are important signals to the reader within the opening scene of the story. The baker matters. His grim trudge through the labour of meeting Ann’s requirements for her son Scotty’s cake, and the cake itself, are to play a part. Contrast this with the depiction of the driver who, later, hits Scotty with his car:

The car had gone a hundred feet or so and stopped in the middle of the road. The man in the driver’s seat looked back over his shoulder. He waited until the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little. He looked dazed, but okay. The driver put the car into gear and drove away.

It’s horrific in its casual nature but the hit-and-run on the driver’s part is mirrored by Carver’s own treatment of the incident. We do not meet the driver again, yet his actions trigger everything else that happens in the story. Even though an extremely delayed shock to Scotty’s system will put him in hospital in an unconscious state, it’s the randomness of the collision, not the collision itself, that matters to the story. The film is obliged to deal with this essential dynamic in a different way. Other than a brief scene early on to establish Andie MacDowell’s Ann, and Bruce Davison as her husband, Howard, the first moment Altman shows from A Small Good Thing is the car hitting the boy, who is now named Casey. The brutal blank space that was Carver’s driver is now Lily Tomlin’s downtrodden waitress, Doreen. Each of the stories used for the film are adapted so that the plots and characters overlap; Doreen appears in They’re Not Your Husband, in which she has enough to worry about with her sullen, controlling husband (Tom Waits in the film) without also nearly running over an 8-year-old boy.

Jack Lemmon as Paul; Andie MacDowell as Ann; Bruce Davison as Howard

The scene in the bakery, with which Carver begins the story, takes place in the film immediately after we’ve seen Tomlin hit Casey, and have her offer to take him home refused. Although we’re yet to absorb the full tragic implications of the accident, it’s a more heavy-handed use of dramatic irony as Ann and the baker discuss the cake. The terse exchange of the story is missing but a lot of this is necessary compression: we don’t need to be told the baker is going to feature again in the story – he’s Lyle Lovett and they’re not going to employ him just to tell someone that the cake will be ready by tomorrow.

The overlap between stories – when Casey ends up in hospital, Howard’s estranged father, played by Jack Lemmon, makes an appearance, while the compassionate veteran doctor from the story is turned into Matthew Modine’s younger and breezier Ralph, both characters drafted in from other Carver texts – is a game Altman regularly played with narrative and it’s also his comment on Carver’s stories.

Altman’s view of Carver’s stories is that they work as individual parts of one mosaic. He’s right but it’s also true that each fragment within this mosaic is a beautifully constructed piece with its own coherence and unity. A Small Good Thing is extraordinary in that it takes a scenario worthy of Greek tragedy, almost horror, and resolves it within the context of life going on and humans finding a way to cope.

The boy looked at them, but without any sign of recognition. Then his mouth opened, his eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.

Scotty’s death provides unbearable reading, that howl very much the stuff of horror, whereas Ann’s transmutation of this grief into rage at the baker, who has been making abusive phonecalls about the uncollected cake, could be that of Althaea, throwing the logs onto the fire that will end the lives of her brothers who killed her son.

Altman does justice to the sudden, shocking nature of the boy’s death and, in perhaps the one moment in her acting career when you could use “powerful” about her performance, Andie MacDowell’s confrontation with Lovett is every bit as powerful as in the text. Yet, by continuing to whisk this storyline up with the rest and by wrapping up the denouement of each narrative within a suitably random but nonetheless jarring LA earthquake, the stunningly human ending to A Small Good Thing falls away, the intensity going the same way as the brevity. With time to counsel us, we might wonder whether the meandering, multi-star vehicles Altman began piloting with The Player and this, might not have been indicative of an increasingly frothy and superficial sensibility, to contrast with the robust likes of Nashville or M*A*S*H.

Perhaps the match with Carver was not quite so perfect. It’s brilliant, at times, when Altman and actors as compelling as Lemmon, Tomlin, Waits, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins or Jennifer Jason Leigh manage to capture Carver’s way with suppressed emotion and unspoken anguish. And Altman used cinema to question cinematic storytelling so he was entitled to move beyond strict adaptation, even with a writer as fiercely cherished as Carver. It could be that a more jobbing, less distinctive film-maker might have presented the stories in more discrete, episodic segments and brought out more of the strengths of the writing. It’s difficult to think of a director of comparable stature who would have taken a more faithful approach to the stories – thinking about Terrence Malick’s ephemeral string of episodic memories in Tree Of Life or Woody Allen’s Woody-isation of Philip Roth in Deconstructing Harry – so Short Cuts remains a definitive moment in our appreciation of the cinematic incursions by the short story cabal.

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.

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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