Riptides, Or What Makes A Good Short Story?

riptidesWhen, several weeks after I had expected this book to arrive, it was still missing, I emailed a friend who knew the publisher and could track it down. The response was that it was travelling to me by boat. Boat! From Canada to Cambridge! And when it finally arrived, the package certainly looked like it had been on one hell of a journey. It was bashed up on one corner, with rips in the brown paper, the ink of the address smudged and tearful. I wondered if it had been personally rowed to shore by some hardened old seasalt, nestled under a stinking tarpaulin while wild Atlantic storms tossed the craft like a cork circling a city gutter.

The book in question was Riptides, an award-winning collection of short stories from writers based on Prince Edward Island. Its dramatic arrival gave it a sort of subversive feel, as if the writers in question were lost in isolation, left to resort to a message in a bottle.

In fact, the introduction to the book suggests that the literary history of the region has been dominated by Lucy Maud Montgomery and her perennial childrens’ favourite, Anne of Green Gables. In subsequent eras, the island has produced a lot more poets than fiction writers, perhaps the editor says, because the islanders knew each other’s business too well, and writers feared that every character they created would be hijacked by someone in real life, convinced they had been plagiarised on the page. Anyway, this collection is offered as a way to showcase the up-and-coming talent in the region. And, it seems, to place some literary distance between contemporary writing and that commercially successful but twee and safe world of Lucy Maud. The island has been ‘transformed by the juggernaut of change’ the editor writes:

Where one might detect echoes of Avonlea, that resonance is often troubled by our era’s insistent ironies, scepticism, malaise, wryly or sardonically complicated longings and antipathies, comic bite, and plaintive vulnerability. Too, the transmutations of gender roles, marital and sexual relations, and class awareness transgress by a country mile the boundaries of Montgomery’s fiction and the idyllic and genteel heritage parameters of tourism promotions.’

All of which rather made me wish my book was still on its romantic-sounding journey to me, not laying bare its garbled agenda. Because I don’t know about you but I’m no fan of agendas. They usually mean violent emotions have been transformed by overthinking into something potentially self-righteous. In the urge to run for the hills away from anything charming or ‘quaint’ or comforting or cheerful, I feared I would be on the receiving end of a great deal of dirty realism.

The good news is that the introduction was by far the worst thing in the book. The stories themselves were generally very good and there were several real highlights. In ‘The Nothing’, Melissa Carroll’s wonderfully sarcastic narrator nearly loses her winning lottery ticket to the machinations of a scheming work colleague after an unfortunate accident with a printing machine. In Malcolm Murray’s ‘The Enlightenment Tour’, an elderly gentleman alone on an equally elderly bus tours lost outposts and turns a rip-off into a meditation of sorts. In ‘Watermelon’ by Beth Janzen, a young girl watches her family’s spotlight of attention shift away from her to an ill, overweight relative in a story of exquisite subtlety. And in what was perhaps my favourite, ‘At The Red Light’ by Bonnie Stewart, a chance encounter at traffic lights leads a woman to reflect back on a turbulent period in her life.

There was, in all honesty, a bit too much dirty realism for me. I get weary fast of stories about drug-takers, cancer sufferers and would-be suicides. Those topics seem too… easy, somehow, a swift, callous route to the reader’s nerve centre. But there were also plenty of stories that tried something intriguingly original, and these were ones I deeply appreciated, too. In ‘A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly’, Jeff Bursey creates a properly intriguing voice, with a narrator who has always clung tightly to the emotional coldness that keeps him superior, but who now finds himself helplessly adrift in an unaccountable crush on the actress Juliet Stevenson. And in ‘The Widows’ Dinner’ by Philip Macdonald, a group of elderly women sit down to eat a delicious lunch together, harboring unexpectedly sinister secrets.

With twenty-three stories ranging across all sorts of subject matter and voice, there probably is something for everyone in this collection, from the psychologically astute and chilling ‘Dust’ by Shirley Limbert, in which a young woman disassociates from her abusive relationship, to ‘Where The Wind Blows’ by Samantha Desjardins, a final carefree fling with quaint and charming, in which the narrator’s grandmother and her sewing circle finally finish the hot air balloon that will transport the diminutive grandma on a long-awaited journey of discovery.

In fact, by the end, I wondered why I shy away so often from short stories. At their best they are a remarkably satisfying genre. But then, the fashion for so long has been the short story as a slice of life, a glimpse into a startling situation, that can be powerful in its style, but also leave you wondering where the rest of the novel has gone. I’m going to come right out and say it – I much prefer short stories that are obviously complete within themselves. Where something happens, and a proper ending is reached, not some sort of trailing off or hanging loose. I want a short story to be, above all else, a story, just a compact one. But that’s just me, and given the range of short stories in this collection, there must be all sorts of different tastes. What makes a short story good for you?

Holiday!

Mr Litlove decided, quite at the last minute, to take a week’s holiday this week. We have an assortment of plans and half-plans and I’m not sure of our final program, but I will be absent from the blog for the week. Whatever else we do, I’ll be working my way through the last batch of reviews for our second edition of Shiny New Books. There’s going to be a new colour scheme, a brand new competition and masses of reviews of new books.

Before I go there’s a question I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on. I read a review a little while back that became very angry with a certain novel because of the way a secondary character was portrayed. This was a gay man (and the book was set back in the early 70s when homosexuality was not considered to be publicly acceptable) who behaved quite badly towards his wife; their relationship was complex in many ways, but he could at times be quite mean and unkind towards her and there was a sadistic element to their sexual relationship. There was also deep attachment between the two of them, even if that was not always healthy. Well, the reviewer said that such a portrait of homosexuality was not acceptable, that it ruined the book for her and that no one wanted to read such a thing in the 21st century.

So my question is two-fold. The first part a) is whether as a reader you find you can be completely put off a book by a relatively small part of it? The second b) is whether you feel writers should not portray once marginalised identities in a negative way? I’m most curious to know what people’s instinctive reaction is to these issues….

 

ETA: It occurred to me that it wasn’t fair not to mention where I stood on the questions. Although it doesn’t happen very often, I can be completely put off by a small thing. I remember reading a novel last year where the excessive repetition of the speech tag ‘whispered’ really irritated me, to the point where I could barely concentrate on the story. Then Mr Litlove read the same book and said he hadn’t noticed it at all. As to the other question, I don’t think special pleading is a very good idea; to my mind, equality is about treating everyone similarly, which is to say understanding that first and foremost we are all human and all human beings do good and bad things, and often behave badly when their vanity or safety is in some way threatened. Plus, in novels, I think paragons of virtue are boring and implausible. But this is not a fixed view and I’m more than open to hearing other sides of this particular argument. I’m very curious about it.

 

Blindness and Insight

raymond carver_cathedral_coverWhen I worked in Waterstone’s back in 1993, Raymond Carver was the man. I hadn’t even heard of him, but it wasn’t long before I realised he represented some pinnacle of writing to the people I worked with. A collected edition of his stories had recently been published and I bought a copy of it, though it was in fact many years before I actually started reading him. Short stories aren’t something I read very often. I did appreciate him, and all those blue-collar depressives he wrote about, self-consciously ordinary people on the run from their better natures. But I didn’t love him, not in the way I felt I ought to. One story, though, stuck out in my mind, awkward and yet fascinating. This was ‘Cathedral’, the story in which a man overcomes prejudice and experiences a moment of pure revelation.

Our unnamed narrator is waiting at home, anticipating a most unwelcome visitor. Long ago, before she married him, his wife became good friends with a blind man named Robert, who saw her through some difficult times with compassion and support. For a long time they have been corresponding by means of recorded tapes and this friendship and its unusual communication is clearly very important to her; ‘Next to writing a poem every year,’ our narrator tells us, ‘I think it was her chief means of recreation.’ But now Robert’s wife has died, and he is coming to pay a visit. ‘I don’t have any blind friends,’ the narrator whines to his wife. ‘You don’t have any friends,’ she retorts. She tells him a tender story about Robert’s marriage but the idea of being married to a blind man sparks a train of perjorative speculation in our narrator, who is made deeply uncomfortable by the thought of having to be in proximity to someone so mysteriously disabled.

Imagine a woman who could never see herself as she was seen in the eyes of her loved one,’ he ponders. ‘Someone who could wear makeup or not – what difference to him? She could, if she wanted, wear green eye-shadow around one eye, a straight pin in her nostril, yellow slacks and purple shoes, no matter.’

We can see he’s a guy who idealises a certain kind of normality, a man trying too hard for simplicity and ending up with emptiness, ringed by danger. He wants things to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but when that easy, dependable sight is out of the equation, what creeps in instead is chaos, the breakdown of civilisation represented in that mad Picasso-woman he imagines. While he tries to exert his own superiority in his prejudice against the blind, we only hear wilful ignorance and ugly anxiety, provoked by a stranger who threatens not to be exactly like him.

When Robert arrives, he is easy-going, friendly, happy to fit in with the couple and to appreciate any little thing that’s done for him. Together they share drinks and a meal and then a joint. For most of the evening Robert and the narrator’s wife talk, and when the talk slows, the narrator turns on the television in a gesture that’s pretty much an insult. But Robert is as unruffled as ever, content to learn through listening, as he puts it. When a program comes on about cathedrals, our narrator feels obliged to add a little commentary. Robert admits that he knows very little about cathedrals, and says he’d be grateful to have one described. Our narrator is once again bumping into his limits, lacking the words, let alone the intelligence, to make a decent attempt at it. So Robert asks for pen and paper and he asks the narrator to draw a cathedral for him, covering the narrator’s hand with his own and following the lines. After a while, completely engaged in the task, Robert tells the narrator to close his eyes and together they keep drawing. ‘It was like nothing else in my life up to now,’ the narrator confesses: ‘”It’s really something,” I said.’

So the point of the story is clever but obvious. The blind man is not the one who is physically blind. It’s our narrator who has to open his eyes metaphorically to all sorts of things he has been strenously keeping out – wonder, amazement, new experience, sensitivity, insight. That last one says it all: ‘insight’, the ability to see beyond the façade or to look inwards to the experience of a different but potent world. Though Robert may be blind, it’s clear he is open, aware, flexible, loving, engaged with everything around him. He manages to bring his would-be enemy to a point of unexpected revelation, and it’s important that whatever that revelation is, the narrator can’t describe it in ways the reader can see. This is how we know his internal paradigm has shifted.

I wonder whether we can’t take the analysis a little further, though. A literary critic called Paul de Man wrote a book of essays entitled Blindness and Insight. His argument was that blindness and insight are not an either/or, but an ‘and’. We cannot have one without the other. This argument came out of looking closely at various critical readings of books that seemed to select only certain points of a story to base an interpretation upon while ignoring others. This was considered a flaw, but Paul de Man suggested it was a necessity; to try to deal with the entirety of a story at once is too overwhelming and complex. His point was that you can only get an insight with the help of a little selective blindness. So to return to our story, perhaps it’s no coincidence that blind Robert seems to have uncanny powers of understanding and empathy. Nor that the narrator, who privileges sight in an excessive way, seems to know nothing and understand nothing and this quite willingly. He has to be made to slow down and focus in tight, to deprive himself of his cherished sight, in order to gain that special quality of insight.

Maybe this is a reason why so many writers – and Raymond Carver was exemplary here – hit the bottle as part and parcel of a writing life. Maybe they need to anaethetize some part of themselves, tune out the white noise of the world or the multiple voices inside their heads, in order to select the elements that make a story. Only alcohol, being such a blunt instrument, tunes out more than they bargained for.

First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.