Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2

Stay Up With Me

stay up with meI remember when short stories fell out of fashion. For a while there, from the mid-90s onwards, only the most established authors could risk a collection. But now, suddenly, they seem to be back, and I have just read two brilliant volumes in quick succession, with Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress still to come. I can remember that I agreed with the pervasive cultural judgement that a short story was less satisfying than a novel, and yet here I am, actively preferring the ones I’ve been reading to some of the full-length stories I’ve recently read. What’s going on?

Stay Up With Me, Tom Barbash’s debut collection was addictively compulsive. Just one more, I kept saying to myself, as shops closed, meals grew late and bedtime passed. Barbash has the gift of drawing the reader swiftly into his situations, where more often than not, some cherished certainty has just been rudely challenged. Divorced or widowed parents find new love, over-invested relationships fail, self-deception falls apart. It was always essential to know what happened next.

In the opening story, ‘The Break’, a mother is thrilled to have her college-age son home for the Christmas holidays, and then aghast when he begins a slightly clandestine relationship with a local waitress. She stalks him, insists the relationship end, loses it at one point and slaps the girlfriend and then, refusing to look her behaviour in the face, rustles up another girlfriend for him, a more appropriate one. There is so much packed into this with writerly slight of hand. How the mother can’t abide the thought of her son not wanting the things she wants for him, her unwitting projection of her own loneliness and neediness onto the waitress, her rather cunning manipulation of all concerned that runs dangerously close to showing her how badly she is acting out, and in the end, a hesitancy revealing both her hopes that her plans will come out as she wants and a fear that her son will see her behaviour for what it is. The perspective of the story inhabits the woman’s skin – we don’t know what she’ll do next, which creates the fascination, and yet we’re close enough to feel the contradictions in her behaviour, the way our best qualities and our most noble desires run so worryingly close to our worst choices and our most dangerous delusions.

In ‘January’, a teenaged boy is forced into a snowy expedition he does not want by his mother’s new and somewhat heavy-handed partner, a man determined to display his recklessness as a fun quality. The resultant disaster is just what the boy wants, and equally something he has to pay for in physical pain. In ‘Balloon Night’, Timkin decides to pretend his girlfriend hasn’t left him when their annual party takes place before the Macy’s parade. The resultant experience is one of joy that he can overcome disaster, and of constant fear that he may be found out. In one of my favourites, ‘Somebody’s Son’, a real estate con man who is something of a newbie and therefore not quite on board with his job, gets close to an elderly couple whose property he wants to buy for a song. He longs for them to get wind of the situation and keeps stealing small items from their house, displaying them openly in the hope they’ll wise up. But in the end, they shame him in unexpected ways with their impermeable goodness and kindness. The richness of the emotional experience is, in each of these cases and many more, extremely satisfying.

I loved the way that the stories reveal the strange onion-skinned nature of existence. The top layer of what Barbash’s characters think they’re doing, the image they cling to of themselves, is peeled away to show what they are actually doing, the emotions they are working so hard to conceal, and then a further layer remains – the unexpected outcome of their actions because the world always works in ways that are stubbornly mysterious to his characters, so intent are they on their fabled goals. One intriguing example of this is ‘Paris’ in which a journalist with a humanitarian taste for real suffering and disaster visits a poor town in upstate New York. The portrait he paints of it in his subsequent newspaper article as a town fraught with problems of poverty, alienation, addiction and anti-social behaviour is one he considers powerful and hard-hitting. When he’s called to a meeting in the town, he is amazed that the inhabitants are so upset by their representation. He meant it as a call to arms, a wake-up alarm to authorities and inhabitants alike – but was he right, or are the townspeople right to take offence?

I found most of these stories ended on an unresolved chord, a new situation on the point of opening up, for instance, or an unexpected twist that challenged all easy judgements. It was a clever kind of frustration. Though in some of the stories – the last one in particular, in which a young man who has recently lost his mother finds his father’s newfound womanizing hard to cope with – he shows how sometimes we need to go wrong, to suffer and ache and agonise – before we can go right. Ultimately, Barbash’s characters display the unexpected but oh so necessary elasticity of human emotions, the way we can hover near the brink and then snap back into a new version of ourselves. This was just another example of the emotional authenticity that kept me welded to this book until I’d finished it. One of those rare books that make me long to read it again.

 

And Now Something Completely Different

I am a lucky woman to have such good friends, real and virtual. One of the consequences of my last post was that I caught up with the man I like to call my academic son. He was my PhD student back in the day, and we had just the best time together. Anyway, he happened to mention that he’d recently read Attica Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season and loved it, having a taste for narratives with those Antebellum elements. Upon hearing which I said, ooh, I might just try to put you a list together of other novels you might enjoy, thinking amongst other things of Danielle’s fabulous Thursday Thirteen series.

Well, when I tried to come up with Antebellum stories, I did not do very well. Naturally I thought of:

gone with the wind1. Gone With The Wind, the classic by Margaret Mitchell.

And after some more thinking, I remembered – though have never read myself -

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I believe has a line of plot about a slave girl in the deep South? I know Butler best as a sci-fi writer, and quite how that fits in, goodness only knows.

midnight in the garden3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which is all voodoo and spirits and noirish murder elements, yes?

Finally, I remembered reading a few years ago

4. Palladio by Jonathan Dee, which was about a bunch of New York advertising executives on a mission to turn publicity into an art form. I’m pretty sure they end up basing themselves in an Antebellum mansion down south, which has interesting connotations. I remember it as a postmodern sort of novel with lots of metanarrative elements and I did enjoy it.

After that I drew a blank. I mean, I have heard of authors like Eudora Welty and Ellen Glasgow and Robert Penn Warren, aware they are deep South writers without knowing whether their novels contain that sort of plantation story.

So naturally, I turn to you wonderfully read people for further suggestions. Any good ideas I can pass on?

 

Various Fires

A couple of things today. First, the latest inbetweenie update of Shiny New Books is available at the site – a further 22 reviews and features. A few of my personal highlights:

The editors discuss the Booker longlist (which we enjoyed doing very much)

Max Dunbar’s wonderful review of Kevin Birmingham’s book about the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

When I was too poorly to read and review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Simon leapt Sir Galahad-like into the breach and took it on for me. He liked it but didn’t think it worthy of the prize longlist.

Reviews of books I absolutely have to read: Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, N. Quentin Woolf’s The Death of the Poet, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten, Angela Young’s The Dance of Love, Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

TheArsonistFor almost the past two months I’ve been hesitating over Sue Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, and whether I would review it here or in SNB. I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller and think she is wonderful on the complex networks of emotions that bind families and friends together. She has tremendous subtlety in her writing along with a fine-tuned understanding of the dramatic power of ordinary daily life. In short she does something I love: write about reality in a way that digs deep into the real. When I began The Arsonist, I was convinced it was going to end up on my best-of list for the year, but then the ending left me in all kinds of doubt.

The story begins when Frankie Rowley comes home to her parents in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire after fifteen years as an aid worker in Africa. She is burnt out from the frustrating work, and the strange combination of glamour and destitution she has experienced as someone who would do international good. She has also recently been through a bruising break-up, after the kind of intense but short-lived relationship she is normally skilled at resolving. Although she hasn’t yet told her parents, she isn’t sure she will ever go back.

Parents Sylvia and Alfie have their own troubles. They have recently retired and decided to live in what used to be the family holiday home, thinking that its rural location will be both soothing and energising. But Alfie is increasingly troubled by the early signs of dementia, and Sylvia finds herself in the undesirable position of carer in an isolated environment. Nearby, Frankie’s sister, Liz and her family, are building a holiday home of their own, and Liz is relieved to see Frankie back, feeling that impending responsibility for their parents has rested for too long on her shoulders. But Frankie feels herself shrinking away from family demands. Her relationship with Sylvia is awkward – ‘mothering wasn’t a gift of her mother’s’ – something Sylvia herself doesn’t deny when she realises how much she resents Alfie’s slow decline, and after the demands of Africa, Frankie instinctively veers away from more impossible calls for aid. Alfie, who has always been indulged, does not understand what a burden of care he has set in motion.

Anyway, the first night Frankie is back, she wakes with jet lag and decides to go for a walk. On her return, a car shoots past her and she believes she can smell smoke. It isn’t until the next morning that she learns a neighbouring property has been set on fire and burned to the ground. And it isn’t until several days later that she puts two and two together regarding the car and whom it might have contained. In the meantime, the fires continue steadily. An arsonist is at work, targeting the properties of the summer vacationers, and whilst it seems that care is being taken to choose ones that stand empty, it isn’t long before a mistake is made.

Frankie begins a new relationship with Bud Jacobs, owner of the local newspaper and another escapee from the grind of ambitious careers. He used to be a political journalist in Washington but decided to take on the challenge of local news instead. As the number of arson attacks mount and the residents become ever more alarmed for their safety, Bud searches for all possible angles from which to cover the fires. When he writes that an anonymous source from the state police suggested that ‘the divide between year-round and summer residents could offer a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes,’ he stirs up a hornets’ nest with this possibility of ‘class resentment’. It isn’t long before the summer residents are sending a petition to him, demanding more responsible reportage. The issue is hotter than the fires themselves.

So Sue Miller creates all kinds of provocative and fascinating oppositions in her novel: Will they track the arsonist down before someone’s life is lost? And what will the motivation for the crime be – personal or political? What will happen to Alfie as his condition deteriorates? Will Frankie choose the ‘ordinary’ life of small town America or the big picture of Africa? And what of her relationship with Bud – will that persuade her to stay? What of the dynamics in Frankie’s family – can they work together or will they be torn apart?

But once Frankie and Bud begin their affair, it seems to suck all the heat out of the rest of the story; the least interesting part of the narrative slowly starts to dominate. And much as I do not wish to give anything away, it’s fair to say that nothing is resolved, not any of the potentially enticing and thrilling storylines. You might of course say that Sue Miller remains resolutely true to life in making such choices. But at the same time, after all the lit fuses of the early part of the novel, it’s a letdown that there are no explosive conclusions.

I wondered whether Miller had so acutely put her finger on a series of powerful issues in America that she was unable to resolve them without coming down off her novelist’s fence. It would have been too risky to come out with the motivation for the arson as class resentment, too provocative to have Frankie choose outright for insular concerns over difficult international situations, too awkward to tackle the very real constraints to personal freedom that are posed by serious illnesses – both to those who suffer and those who must care for them. As I say, what I like most about Miller’s writing is how real she is. But she is also an insistently compassionate author; she has her characters admit to awkward, shameful failings and is careful always to grant them every sympathy. Perhaps she couldn’t, at any level, construct villains. But it does make for an uneven and inconclusive novel.