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?

Speaking of Love

speaking of love 2013 ftrgb (hi-res jpeg, cover large)Fairy tales feature a lot in Angela Young’s striking and sensitive novel, Speaking of Love and as I was reading them, I wondered why it was that the particular ‘voice’ of the tale should be so powerful. And it seemed to me that the fairy tale combines violent disaster with miraculous recovery in a way that suggests this is nothing more than the common unfolding of fate. Dreadful things happen so that lessons may be learned, but that’s just life going about its business. No need to make a fuss about it.

The fairy tales belong to Iris Marchwood who has come to a castle in Wales for a festival of storytelling. Weaving stories out of thin air has long been her practice, and she has had more violent disaster than most to turn into metaphor. The traumatic death of her mother and her father’s emotional unavailability left her a vulnerable adult, and the little happiness she had with the wild red-headed poet Kit, with whom she has a daughter, Vivie, was short-lived and followed by psychotic episodes. Vivie, only ten at the time, was left to deal with her mother as best she could, and in consequence has been deeply scarred by the experience.

Now Vivie’s adult life is a mess. She can’t hold down a job, her marriage is crumbling and she is terrified of seeing her mother. Disturbing mantras rule her mind, notably, the knowledge that ‘you had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides – or anyone else’s insides – might spill out.’ An insightful glimpse into the world of the child subject to emotional violence in their parents. The harder Vivie holds out against the confusing voices in her head, the closer to her own vortex of madness she stumbles. Will she turn into her mother after all?

The third hand in this narration belongs to Matthew who grew up next door to Vivie and who has loved her all his life without ever being able to tell her so. He is driving his elderly father from Thetford Forest, where he lives, to the storytelling event in Wales, and as they make the journey, father and son have their own pieces of the puzzle to add to the complex picture that is the mother and daughter’s relationship. In the four days of their cross-country odyssey, the past will come clear, the violence dissipate, and some miraculous recoveries seem suddenly possible.

This is a brave and beautiful book, fearlessly and compassionately charting the terrain of mental illness. Reading it made me realise how the responses of most people to emotional and mental disturbance in others grow out of the violence of fear – the fear of everything churned up, damaged and troubling that we all carry within. Those early responses to schizophrenic patients – lock them up, chain them down, wipe out their memories with ECT – are the physical counterparts of brutal feelings that demand the ugliness of ill health be kept out of sight of the normal people. For fear of what it might trigger in them, of course. ‘Because until you know you can hold your own centre of gravity in the face of another’s loss of it,’ Ruth, the gentle doctor says in the novel, ‘you may very well be overwhelmed… all over again.’

I think that’s why recovery still seems miraculous – it’s a miracle when people manage to find kindness, love and compassion, and yet these are the only tools that work against emotional darkness. The sadder a person is, the more troubled they are, the more love they need around them before they can face their own demons. In a world where some areas of health care are beginning to realise this, it’s a sorry state of affairs that for the most part we continue to meet almost all negative feelings – misery, self-pity, post-traumatic stress and madness – with contempt, ridicule, indifference and anger. Matthew’s father, Dick, calls Iris a ‘remarkable woman’, and he’s right to do so. Those who know mental health issues are forced to find extraordinary courage to deal with them.

There aren’t enough books about healing out there, and when they do come along, we have to be grateful if they’re as splendid as Speaking of Love. The use of fairy tales mixes here with a voice that is gentle and just and hopeful, taking us through any upsetting events in safety. There’s even a happy ending of the unfinished and open kind that those who don’t like happy endings might appreciate. This is a book that cares deeply for its characters, and it sees them through violent disaster and miraculous recovery with tender concern. It tells us that dreadful things happen, and all we need to combat them are time, love and stories. No need to make a fuss about it.

 

 

The Luminaries

You have to imagine a big chest in the corner of the attic, containing the inscription: Plot Fireworks: Handle With Care! And then you picture Eleanor Catton, that reckless smartie-pants, coming along with a fistful of lit matches, and dropping them inside.

The LuminariesWhat happens next is The Luminaries, the ‘Big Bang’ of plot, out of which a whole heaven and earth is created and shown to us in its entirely in a fierce 360 degree rotation of the sphere. The world in question is New Zealand in the 19th century gold rush, a place of prospectors and opium dens and shipping magnates and hastily built hotels and jails. A place just growing into its existence, and whose fledgling state shows us that the basic human inclinations are hope, greed and vice.

Into this world steps Walter Moody, a polite young man from Edinburgh, come to seek his fortune, who has been somewhat traumatised by a supernatural encounter on the barque Godspeed, a craft captained by a surly man with a scar on his cheek who signals himself straight off as our villain. Moody has sought refuge in the first hotel he could find and is hoping to steady himself with a calming brandy in the lounge. Only he happens by chance upon a gathering of twelve men, who have come together after realising their shared implication in a recent crime.

A hermit has been found dead in his shack; the town’s favourite whore has been discovered unconscious on the road, presumed to have attempted suicide; a fortune in smelted gold has turned up in the shack, marked as coming from a plot of land known to be worthless; two important shipping crates have gone missing; and the richest prospector in the town, a young man named Emery Staines, has disappeared. These are the elements of the crime, but what crime has actually been committed? How do these events all relate to one another? How do the twelve men, all of whom feel framed to some degree, prove their innocence and unravel the mystery?

A word before we go any further about crime fiction and literature. Genre fiction preserves the purity of the plot – so in romance girl meets boy, obstacles are encountered and solved to result in a happy ending with girl and boy aware of their love for one another. In crime fiction, a mystery is posed, chaos is unleashed, and then gradually the detective works to uncover ‘the truth’ in a moment of satisfying revelation which re-establishes order and safety.

The quality of the literary is to mess with these clear lines and their black and white conclusions, usually by adopting an unusual perspective on events, or by slowing what happens right down to allow the complexity of events to surface, or by challenging the assumptions that underline our sense of how things ‘should’ be, and how they ‘ought’ to come out. The Luminaries takes a particular literary approach to crime fiction by following the rules so excessively, so enormously, so neurotically, that they end up intriguingly bent out of shape.

So, a crime novel traditionally begins with an ending. The corpse represents the end of a story that has been happening in secret, invisible to the other people around. That story has to be pieced together so that we readers understand why it had to end the way it did. Okay, so far so good. The Luminaries begins by recreating the day of the crime in the most minute of detail. Each of the twelve men in the room will recount the story from his perpective (though the third person narrating voice actually tells all their stories in order to tidy them up a bit and give them coherence). And what we end up with is a huge, complex story that has, of course, spawned even more mysteries in the telling. Moody, who finds himself as the detective of the piece – the disinterested observer who can collate events into a neat order – sets about delivering the reader an extremely useful summary, midway through the novel, so that we now have the day of the crime clear in our minds.

But it’s not enough to reach anything like ‘the truth’. So in the good tradition of crime fiction, we move in two directions at once, forward as the implications of the crime are followed through, and backwards, as more information comes to light about how and why it was perpetrated. As we near the book’s conclusion, where everything should be clear and illuminated, the chapters themselves actually narrow down, galloping towards the end, as if focusing in on that last final revelation. Only when we reach the end, where we know everything there is to know, we have come full circle and are back at the beginning. But what does it all mean? It’s like a kind of pornography of plot has taken place: we’ve seen everything there is to see, and somehow along the way we’ve gone beyond the thing we really wanted to see. We’ve had so many revelations, we don’t know which one was the revelation, the one that held the key to the story. And yet we know what happened, and we end up with lovers united; it’s clearly a conclusion.

So all this is to say it’s terribly clever, and terribly tricksy, and the sort of book you really want to think about and discuss for ages. But at the same time it’s a rambunctious, rattling, plot-filled tall tale of a story, full of vivid characters and locations, enticing enigmas, blackmail, treachery, séances, shipwrecks, star-crossed lovers, thrilling courtroom scenes and much more besides. Rarely have I come across a book with so much energy! If we think of a plotline as a line cast by a fisherman zizzing out across the water, pure energetic potential, then imagine a narrative full of plotlines thrown out by each character, some forwards in time, some backwards into the past, and you have a three-dimensional cat’s cradle of a book humming with energy.

But what of the astrological dimension to the story? Each of those original twelve men in the lounge of the Crown hotel represents a star sign, and the charts at the start of each section show the constellation of the heavens on the day in question. What happens is predetermined by the stars (just as the plot of a novel is predetermined by its author). But this device which ought to remove all coincidence, all loose ends, collapses on itself when it comes to the Luminaries of the title. The sun and the moon are represented by the prospector, Emery Staines, and the whore, Anna Wetherall; they happen to be in love with each other and to be the ‘purest’ of the characters in the story. Yet their line of narrative is the craziest, a series of impossible and fantastic occurrences that resist all explanation beyond the most supernatural – or spiritual, if you’d rather. Love in the novel creates chaos that just cannot be tidied away by all those explanations, all those dovetailing witness statements, all the revelations and the secrets exposed. Of all the different energies in the novel, it is the fiercest, the most dazzling, and the most uncontrollable. I loved The Luminaries for all kinds of reasons – its audacity, its cleverness, its powerful storytelling, but I probably loved it most for having its heart in the right place.

How Not To Learn The Hard Way

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams' granddad

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams’ granddad

In the first half the twentieth century, a psychotherapist called Milton Erickson had a gift for teaching people in strange and unusual ways. All Erickson’s patients wanted to do was something supposedly quite normal – lose weight, make love, travel without fear, or develop a new skill – but it was as if some kind of enchantment held them hopelessly in place. Bewitched by fear or insecurity, they lived lives of confinement, until Erickson and his bizarre methods succeeded again and again in releasing them from their spell. His therapies often looked contentious, but what he did have was insight into the obstacles we like to erect in the path of the learning process.

Erickson knew all about being stuck. As a teenager he had nearly died from an attack of polio that left him paralysed and mute. Using body memories and an unfeasible amount of determination, he re-learned how to access his muscles and eventually regained control of his speech and his arms. Dissatisfied still that he could not use his legs, he decided to embark, alone, on a thousand-mile canoe trip, taking with him only a few dollars. He returned home able to walk with the help of a cane, the ordeal having taught him how to push himself beyond what he believed to be his physical, mental and emotional capacities. These experiences restored his body to him, but they also gave him much insight into the complicated process of getting people to learn things to which they have an inbuilt resistance. He knew that minds are bewitched by the magician’s sleight of hand and powerfully affected by the experience of an ordeal, and he made use of these different mental triggers in his therapeutic process with great cunning and invention.

He was particularly successful at treating sportsmen who were struggling to reach new levels of achievement. One of his case histories concerns a young American high school boy who won a gold medal at the Olympics under his tutelage. When Erickson first met Donald Lawrence, he had been practicing the shot put for a year and theoretically had everything going for him. He was six foot six, 260 pounds of pure muscle and trained by an ambitious coach. But he was still significantly short of attaining a national high school record. Erickson told him the story of how Roger Bannister found the right frame of mind to break the four-minute mile by recognizing that he only needed to shave a tenth of a second off the previous record. He said to Lawrence, ‘You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet. And Donald, tell me honestly, do you think you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?’

Over the next few sessions, Erickson would repeat this technique, lingering over the hard to conceptualise difference between fifty-eight and fifty-nine feet on an athletic field, or as he put it, enlarging the possibility for the young man. Two weeks later, Lawrence set a national high-school record.

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Having proven himself to be a magician, Erickson had the boy in the palm of his hand. A few months later, he came to Erickson for advice about the Olympics. ‘You are just an eighteen-year-old kid,’ Erickson told him. ‘It would be all right if you bring home the bronze medal.’ Which Lawrence promptly did. Four years later, Erickson advised him that it would be fine for him now to win gold. By the time he stopped working with him, Lawrence was throwing the shot put sixty-eight feet and ten inches, all on the basis of a potent cocktail of numerical confusion, self-belief and a dogged devotion to the magic of authority.

Erickson’s success was based on the recognition that the conscious mind has really very little say in what we actually end up doing. All those motivational talks, all that pumping oneself up, all that pleading and scolding that goes on inside our heads is so much white noise. What’s actually in control is a small, piggy part of the self, stubborn, well-defended and unwilling to budge. Erickson’s methods depended on implementing change by tiny, tiny increments. The natural inclination is to rush towards change, trying to attempt far too much in one go and ensuring failure.  Instead, he encouraged his patients to consider how to make a two percent change to their situation. It had to be something negligible, something almost ludicrous in order to evade all those internal censors, hell-bent on assuring continuity. For once a little change has been made, change itself became a more acceptable concept, and another step in the right direction would be much easier to undertake.

But aligned with this insight was Erickson’s covert use of authority. Authority is generally what most of us appeal to in order to get the piggy part moving. Do it, or else, is the classic default setting for action. But Erickson’s authority was benign when he worked with Lawrence. Erickson was known as a shrewd judge of character, quick to exploit a patient’s foibles, and when he saw the docile, hard-working Lawrence steered into his consulting rooms by a determined coach with his eye on high school glory, he must have recognized a personality that would readily and willingly submit.

A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation are undoubtedly motivating factors. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot too. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated. The young shot-putter belonged entirely to Erickson, as his faithful and loyal disciple. The sheer power of that belonging gave him the confidence to do whatever it was that Erickson said he could do.

For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us. It’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To have to move on from it, to undermine all we have learnt to master, to face challenges, new ordeals, opposing thoughts, well, it’s no wonder that it’s a ghastly, unnerving prospect for anyone.

Erickson showed how knowledge is not just an acquisition based on logic, but one fraught with emotion and the need for security. We become emotionally attached to what we think we know, and so the greater the change in our knowledge, the more emotionally challenging it feels.

This post is a sort of indirect response to two fantastic articles:  Laura Miller’s brilliant continuation of Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and perceived elitism (after another twitter storm over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in the Paris Review).