Saturday, June 23, 2012

Frank O'Connor Award Shortlist: 2012--Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference

Sarah Hall, The Beautiful Indifference, Faber and Faber

In an interview article ( last November, Sarah Hall, author of four well-received novels, talked about her first collection of short stories, Beautiful Indifference, the short story in general, and the debate that year in England over the Booker Prize emphasizing “readable” fiction:  “When did this country become afraid of excellence and of the avant-garde?” Hall asked.  “There’s this anxiety about not wanting to be too good, a worry about appearing classist.  There’s this assumption that people want a diet of hamburger literature.  But I think they want brilliant literature.”

The short story genre is often at the center of this argument over whether prize-worthy fiction should be accessible to a wide range of readers or whether it should be stylistically and thematically demanding and complex.  In my last post on Fiona Kidman’s shortlisted collection The Trouble with Fire, I tried to show that her stories were indeed “readable”--examples of what O’Connor would have called “novelistic” or “applied storytelling,” just not “artistic,” i.e. emphasizing style, tone, and compact complexity, as O’Connor claimed the short story should be.  I heard an echo of this emphasis on form over content today when, by sad serendipity, I was reading the obituary of famed film critic Andrew Sarris, who introduced the auteur theory to American film criticism.  Sarris said:  “The art of the cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture.  It is not so much what as how.”

In her first collection of short stories—and she promises not her last—Hall has compared working on these stories to working on poetry: “There’s a formalism to it that’s quite similar, and a discipline to it, and I’ve really enjoyed going back to that—so I can see myself not leaving it too long before working on a another collection.”  When asked if she felt the novel was the form in which she was most comfortable, she replied: “I would have said that until a year ago, but I’ve been feeling that the quality of the stories has been really improving.  Once you figure out what you’re doing with the form, that’s really satisfying. Obviously, I’ve written four novels…so if you look at it objectively from the outside, probably yes, I’m a novelist.  But it’s not a flirtation with short stories, that’s for sure.” 

The British reviewers reacted very positively when Beautiful Indifference came out last fall.  Here are some typical suggestive sound bites:  dazzling sensuality,” “bewitching delicacy and skill,” “dark atmospheric and moving tales,” “mesmeric and stimulating,” “full of sensuous power,” “luscious short stories,” “beautifully poetic,” “erotic charge,” “perceptive observations strike like slaps,” “raw,” “guttural and visceral,” “bewitchingly vivid prose,” “heartbreaking,”  “disturbing, exquisitely crafted collection,” “reaches a standard that makes award juries sit up and take notice.”

Well, obviously the jury of the Frank O’Connor Award this year has sat up and taken notice.  But does this small book of seven poetic stories have the heft to dislodge the other heavy weights on this list?  Fiona Kidman’s 370-page doorstop of a book could swallow this delicate little morsel in one gulp, although Dame Kidman might find the dish a bit too spicy.

The real question about Sarah Hall’s Beautiful Indifference is whether the readers and judges can transcend the sexual subject matter of many of these stories and the glamorous promotional photo inside the back cover and pay attention to the carefully wrought style of the stories. The real focus of these stories is not sex, but sentences.

Hall has said in an interview that lots of people claim that she does not write like a woman, but like a man because, as Hall opines, there is a visceral quality to her work, as if women are not supposed to write about blood and guts. And indeed, there is much blood and not a little guts in these stories, beginning with the aptly titled,  “Butcher’s Perfume,” about a gypsy family of dog and horse breeders, described by a young woman who has become friends with the tough talking and tough brawling daughter, Manda Slessor, who, like her parents and her three brothers, is “all gristle to the bone.” Butcher’s perfume” is the sickly sweet smell of blood and raw flesh; I smelled it when my grandfather butchered a hog every autumn. After a sharp blow to the forehead with a short handled sledge, he quickly, with one clean movement, slashed the throat so the blood could be caught in buckets held close by. 

The story takes place in Cumbria where the young narrator senses a brutal past--the primitive world of Heathcliff after the death of Cathy: “This was where the raiders met, coming south or north. This was burnt-farm and hacked throats, where roofs were oiled and fired and haylofts were used to kipper children.  And if you rolled down the window you could just about hear it—the alarms and crackling flames, women split open and screaming as their men folk choked on sinew pushed down their gullets.” 

Also adding to the story’s sense of the primitive is Hall’s use of Cumbrian phrases and street slang, e.g. “The lad would chunter on about watching the footie.”  (Low inarticulate talk about football).  The father calls his son a ”gudfernobbut twat.” In its combination of brutality and slang language, the story echoes A Clockwork Orange.

The Slessors are even-weighted and indestructible, says the narrator--paired by “feral instinct, like wolves among us.” The wife Vivian, a tough superstitious woman, rules over “a household of managed tension.”  Although the husband Geordie is coarse and brutal, if he had hit his wife, “She would have taken those fists into her soft flesh, and even worn his black temper on her face in public for a while.  Then in the night she would slit him wide open, balls to bellybutton.”

The story comes to a climax when the narrator, passes the barn of a “rare bastard” and sees a horse in terrible shape: “Its ribcage angled up through its flesh like the frame of a boat being dismantled…its hooves had twisted into thick discoloured spirals, like the nails of a Chinese emperor…. It was something from a middle-forest fairytale, where the dark branches lift and in a clearing is Knife-Hand Nick, his children’s heads bubbling in a pot above the fire.” If this is the world of gruesome fairy tale, it is also the grotesque world of Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came:”

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair

  In leprosy; thin dry blades prick’d the mud

  Which underneath look’d kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,

Stood stupefied, however he came there:

  Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!

Alive? he might be dead for aught I know,

  With that red, gaunt and collop’d neck a-strain,
  And shut eyes underneath the rusty mane;

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;

I never saw a brute I hated so;

  He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

When the narrator shows the brutalized horse to one of the Slessor brothers, he tells her to mind her own business, but she later finds out from Manda that the brothers strung up the owner by his feet and “cut the bastard with a riding crop right through to the putty in his spine.”  He was not expected to walk again. 

Although the story is told in graphic brutal detail by an innocent young woman, about a vicious fairytale family, the language transcends the beastly and becomes fabulistic e and legendary, creating a world where there is justice, even if there is no civilized society.  If you think this is all just brutal behavior, then you are not listening to the rhythm of Hall’s prose.

The title story, “Beautiful Indifference” introduces a typical Hall female character, an entrapped woman--in this case, a writer waiting for her lover in a hotel room. However, she insists she dislikes books. “Something in the act itself, the immersion, the seclusion, was disturbing.  Reading was an affirmation of being alone, of been separate, trapped.  Books were like oubliettes.”

When her lover arrives, he tells her he wants her all the time. “I want to break you.  It’s a sickness.”  She laughs and calls him a sadist.  In this and other stories, Hall suggests that the basic nature of sexuality is sado/masochistic, motivated by the twin desires to destroy the other or be destroyed: ”Whenever he came inside it her it stung.  Towards the end of their time together he would gauge how sore she was.  He knew the difference between pleasure and discomfort, though the two were so closely aligned.” 

We get clues that the woman is ill, perhaps dying; she takes pills and begins to bleed. When she buys three packets of painkillers from three different pharmacies and drives out into the bracken, we suspect she has decided on a way to escape her sense of hopeless entrapment.  The story ends with a reference back to her dislike of the entrapment of books: “The hills were around her.  She took up her purse, opened the car door, and stepped into them.  It was like opening a book.”

In “Bees,” another trapped woman has left the country and moved to London, only to find dead bees littering her small garden:  “Black-capped, like aristocrats at a funeral, their antennae folded, with mortuary formality, across their eyes.”  She is not yet free from a relationship with a man she has left for his infidelity and harshness:  “The tenderness at the back of your throat from choking on him, being forced to.  You bore it, until you couldn’t bear it any more.”  At the end of the story, she sees “a rust-red, blaze-red fox” in her garden.   “It’s as if the creature has been stoked up from the surroundings, its fur like a furnace, eyes sparkling.”  After crouching for a moment, it springs on its back legs.  The jaws open and snap shut, and as it lands it shakes its red head furiously.”  The fox is not the cause of the dead bees, but is rather a Lawrentian emblem of dangerous, predatory sexuality.  

“The Agency” is about a woman who feels “as if love had become scentless, bloodless, it had somehow lost its vitality.” A friend recommends she make an appointment with a group referred to only as “the agency.”  On the drive her appointment, she pictures herself caught by a strong gust and losing control of the car:  “I imagined them finding me, hanging inside a cage of crumpled metal, slacknecked and bleeding over the dark red suit.”  This is a typical image in Hall’s stories.  In “The Beautiful Indifference,” as the woman drives to the heath to take an overdose of pills, she imagines people finding her body in the lowlands.

Hall refuses to tell us anything about what kind of service the agency performs for the woman, but we do get a few flirtatious clues.  For example, among the terms she is asked to choose on a questionnaire are: “film, restraints, doll, defecation.” When she gets home and takes off her clothes, there is a run or ladder in one of her stockings and a bruise spreading under her hipbone.  She recalls:  “He had asked for a phrase, to stop everything, and I had given John’s mother’s name, Alexandra, but it had not been used.”  These are all conventions of s/m.  And s/m, as all sex experts know, is a dramatic performance in which the so-called sadist must follow the script of the so-called masochist. The woman knows that the Agency had been conceived by a woman.  The rooms, the tidy gatekeeper, the subtle game; it all belonged to a woman.” 

In “She Murdered Mortal He, a woman has a spate with her lover and goes alone for a walk through the African jungle to get her bearings.  The story is an experiment in narrative suspense, as she becomes prey to the primitive forces outside her: “Her flesh felt exposed.  She was all meat, all scent.”
“The Nightlong River,” which focuses on a mink hunt, opens with description of November berries that “hung and clotted in the bushes, ripe and red, like blisters of blood.”  The ground that won’t halfway thaw until spring, is “like a clod of beef brought from the pantry and moved from cold room to cold room.”

To keep these shortlisted stories in perspective with the writer who gives his name to the Award, Frank O’Connor reminds us that the pure storytelling of the short story is more artistic than the applied storytelling of the novel, adding, “in storytelling I am not sure how much art is preferable to nature.” In spite of all the blood and guts and sex and sensuality in the stories of Sarah Hall, there is much more art than nature.

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