Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hilary Mantel's "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher"

Hilary Mantel must be chortling in her chops now that the BBC has decided to broadcast her story "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" on its Book at Bedtime show in January.  The Tories are saying that it is a purposeful attack on them by the Left-wing biased BBC, "a sick book from a sick mind" says former Cabinet minister Lord Tebbit, whose wife was paralyzed when the IRA tried to murder Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing.
I read the book that includes that purposely-provoking story when it first came out a few months ago and decided to say nothing about it on this blog, for I found practically all of the stories trivial and lazy and of interest only because Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her highly praised historical novels about Cromwell.
One might wonder what she would do with the short story genre.
Not much, it seems to me.
Then I read the reviews and saw the book had been placed on the "Best" list of several publications and decided that perhaps it deserved another look.
Not so. my initial judgment did not change: the stories seemed mostly self-promotions, calculated to  sell the book not because of its worth, but because of Mantel's reputation and her mean-spiritedness.
 It is hard not to be harsh with Mantel since she is so well-known for being mean to others.  Not only as she boasted in public about her own fantasies to assassinate Thatcher, whom she admits she loathed, she also got a lot of attention a few months ago by attacking the future Queen, calling the Duchess "a machine-made princess, designed by committee," a "shop-window mannequin" with a "plastic smile."
With a title story (that originally appeared first in The Guardian and The New York Times Book Review) that describes a woman's sympathetic support of an IRA gunman who invades her apartment in order to shoot Margaret Thatcher, I suspected that reviews of the book might reflect the political leaning—left or right—of either the newspaper or the reviewer.  It is also difficult to know whether reviewers might be merely influenced by Mantel's work in the genre of Historical novel, or who are swayed by the fact that she is the only woman who has ever won the Man Booker twice. I don't know.
The only two reviews that struck me as interesting is the one by displaced British writer James Lasdun in The Guardian and another by Stanford professor Terry Castle in The New York Times Book Review--and not just because these two papers originally published the story.
Lasdun, himself a fine short-story writer, whose work I have discussed on this blog, opens his Guardian piece with the following paragraph, with which I agree so fully I could have written it myself. In fact, I have written it in various places over the years:
Short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians. Their brevity invites us to engage with them as formal structures in a way that novels generally don't. We judge them as artefacts even as we consume them as narrative, and consciously or not, we demand all kinds of contradictory things from them. We want them to feel inventive but uncontrived, lifelike but extraordinary, surprising but inevitable, illuminating but mysterious, resolved but open-ended. It's a tall order, as anyone who has tried to write one will know.
It's interesting that the one story in the collection that Lasdun calls "easily the best in the book" was originally published as a memoir. "Sorry to Disturb" recounts a Mantel experience of being somewhat "stalked" by a Pakistani businessman while living in Saudi Arabia during the 80's. Lasdun calls it a "comedy of cross cultural sexual politics" and says it fulfills all the criteria for a short story that he listed in his opening paragraph.
And, yes, there is some of the mystery of motivation in the story that we associate with great short stories.  The narrator's admission that after the events occurred it was difficult to grasp what had happened, Lasdun says is part of the story's power—"the sense that for all her vivid analyses and articulations of her own behaviour, she remains a little baffling even to herself." Perhaps it was Mantel's personal involvement in this experience that makes it the only effective story in the collection. 
Lasdun is not so fond of the title story, which he dubs "jeerleading." Other stories, such as "Comma," "Winter Break," and "The Heart Fails Without Warning," he quite rightly, in my opinion, sees as trivial, plot-based stories of the grotesque. His conclusion: "four or five flawed successes and interesting failures; one knockout."
Terry Castle, professor of literature at Stanford, and author/editor of The Apparitional Lesbian, Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, and the Literature of Lesbianism, calls Mantel a "master storyteller," and compares her to Edgar Allan Poe at his best in "Fall of the House of Usher." Castle puts Mantel in a long lineage of British female story-telling from Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield through Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O'Brien, Muriel Spark, and Zadie Smith. (One gets the feeling Castle is not talking so much about Mantel the short-story writer as she is Mantel the historical novelist, for she is rather careful to give only a cursory glance at the stories contained in Mantel's collection, being content to generalize about Mantel herself.
Castle concludes, "Mantel is such a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer that part of what one's praise must mean is that if you're intelligent and quirky enough to take the book up at all—and anyone reading to this point most likely will be—she's got quirks enough of her own to match you, if not raise you 10."
Well, I am glad that Castle thinks she is intelligent and quirky enough to admire this book. I reckon I am just not intelligent enough or quirky enough, to appreciate Mantel's adolescent game-playing with disfigurement, birth defects, attempted assassination, and rants about poor hotel accommodations.  Not to mention, just plain sloppy, rough draft writing.
More like very poor "Twilight Zone" than Edgar Allan Poe.
Not worth my time. Not worth yours. Unless you are just bound and determined to reward nastiness and condescension and shameless exploitation of one's own fame. The short story deserves better. Mantel is certainly no "master" of the form.

Although some Mantel admirers may find this blog a bit of  a bashing, I assure you that it is nowhere near the nastiness that Hilary Mantel is guilty of.


ledlowe guthrie said...

Oh my word! Harsh indeed. And rather amusing. Hilary Mantel is so revered in England, I can't imagine anyone writing anything like this in the press. However there does seem to be a trend at the moment where rather than looking at fairly unknown ( or even well known) short story writers, publishing houses/festivals/literary venues are commissioning novelists to write a short story. As if they have no awareness that they are totally different beasts.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Another thought-provoking post!
With Hilary Mantel, it does seem to be a case of 'Celebrity Rules'. Not a good way for interested readers to find short stories worth their time and effort...

Anonymous said...

I toyed with reading this collection due to all of the publicity. I've read only one of Mantel's novels, something about love in the title, it wasn't historical fiction. I liked it, even admired it, but I've not read any of her historical fiction.

To me, there just isn't all that much of a line between pretending to kill someone famous and using the life of someone famous, like Cromwell, for your plot. They are both essentially fantasy at their core and should be treated as such.