I am sometimes accused of "spoiling" stories by writing about them in some detail before readers have a chance to read them, thus "giving away" the details of the narrative, especially the ending.
However, it has always been my opinion that the primary pleasure one gets from reading short stories is not finding out what happens next, but rather discovering how the story works as a whole and what that whole means.
What I hope to do in these brief comments on the twenty-one stories in Best British Short Stories 2016, (I thank Nicholas Royle for selecting and assembling them.), is explain what I think makes these stories the stories they are—which is to say, how they are unified and what they mean. The first five stories in the collection focus on the challenge to maintain the integrity of the self and yet empathize and identify with the other.
Leone Ross, "The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant"
Good short stories, I think, are always mysteriously about some universal human mystery. And one of the most complex human mysteries that gives rise to story--that indeed seems to insist upon story--is love.
Understanding and appreciating Leone Ross's "The Woman Who Lived in a Restaurant" requires reading it as a love story.
Ross's story begins with a variation of the "a man walks into a bar" opening joke line. Ross's woman walks into a restaurant, and, as in true of most characters in love stories, does something totally unreasonable: The woman walks into a restaurant and "stays there forever."
Because this line prepares us for a kind of reality that is not like everyday phenomenal reality but rather the reality of desire or fantasy actualized, we are not surprised that the waiters are like puppets and the maître d' and chef have fat bellies like caricatures of their roles.
One of the primary elements of love that the story explores is that love is an act of the imagination, a projection that has little to do with an objective evaluation of the loved one. For example, a young male waiter comes into the toilet and sees the woman masturbating, and she has an orgasm that makes the waiter realize he has never made a woman orgasm before. The chef, whom the woman loves, knows he can love also, for he loves the restaurant. When the waiter is puzzled that the woman is willing to sit in the restaurant for years, the maître d' says he understands nothing and should wait for the rest of the story.
And the rest of the story is inevitable for love stories. There is no way that what the woman and the chef want can be fulfilled. Every night he wants her and every day she wants him, and it is that very wanting—not the possible fulfillment of the wanting—that sustains their love. When the chef and the woman age and die, her body becomes part of the restaurant. To be at one with that which one loves is the ultimate unachievable goal of all lovers. Because they can never fulfill it, they must inevitably die of the very longing that sustains them.
Robert Sheppard, "Arrivals"
Of course, one of the primal mysteries—a mystery that all children sooner or later ask about—is "where do babies come from?" Some of the old fairy-tale explanations—that they are brought by a stork or found under a rock—are not as fantastic as the actual process itself. "He puts what in where?" "It comes out from where?" "It grows where?" "Can that be really true?"
And even when one is an adult and is fortunate enough to be present when the arrival takes place—either because she must be there or because he has been invited—is the process not so remarkable that it defies belief?
And this mystery, it seems to me, is what Robert Sheppard's little story is about—as a woman ponders all the many possibilities of the arrival of something that exceeds the imagination's ability to contain it, and thus the story ends with the woman thinking that all those who have dared to think of themselves as parents in waiting "blubber on each other's shoulders, bereft, it's true, but still harbouring unfathomable depths of something we cannot give a name to."
Mark Valentine, "Vain Shadows Flee"
The first sentence of this story introduces the central character—a homeless man-- and the central thematic motif—the hymn "Abide With Me": "He was called Old Bide-y because he sang 'Abide With Me' all the time."
The homeless man is described as a combination of the spiritual and the physical: his head has a sheen like a fallen halo; his beard is like a great hank of pipe tobacco, and his nose resembles a purple toad.
The central narrative drive of the story is the question: what is Bide-y's story, for he must have a story. People want to know how he got to be like he is, what he did before, and why he sings the hymn. However, it is the mystery of who he is that is important—not what make him who he is—as if that ever solved any human mystery.
The hymn is, of course, the primary context for the mystery of Bide-y, for he tells the narrator of going to pay homage at Berry Head in Devon where the author of the hymn, Henry Lyte, once lived and pastored a church. He also tells the story of Lyte's death from TB.
The narrator's stake in the story is his own loneliness, which makes it possible for him to empathize with the homeless man. He is interested in Bide-y's interest in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, although there is no indication that the homeless man actually reads Hobbes' tome on the social contract, but rather that the book is a metaphor of an ideal that exists only in the imagination.
The questions the narrator asks Bide-y derive from lines of the song, and Bide-y's homelessness and loneliness seem to be an ironic comments on Hobbes' vision of the social contract. The narrator sees the Hobbesian vision as a composite of grotesque leering faces--more like a mob than a body politic.
When Bide-y simply disappears, the narrator reminds us that such stories as this usually end with various possibilities, but no real answers—that Bide-y went back to Devon and was received into a loving family, or that he was really a retired sailor and that he returned to that community, or that his body was found and the town gave him a solemn funeral, or that one day the reader might hear him singing the hymn in the distance and run toward the voice--only to find it always beyond one's reach.
The narrator ends his story of trying to know the story of Bide-y by saying he does not know what happened to Bide-y; he just disappeared, "fled, like the vain shadows of the song. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. So often is. We don't live in a story, any of us, only a sentence."
"Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Jessie Greengrass, "The Politics of Minor Resistance"
Some stories come into being from the author's exploration of the implications of a familiar human experience or phenomenon. In this story, a woman who works for an outsourcing company that does telesupport or telesales for other companies, tells her story. She answers the phone in a large warehouse with many other phone operators and then reads a script in response to the question a customer poses and appropriate to the company using the service.
The story is a brief exploration of what might happen to the mind of one who tries to maintain her humanness even as she is compelled to become a robotic response.
She has learned, she says, to "decouple" a part of her brain while she works. She is not required to understand, only to be a kind of Chinese room, "an unthinking algorithm between input and output." This reference to John Searle's experiment to deny intelligence to a computer is then followed up by the woman's reference to the freewheeling part of her brain as being like a "whimsical ghost in the machine," as envisioned by Gilbert Ryle's description of Descartes's mind-body dualism.
Although the woman says she is unable to deviate from the set script, she sometimes alters her voice on those occasions when her awareness of her existence in the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves and she feels he must suffocate, as gaps between one second and another stretch out like a desert or the ocean. Sometimes she tries to sound like an old-fashioned Hollywood starlet and makes every word sound like an erotic invitation, even though all she is saying are lines from her script, such as "Have you tried turning it off at the wall?"
Trevor Fevin, "Walsingham"
The mystery in this story is the mind of Laura, who seems to be "distanced from reality," and who has been physically abused by the woman she lives with. She comes to the narrator and asks her to walk to Walsingham with her, for an inner voice has told her that she will find healing there, but that they must walk the entire way. (Walsingham is a village in Norfolk, famed for its religious shrines in honor of the Virgin Mary, and well known as a major pilgrimage destination.)
Certain omens occur on the journey, as when a crow flies at Laura's head and tears out a bit of flesh with its beak. Laura tells the narrator she recalls life in her mother's womb and being told after her birth that she was going to have a bumpy road with plenty of suffering. She says as soon as she was born, she knew that "daylight has a false gleam about it" and that you cannot trust anything in the world." She says the Madonna told her she is the "child of yellow laughter."
She says that she was an easy victim to the woman she lived with because she was abused by a priest when she was a child, and that she thinks her mother was in on it and was paid money by the priest.
When they reach Walsingham, Laura says she had a strange dream of the wind tearing up trees and people screaming like banshees. The narrator says she also had a dream in which she saw a great number of swans in the sky and heard a voice whisper, "See, they measure the infinite mile to a joyous new dawn."
At the center of town they find the Anglican shrine, and entering it is like "walking into an altered gravitational field, such an unexpected silence you felt it could shatter a universe." The narrator says shocking new knowledge rushes at her so fast she cannot comprehend it. She leaves the church and later when Laura comes out and talks with a gardener, who seems to know who she is, the narrator hears a voice saying "Look up, look at the sky. "But she says she would never look, would only turn away, "fully conscious of the misery I was choosing for myself. I had, in fact, already begun the long, long journey home."
Since the trip to Walsingham is a religious pilgrimage, it may be that the mysterious gardener is the gardener we observe in Kipling's famous story of that name--who appears to Mary Magdalene when she returns to the tomb and finds it empty..Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence