The second five stories in Best British Short Stories 2016 seem to depend on an intertextual literary context, using works of literature or criticism to provide a framework for the stories or exploring stories in which characters live in a literary work or a literary world.
Ian Parkinson, "A Belgian Story"
What do you do when you are lonely? You write a story. What do you do when you are alone in Belgium? Well, you write a Belgian story, of course. And in this story, Belgium is a depressing place infested with a plague of rats with no Pied Piper to lure them away.
The narrator, who suffers from depression, meets a man who identifies himself as an English writer. The man has bought a pellet gun for the rats in his apartment and invites the narrator to join him in a little competition over who can kill the most rats.
At first the writer says what they are doing is like a scene in Graham Green's novel Heart of the Matter, in which two men pass the time by killing cockroaches for drinks. Then he says it is like Albert Camus's The Plague, in which rats spread a plague in an Algerian city.
When the writer returns to England, the narrator can find no evidence on the Internet of an English writer with the man's name, and he begins to wonder if he had invented him. He tells his readers that they should not treat the rats in the story as being "in any way symbolic," for that has not been his intention. Indeed, as the conclusion suggests, he seems to have had no intention, although this does not mean the story has no meaning.
When he is told by immigration officers that they have lost his papers and that he will have to do them all over again to be able to leave Belgium, he buys paper for the dozens of letters he knows he will have to write, and the story ends this way: "And so started this Belgian story, on nothing more than a whim, beginning on the night I met the English novelist in an empty bar… and leading I don't know where." Thus, the story ends the way all stories end—with the beginning of the story—a story that seeks to make a story out of a basic situation of infestation and a basic sense of isolation.
DJ Taylor, "Some Versions of Pastoral"
This is a story about trying to live in a literary world--with contextual references to Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," and William Empson's critical study, Some Versions of Pastoral, which expands the definition of the form.
The plot of the story, which is less important than the literary context the story creates, involves a couple's visit to an elderly couple named the Underwoods. We know we have entered a literary world, albeit a juvenile one, in the first paragraph when the narrator says to negotiate the Underwoods' garden is to "pass through the pages of a children's picture book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay."
When the visiting husband goes with Mrs. Underwood into the kitchen for tea, "the thought of being in a Beatrix Potter story where Johnny Town Mouse might soon appear at the window with his tail twirled over his top-coated arm was rather too strong for comfort." When he sees an empty bird cage with gilded bars and open door, he thinks there is something horribly symbolic about it. When Mrs. Underwood takes the tea things back in the kitchen, she makes curiously jerky movements "like some marionette whose strings were twisted from on high."
The central symbolic event in the story is a dual or mirror event, for just as the husband breaks a china cup in the kitchen—a cup Mrs. Underwood has said is Lytton Strachey's cup—Mr. Underwood and the wife break another tea cup out in the garden.
On the ride home, the wife tells her husband that Mr. Underwood had asked her if she would come and live with him and be his love and that she pushed him away, causing the tea cup to shatter. When the wife tells her husband that someone once told her that Mrs. Underwood had once had an affair with the poet Philip Larkin, the husband imagines the old woman sitting in a restaurant with Larkin—a scene that he thinks "had a tuppence-colored air of unreality."
The husband thinks that somewhere in the world there "lurked an art which you could set against the armies of commerce and bureaucracy to lay them waste," but it was not to be found in the Underwoods' garden. And so they go back home to a world where "nobody, whether in jest or earnest, asked anyone to live with them and be their love." A melancholy acceptance of reality.
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steep mountain yields.
Colette Sensier, "Mrs. Świȩtokrzyskie's Castle"
This is a story about living in an alternate reality that becomes more real than the ordinary physical world. It is less about an old woman getting cheated into spending all her money on a computer game than it is about what it means to live in an alternate world.
This is a plot-based story, which accounts for it being one of the longer stories in the collection. The length is inevitable since the story is actually two parallel stories—the so-called "real life" story of Mrs. Świȩtokrzyskie, the man she is involved with, and her two adult children, and the fantasy story she lives within the computer game—a world that, because it is an objectification of her dreams, is more "real" (whatever that means) than the world of everyday reality, in which—like all of us—she is dying.
Neil Campbell, "A Leg to Stand On"
At some point in a collection of British short stories you might expect a story about how creative writing programs in academic departments are bollocks. This is that story. The segue is a dialogue about football players who get injured in play and then write books about the experience. The phrase of the title suggests a situation in which the argument presented has no real support. Two British football players who get an injured leg—Paul Lake and Colin Bell— literally end up with not a leg to stand on.
Some of the rather predictable observations of the writers in the story are: "It seems the work can't just stand for itself any more. You have to be able to explain it." "That's why academics can't write fiction. They analyse it too much; they can't free themselves up or let themselves go." "We know that a lot of creative writing in academia is bollocks."
The story is a sort of dialogue between two points of view about writing—neither of which seem to have a leg to stand on. Anyone in any graduate program in literature or creative writing in the U.S. or England knows about the tacit, sometimes open, conflict between the two programs.
Alex Preston, "Wyndham Le Strange Buys the School"
This is a lyrical story of four veterans of WWI, damaged by the war, who come together at the school they once attended. It is the lyricism of the story that makes it work. The key phrase repeated throughout is "as if," for the men live in an "as if" world of fictional reality at the school.
The narrator says he feels life seeping back into his bones at the school, that life is slowly, hesitantly, crawling out from under the rock of the war. "It is as if we have entered some sacred grove whose nepenthe an air has overthrown all the ills of the young century, and we are back were we began."
The narrator finds a copy of Chekhov's stories and reads them aloud. "The stories unknit something in us, and in the depths of them we find parts of ourselves that we feared lost forever." When he reads "The Lady with the Little Dog" to the men, they seem to be rendered almost invisible by the brightness of the light, as if they are made of air or the light.
One by one, the men begin to awaken from some terrible dream to "feel the firmness of the living world," and one by one they begin to leave. When only the narrator is left, he realizes that he needed this retreat even more than the others--"a haunt away from a world that carries on as if the war never happened."
Of these five stories, this is my favorite. But then how could a lover of the short story like me resist a lyrical story that uses stories to mend the lives of broken men—especially the stories of Chekhov?