Friday, August 19, 2016

Part 3: Best British Short Stories 2016


John Saul, "Song of the River"
Two women, no longer in their twenties, move in together in a  place near the Thames in a section of London. It is spring and cow parsley, or Queen Anne's lace, is growing everywhere.  As the title suggests, the story is a short piece of music that depends less on the "story" of  the two women going down to the river to wait for the racing shells to come by than the rhythmic repetition of several motifs that compose the song this story is: an escaped monkey that Molly imagines finding and taking in; the lightness of Molly's beach chairs vs. the heaviness of Susan's piano; Susan's playing river tunes on the piano; Molly's attempt to get over a relationship with an older man; the pervasive cow parsley;  and the "word thing," suggesting that Molly's ex-lover uses words, "words added to things everywhere," to point out her shortcomings; and finally, the women seeing the ex-lover as the chittering escaped monkey, whose language has no words at all. It's an engaging example of how the short story expresses emotion by making words into music and a story into a song.

Greg Thorpe, "1961"
If you are a Judy Garland fan, the date of this story tells it all.  April 23, 1961, the night of the famous Garland Carnegie Hall concert that has been called "the greatest night in show business history."  Garland sang 27 songs to an audience that included Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrews, Rock Hudson, and many other stars.
In a performance that was recorded by Capitol Records and released in a two-album set a few months later, it was interrupted by numerous applause, and when the first few bars of "Over the Rainbow" were played, they almost brought down the house. You can watch a pirated short home movie clip on  You Tube, and if you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to the whole concert.  That's what I am doing as I write this. Or maybe you have a copy of the old album, as many do.
This story is built on the context of Garland's famous status as a gay icon. It focuses on a man in his mid-twenties in New York, who appears to be straight, but is attracted to an older man from Chicago he meets in a bar, who, albeit married, appears to be gay. They go to the famous Garland concert, but near the end, when Garland is singing "If Love Were All," the narrator rejects the man's modest advances and leaves. The story ends eight years later, when with his wife and son, he reads that Judy Garland is dead at 47. The story is delicate and restrained and works by saying very little. It is the clipped syntax of a lonely man who may or may not be gay caught on the cusp of, as he says, ""I don't know what to do about any of it."

Crista Ermiya, "1977"
I read this as one of the more realistic stories in the collection, because the language exists primarily to describe characters, objects, and events, rather than to function as a syntactic rhythm or to create a metaphoric reality. However, the story does begin with a sentence that suggests magical realism: "Memet Ali was eight years old when a woman on his estate gave birth to a cockerel." And the story of an older man, Suleyman, bringing home a teenage bride named Elif from Turkey, who the superstitious neighbours accuse of being a witch, also suggests the possibility of magical realism.
However, we gradually find out that this seemingly supernatural context is the result of the superstitions and jealousy of the neighbors and the innocence of Memet Ali, the eight-year-old boy who serves as the focal third-person point of view of the story. The story is peppered with references to a magic talisman, mating with the devil, witches, being transformed into a rooster, and the evil eye. But this is all part of a culturally biased connection between sexuality and evil.
When Suleyman dies of a heart attack and Elif is left pregnant and alone, the boy, fascinated by her, befriends her and visits. When the baby is stillborn and neighbors gossip that it was born a goat or with two heads, Elif leaves the area, and the boy wonders if the baby was his brother and born a cockerel or rooster.  In spite of all the suggestions of magic realism, there is no magic here— just the realistic story of childish fascination, cultural superstitions and prejudice.

David Gaffney, "The Staring Man"
I like stories that are mysteriously suggestive of significance—stories that model the ambiguity and profound mysteries of human desires, fears, dreams, motivation.  "The Staring Man" is, for me, such a story.  It is very brief and compactly packed with meaning about how human beings try to model and understand universal human misery.
The plot is simple. A woman named Charlotte is making a scale model of a park that has been refurbished. An old man named Ted Mooney comes over to see the model and brings the woman an old picture of himself, his wife, and his 3-year-old daughter Heather. However, this simple situation is energized by the story of how stories come into being and what they try to reveal. The background plot comes at the end.
The following are, in my opinion, some of the key concepts of the story:
"The couple looked innocently happy, their small trim frames somehow weightless, as if in those days there had been less gravity."
The old man looks at the model "from every possible angle, as curious as if it were a 3D map of his own mind."
The woman says, "We make things smaller so that people can understand them better. Show us how the world would look if everything was simpler. We depict what you can see not what you know is there."
She says, "The models should not look like separate individuals, but like a group who are co-operating…. I have to convey all that from their position in the model and how they are spaced in relation to each other."
The miniature person in the model that is one of the woman's favorites she calls "Staring man." She says "He adds something intangible.  Takes you out of the model and makes you feel there is something beyond…he added a spiritual dimension, as if he was searching for God in a world where people killed things."
She says that model maker's don't model the unseen, adding, "There is nothing but the surface."
At the end of the story, the old man tells of his wife and daughter, who was born disabled, dying and leaves, looking at the woman "as if she might have an answer to his problems from the past."
At the end of the story, a man connected with the effort to refurbish the park comes by and tells the woman the back story of the old man, who, when his daughter was aged fifty, one day he looked at his wife and daughter watching Antiques Roadshow on television and, so filled with an "enormous rush of love," he killed them both with a claw hammer.
Charlotte looks at the staring man in her model and thinks how poorly her model reflected the real world. She pulls the staring man away from his place and puts him under a building lying on his back looking at the ceiling. The story ends with these two sentences: "No one would ask what his function was any more.  Her model would be just a model, and nothing else."
It seems to me the story is about the relationship between life and art. Even the old man's killing of his wife and child is an attempt to, as art does,  freeze the moment.  And Charlotte's changing of the staring man from looking for God to staring at the ceiling is a reminder that we have no explanation for the mysterious motivation of people in the world.

Tony Peake, "The Bluebell Wood"
This is also a story of the relationship between reality and the world of the imagination, but not as complexly packed with meaning as "The Staring Man." The single event of the story is a woman named Martha, along with her two children Lucy and Owen, taking her sister Sarah, who is dying and in a wheelchair, on an outing to the bluebell wood.
As opposed to "The Staring Man," which explains nothing, but models everything, this story explains all in the last three paragraphs. Sarah thinks that from her sister's perspective her life has meaning little—that even the novel she has said she is writing is only a jumble of incomplete notes.  She thinks: "So what if she'd never committed anything of consequence to paper? Her so-called novel had nevertheless still given her an interior life, a life of the mind, richer, fuller, and more various than any reality, certainly any reality of which she felt capable."  She thinks it does not matter if they do not reach the bluebell wood for she has seen it in her imagination and it was her wood, so real to her that an actual wood would probably disappoint. 
The following paragraph does not really seem necessary: "
The truth as with all truth, was unutterably simple.  If you wanted a bluebell wood, you had merely to close your eyes. It was that easy. Just close your eyes. And there it was, waiting for you in your imagination, as you'd always known it would be: cool, inviting, seemingly without end."

The story ends dramatically, and rather predictably, with Sarah "floating completely clear of the ground. As if she'd crossed a line and was able, therefore, to admire each flower without doing damage to any of them. To savour the moment as if should be savoured. In complete accord with it. In perfect peace."

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