Monday, August 29, 2016

Part 4: Best British Short Stories 2016

Most of the longer stories in Best British Short Stories 2016 are in the final quarter of the book, approximately 20 pages each. Nicholas Royle has also reserved the last quarter of the book for the best-known writer in the anthology (at least best-known to me) Janice Galloway.  Her story, "Distance," is from her new collection Jellyfish.  Also represented in this final quarter of the book is the author who has received the most attention this year, Claire-Louise Bennett. Her story "Control Knobs," is from her very well-received and much talked-about book Pond, which reviewers are reluctant to call a collection of short stories, but prefer to label as a novel or a novella, or maybe a collection of soliloquies, dramatic monologues, essays, meditations, etc.
Kate Hendry, "My Husband Wants to Talk to Me Again"
But first, there is one more very short anecdotal story to mention, Kate Hendry's "My Husband Wants to Talk to Me Again." In five pages, Hendry gives us the voice of a wife who has agreed to what appears to be an amicable divorce and wants to get on with it, for there are things to be done "separately."  But the husband wants to talk about things, primarily the division of property, e.g. who gets the Marvin Gaye CDs.  She, however, just wants him out of her face so she can get the laundry done.
She thinks, with some relief, that in a few weeks she will be doing washing for three rather than four, but still resents every heavy pair of jeans he puts in the hamper. She is willing to let him have everything he wants, if he will just get the hell out of the way and let her do the wash. She thinks once he is out of the house she is going to treat herself to a tumble dryer.  And she is going to buy a DIY how-to book so she can take care of the little fix-it chores he always did.
The story ends with him off to work, and her, with mixed feelings about the silence in the house, with only the sounds she now makes—"The suck of water as it drains from the sink, mugs on their hooks chiming against each other, the end of conversation."  It's a neat, tidy little story that very capably captures the mixture of relief and regret, hope and fear, distraction and focus that characterizes the breakup of a marriage.  If you have ever been there, you will recognize it. I have been there.

Graham Mort, "In Theory, Theories Exist"
I have also been where Ralph, the central character in Graham Mort's story, has been.  He is fifty-four, has had by-pass surgery, and is on a hike up a mountain in the heat of the day—a sort of "prove-it-to-myself-by-God-I-can-doo-it" sort of hike.  The story recounts what is on his mind during the hike—some of which involves his lack-luster career as a lecturer at the university, some of which involves his relationship with his lover, but much of which involves his by-pass.  The central focus of the story might well be this sentence: "Being close to death had brought him face to face with a vast ignorance. All the things he couldn't name and didn't know."
The title of the story comes from his thinking of his physical relationship with his lover, a theorist who spends his time with Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, but who knows the secrets of touch. "In theory, theories exist.  In practice they don't. Who was that? Latour?"  
Mort, who is professor of creative writing and transcultural literature at Lancaster University, cited this same quote in an interview in response to a question about whether he was conscious of manipulating the reader during composition, making decisions about a story’s structure, point of view, sequence of events, or whether they were engendered incidentally as he concentrated on thematic qualities of the story.
Mort says he thought such formal effects were engendered through the unfolding narrative, but he did not think they were entirely incidental or accidental either. Then he cites the Bruno Latour statement:
‘In theory, theories exist. In practice they do not.’ So the theory of ‘blanks, gaps and indeterminacies’ is immensely useful in understanding how text and the reader interact, and it offers a degree of rationale for the intended texture and level of detail in our writing. But to what extent such ‘porous’ writing becomes deliberately formulated as a result is hard to say. I prefer to think that this knowledge becomes active at a tacit or even haptic level within the kinetic writing process."
This response helps me understand the process of the character Ralph coming to terms with his "vast ignorance." The story is about how thinking about an experience is not the same as experiencing it, yet if one never thinks about it, the experience may never really be experienced except in an inchoate way. In an essay on Yeats and Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney once said, "when a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life." Heaney's remark echoes Anton Chekhov's statement about the "life" in short stories as being the life of art, not the everyday life of external reality. I am working on a long essay on Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty, in which I explore this concept in some depth. More about that at another time.
Mort's story ends with Ralph thinking: "The future was uncertain again and in a good way. It was a premonition, like poetry coming on, its aura.  The way things had to begin again had to exist before they could mean anything."  He finds some ripe blackberries which are tart and sweet at once and he takes a drink of water that has the brackish taste of soil and rock. "He never thought he would die."
The story explores the difference between the way an artist responds to an experience and the way the rest of us do. I had a triple by-pass several years ago, but I was not drawn to seek the formal elements of that experience, nor was I impelled to impose formal elements on it. So, while the experience became a story for Mort, for me it remained just something that happened.

Claire-Louise Bennett, "Control Knobs"
Pond is Claire-Louise Bennett's first book, and it has received a great deal of praise.  First published in Ireland, then in England, and finally in America, it includes 20 "pieces," originally called "short stories" on the jacket cover, but later changed to "chapters," because, as we all know, novels sell better than short story collections. Some reviewers reject the "short story" designation for the book as if such a characterization would diminish the "pieces" in some way, i.e. 'These are not just short stories."
I have not read the entire book, and, after having read "Control Knobs" and the reviews, as well as listening to Bennett reading some other "pieces" on line, I am not sure I am going to read it. Based on the many reviews, I conclude that a young female academic who has stopped work on her doctoral dissertation has decided to live in a small cottage on the west coast of Ireland and has written a number of soliloquies or meditations on her experience. The title of the resultant book, "Pond," has prompted several reviewers to compare the book to Thoreau's Walden, albeit with significant differences. Reviewers have rhapsodized over the voice of the book.
Here is what some reviewers have said:
Andrew Gallix: "One of the most striking aspects of this extraordinary book is how well we get to know the narrator—whose brain and body we inhabit—yet how little we know about her….. What Bennett aims at is nothing short of a re-enchantment of the world.  Everyday objects take on a luminous, almost numinous quality."
Philip Maughan: "What makes the book unique is the voice in which …moments are described—unfolding in a bird-like language that feels closer to thought than public address…. Pond is an account of the mind as it exists in solitude. It attempts to engage with the universe at its fullest and not just the little portion of it we identify as human."
Dwight Garner: "Ms. Bennett has a voice that leans over the bar and plucks a button off your shirt. It delivers the sensations of Edna O'Brien's rural Irish world by way of Harold Pinter's clipped dictums…. Pond is filled with short intellectual junkets into many topics.  At other times it drifts, sensually into chapters that resemble prose poems. You swim through this novel as you do through a lake in midsummer, pushing through both warm eddies and the occasional surprisingly chilly drafts from below."
Catherine Taylor: "The idea of personhood as an elemental force is central to the book, especially as realised in the figure of the self-sufficient, inaccessible woman, unkempt in appearance, abstracted in thought, and sometimes capaciously contrary."
Meghan O'Rourke: "Pond is one of those books so odd and vivid that they make your own life feel strangely remote…The stories shun conventional narrative devices (like plot), instead dramatizing the associative movement of the narrator's 'mind in motion.'"
Jia Tolentino: "What moves the reader forward is the sense the stories convey of a real-time psychological fabric: the reader experiences the narrator's world at the same pace she does, a thing chopped up into irregular units organized by vague questions and obscurely colored moods."
With all this high praise for a collection of pieces or, as one reviewer calls them, chapters that resemble short stories, I feel no real need to discuss "Control Knobs," which is filled with what one reviewer describes as "casual asides and existential ruminations" by a woman whose control knobs for her kitchen stove get broken and she cannot find a replacement—a domestic bit of trivia that leads her to contemplate death, especially the possibility of suicide, as well as what it might be like to be the woman in a novel she is reading who is the last person alive.

Thomas McMullan, "The Only Thing is Certain is"
This is a story with a highly emotional center—the death and cremation of a man's child—whose body has been vaporised by the highly efficient new cremation methods so that there is literally nothing in the urn he takes away from the mortuary.  Indeed, the core of the story is so emotionally dense that it hardly necessitates much language to describe it.  However, the story is filled with a great deal of detail that, while it may exist primarily to help the man avoid confronting the absence at the center of the story, seems distractingly irrelevant..  I like the story, but there just seems to be too much of it.
Stuart Evers, "Live from the Palladium"
I like this story also.  It is the funniest story in the book.  Indeed, it is about being funny, about jokes, about comedy, about being a comic. The central joke—a bit that repeats at various points in the story is the line the central character's mother has taught him: "When I grow up I want to be a proctologist."  She reminds him that the best jokes are always in the present tense. "You can depend on a joke," she says, "A joke is always happening." It made me laugh in the painful kind of way that good comedy always does.
Janice Galloway, "Distance"
I first read Janice Galloway's fiction twenty-five years ago when her collection Blood came out. At that time, Peter Matthews in The Guardian said her stories were the reverse of beautifully crafted. "Ugly, discordant and truncated, they provide few of the obvious satisfactions of compact characterisation and neat moral epiphany.  Galloway probably feels that the traditional virtues of the short story are too genteel for the primal anxieties and uncertainties that interest her."
With all due respect to Mr. Matthews, although such a view may have true for the British or Scottish short story a quarter of a century ago, it is certainly not true now.  Or perhaps Mr. Matthews was just not familiar with the stories of James Kellman.
Galloway has not published short story collections for a time—too busy making a name for herself as a Scottish novelist to be reckoned with.  In her new collection Jellyfish, she says on the Acknowledgements page, "Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they'd love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels."  When she was interviewed by The Scotsman, she said she was delighted that the publisher Freight Books was willing to take this collection on. Does this mean she could not find a larger publisher to take it on?
As Alistair Braidwood has noted, although publisher reluctance to risk a collection of short stories may have been true in the past, some of the best new fiction that has appeared in Great Britain recently has been in the form of short stories—often by little known writers published by small, independent publishers.
I have remarked on this rise of interest in the short story in Great Britain before. This series of Best British Short Stories, edited by Nicholas Royle, and published by Salt Publishing, is one of the best examples of the new interest in the form, perhaps encouraged by the increase of MFA writing programs in England in the past several years and the willingness of small presses to publish short stories. If no one is reading short stories but folks who want to write short stories, that may indeed be audience enough to make it worth publishing them.
Reviewers of Jellyfish have been happy to quote Galloway's remark about the short story, but they also have been quick to notice one other quote from the book—David Lodge's remark, "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life's the other way round."  Several reviewers, including The Guardian's Stuart Kelly, have called attention to the fact that Galloway's new stories suggest a shift in focus from the physical life of young woman to "the parent-child bond."  Royle has chosen the last story in the collection—a story that several reviewers have called the strongest in the book, "Distance," about a woman whose three-year-old son splits his head on a sheet glass table and almost dies. The child survives, but the mother, Martha, almost does not. Breaking up with her husband and cutting herself off from her son, Martha, according to her puzzled husband, has become "overcome by the horror of normal life" and has fallen to pieces.
It's a powerful story fraught with mystery of motivation, as the woman compares her situation to that of George Orwell, who took his four-year-old son out into danger and then had to save him from drowning. When she gets cancer, the doctor's news that it is treatable and that she has little to worry about, disappoints rather than elates her. The story ends with her making a trip to Jura, the island where she imagines Orwell in his "stupid little boat, imagining he could spite the sea" and his son "that terrified boy." When she accidently hits a stag, ignoring the danger, she gets out of her car and goes to it, whispering to the  panicked animal, ""I'm here, "I'm here"—as a mother would try to comfort a frightened and injured child.  "She was Martha. A rock. She was forty-one years old. And despite herself, still here. Incapable of letting go."
It's a powerful story, and it makes it glad that Janice Galloway has come back to the short story.

Thanks again to Nicholas Royle for this fine collection of British Short Stories.  I only hope that America editors do as well in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 and Best American Short Stories 2016, which I will be reading and writing about in September and October.  I hope you will join me.


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