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.

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."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Part 2: Best British Short Stories 2016

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?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Best British Short Stories 2016--Part 1

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