Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Best British Short Stories 2017--part 2--The Simple, Well-made Story

Back in the day when short stories were popular in America (yes, there was such a time, during the forties and fifties, when a lot of people read short stories and writers could even make a decent living writing them), there were two kinds of short stories:  relatively simple, plot-based commercial stories featuring everyday people caught in common dilemmas, and relatively complex language-based literary stories featuring everyday people caught in subtle,  hard-to understand dilemmas.
There are not so many of these popular, commercial, plot-based, simple stories—either pulp or slick--in America anymore—television and now the Internet having largely taken their place, providing entertaining, non-challenging, time-passing, simple stories. The short story in America today, in the relatively few places it appears in print, is largely “literary.” Occasionally, a simple, straightforward  storyteller will appear and get a bit of buzz, but not often.  People don’t read short stories for entertainment very much in America any more. 
However, it may very well be that people still read short stories for entertainment, or listen to them on the radio, in Great Britain.  And it may also very well be that some of these simple, straightforward, plot-based stories, might be considered very good stories, even among the “best” stories published in print or heard on BBC4 in a given year.
I suspect that Nicholas Royle, editor of Best British Short Stories, 2017, was mindful that he not only had to choose the “best” stories of the year, but also to create a book with some variety that would appeal to as many readers as possible. Consequently, of the twenty stories he chose, some had to be simple and straightforward, with clear, transparent prose and enough background explanatory context to be easily accessible to the reader, while others were inevitably elliptical and puzzling, drawing attention to the language itself, experimenting with form, and refusing to help the reader understand the significance of the story.
I suggest that the following four stories are of the first type: relatively conventional, primarily based on straightforward plot and character, pleasingly accessible to a wide range of readers.  It is not surprising that two of the four first appeared on BBC4, for if a story is going to be read on the radio and listened to by a broad audience, it usually must be understood on the first reading/hearing, since this first encounter may be the only one the listener/reader will have—no pausing to ponder over the language, no second reading to allow the ending to clarify the beginning.

Peter Bradshaw’s “Reunion “is an old fashioned story that exists primarily for the “surprise “ending—a form so popular that, at least in America, it once was the norm for the commercial short story. The first person point of view is that of a man named Eliot who is trying to “work something out” about the events of the past twenty-four hours while attending a conference at a hotel. He provides some context, largely irrelevant, that he has been in love three times in his life: once with his mistress, once with his ex-wife, and once, when he was eleven, with an eleven-year-old named Lucy Venables. He then “recalls” for the reader the night before when he went out for a smoke and sees a woman whose name tag reads “Dr. Venables. Recognizing her as his childhood love Lucy, he recalls when he met her and she invited him in for a Carona lemonade. After falling deeply in love with her, he asked her for a kiss.
Lucy sets up a test for Eliot to earn the kiss, positioning  her little sister Chloe up against a shed door, drawing an outline around her about twelve inches distant from her body and challenging Eliot to throw three darts inside the outline without hitting Chloe. He succeeds in the first two throws but his clumsy third throw makes Chloe flinch and the dart goes in her ear. The father comes out and smacks Eliot, sending him home crying.
We flash back to the adult encounter, with Dr. Venables inviting Eliot to her room to get the kiss he never got when they were eleven. As he pulls her clothes off, she gasps, “O Elliot,” call me by my name. Say my name.” He sweeps up her hair to kiss her neck, which reveals her injured ear, and “complies with her request” saying, “Chloe.” When we flash back to the opening of the story, the man at reception asks Eliot if he would like a drink from the bar. The last line of the story is: “I think I shall ask for a Corona lemonade.”
As you can see from this synopsis, you don’t need to hear it or read it again. The story is quite conventional, giving the reader a wry smile at  the little surprise at the end. There is even a bit of poetic justice—the kind of justice that surprise ending stories used to specialize in—for it seems only fair that Chloe should be the “target of Eliot’s love, the one who took the risk, got injured, and coincidently shows up years later to rightfully fulfill the promise of the kiss.

Niven Govinden’s “Waves” was commissioned by BBC4 for a series of stories about sleep and rest. BBC4  listeners knew this assignment context when they first heard the story on the radio; thus primed, they could listen to listen for how the story actually explores the importance of sleep and rest.  However, readers of the story in this book, not knowing that the story was written to fulfill a thematic specification, may not be sure what point the story has. All the reader knows is that a man is in a hospital dreaming that he is surfing in Hawaii. The primary emphasis, aside from the assigned dream/rest theme, is that the man is growing older and lamenting his lost youth, strength, and power. A central sentence is:  
“Far greater than his pride is his impatience to demonstrate strength or knowledge with those a generation or more behind him, and how this grows with age.  The swagger of young manhood a tipping point for his antagonism, which shrinks as his waistline swells.”
The doctors tell him he must rest, suggesting that rest and sleep cures all—that the real work of healing is something like magic, that sleep holds a promise of recuperation. However, he feels “useless and old” and longs for those days in the past when a combination of authority and pure heft could right things. Although Govinden’s story is well written, it seems a bit too much like an MFA workshop assignment.

Laura Pocock’s “The Dark Instruments” is a “Twilight Zone” type story, in which a guy builds a model of his town; when a neighbor sees the model one night, he discovers that one of the model houses that is burned is a replica of an actual house that burned a year ago.
There is something here about connection between artifice and reality, but  the problem is that it is not clear which comes first—the model or the actuality.  Which causes which? The first clue is the broken church window of one of the models, which mirrors a real church window that has been vandalized.  The key word in the story is “coincidence.” The issue is: how do the two things coincide?
The man wonders if he can show his neighbor the town without revealing its secret.  But the reader does not know what the secret is. And we don’t know what it has to do with the fact that the builder was injured when he was in the army—a gunshot wound to the knee.—an injury that has no physical basis. Is this a post-traumatic stress syndrome story in which the breaks the church window and burns down the house as a way to control reality? We just don’t know. We just know that some kind of sympathetic magic seems to be going on in the commercially successful world of the twilight zone.

Lara Williams’ “Treats” is a simple, genre-style “woman’s” story about Elaine, a 50-year-old woman who says she was made for menopause, a woman whose husband used to treat her, but now her treats are reserved for her birthday.
Elaine likes to perform secret good deeds and sometimes imagines secret good deeds being done for her. The title comes from the notion of treats or gifts, like the ones she used to get from her husband, but now they are reserved only for her birthday.
She has no children, only a solitary goldfish. She is often disappointed.  Her boss points to a brown parcel on her birthday and says “that’s for you,” but when Elaine thinks it is a gift and starts unwrapping it, the boss says, “What are you doing?  That needs couriering. Tonight.”
Then her husband cancels taking her to the movies, so she goes alone and treats herself to popcorn and a hotdog and “her heart did a little leap on its own; you could do that, to your heart, you could be so kind to yourself you could make your own heart leap.”
The last line of the story is: “After all, she thought, what goes around comes around.”
I have been able to find only two reviews of Best British Short Stories 2017 on Internet websites; both like “Treats.” Tamim Sadihali on Bookmunch calls “Treats” pretty much short story perfection.”  And Eleanor Franzen on Litro says it is her favorite story in the book and that she has “no trouble at all in believing that it’s among the best British short stories of the year.”
It’s a pleasant story, written in likeable language about a likeable character. Once you read an opening sentence like the following, you are well disposed to take pleasure in the rest:
“It was one of those sneaky summer days, one that lounges around a chilled August, making a wild and unpredictable cameo, hoodwinking you into knits, swindling you out of sandals.”
You have to like someone who writes in such a facile way as Williams, just as you have to like the central character, Elaine, who at age fifty, feels she was made to protect and watch over people. But to suggest that this is “short story perfection” and that you have no trouble believing it’s one of the best stories written in Great Britain in 2017 may be to underestimate the short story as a form.
Next time I will talk about some more challenging stories in Best British Short Stories 2017 that move from realism to magical realism.


Anonymous said...

A minor correction: BBC 4 is a TV channel and BBC Radio 4 is a radio station.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the correction.

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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that people in the UK do enjoy short stories anymore. The quality of fiction on Radio 4 is not as good as it was (in part I believe because it is commissioned by radio editors rather than sought from the literary landscape) while in the print world no general magazines publish regular short stories - we have nothing like The New Yorker for example.