Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Best British Stories: 2017--Part 4--Are These Pieces Stories?

Are These Pieces Stories?
One might very well respond to the question that heads this commentary, “Who cares?” “What difference does it make?”
I can only say that, having very carefully read thousands of stories throughout my career, I guess certain expectations come into play when I read what someone has labelled a “short story.”
The following four pieces have been labelled “short stories,” but for reasons I will try to explain, they do not seem like short stories to me. They may be well written pieces of prose that I enjoyed reading, just not short stories. Does that make any difference?  I think so. It makes a difference in how I read them.

Courttia Newland, “Reversible”
The first two paragraphs of this story depict a sadly familiar picture—a black man has been shot by police and a protesting crowd gathers around his body while the police stand by with guns ready. The first sentence of the third paragraph shifts this realistic picture into the literary: “The blood beneath the body slows to a trickle and stops. It makes a slow return inwards.”  And we suddenly realize that this is a clever piece of prose that reverses reality. The body begins to stir, then lifts, and the fallen baseball cap flips from the ground onto the man’s head.  Then we see the shooting in reverse: “Tiny black dots leap from his chest like fleas. Three plumes of fire are sucked into the rifle barrel.”
Then we watch the man backing into his car, the wheels turning counterclockwise, listening to a tune on the radio he does not recognize (for it plays in reverse?), and entering his house (walking backward, we assume), being greeted with a hug by his mother, throwing his jacket on a chair, and sitting down.
Knowing that we are witnessing an act in reverse that cannot be reversed, we may be interested in the cleverness of the technique and be horrified by an act we read about in the newspapers every so often, but I am not sure that we can do both at the same time. The story spends so much energy maintaining, not always successfully, the reversing technique that the reader, while trying to visualize the technique, may lose empathy with the human character.

James Kelman, “Words and Things to Sip”
James Kelman may be the most familiar writer in this collection; at least he is to me. I posted a blog essay on his short stories a while back, after having read Busted Scotch and The Good Times.  Most critics have argued that Kelman is a better short story writer than novelist, and Kelman himself once told an interviewer that if critics looked at his short stories they would not be asking him questions about his novels.
However, I am not sure Kelman is writing a short story in “Words and Things to Sip,” the title of which seems to reflect its technique—that it is less a story than a rambling monologue by a man waiting in a bar for his female friend, a man who passes this time by thinking about, and at some point transcribing, whatever comes to his mind.  This kind of  stream of consciousness can be effective in a novel, if the writing is good enough, but it does not necessarily make for an effective short story. Joyce did it very well in Ulysses but did not attempt it in Dubliners.
Kelman pretty much just writes about whatever comes to mind; for example, when he mentions a newspaper named “something Planet,” he is reminded of Superman at the Daily Planet with Clark Kent and the irascible editor, what was his name, who knows, who cares, Perry Mason or some damn thing.
Sometimes the voice we hear ruminates on ideas, e.g. “The only reliable method of knowledge is literature,” opining that we cannot trust “internetual information.”  At one point the voice thinks, “Life is strange. Context is all. Without context where would we be? Where would the world be? This question is the most real.”
When the narrator’s female friend finally arrives, he thinks “The whole of life was too good to be true and I was the luckiest man in the whole world and that is the God’s truth so help me my Lord God, the one bright star in the dismal night sky.”
A lot of this is interesting thinking and good talk, but I am not sure we would tolerate it if it were not talk by James Kelman, for after all, it is less a story than just a lot of blather.

David Rose, “Ariel”
I also know the work of David Rose. I wrote a blog essay about his story “Flora,” which appeared in the 2011 volume of Best British Short Stories  and immediately ordered a copy of his collection Posthumous Stories. I thought “Flora” was the epitome of what makes the short story so fascinating to me.
However, I am not so sure that “Ariel” is a short story, although the writing is very fine. I have no idea if the young male narrator in this story is a persona for Rose himself or if  the young man named Keith he so admires, who owns a white Ariel motor-bike, was an actual person that Rose knew when he was sixteen.  But this piece reads more like a brief memoir than a short story. Nothing really happens in it; it seems to have no significant meaning. It ends with the narrator getting married and buying a house--what he calls a “very ordinary story”--and mentioning a story far from ordinary, albeit clichéd, of his heroic model getting killed in a car accident.
The writing is good, but it just does not seem to be a story.

Deirdre Shanahan, “The Wind Calling”
This piece has more context than Rose’s piece, but still, it seems less a story than a memory—this time the persona is a young woman who is strongly attracted to a young man named Colum Brady, with whom she has her first sexual encounter. She has a brother two years younger than she named Jem, who simply disappears one day. Years later she runs into Colum and asks him if he knows what happened to her brother Jem. Colum tells her that Jem had seen them having sex and threatened to tell her father if he is not given money for whiskey, but Colum tells him to “head off.”  And that is the last he saw of him. 
I have read this piece several times, looking for the story in it, but I am just not sure there is one.  It is a memory of childhood, much of it spent on the road, and an account of the woman’s father and siblings disappearing, but the story of her first sexual encounter, which seems one important  event in the piece, does not seem to be meaningfully connected with the  other important even—the disappearance of her brother.  It is a piece about things that happen, but the things that happen do not cohere into a story.

I suppose a story can be anything a writer wants to make it, but if it does not meaningfully hold together, the reader does not respond to it as a story—just an interesting piece of prose.


Anonymous said...

To satisfy your curiosity, Charles, Keith was a real person, who lived - and died - in just the way described; only the details of the narrator have been fictionalized. The story - for it is one - ends not with Keith's death, but the transmutation of hero worship into death wish.

David Rose said...

Sorry, that comment wasn't meant to be anonymous. But the I Am Not A Robot nonsense is very distracting.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your response, David. I much appreciate it. I read “Ariel” several times, looking for the story. I thought that the phrase “he was a world ahead” in the third paragraph was meant to prepare me for the ending. But that last sentence of the story, “I still have ahead of me maybe twenty years of slow, frantic pedaling,” did not make me think of “death wish” for the narrator. I like the fact that the narrator wants an extraordinary story like Keith’s, albeit a cliched story--just not sure how it is both. Sorry about the “robot” nonsense. It is part of the software; I have to click it now in order to post this response. Thanks for your work, and thanks for taking the time to respond.

Ros said...

Haha, I came across these posts by chance while researching my PhD. But you didn't include my story ('General Impression of Size and Shape') in your reviews! Sob.

Anonymous said...

I agree that many of the stories you've discussed are not quite stories. Though defining what is and isn't a story is an enduring and tricky question. Flannery O'Connor wrote a definition of the short story in an essay collected in 'Mystery and Manners' - however thinking about O'Connor's stories (and many of the very best short stories worldwide) they are often much longer than the usual and proscribed length demanded in the UK by competitions, radio and magazines of around 2,000 words. Thinking about the stories of Alice Munro, William Trevor, DH Lawrence and many great contemporary writers they are often more rewarding because they are longer and thus have a chance to develop.