Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Cynan Jones's "The Edge of the Shoal" Won the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award

The 2017 BBC National Short Story Award (the 12th year the £15,000 has been awarded to a single short story) went to Welsh writer Cynan Jones for a story published in The New Yorker entitled “The Edge of the Shoal.”
Jones has said that the story began as a 30,000-word short novel but was shaved down to 11,500 words because, as he said, “it didn’t work.”  When he sent it to The New Yorker, they liked it but said it was still too long and asked him to cut it in half. Jones says he only had 4 days to pare the story down to 6,000 words, working frenetically to strip out anything that was “decorative.” The halving of the story was fortunate for Jones, since the BBC contest is limited to stories under 8,000 words.  I am not sure of the sequence of events, but it appears that after the story was shortlisted for the BBC Prize, Jones decided the original 30,000-words might work after all. Granta published  it as a novella entitled Cove, which then won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize.
Lucy Popescu of the Financial Times put Cove in the category of survival narratives, such as Robinson Crusoe and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  She says the novella’s “terse lyricism” makes much of it read like a prose poem—a “haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.”
Peter Adkins argues in the Glasgow Review of Books that Jones combines the mythic and the modern, the sacred and the mundane, the poetic and the technical.  Adkins says it is at times hard to tell the difference between the imagined and the real in the novel, for it  reaches a point where reality blurs with the fantastic, situating itself on the “threshold between the active, observing mind and the brute thereness of the sea.” An admirer of the recent academic trend toward so-called eco-criticism, Adkins calls Cove “profoundly ecological.”
Eileen Battersby of Irish Times is not so sure. She calls Jones’s style forced  and “quasi-poetic” and argues that the main character’s struggle to survive never becomes more than a “stagey, choreographed mood piece rife with symbolism.”
The few comments that have been made about the story come mainly from the judges: of the BBC Contest: Jon McGregor called “The Edge of the Shoal” “a genuinely thrilling piece of writing with a completeness of vision and execution that made it an inevitable winner.” Di Speirs said the story is “a perfect illustration of the transporting, utterly absorbing power of a great short story.” And Eimear McBride even went so far as to rave that it is “as perfect a short story as I’ve ever read.”
Claims that the winning story is a perfect short story, a great short story, an exemplary short story  have often been made by judges of the BBC Award over the past twelve years.  I have commented on such claims for the previous eleven winners of the contest on this blog and on the TSS Publishing Website because, although I have no right to second-guess the choice of the judges—they are, after all, the only ones, I presume, who read all the entries to the contest-- when they claim that the winning story is perfect, doing what the short story does best, they imply that they actually know what the characteristics of a “perfect” short story are. I am not always sure their choices bear this out.
The short story has often been characterized as a form in which everything not absolutely essential to its central effect or unifying theme must be mercilessly cut. William Trevor, one of the greatest short-story writers, has said that the short story’s  “strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness.”  The result of leaving things out is often a cryptic sense of mystery that many short story writers insist is an essential characteristic of the short story. Flannery O’Connor, another undisputed master of the form, once said, "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.”
However, I wonder if the mysteries suggested by “The Edge of the Shoal” are intentional thematic mysteries or the accidental result of the cuts Jones had to make to get the story published in The New Yorker. For example, there are frequent passing references to the central character’s father, whose ashes he has in the boat, presumably because he plans to scatter them at sea.  Moreover, there are several scant references to a “her” or “she,” who  the story suggests is pregnant and who the central character left at home while he has made this trip to catch some fish for lunch. These cryptic references to the father and the pregnant woman are more clearly identified in the short novel. Although it might be suggested that these contextual allusions reflect the story’s theme of being caught between birth and death, there is nothing else in the story to support such a justification for the allusions.
I have written about the relationship between the short story and the novella on this blog previously, arguing that the novella is more closely related to the short story than to the novel.  Jones seems to agree that the short story and the novella are closely related, for in an interview in Los Angeles Review, he says he likes the novella form because the “level of engagement” has to be strong and it relies more on implication than explanation, “adding that  short novel is a “moment, not a journey.”  Jones is quoted elsewhere as saying that he likes the short story form for the very same reasons that he likes the short novel form: “Everything counts.” You have to create emotions and judgements, rather than describe them, Jones says, adding, “A short story is a moment, not a journey.”
I have suggested on this blog and other places that it is not content that makes a short story a short story, but rather technique.  In what follows I would like to suggest some of the short story techniques Jones makes use of in “The Edge of the Shoal”—techniques that, if they do not make it a “perfect” short story, at least make it a representative example of the form.
The most predominant short story technique in “The Edge of the Shoal” is its frequent use of metaphoric language, particularly the simile, of which there are fourteen in the story, e.g. “The jaw splits and the gills splay, like an opening flower.” Another typical short story characteristics derives from Jones’s frequent use of  the “as if” trope, of which there are sixteen in the story,  e.g. “Flecks of blood and scales loosen, as if turning to rainbows in his hands. Most of these metaphoric comparisons take place after the man is struck by lightning—primarily to suggest a metamorphosis in the man’s perception of reality.
Another short story technique is the frequent reference to the archetypal nature of the man’s experience. For example, in the first paragraph, the man thinks the sound of the fish thumping in the boat is like a drum beat--“Something rapid and primal, ceremonial.” The primal is also suggested when the man picks up the container of his father’s ashes, and it feels warm from the sun “as if” the ashes were still warm from cremation.  The man is suddenly afraid when he unscrews the lid that he will release some jinni, or ghost. He thinks of reinvesting the ashes with memories, to remind them of moments and thus to “make them the physical thing of his father.
In a simile that is as close to a statement of the story’s theme as Jones will risk, he man sees a fish jump out of the water, like a silver nail.  “A thing deliberately, for a brief astounding moment, broken from its element.” The simile echoes what happens with the lightning strike—an “astounding moment” when the man is thrown out of his everyday element into an alternate reality for which he can no longer easily find a familiar context with which he can identify himself. He sometimes “slips off the world” for a time.  His consciousness is a “snapped cord,” and he asks who he is.
The man confuses external reality with his perception, having forgotten that other life “puppets” around him. He is not sure if a butterfly he sees actually exists in the world or whether it is his own eye. This echoes the familiar Taoist parable of Zhuangzi, who dreamt he was a butterfly, but on awakening, did not know whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly, dreaming he was a man. 
The man experiences several moments when he cannot tell the difference between what is happening in the external world and what his imagination creates.  For example, he feels the warm sun on his neck and thinks it is someone’s breath.  He either sees, or thinks he sees, people on the beach and feels he is in a dream, asking “Where am I?” He hears a child crying and thinks, “This is not real,” but it is the cry of a dolphin calf.
The man reaches a point when he understands that to gain control of his life and return to everyday reality he must establish a rhythm of familiar reality, since that is what has been disrupted by the lightning strike.
The story’s focus on the  man’s efforts to gain some control, to overcome his pain and disabilities to feed himself and get back to shore, have caused some reviewers identify the story with the survival efforts of Robinson Crusoe. However, whereas Crusoe is a classic example of how the novel deals with physical details in the world, “The Edge of the Shoal” is more like Hemingway’s use of physical detail in such stories as “Big, Two-Hearted River” and his novella The Old Man and the Sea, for the physical details in Jones’s story are transformed, as they are in Hemingway’s stories, to significant, thematic details.  
I have suggested in other places that he novel form usually gains the reader's assent to its reality by the creation of enough realistic detail to give readers the illusion that they know the experience in the same way they know external reality.  However, in the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns. For example, the hard details of the external world in Robinson Crusoe exist as an external resistance to be overcome.  However, in Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," the extensive details exist primarily to provide an objectification of Nick's psychic distress and his efforts to control it. Thus, at the end of the story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is a purely metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the real qualities of the swamp, only its aesthetic qualities.
It is the short story that transforms the physical world into meaning, not usually the novel. As Raymond Carver once observed, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."


Anne said...

Very insightful analysis of not just this particular short story but the form in general.
Thank you.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, Anne.

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Anonymous said...

According to Philip Hensher in his introduction to 'The Penguin Book of the Contemporary Short Story' Cynan Jones' BBC prize-winning story was 'a complete abridgement of (his) previously published novel.' This novel is 'Cove' which was published by Granta 2016 and was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year but didn't win the prize (as suggested in the above). 'The Edge of the Shoal' appeared in The New Yorker in October 2016 and was then described as being 'drawn from (his) forthcoming novel, “Cove,” which is published in the U.K. by Granta Books in November' of that year.

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