The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Some days ago there was a kerfuffle about The Virginia Quartlery Review public airing of its readers commentary on submitted stories. I haven’t bothered to read the disgruntled comments because writers (online) tend to get disgruntled about a lot of things for which I, as a reader, can only raise a disinterested eyebrow. One good post that came out of it was Rhian Ellis’ evaluation of the stories in a VQR issue (via pinkyspaperhaus). She claimed that, typical of a trend in literary magazines, the stories focused on external, cultural and/or political events at the expense of characters; these tended to be ciphers for the author’s ideas.

The only lit mag fiction I read on a regular basis is what’s published in The Paris Review — I prefer critical journals. Many of the stores it prints aren’t proper ones but excerpts from soon-to-be published novels, which I find mildly annoying. Actual short stories, even only competent ones work better than novel excerpts of similar quality because they are structured to. I find TPR‘s selection to be the opposite of VQR‘s per Ellis’ take.

Here the stories tend to be nothing but character studies of one kind or another: US immigrants dealing with culture shock (often in university settings); divorced family dealing with everyday life in the aftermath; settled parent dealing with wayward young or not so young offspring; some childhood memory; uniquely middle-class problems like stock problem obsession…you get the drift. I don’t have anything against fiction about the middle-class, of which I am an enthusiastic member. But I do relish variety and I find that it’s the contributors who depart from the norm that offer the most impressive pieces (ie I go to Chapters.ca or call the indie book store and order their books immediately). It’s not impossible that this is partly so simply because they are so different. It may be coincidental that the stories that veer off the beaten TPR path are a notch above the rest or that those writers have to be so much better to get printed while a Pulitzer winner’s stodgy, middle-of-the-way entry sails in. (It also helps if you’re dead and woefully under-appreciated or dead and famous.) Anyway, it’s not that the middle-class isn’t important — it’s not that any topic you choose to write about must hit such arbitrary criteria — it’s that you must make me feel as if your fiction needs to exist.

Significant departures in theme or style tend to occur when the writer isn’t American, and/or is of an older generation, like Daniel Kehlman and Alessandro Barricco or dead Russian writers who do cryptic political parables. The exceptions to this are Benjamin Percy and Jesse Ball, the first who writes about the lower classes and the second who doesn’t only travel on the typical realist road. Of those who write the TPR standard and make it compelling, again they tend to be foreigners like Mohsin Hamid and Damon Galgut. This is no surprise: for whatever reason I’m almost always unimpressed by the TPR-published authors that everyone else is praising and handing out awards to. Remember that Icebergs tale I shrugged at earlier this year? Got a National Magazine Award nomination. (As did André Aciman‘s and Uzodinma Iweala‘s. From that lot only Iweala’s story grabbed me.)

If you open any recent issue 9.9 times out of 10 you’ll get a story done in a conventional style, 1st or 3rd person, male narrator/protagonist. Style-wise Balls and Barricco’s stories are the most inventive ones I’ve yet read; both happened to play with space on the page. For Barricco the spaces between groups of words worked like they sometimes do in poetry, putting breaks in thoughts without the use of punctuation which impacts on rhythm as well; and he used no paragraph breaks. He wrote from multiple narrative perspectives, too, different genders and class, allowing a more complete and varied picture of the first, and very dangerous, car race in Europe. In Ball’s story, winner of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, I discerned the breaks in the way sentences, paragraphs and dialogue were put together without any spatial reinforcement. It was gratifying to read in his Bookslut blog interview (which I can’t find because the site was created to be impervious to all search engines — brilliant idea) that the original manuscript is about twice as long because of the gaps he interspersed throughout the text. The gruesome revenge by duels, random violent acts, disjointed, surreal sequences that may or may not be dreams, the lack of “realistic” characters, all are memorable and not the TPR norm. I like when the magazine surprises, and the people involved do too, so let’s hope stories like that are published more often.

Unfortunately, the fiction in the Spring 2008 issue came too early to fulfil that expressed desire. The first story ended on a high note, the second started strong then petered out and the third didn’t get (me) anywhere.

Tim Winton is an Australian writer who has the honour of being a Booker finalist. Therefore it’s no surprise that he writes fine, elegant prose — a superior example of the readable type — that carries one along as the narrator describes moments from his childhood living with his parents in a small seaside town during the 60s. (So I assume since he and a pal meet up with a bunch of hippie surfers (one can be both right?).) Winton writes of the relationship between the child and his parents with a delicate tension that makes one believe that there’s more that went on, perhaps later in the narrator’s life, that is not revealed. All we get is a father anxious about his son going near any sizeable water body because of an old friend’s fatal drowning incident and his own lack of swimming ability. It’s the son’s new friend Loonie who tells him about the first source of the father’s anxiety. Loonie is, of course, an extrovert and a rapscallion while the narrator is a quiet, “solitary by nature” type although not bereft of all childish mischief. (For once I’d like to read the rapscallion’s story. Any takers?)

It’s all very, very nice but not very exciting, eh? Rather same old, same old until a page or two at the end when the narrator describes the euphoria he feels when he watches and then does surfing for the first time.

I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands…The only exception was strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-word toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But…people said he was half mad anyway.

[...]

For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together…we never spoke about the business of beauty…There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We…quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned from just watching. We talked about skill and courage and luck — we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death — but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.

I admit it’s arguable whether Winton assuredly rode that wave of sentimentality or wiped out but for me the earnestness and emotional fervency innervated a boring seascape. It broke through Winton’s proper prose and, perhaps because I’m an island girl, the kinship the man feels in his old age at the very end, when he witnesses a child going through a similar experience, lent the story a memorable grace weightier than the kind he tried to achieve in the previous bits. But if this is a novel excerpt — since I detected that nagging lack I suspect it is — I’d only accept the book free of charge. Maybe.

In comparison to Winton’s gated community fiction — yes, his character appears to be working class but the *writing style strangled that completely — Ryan McIlvain’s is less cordoned off and settled, not only because it is set mostly among impoverished Brazilian neighbourhoods and involves Mormon missionaries. There is a wider variety of characters, many out-of-place, and all interacting and getting into conflicts. McLeod is a young Mormon from the USA a few months away from the end of his missionary work. So close to finishing he hits up against an accumulation of obstacles as his missionary partner, Elder Passos who he doesn’t much like, and other hitherto friendlier parties pile on the negative critiques on his country’s foreign policy right around the time the USA begins to bomb Iraq. The story entices for a while as one gets a peek into the how people from all classes live, some amusing encounters between the missionaries and their flock, and McLeod’s grapples with his weakening faith (inversely proportioned to his sexual desire).

Near the end I became frustrated with McLeod’s smug victim-complex. More importantly I wasn’t sure what McIlvain was up to with his motley crew of earthy, wise-cracking 20 something Mormon missionaries, self-righteous, condescending anti-American Brazilians and colourful local citizenry with special attention given to luscious, brazen, flirty women and prostitutes with a no-nonsense, professional air. Maybe he didn’t need one but all the elements just hung together. When I reached the end where McLeod and Pessos engage in fisticuffs I felt as though I’d seen the detail of a painting put in a frame with lots of empty space around needing to be filled in order to have the detail make sense. The basic theme is of this young man’s burgeoning self coming to the fore in a foreign land after living a repressive lifestyle but…so? It was at this point that I began to wonder if Gabriel Josipovici had spoilt me for modern fiction until Stefan Zweig and A.L. Kennedy came to rescue.

J. David Steven’s “Box” is the last of the trio. I don’t get it. *shrugs* It has a slightly quirky, absurd quality. A random group of persons in a hotel meeting room are at the location to attend several different conferences on anything from accounting tips to kitchen knives. They’re all socialising in a single room with a locked door (they soon discover) when one of the walls goes up to reveal another room. Some people move into it to explore the new space when the partition suddenly lowers, allowing a few to scramble back to the first room before its sealed off. There is no door in the new space and the 20 occupants, including one child, hear a strange flushing noise from the original room. This happens over and over again with the rooms shrinking in size and so tough decisions have to be made about who should stay behind while the others continue. Predictably, they choose a fair and random system which they all abide by at first until human selfishness and survival instincts pervert. It comes off as a humorously written psychological experiment that ends on a darker note. I must be missing some clever reference that makes this story — the only contribution that reads like the writer conceived it as a short story — more than the sum of its parts.

*Which is not to say that if you write about the working class there has to be a lot of swear words and slang but for god’s sakes I think the milieu and lifestyle needs to count for something different, some adjustment. He could have written about a Rockefeller kid in the same tone and you wouldn’t notice a lick of difference: all covered in pleasant silk gauze.

Readers who keep up with any part of the science fiction online community are probably aware of Tor’s ebook giveaway — a superior version of HarperCollins tentative lame duck. I’m not a big SF reader but I am a years long subscriber to John Scalzi’s Whatever so when I read that his Old Man’s War was among the freebies I signed up for the newsletter — the only condition Tor lays on participants. I registered in time for his, couldn’t sum up the energy to unsubscribe, and ended up downloading Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin the next week. (I passed on last week’s Lackey co-authored text. I know that she’s supposed to be great, at least in that one Arthurian novel, but the interchangeable winsome cover maidens with piercing stares who gaze from cliffs/behind veils/from luxurious beds in boudoirs turn me off.)

I tried Scalzi’s and changed from relieved interest — hate to think that I like the blog writings but not the fiction — to annoyance at clumsy phrasing all within the first page. I really, really want to like the book so even though I closed the window one minute after my negative reaction — I have less patience for fiction on screen than on paper — I had already decided to try again at some future date.

Wilson got me on board from the first sentence. His is the first honest-to-goodness full-length SF novel I’ve ever been enthused about (or likely to read to the end, for that matter). Yes, Sarah Hall’s latest is “dystopian” and it is set in a future world but the dystopian setting worked as mere trappings, presented and dispensed with for most of the novel. Most of the technology Hall uses for her story is decidedly retro: centuries old farming techniques and tools. It’s easily the sort of novel persons uninclined to SF could enjoy without feeling any curiosity about the rest of the genre because none of the novel’s offered pleasures rests in any significant way on the dystopian elements. Not really. This is not a mark against Hall just the way it fits into my limited ideas about SF.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t count for me either, perhaps more inexplicably. The cloning plot line played a central role so I cannot convincingly persuade myself that he only used it as a launching pad. But, again, he focuses on the effects of the cloning and little (or nothing?) on the science behind it. I need it to be obvious. Give me labs and aliens! The fantastical fabrications! Global warming and cloning is so now — spice it up a bit, damn it. (Maybe this is because of my fantasy background.) Anyway, I liked the novel as I read it but it left nothing behind but a blank white mental space.

There was The Chrysalids in boarding school but all I remember is something about kids and a spaceship.

Wilson writes about the stars disappearing, the earth suddenly covered in a protective shield put in place by some unknown intelligence to protect the earth’s inhabitants from a “temporal velocity” that’s occurring beyond its barrier. The beings, so speculation goes, slowed down earth’s time relative to time beyond its sphere; millions of years transpire in what for earth is only a decade (for example). Without the shield sun light would reach the earth’s atmosphere at speeds beyond the filtering capacity of ozone layer and we’d all fry. Conversely, without a sun we’d freeze so the (probably) aliens put up a fake sun and moon.

Here’s the science that was rumoured to exist in the genre. Being a SF there has to be, I suppose, some smug pronouncements on most people’s “pre-Newtonian” understanding of astrophysics — the smugness does fit in with the character’s personality — and, of course, the only reason our narrator has a clue what his genius pal is discussing is because he reads SF novels. I forgive the earnestness since everything is going well, so far.

*****

Finding a Girl in America, the story collection by Andre Dubus is proving to be a mixed offering. Or not mixed so much as not the transcendent experience I expected but author’s must find it difficult to produce uniformly magnificent fiction with each new publication. One or two stories have weak spots but a less-than-awesome Dubus is still an excellent affair, more rewarding than what most authors could manage.

The familiar subjects are here. Couples or families are disrupted by death or divorce. Military men and their families or loved ones deal with the occupational stresses. Dubus never writes of them in battle, at least I’ve never come across it, it’s always the before and after. Baseball. I get the impression that Dubus is a huuuuge baseball fan. :) I’m not one but he makes it compelling. If any writer is North American, specifically of the United States, who crafts stories that embody the people and the landscape, who captures the text, taste, rhythm and essence of their life, it’s Dubus. That’s one of the things that always struck me about his writing and what I find attractive about it.

I’m fascinated by war stories too, specifically the actions and reactions of the soldiers’ and their family, even of their home community. Nations gung ho about their military are, I think, at the core pretty ambivalent about it (how can they not be?) and I’ve always been curious about how soldiers function when they know that combat guarantees psychological damage of some sort. And we require it of them. Or just the problems of distance, months and months away from the spouse, fiancé, girlfriend. Sometimes it’s about the widows or the children left behind. Sometimes it’s not particularly about the man’s military life (always a man, never woman). Dubus’ soldiers tend to have fought in the Korean or Vietnam war.

Or is it? I intended to give my attention to only two books today — Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall — but now I’m looking at the shelves and wondering if I shouldn’t bother with something else. I do have two lovely LRB issues to look forward to.

I’m a bit horrified at myself for not feeling more enthusiastic about the Gallant. It was that Russell Banks guy who wrote the introduction. He started off with a lot of daft declarations about what makes the short story, many of which I didn’t even understand, but I had a very good time out last night, so maybe I’m the daft one this morning.

The tension — and sometimes outright conflict — between remembered and felt experience on the one hand and, on the other, the known truth of what happened lies at the heart of all the great short stories. It’s the argument that generates plot and structure, which, finally, gives a story meaning.

What? Are we talking about fiction here or awesome memoirs? Is he describing the characters’ experiences or the authors? And why is this the basic composition — between memory and experience — of a masterpiece short story? Is that what made Kafka great? Andre Dubus is the writer who legitimized and justified the entire form for me and that’s not the aspect of his writing that bowled me over. His skill was in rendering complex, dire emotion in a simple prose. He balanced the every day with the inner turmoil, in some instances as mundane as anything else, and gave his ordinary characters experience the weight and potency of Greek tragedies. His writing voice was as clear as a bell. And although his stories could be wrenching — I was sobbing, outright sobbing at the end of “Rose” in his collection The Last Worthless Evening — I’d never say they were depressing. They just felt….real, honest, true, whatever that means, not in a documentary-like sense but just the emotional experience he created, the spirit of his work, of his characters, of every sentence felt…authentic. And…I’m getting ahead of myself because I was thinking none of these things at this point as I hadn’t read any of Gallant stories, yet.

I love Derek McCormack’s, absurd, violent, horrific, comedic work and I’m telling you, he’s not so much interested in exploring the tension between recollection and “the known truth”. (Which how do you know if you can only depend on memory? The omniscient narrator? That’s easy, isn’t it.)

Banks name checked Gogol and Chekhov and since I haven’t read their work yet, who’s to say. What I will say is that even if that’s the remarkable quality of their work I don’t see why that has to be the specific standard that all must work up to.

The other odd thing about Banks’ introduction was that he seemed determined to present Gallant to me, a first time reader, as the literary equivalent of a handmade quilt — of the absolute highest quality! — with which I could cover myself and revel in its comfort and familiar sensation, maybe from childhood. Seriously! Don’t worry, he assures me, she’s not obscure, or esoteric for everything, “characters, settings, situations, and language are always instantly familiar, intimate, and homegrown, whether planted in Montreal an Eastern Township village, Paris, Moscow, Florida, or the French Mediterranean”. That sounds exciting. I don’t mind a bit of strangeness in my fiction and, considering the book’s title, I was kind of betting on…at least one story element being strange. I wonder, though, if it’s not that he expects the typical NYRB classics reader to have already travelled to such marvellous places. It reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s review of Coetzee’s latest in the NYRB where she suggested that the book might nudge readers to “reread” Brothers Karamazov. (Of course.)

Then he makes possibly the most ridiculous statement in the entire essay. After giving brief descriptions of a few of the stories in the book he writes

None of these characters has money or property or much education; none of them is secure in society. Characters and situations like these seem peculiarly American, North American. (ed: I wonder if that includes Mexico?) It’s not easy to imagine them in the hands of a British or European or Latin American writer. I fear they would be treated far less kindly.

What’s THAT supposed to mean? I ask you. Those foreign writers have it in for America’s poor and dispossessed? Or are they all too busy writing about lords and ladies and rich oligarchs and wouldn’t know what to do, bless their hearts,with a poor ol’ American high school drop out or –

He continues his paean to “North” America (minus that pesky country that speaks that funny language hanging off the bottom there), proclaims that the New Yorker‘s regular printing of Gallant’s stories justifies it existence (I thought that was Munro? Or is it vice versa in her case?) then graciously allows that Gallant is only a “writers’ writer” in the sense that she “honours in every sentence…the deepest, most time-honored principles of composition: honesty, clarity, and concision” not because her work is highfalutin’ and exotic.

So one good thing out of this is that I now know how a “writers’ writer” is defined. Hitherto, I thought it denoted a writer popular among other writers but not well-known in the reading public. I didn’t know they also attached on to it a reason for the status ie too complex for regular folks. If I like a “writers’ writer” can I become an honorary writer in recognition of my superior taste? Let’s see…I think I saw Steve Stern given that description once. Donald Harington, definitely. Lydia Davis probably counts, so if I enjoy her book, I can mark her off too.

I started “The Fenton Child”, first story in the collection, prepared to be stripped bare by Gallant’s greatness. (Or bundled up in it’s fuzzy wuzziness.) After all, Banks had declared her one of the greatest living “story writers” in English, with only maybe William Trevor and Alice Munro deserving similar accolades — Americans, you’re up for zero. What I got was…an ok story. Pretty good! It’s about the life of two middle-class families in Quebec and they’re depicted with a tender, quirky kind of humour that makes you laugh for a bit, which is nice. I enjoy a writer with a good sense of humour and I’m always puzzled at why many critics never mention this in their commentary unless their subject has a comedic rep.

The story’s corner stone was its narrative structure which Gallant cleverly handled. The beginning of the story starts at an orphanage run by nuns at which a doctor, his friend an upper-middle class Anglo, Mr. Fenton, and a young Quebecois girl, Nora, who is supposed to take care of the baby for a week or so before a foreign nursemaid arrives. The child’s mother is not well, it seems, suffers from “depression” and cannot come for the babe herself. It’s something of a mystery as to why they’re there to pick it up an orphanage if they were the birth parents. Gallant interspersed tiny scenes from Nora’s memory as we follow the small group to Fenton’s house and then she halts that story line to write the scenes that directly lead to that moment and then we get the finish.

I’m sure I could uncover more if I dug a little deeper but I’m not interested. Nothing has any weight for me. I read and it’s as though the wind could blow the words off the page and what was left would hold as much substance and be as interesting. Oh, that poor Anglo’s introverted outlook is funny ha ha, and oh that Quebecois family shunted their daughter off to some convent because she had tuberculosis, the poor man’s disease, and forgot about her, ho hum. Oh, that’s how this baby came about, oh dear. Turn the page. Shrug.

Now I’m in the middle of “The End of the World” and, so far, it’s as unpromising. Here we have the story of a father who abandoned his wife and three sons, the oldest was 12, after WWII, ended up in France, and his son was called for to be there with him in his last days. This should be bitter, possibly farcical, poignant, tempestuous, tragic, something, but I’m kind of just reading along. Maybe Paris Stories is better? Or do I have to be North American to appreciate Gallant’s grandeur?

I shall have to reread the Dubus collections I’ve already read and buy the rest. Whenever I read articles about American short story writers I never see his name mentioned and I’m always railing my fist in frustration and wondering if I dreamt up my intense reaction to his prose.

Sunday Salon

“But he isn’t in love with you.” – Garret in “Love is a Thing…”

I started Tao Lin’s Bed: Stories this morning because I needed a burst of some contemporary fiction that wouldn’t annoy me. You know how I feel about Hall but Sobert’s weird, self-involved, circular, constant commentary on his own every move, word and thought is getting on top of my nerves.

After finishing “Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists”, the first story in the collection, I decided that this is kind of post-911 fiction I prefer. If you set a tale in Manhattan and mention terrorists you automatically get dropped into that category, right? I haven’t tried any of the other stuff out there and only hold interest in Mohsin Hamid’s latest (which I didn’t know belonged to that category until the reviews came out) but, for the most part, they sound either dull or trite. Mostly dull.

Lin, on the other hand, had me chuckling from page one.

This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America, set up underground tunnels in the rural areas, like gophers. During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb. This was a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound. They would whisper into the wind something mordant and culturally damning about McDonald’s, Jesus, and America — and then, if they wanted to, if the situation eschatologically called for it, they would slice your face off with a KFC spork.

Other ways the terrorists might be out to get you?

  • Pipes: Entire terrorist families are hiding within the walls of your house, scrambling up pipes ready to…errr…ruin your plumbing without warning. That sounds familiar.
  • Free cruise: They could attach “outboard motors” to Manhattan island and take the inhabitants on a free world cruise with virgin piña coladas and, I’m assuming, indoctrination classes.

That and the vibrant anti war supporters — whose most profound statement so far has been, “Fuck war, fuck, war” — are side trimmings for the main story which centres on Garret and Kristy, a college aged couple who live in Brooklyn and aren’t having the time of their lives, partly because Kristy is always late for everything. I didn’t really know what to make of it and I expect that will be my reaction to a lot of Lin’s stories, but I don’t mind being stumped as along as I think I’m getting something out of it.

*****

As I read more of the Idylls I discover that it’s potentially a little more interesting than fun chivalric tales espousing a predominantly Christian and patriarchal perspective (although there’s a lot of that). The things that make this so may not count much for others if they have more than a passing knowledge of the Arthurian myths. All of my knowledge has been gained through Hollywood and a couple of fantasy authors, one of whom had used it in such a way that was actually closer to the myths literary sources than I thought.

As I read the two poems about Geraint and Enid I noticed a sprinkling of Welsh mythological references here and there, thanks to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their presence struck me as odd, particularly since it seemed to limited to their story, and it added to the epic’s crazy mishmash of Christian and pagan elements. I figured that the couple had some specific ties to Wales that Tennyson was acknowledging.

It turns out that the whole darn Arthurian myth came out of Welsh mythology. Wtf? I thought it had something to do with the French? It appears that Arthur’s incredibly jumbled literary history started from when Christian monks wrote down his story from a variety of different sources and was swollen “by the confluence of rivers of romantic Euro-drivel“. It’s a bit difficult to decipher from internet resources how the tales truly differ (websites one after the other present it in such different ways) and I don’t know that I’m intrigued enough to borrow a hefty academic text to wade through. I’ve decided to simply enjoy the bizarre product.

There were also sombre elements at work that stood out prominently amongst the more fantastical elements. Two of Arthur’s knights, so far, have been depressed to the point of contemplating and courting suicide and in both cases Tennyson wrote of their situations with pathos rather than just romantic flourish.

Edyrn, son of Nodd, is the dastardly figure in “The Marriage of Geraint” who harboured affections for his cousin Enid which she did not return. Rejected and hurt he turns the entire town against her family, stealing most of their fortune and encouraging the residents to loot the rest. Geraint comes to save the day as Edyrn had the fortune of offending Queen Guinevere via her maid, who, in a friendly manner, tried to discover Edyrn’s identity from his rude and ugly dwarf servant. (Poor dwarfs. They rarely catch a break in these sort of tales.) As any Don Quixote reader should know the victor always orders the defeated foe to return to the offended lady to seek pardon (and stuff) and so Edyrn willingly does as, if there’s anything he understands it’s brute strength.

Naturally, he converts into a good God-fearing knight and dies in battle, so one is tempted to write him off. But he returns in returns in part two, “Geraint and Enid“, to tell Enid and therefore the reader what happened to him when he went to Camelot. As is characteristic of Tennyson (and needful in a poem, perhaps) he did not spend a lot of words on the matter but it was enough to provoke my sympathy and to bring in a darkness that, for a modern reader, is more general than Camelot’s inevitable doom because its apogee was wholly idealised and symbolic anyway.

But once you came,–and with your own true eyes
Beheld the man you loved (I speak as one
Speaks of a service done him) overthrow
My proud self, and my purpose three years old,
And set his foot upon me, and give me life.
There was I broken down; there was I saved:
Though thence I rode all-shamed, hating the life
He gave me, meaning to be rid of it.
And all the penance the Queen laid upon me
Was but to rest awhile within her court;
Where first as sullen as a beast new-caged,
And waiting to be treated like a wolf,
Because I knew my deeds were known, I found,
Instead of scornful pity or pure scorn,
Such fine reserve and noble reticence,
Manners so kind, yet stately, such a grace
Of tenderest courtesy, that I began
To glance behind me at my former life,
And find that it had been the wolf’s indeed

Enyrd’s frank acknowledgement of his past madness, as he called it, and present contentment is delivered in a matter-of-fact manner that made his situation more poignant and sympathetic. I was not so much focused on the lesson parcelled up in the Queen’s Christ-like, forgiving attitude but on Enyrd’s understandable shame and wretchedness in the face of such magnanimity. The chance to get to hear his side of things also gives his glorious death, as predicted in the previous poem, more resonance and saps some of its eye rolling cheesiness.

The next Roundtable Poem, “Balin and Balan“, features another suicidal knight, Balin “the Savage”. He had been exiled for 3 years from Camelot for killing a dude who had badmouthed him. You mess with Balin in a bad mood at your peril. Unlike Enyrd, Balin is less a predatory sparrow-hark — Enyrd’s nickname in his town — and more of a violent depressive fuck up, which I found to be pretty modern too. No evil fairies cursed him at birth or anything like that, Balin just seemed to suffer from a chemical imbalance that plagued him since birth and which grew into a paranoia; it’s a rare day, during his bad periods, when he doesn’t think everyone except his brother has a problem with him. (That bit of info, revealed by Balan, invites speculation that Balin’s first victim’s worst crime could have been looking at Balin a little too hard.)

Unfortunately for Balin there are no pills in Camelot. In its stead Tennyson offers weak-willed women. After a judicious test in which Arthur, disguised, defeats both brothers in single combat — a scene which Tennyson short changed two (two!) lines to the whole thing — he accepts both into Camelot and Balan to the Order of the Roundtable. Balin is resolved to cure himself of his self-destructive behaviour and “learn what Arthur meant by courtesy,/ Manhood, and knighthood”. Tennyson loves to set up terribly ironic situations so he has Balin look to Lancelot and Guinevere’s wonderfully devoted but entirely chaste relationship which inspires Lancelot to perform all kinds of magnificent deeds. Surely Guinevere, “the sunshine that hath given the man/A growth, a name that branches o’er the rest,/And strength against all odds, and what the King/So prizes–overprizes–gentleness” was the fitting symbol which he could use as a calming, restorative influence. In lieu of having a similar relationship with her he requests that she and the King only allow him to put her heraldry on his shield in place of the more savage one he sported.

One can’t help but think that Camelot, for all its glory, was populated with a lot of stupid men. They worship and place all their hope and ideals in men and women who are then raised to an impossible height from which they inevitably fall. (Arthur has yet to reveal any flaws but my theory is that he’s precursor of that alien the Raelians like to talk about. More on that later.) Balian is excused, for obvious reasons, but to me the whole lot of were just a set of blasphemous idol worshippers who God couldn’t wait to screw with. What does it mean when the eeeeeevil Vivien in the next poem is the one who offers the most sensible commentary on their hierarchy?

“This Arthur pure!
Great Nature through the flesh herself hath made
Gives him the lie! There is no being pure,
My cherub; saith not Holy Writ the same?”

Makes sense to me. More on Balin and the awesomeness of “Merlin and Vivien” later. Maybe. I might nap first and who knows how long that could take.

As you probably know by now the winter issue of good ol’ PR arrived on my doorstep. I was most excited about the Oe Kenzaburo interview and the Liao Yiwu feature initially, but a second look at the cover a couple of days later made me squee and flip through the pages to sample a Louise Glück poem. If there’s one thing I prefer about Gourevitch’s editorship it’s the shift to including a few poems from a few writers rather than one or two from a gazillion. There’s also a short story by Jesse Ball (whose latest novel Open Letters Monthly reviewed for February).

I still miss the frontispiece of a Paris street. I miss it even more when it appears that each opening selection for some time will have a Powell’s book store ad on the facing page. The frontispiece would make this easier to tolerate.

Under Gourevitch the staff has also shown a knack for picking memorable fiction to open issues. I can only recall two of those now — Mohsin Hamid’s “Focus on the Fundamentals” (Fall 2006) and Alessandro Barrico’s “Overture to the Twentieth Century” (Spring 2006) — but at the time I read the others I was impressed. Winter 2007’s was a massive fail.

OK, it’s not awful at all. It falls rather nicely with the average quality of the fiction the magazine publishes, based on my limited experience: competent, even accomplished prose, fair stab at interesting, imperfect characters struggling with some moral dilemma and/or troubled relationship, whether familial, platonic or romantic. In Alistair Morgan’s “Icebergs” a white South African, upper-middle class widow, Dennis Moorcraft, becomes acquainted with a mysterious black businessman who goes by “Bradshaw” and who moved into one of the luxurious vacation homes next door. They become cautiously friendly, Bradshaw’s bodyguard notwithstanding, until Moorcraft’s artist daughter Melissa arrives and worst news follows not too long after about Bradshaw’s “import and export” business.

The story marks Morgan’s print debut so I do not mean to be too hard on him. I thought his prose captured Moorcraft’s voice very well, though written in third person, and I could “hear” him clearly. The mystery surrounding how things with Bradshaw turn out, especially with Melissa involved (which one could see coming from a mile away), did pique my curiosity. Everyone knows that the “import and export” line is international code for lucrative, illegal dealings. (So much so that it looks a bit odd that Moorcraft was barely suspicious. But that’s a nitpick.) And I’m…ah…sure that his isolation in that tourist town — placed on him by his dying wife who made him promise to live in the retirement home they had built together — with all his children not only physically but, it appears, emotionally distant from him, offspring who he does not really understand because he spent most of their youth working hard at the office for early retirement, probably has something to do with the story title. (Heck, it’s pluralised, throw in the constantly wary and private Bradshaw in there, too.) But I know it’s going to be one of those stories I’ll have to work to remember three months from now; and those memories will only contain one or two scenes, title and author out-of-reach.

The choice to include “Icebergs” in this issue at all, much less as the opener, seems especially cruel when one considers that the three other stories are killer. I mean who-is-this-author-when-can-I-get-his-book-ooo-pre-order killer. Graham Joyce twisted my innards a bit, György Dragomán eviscerated them and Jesse Ball, seeing as there was nothing left, settled on befuddling my brain and messing a bit with my emotions. (I also can’t help but compare Morgan to another South African author featured in PR, Damon Galgut, who knew how to lend such regular ol’ kind of stories an urgency and weight that lifted the proceedings above the mundane.)

I’m a sucker for war stories (in short fiction) that engage with more recent conflicts from the Vietnam war onwards. Graham Joyce goes full out in the first person with his British vet narrator, Seamus Todd, who relates his war experience from conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands to the first Gulf war. If you’re familiar with Joyce you know that he’s won a few British fantasy awards so “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” does not develop in a perfectly ordinary way. Todd manages to escape a dangerous and potentially fatal situation in the Iraqi desert but a consequence of this is that he acquires a winking, good humoured Arab, his supposed rescuer, as a life long companion that only he can see. He routinely reveals his presence to Seamus by briefly possessing whoever he is talking to at the time, dropping a sly wink or making veiled references that only the two of them would get.

It is no surprise that Todd is soon (honourably) discharged. What is the reader to think of his situation? One could assume that Todd’s genie, as he once called him, is a hallucination induced by post-traumatic stress disorder or whatever sort of psychological stress one could expect to find in an experienced soldier. The Gulf war was also notable for the very long periods during which soldiers were constantly on alert and being trained for anything from chemical attacks to battle with the elite Revolutionary Guards, but in actuality meeting nothing but desert. (Jarhead portrayed the exact same experience in that respect.) But this Iraqi (or maybe not, one doesn’t know for sure) is very real to Seamus, is on his mind constantly and at what point caused him to lose his job and serve jail time. The story ends in this uncomfortable space that’s both farcical and depressing.

György Dragomán story…that one was rough. I won’t spend much time on it except to say that it centres on two young boys, age 11 or 12, who are the goalies for a local football (soccer) team (in a Hungarian town, I assume, although it’s not specified). Their coach is a deranged man who had no business being anywhere near children but so it goes. He used to teach the adult team but he was so hard on them they ganged up on him one night. So he got demoted to the children.

The prose moves steadily along in the voice of the young narrator, in long sentences marked with frequent commas, not many periods, so a paragraph is often one sentence. If you have a younger sibling or spent some time with children it apes very nicely the way their sentences can rush along picking up scenes and feelings if they’re eager to tell you about their day or some memorable event. It’s unfortunate that Dragomán goes for that here since I wanted to dig in my feet and delay all the bad things I knew were going to happen while hoping I’d get some kind of Disney sports movie climax.

Ack! Still writing about it. It’s called “The End of the World”. My sense of time certainly rushed, slowed, then stopped for a terrible scene near the end and it took some time for me to even attempt finishing the rest of my chicken stir fry pita. Ugh. I feel queasy thinking about it even now. (And actually felt a bit sick for part of the evening after I read it, although that was probably due to me overeating some hours after, the logic going that food would sop up my dull mood.) That story and “Jump” from the Fall 2006 issue (which I don’t remember but you can bet I’m going back to reread) are excerpts from his second novel, The White King, in April 2008, the first of his to be published in English, I think.

One would wish for Jesse Ball to provide relief. No sir, nothin’ doing. Instead we get a revenge tale involving mistaken identity, a miscarriage and four old-timey gun duels that end in four murders. It’s written in an odd fashion, or rather to an odd effect. The parts read…detached somehow ie there are strange…gaps that separate the lines of dialogue from the ones about the action and even the characters’ thoughts seem strangely distant from the figures themselves with the exception of Carr. His thoughts seem a little more connected to him and finally coalesce into what I suppose one would call a more realistic, breathing character, whereas before they all are more obviously constructions. Hmm. Did that make any sense.

Well, for one thing the dialogue is shown by dashes rather than the more interconnected apostrophes and commas that can help to make lines flow into each other. But that’s only a part of it. Ball also starts the story’s actions immediately and doesn’t work in any background details, doesn’t flesh things out, just has his characters interact in brief sentences and you have to trust that you won’t be lost. The plot itself is also rather bizarre which highlights the story’s artificiality somewhat…and then you get plunged into what looks like a morality play, or something, but really isn’t.

I was never, ever bored though and it got to me in the end. It’s one ripe for rereading and I never reread lit mag stories so that should be saying something. No idea if it’s an excerpt of his Samedi the Deafness but “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr” definitely bumped it up my TBR pile.

One of the books I received for my birthday was The Penguin Books of Summer Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. I’d spotted it during a regular store browse and found it attractive because many of the authors — Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, A.B. Yehoshua, Alice Munro, Julio Cortázar — were ones in whom I’d long been interested but had yet to try.

Like J.S. Peyton, I typically read short stories collections/anthologies from beginning to end (including the introduction). This time, too, I changed tactics and decided to jump around after I realised I wasn’t inclined to start things off with the omnipresent Atwood. I chose Daphne du Maurier’s “The Pool”.

I was never invested in the idea of “summer stories” having lived so long on an island where changes in season were measured by the volume of rainfall. Beaches were pleasant all year round and I had the freedom wander out by the harbour, smelling flowers, idling on the jetty, writing in my journal, reading or daydreaming under trees on regular weekend breaks. Summers were about travelling abroad, summer camps and, later on, the obligatory summer jobs. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of reading summery fare during winter, especially since this year things have returned to “normal”: there are several inches of snow outside my window with no signs that it will let up. Last year, this time, I was still wearing sneakers and my spring/fall coat.

Maurier’s story yielded a palpable contrast. Two children, Deborah and Roger, are staying with their grandparents in the country. Their house is right by a forest, a place with which Deborah holds an intense and compelling bond that is part love, part fear, part reverence. She is able to be wholly absorbed by it for hours at a time, imbuing in every fern and tree, dead or alive, with thoughts and motivations. Not even croquet clips suffer from imaginative neglect.

“Hurry,” shouted Roger, and she threw the clip into the corner, then quickly returned when she was halfway to the pitch, because she knew the clip was lying apart from its fellows, and she might wake in the night and remember it. The clip would turn malevolent, and haunt her. She replaced him on the floor with two others, and now she was absolved and the summer house at peace.

That constant, active regard for others extends in more substantial ways to her younger brother and grandparents. She is ever balancing her needs with Rogers, indulging his requests to play cricket or build a tree house with terms that limit as much as possible any intrusion on her personal time, and leaves Roger perfectly satisfied. She thinks about her grandparents’ lifestyles a lot, concerned and somewhat repelled by their quiet routine, curious about whether they are truly content with their lot, and whether their dull plodding on to the end is an unavoidable fate for everyone. What are other lives like? Then there are moments when, plans foiled, feelings slighted, she is sulky and ill-tempered. Her pagan interactions with the forest also reveal a self-absorption one usually relates to childhood.

Maurier draws a distinct line between Deborah’s powerful imagination and her age, a young girl about to transition into adolescence. In fact, a pool at the deepest point in the forest Deborah can reach, is suggestively presented as reversion to the earliest parts of childhood, or rather to a more primordial consciousness; a state in which one could invest a place with so much importance that one invented rituals, such as bowing, or raising a hand in salute to the trees, and truly believe that there was a secret world at the pool’s bottom where a woman stood at the gate, allowing in whom she will.

The forest is not the only mystery or fascinating element. The children’s interactions with the grandparents offer their own questions. The relationship seems congenial enough, but Deborah is the favourite, at least of her grandfather. Roger has an anxious, earnest, loving regard for his grandfather which is not returned. He dreads his appearance but, if the grandfather is there, he then yearns to impress him. But the grandfather is indifferent, generally, and if kisses are to be given it is Deborah who will receive them. At the story’s end it is interesting to note that when Deborah has her first period — restricted to bed after a hallucinatory night time visit to the forest ended with a dive into the weed entangled pond — Roger gains a promotion of sorts in the household as the go-between between her and her grandparents, and is notably more relaxed.

“The Pool” has many passages that, together, envelop you into an almost stuffy summer atmosphere. Below is one of my favourite passages, a favourite because it bears a faint similarity to my own remembered feelings towards nature on days when I sat with a book under a tall, old, dark tree, breathing in and looking out on the sea.

…Deborah made for the trees fringing the lawn, and once in the shrouded wood felt herself safe. She walked softly along the alleyway to the pool. The late sun sent shafts of light between the trees and on to the alleyway, and a myriad insects webbed their way in the beams, ascending and descending like angels on Jacob’s ladder. But were they insects, wondered Deborah, or particles of dust, or even split fragments of light itself, beaten out and scattered by the sun?

It was very quiet. The woods were made for secrecy. They did not recognize her as the garden did. They did not care that for a whole year she could be at school, or at Hunstanton, or in London. The woods would never miss her: they had their own dark, passionate life.

Deborah came to the opening where the pool lay, with the five alleyways branching from it, and she stood a moment before advancing to the brink, because this was holy ground and required atonement. She crossed her hands on her breast and shut her eyes. Then she kicked off her shoes. “Mother of all things wild, do with me what you will,” she said aloud. The sound of her own voice gave her a slight shock. Then she went down on her knees and touched the ground three times with her forehead.

Going through the archives of this now sedate, genteel magazine has increased my fondness for the outfit. The 50s were early enough days that it was seen as necessary to include a note at the end of the interviews, informing the readers of the aims of the “Art of” series. By the twelfth instalment, staff had already interviewed writers like Alberto Moravia, Georges Simenon, Faulkner and Graham Greene. Dorothy Parker’s interview format revealed that the template has not changed from its origins, for the most part, except when the mag gets writer buddies or some other notable author as the interviewer (always for the worst in my experience).

This issue hammered home for me precisely why they name “Paris” is in the title of the review at all. I became familiar with the publication through more recent issues that, in comparison to editions decades earlier, obscured those origins to a remarkable degree. (I used to think it was chosen because it just sounded fancy.) They no longer carry the late art editor William Pene du Bois frontispiece of “6 Rue Casimir-Lavigne” nor does it list subscription prices in francs as well as dollars. Up the the early 80s (all I’ve checked) the masthead still listed a Paris office. The 1950s issues, at least of ’56 and ’57, featured lists of stores in Paris. The no.13 issue had a book store list, some of which were the Librairie Galignani at 224, Rue de Rivoli, Ope 56-98, which boasted “the most extensive and varied stock of books in English in Paris, including many paper-bound books”. The Garnier Arnoul, Theatre & Circus Books on 39, rye de Seine, 6e, Ode.80-05 offered three catalogues on theatre, “circus, mime, and music hall:, and “ballet, opera, music”, along with prints, autographs and “new and old” book editions. Both still exist but the second is at a different address if the google search result was reliable.

The 14th issue expanded that into a ‘”Sous les toits de Paris” — a directory to eating, drinking and shopping in Pars. In contrast to all that the recent editions are all New York. Too bad.

Another editorial difference was that older issues had a discernible theme with a particular selection and organisation of prose, art and poetry, how one piece lead to another. No. 13 opened with a series of letters by a James Blake, a prisoner (whose short story, it turns out, was published in a later issue) which lead to an excerpt from “A Thief’s Journal” by Jean Genet, a critically acclaimed French writer who had also been imprisoned. A poem describing salmon migration (“Explication” by Robert Greenwood) lead to a short story (“Gull Pond Is a Half-Mile Wide” by Richard Whittier) about two men fishing. Greenwood’s poem started from a literal description of a setting, a stream in a gloomy, fog covered landscape, to a moment that retained its descriptive roots but became more figurative and conceptual as the salmon entered the picture, a figure of “Pure force and motion”. Whittier started with a simple fishing scene with two men, one ten years older than the other and concerned about maintaining an admirable, likeable air. After he almost drowned from exhaustion after a whole day of fishing — what a work out! — and some hectic rowing (I guess), he gained insight into deeper philosophical matters for he now “knew what a man should fear…”. (Whatever. Malnutrition and lack of exercise were the more appropriate spectres. Whittier’s attempt at gravitas was hilarious. Peter (the weakling) was a former member of a rowing team but almost drowned when he had to dive in the water after the oars he lost after a day of fishing in which he didn’t catch any fish?)

I did not think much of Richard Yates’ fiction either. (Isn’t he supposed to be a big deal?) He tried to write a funny story about the staff of a pathetic trade union journal, complete with eccentric, ridiculous, charming characters that want to be extravagant but plausible, at least in the story’s framework. The effect was an inauthentic and pathetic as the journalistic outfit he depicted. I kept on comparing it to Steve Stern’s efforts and found it wanting: his writing is similarly irreverent and comedic, but is significantly superior. Where was the vibrant fire to enervate the character depictions, the intimate knowledge of the newsroom, the control, the amazing diction, the dialogue that all but sings in your ear? I turned each page of the Yates story waiting patiently for something interesting to occur while hoping for it to end soon. I’d defy anyone to open a Stern book to any page and not find it at least one thing that entertains, impresses or intrigues.

Who is Richard Yates? (A quick google served up the near incredible information that he influenced Andre Dubus. Huuuuuuuh? The PR contribution must have been a fluke….)

Nadine Gordimer’s piece “A Face from Atlantis” — an actual short story, I’m happy to note, rather than a novel excerpt — was the only one I enjoyed. The oceanic reference is a sure shot for me (if the writer knows what she’s doing) and of course the lost Atlantis’ place in myth, from Breton to Numenor, give it an edge. Best of all the story imbued it with its own colour and meaning on at least a couple of levels so, from the start, Gordimer offered a compelling element to work with. It was about a German expat, forced to leave Germany for his liberal sentiments around the start of WWII, and his much younger South African wife, travelling through Europe and the United States (NYC anyway) to meet his old friends from his younger past.

The Dorothy Parker interview was the odd duck of the lot. She professed to think next to nothing of her own work, but besides that her answers were sometimes a little hard to follow. I can’t really say why that is except that her phrasing was a bit odd, a tad disjointed, running along at a different speed altogether than mine, with some terms that are definitely not used anymore. Anyway she revealed some gems, including an amusing description of the changes in the American Vogue staff.

Interview: What kind of work did you do at Vogue?

Parker: I wrote captions: “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue not chic. They were decent, nice women — the nicest women I ever met — but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what should be: all divorcees, and chic, a collection of Ilka Chases; the models are out of the mind of Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers — my old job — they’re recommending mink covers at $75 apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “– for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.

As is usual for older issues the art was incomprehensible and the poetry…eh.


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