I have been reading a lot of short fiction lately, so I’d like to discuss some of the stories I have read and loved. I don’t tend to see prolonged comment on one short story at a time and I wonder if there is a reason for that; perhaps there are so few words that reviewers don’t want to spoil things, or maybe people feel they have to comment on collections as a whole. Let’s find out…
The first piece I will look at is the title story from the wonderful collection by Jackie Kay. It begins innocently enough: with a character washing her face and thinking about her upcoming day:
‘Today was day one of My Big Week. […] I was shallow of breath due to the excitement. I couldn’t stop talking to myself. I couldn’t quieten down.’
A voice plays in her head: ‘only the creme de la creme rises to the surface! COOKING doesn’t GET tougher THAN this! I was shouting now into the mirror. Big voice! Big flavours!’
So. We are led to believe that this is going through her mind, but she is now shouting in front of the mirror. Is she entirely reliable? We also learn that she is ‘feeling a bit ropy on account of drinking too much whisky the night before.’
And then we learn that this reality show isn’t real. This is going on in her head when she is taking a week off work. The narrator’s mother has died and she lives far from home. She is single: ‘I’m sick of paying a single supplement to go on holiday on my own. I mean what nonsense!’ She lives with her dog, the walking of said dog allows her more intimacy than she gets anywhere else in her life. She meets a man walking his dog. he says: ‘”She gets jealous if I meet a new woman. She’s driven all the girls out, even the missus. She’s the missus now, eh, eh?” I couldn’t tell if he was proud or defeated.’ She has a friend, Ali, but she doesn’t appear in person in the story. These reality cooking shows have masked her loneliness and they have taught her that this is the way she can improve her life. She knows their rhythms of these shows, their vocabulary. She berates herself for choosing to make an omelette for her first meal and imagines the judges saying: ‘You’ve played it safe with an omelette, the fat-faced friendly one says. To be honest, I’m a little disappointed.’
The loneliness of the character is palpable but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She dreads going back to work next week to ‘face the music’, but we don’t truly know why. She doesn’t get along with her colleagues. This is her escape. But when does escapism become a problem? This character is a woman on the edge. Her story wouldn’t work as well in a novel because her inner life is too intense.
‘Reality, Reality’ speaks to some of the ways we live now, it can be easy when we are surrounded by TV and social media for us to forget about our loneliness. Kay treats this character and her situation with great kindness and sensitivity. It seems that we read many articles about people being lonely these days, but the tedious realities of loneliness are often ignored. And this, of course, is the strength of fiction. Surprisingly too, ‘Reality, Reality’ is not introspective. Perhaps it is difficult for a character losing their grip on reality to be introspective. There is a deceptive lightness of touch here, because this story goes very deep.