On Beige Short Stories

This article over on the Guardian by Mark Haddon is bloody wonderful. It helped me put my finger on something that has been irking me about some short stories I’ve been reading lately. Close reading stories has been an interesting exercise for me (and I’ve written some of my thoughts here, here and here). I found that certain stories which I enjoyed first time around are flimsy and dull when I re-read them. I’ve even avoided writing about some of the stories I intended to blog about because I just couldn’t be bothered to think enough about them after I’d finished reading, well-written enough though they were.

I think that people on writing courses are taught to see short stories in a particular way. I’ve noticed that I get higher marks if I play it safe in my stories, so perhaps others have found the same thing. I think this is a shame because, in our busy-worshiping lives, we need to grab attention if we want actual readers to notice our stories. This line of Haddon’s particularly stood out to me: ‘It seems to me that if you are writing a short story and it is not more entertaining than the stories in that morning’s newspaper or that evening’s TV news, then you need to throw it away and start again, or open a cycle repair shop.’ I would rather watch Netflix than read another ho-hum short story, and for a long time I thought this was a failing of mine. Perhaps I wasn’t actually cut out to be a prose writer! Over the last two years I have become rather fond of the short story form, but only when it is done well. The strongest short story collection I have read recently is Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. She isn’t trying to impress, because she’s Margaret Atwood. You get the sense in Stone Mattress that she’s just trying to amuse herself and, because of this, the stories are fun to read.

We are taught Chekhov and Carver. When we are taught that only one type of story is the sort of story we should be writing, it makes for some dull, beige stories. Particularly if the writer is just doing a bad impression of a writer they think they should emulate. Perhaps we are not even consciously taught this, perhaps this is just what people think short stories are.

I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and am looking forward to reading Mark Haddon’s new short story collection.

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Thoughts on ‘Lusus Naturae’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is one of the best short story collections I’ve read. The strangest story in the collection is called ‘Lusus Naturae’, which is Latin for ‘freak of nature’. In it, our narrator is the freak. She scares people in her conservative community and, because the story is set in some distant non-specific past, her family are willing to accept her deformities as some sort of punishment. It isn’t quite clear which disease our protagonist has, but that doesn’t matter to her or her family: Feed her bread, the doctor had said. She’ll want a lot of bread. That, and potatoes. She’ll want to drink blood. Chicken blood will do, or the blood of a cow. Don’t let her have too much. He told us the name of the disease, which had some Ps and Rs in it and meant nothing to us.’

Because of this disease, the family plan to stage her death, so that her sister will be able to marry into a good family. They bribe a priest: ‘He said I was lucky, because I would stay innocent all my life, no man would want to pollute me, and then I would go straight to heaven.’ On one level, this can be seen as a story about an “inappropriate” woman being locked away,

The narrator lives for a few years, feeling ‘freer’ dead: ‘If it weren’t for the fits, and the hours of pain, and the twittering of voices I couldn’t understand, I might have said I was happy.’ But her family dies and her mother receives an offer to live in her well-off daughter’s house, and this family house is sold. The protagonist then “haunts” the house, until one day she is spotted and the town feel threatened.

The narrator is never angry about her situation. She even speculates that ‘perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel. Or perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be, for everyone else!’ The narrator is always searching for people who look like her, but she can’t find anybody. She is shunned for something she has no control over. It’s a sad story about many things, but it’s specifically addresses being shunned and what that might do to a person. ‘Lusus Naturae’ is a personal story from a viewpoint that would have been ignored at the time. Her illness would have only been discussed in medical journals, using language she wouldn’t understand. It’s amazing what Margaret Atwood can cover in less than ten pages. But she is Margaret Atwood, after all.

Motherhood, Creativity and Fairy Tales: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2

I just read a story on Standard Issue by a woman who was worried about how becoming a mother would affect her writing. How, when she was very pregnant, a fellow (male) writer gestured to her bump and blathered about ‘the pram in the hall’ debilitating her creative output. I also heard Amanda Palmer worrying about this issue on a podcast recently. Creativity is something that received wisdom tells us disappears when a woman has a baby. I’m not even sure if I want children, but even I can’t stop hearing these worries and discussions.

With this in mind, then, I move onto the second collection of ‘modern fables and ancient tales’, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2. It’s published by the independent Mother’s Milk books, who aim to celebrate femininity and motherhood in writing. Many of the stories in here celebrate motherhood, or another female pursuit that has been degraded in some way; women who are shamed for being “too” into looking at themselves in mirrors, for instance.

To take a closer look at some of my favourite stories here, then: ‘Trash into Cash’ by Becky Tipper celebrates motherhood in feminist ways, when a mother tries to stop a man stealing her baby. He says he’ll back off if she can guess the word that he’s thinking of and she’s told that she’ll ‘never guess’ it. But the bond between herself and her child helps her enormously.

‘Lilasette’ by Ronne Randall is wondrously graphic: when an evil queen rips out the womb of a woman who claims to have had her son’s baby, the lilac tree was attacked beside ends up doing amazing things to protect the child. The goriness of this story is great. I was unsure what would happen in this story, which is rare because such stories tend to be quite conservatively structured.

‘Lilasette’ also makes important use of a mirror, as do the stories ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Laura Kayne and ‘How Women Came to Love Mirrors’ by Hannah Malhotra. I think it’s interesting that, exploring fairy tales from a feminine point of view, we are very concerned with the way the world sees us. As seen in my post about a make-up exhibition here, women have been chided for vanity for hundreds of years. But, as one line in ‘How Women Came To Love Mirrors’ has it, ‘perhaps she dreamed of a day when women would not need the mirrors.’

My favourite stories are ones which subvert classic tales or do something unexpected with them. Marija Smit’s ‘Little Lost Soul’ is about a futuristic dystopian world in which a young woman is being abused. I loved this story because it manages to add some psychological reasoning, some interior monologue, which fairy tales often lack. ‘Little Lost Soul’ also manages to give the reader a little shock, too, with the story taking an unexpected turn.

So, The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 didn’t disappoint. It is more than a simple collection of fairy tale retellings. I think that we are told that things closely associated with femininity, such as birth, appearance and being the emotional support for others, are not related to Serious Creative Writing. But it’s important to remember that fairy tales are the oldest literature we have and they were told, for the most part, by mothers to their children. It’s very easy to read this as a collection of stories by themselves, so don’t be put off by my overthinkings if you just want to read a collection of other-worldly stories. Or, if these issues appeal to you, there is a lot to think about here that is revolutionary.

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is available to buy here.

Thoughts on ‘The Child’ by Ali Smith

‘The Child’ is one of my favourite short stories. It is strange but familiar, a story that you can read over and over again and get something different from every time. It starts almost boringly normal and gets more and more strange.

It starts in a supermarket: ‘I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff. I left my trolley by the vegetables and went to find bouquet garni for the soup.’ So far, so ordinary. But when the narrator gets back to the trolley she finds a child sitting in it. The child was ‘big cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel.’ Nobody comes to collect it, so the narrator takes the child to the customer service counter. The staff, and a crowd of shoppers, are adamant that the baby is the narrator’s: ‘what a lovely boy! He’s very like his mum,’ says one. Their strange perception is one of my favourite things about this story. There’s something not quite right happening. Is the narrator unreliable? Is the child actually hers?

The narrator is swayed by the crowd and takes the child back to her car. She contemplates leaving him ‘in the car park behind the recycling bins’ and you start to worry about her and the child. She decides that she will drive around and leave him somewhere else, somewhere quiet, where others will find him and care for him.

But then the baby starts talking. And he’s not saying nice things: ‘you’re a really rubbish driver. I could do better than that and I don’t even drive. Are you for instance representative of all women drivers or is it just you among all women who’s so rubbish at driving?’ Instead of scolding him for his sexist rant, though, the narrator says that ‘it spoke with so surprisingly charming a little voice that it made me want to laugh.’ He goes on to make jokes about mother-in-laws, asylum seekers and gay people. What’s happening here, then? Every time I read this story I can come up with another idea: he represents Britain, colonialism, sexism. The characters are blinded to his awfulness by his charm. He is an innocent child, but there is something not-human about him. Perhaps I am overthinking this and I should just sit back and enjoy this strange dream-like story. But I do enjoy this juxtaposition of innocence and awfulness.

The narrator tries to leave him in a wood, but she feels guilty and goes back to find him later that night. He’s still there, still being awful. How will she get rid of him? And why has he attached himself to her? These questions don’t really need to be answered for me, I just enjoy the mystery in this story. Ali Smith is definitely up there as one of my favourite short story writers.

You can read ‘The Child’ here: http://www.blithe.com/bhq9.1/9.1.01.html

Thoughts on ‘UFO in Kushiro’ by Haruki Murakami

‘UFO in Kushiro’ is the first story in Haruki Murakami’s collection After the Quake. The quake refers to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which was the second worst earthquake in Japan in the twentieth century. Indirectly, the earthquake has strange effects on the characters in these stories.

‘UFO in Kushiro’ starts with Komura’s (unnamed) wife staring at the awful news on TV: ‘five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word.’ She withdraws into her own world, not noticing her husband, and when Komura returns from work one day, she isn’t there.

Intriguing disappearances feature heavily in Murakami’s stories. But this isn’t what ‘UFO in Kushiro’ is about. It turns out that Komura’s wife has left a note stating ‘I am never coming back.’ Sort-of heartbroken, Komura takes some holiday from work and ends up delivering a package to a colleague’s sister in Kushiro, Hokkaido. There, he is greeted by this sister and her friend, who ‘would have been quite pretty if her nose hadn’t been so small.’ From there, the trio have interesting conversations about life and a possible UFO sighting (in Kushiro). One of the women, Shimao, tells Komura that he needs to ‘lighten up and learn to enjoy life a bit more. I mean, think about it: tomorrow there could be an earthquake; you could be kidnapped by aliens; you could be eaten by a bear. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.’ Although this is good advice, there is more than a whiff of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to what these women say.

I love both Murakami’s prose style it seems to wash over me, never impenetrable but fairly deep – often musings on the banality and absurdities of life. Murakami himself has said that he wants to make the reader laugh every so many pages, which is something I appreciate. His stories are mysterious and other-worldly without totally leaving the real world. His surreal stories feel grounded and I still don’t know how he does it.

However, I picked up on some irritating things in my second, close-reading of the story. Komura’s wife is plain but he loses his thirst for other women after he marries her. We learn that ‘Komura’s friends and colleagues were puzzled by his marriage’ and that she is ‘ordinary’ in appearance and ‘there was nothing attractive about her personality either’. But it’s cool because ‘his erections’, we’re assured, ‘were hard’. I find it disconcerting that his wife is not named in this story. Sure, she’s unattractive in every way but does that mean that she doesn’t deserve a name? I would have liked to see more of her: why was she zoning out watching the TV news? What did it mean to her? Why did she suddenly vanish?

This was the story I initially enjoyed most in this collection, whereas now my thoughts have changed a little. I have just bought The Elephant Vanishes, though, which I am assured is a better collection. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Thoughts on ‘Reality, Reality’ by Jackie Kay

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.