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

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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.

Happy Birthday, Number Seven!

80 years of Number Seven make up at #lakesidenottingham #no7 #makeup

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Number Seven is a make-up brand, found in Boots chemists, which is celebrating its eightieth birthday this year. In celebration, Nottingham Lakeside Arts has an exhibition on the history of the brand. It’s a fascinating thing, not least because it really offers some insight into the history of women. Lisa Eldridge details this overlap in her book (which I reviewed here).

The exhibition showed the sort of society that the 1930s make-up brand came in to for context. Some awful misogyny was on display here from over the years, but it was so awful that it became funny. Here’s the lovely George Saville, in 1688, writing a guide for his daughter:
‘She doth not like her self as God Almighty made her, but will have some of her own Workmanship; which is so far from making her a better Thing than a Woman, than it turn her into a worse Creature than a Monkey.’
Firstly, what does George have against monkeys?! I suppose he wouldn’t have been aware that we are descended from them. I have heard echoes of this sort of thinking being repeated today, which saddens me, but it is important to know that make-up has always angered some men.

So, back to actual Number Seven products, which arrived in the Britain of 1936. 1930s products were more skincare-based, so as not to appear obvious. The following decades would subtly allow for more make-up / make cosmetics almost mandatory.  It was perfectly okay for women to wear non-obvious make-up in the 1930s then, but obvious make-up was for stage actresses (gross!). Look at this dainty box set, one of Number Seven’s first:

Beautiful 1930s #numberseven #makeup #boots

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My favourite thing at this exhibition was the tower of make-up, seen at the top of this post, with 1930s products at the bottom and going up to today’s products at the top (which I, sadly, couldn’t fit into one photo). You can see how the products became less “natural” and skincare based.
I loved seeing things from the distant past, but also loved seeing things that I could remember. My mum had some of these products as I was growing up, which made me feel comforted for some reason. These simple lipsticks and mascaras can be deeply personal. Also, when you’re doing your make-up you’re concentrating on yourself, which many women are unable to do for the rest of the day. We can become intimate with the cosmetics we choose to put on ourselves.

 

Vintage make up at #lakesidenottingham #no7

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My only quibble with the exhibition is that it wasn’t big enough. I would have liked to see more pretty pieces of the past. And I would like to see something of the brand’s little sister, Seventeen, which I used when I was younger (I had a green lipstick from them. They’re still going though!).

This exhibition made me want to buy a red lipstick (which I did). I had always thought that an un-made-up face was giving the middle finger to society, but it’s far more complicated than that. Who would have thought that lipstick could be so loaded?!
As you may be able to tell, I have conflicting feelings on this whole issue. Cosmetics have consistently been ignored and seen as frivolous, or condemned in a slut-shaming way. Choosing what make up to wear, or even wearing none at all, is and always has been fairly political. But, crucially too, these products are beautiful aesthetically. Perhaps I am overthinking a beautiful exhibition, but it has stayed on my mind in the weeks since I went. This is surely the intention of any good exhibition.

 
‘Inspiring Beauty: No.7’ is on at Lakeside Nottingham until April 17th.

‘Make It Be Spring’

‘Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.’

– ‘February’ by Margaret Atwood.

Nice Saturday afternoon #spring #nofiler #uniofnottingham

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I’ve just finished Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection, Eating Fire. It’s a selection of thirty years of her poetry from 1965 – 1995. Poetry collections are not the first books I reach for. I enjoy some spoken word poetry enormously, and have read some amazing poems recently that have just been echoing around my mind. But I struggle with some written poetry. I feel like I’m learning, though. There are some amazing poems in Eating Fire and I can see myself re-reading this over and over again.

‘February’ struck a big chord with me in particular because it’s actually February now (wow, right?!) and this month is the absolute worst. It’s bleak and your body is craving spring and light and warmth (and chocolate eggs) and it’s not getting them. Though I’m not experiencing the dreaded Winter Blues as much as usual this year, I am craving spring. Loved ones are over winter, we all just want it to be over now. The signs are there: daffodils and bluebells and snowdrops are around. It’s getting lighter again in the evenings. It’s coming, but it’s coming too slowly!

‘Winter. Time to eat fat / and watch hockey / […] February, month of despair, / with a skewered heart in the centre. / I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries / with a splash of vinegar.’

The forced romanticism of Valentine’s Day can make the bleak February feel worse. Even if you do have a partner, if you don’t feel romantic on that day then you can feel like a failure. And if you’re single, it’s probably best to hibernate until the disgusting pink chocolate hearts disappear. The one upside of February, though, and a day I always enjoy more than Valentine’s, is Pancake Day. We need more Pancake Days in February.

Or, better than that, make it be spring.

I find that I can get the ideas and images of one poem in my head at a time, which is a very different experience to how I read fiction. I get astounded with poems which get stuck in my head – how has the author managed to get across these ideas in that small amount of words? And it’s often simple ideas, such as how the seasons can affect how you feel, which can most stand out to a reader.

On Binge-watching and Depression

I read an article a couple of months ago on Buzzfeed. It was all about the TV series people watched when they were depressed (it’s here!). The thing I watched, in November and December last year, wasn’t on the list. For some reason, I was obsessed with House.

I was prescribed anti-depressants in November. I hadn’t taken them for nine years and I couldn’t remember how I felt when I was on them. I don’t remember being very present, so I was hesitant to start taking them again. When the doctor says that it’ll take around two weeks to adjust, they are being fairly conservative with their estimate. I couldn’t think – I got my boyfriend to look at an essay I’d written for uni because I couldn’t concentrate on it. It barely made any sense. My fears about medication had been confirmed but, hey, I didn’t really mind at that point.

I couldn’t read, couldn’t write and was feeling very tired all of the time. But at least I wasn’t constantly crying anymore. I had no job to go to and I was too tired in the mornings to get up to go to seminars. I found that I could do domestic cleaning and cooking tasks if I was listening to something. And then I realized that House was on Netflix.

When House was first on, in the long-ago time of the mid-noughties when we had to wait a whole week between episodes, I would watch it every week. I liked watching it with my mum the most, because she was a nurse (and has now just retired) and she would sometimes guess what the problem was before the doctors / actors. I liked that.

I started watching House. I can’t explain why I got so addicted to it. House made sardonic comments about the state of humanity – he lives in a worldview where ‘everybody lies’ – this appealed to me in my sedated but still fairly nihilistic state. It was a strange sort of comfort I got from watching these episodes. Based, as the show is, on Sherlock Holmes, there is a formula: clever man eventually finds out The Thing. Then everything goes back to normal.

Perhaps it was the curing of patients that got to me, perhaps it was the disaffected world view that Dr House presents. Whatever it was, watching Dr House was all I could do for a couple of months as my medication kicked in. I thought I was alone in the bizarre phenomenon, but the Buzzfeed article made me see that this wasn’t the case. When a person can’t read, they need to get their stories from somewhere. Maybe experiencing stories is something intrinsically vital to us. And, because television is so passive, it can just sit there with you as you attempt to get back on your feet. Binge-watching TV is not a solution to any problem, but it can help your brain switch off for a little while.

The Loney and Modern Gothic Fiction

I #amreading The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, an eerily gothic debut novel #bookstagram #theloney

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The Loney is an interesting book to write about (not least because spell-check keeps asking if you do, actually, mean ‘lonely’). In some ways I feel as though I have read this kind of book before, yet in some cases it is clearly taking old tropes and refreshing them in an interesting way.

The tale starts when the narrator and his mute brother, Hanny, are children of deeply religious parents, are on an Easter pilgrimage to an area around The Loney, an isolated strip of land, in the hope that Hanny will start talking again. Attention is called to the ancient feel of the place, the idea that there are parts of this desolate landscape which haven’t had human contact for hundreds of years. I liked this particularly Gothic aspect of the novel; there is a timelessness to this place, a sense of the past and the present colliding in unsettling ways.

Present-day London seems like a far more recognizable world, as opposed to the narrator’s childhood exploits around the Loney. A baby’s body has been found in the Loney and this story is all over the news. The narrator has his own life in this familiar world, where he has been receiving therapy. He sees scraps of his therapist’s handwriting during his sessions – apparently he is a ‘fantasist’. Is our narrator unreliable? This increases the sense of unease.

Something that has always stopped me from loving Gothic fiction is the lack of humour and lightness in such novels. Gothic novels are melodramatic; where there is melodrama, there can’t be much silliness to lighten the mood. The amplifying of tragedy is precisely what makes these novels so scary. It’s interesting, towards the end, when we are taken to the present day. The sense of unease has gone. Things feel lighter.

I think another thing which I have found difficult in reading Gothic fiction is the gendered roles (the hysterical or virginal girl, the big evil man). The narrator, a boy, takes on the role of Andrew’s carer, something his parents should be doing. Mummer is a fairly unsympathetic figure, while Farther (sic) seems more kind, if absent.

Religion features heavily in these books. It is sad to see what Mummer and the rest of her group of friends on the pilgrimage do to their own children, because they think that they are saving their souls. In one flashback, a boy is made to clench his fists around nettles by a priest. This is upsetting and baffling to me, but I think that the novel gave me an insight into these characters’ internal lives. They actually think that they are helping to save these children.

The Loney examines themes I tend not to read very often, in a genre I am wary of. It reads very quickly. It is a huge achievement for a debut novel, which initially was given a very small print run and then went on to win the 2015 Costa First Novel Award. It’s interesting to think about why this is. Why has a novel based on a popular 18th century genre become so popular? Dracula and other vampires became popular during the period of colonialism, representing the selfish fears of the old British Empire. I think that this novel may reflect some deeper fears about contemporary Britain.