Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bare Fiction Magazine Review of Best British Short Stories 2014

There's a new review of Best British Short Stories 2014 in Bare Fiction Magazine. Lucy Jeynes notes that 'when an anthology limits itself to a particular vintage, you hope it’s a good year', and, having read the book, she comes to the conclusion that 2014 must have been a strong one, and that 'this collection forms the ideal starting point for a wider range of reading.' Taking the subtitle of my included story - 'How Stories Do or Don't Get Told' - as the title for her review,  Jeynes ponders the essence of the short story as well as the varieties of ways in which it can be tackled, and the way in which this anthology illustrates both, and she quotes at fair length from several of the stories. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Reading time

After weeks of short-story events that have taken me to London, Norwich and Vienna I'm finally having time to relax and do some proper reading. I can't believe that it was actually May when Faber sent me All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. I have only just got around to reading it and posting my thoughts (here on Fictionbitch). I absolutely loved it, and it's an object lesson in how to write about the most painful things (in this case the suicides of a father and sister), with warmth and generosity as well as biting humour. Go to the link and find out how I thought it was done, and why it's currently one of my best novels of all time.
I've also been reading the other stories in Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt) (which includes my story 'Tides'), and I thoroughly recommend it. Grab it here. I've even managed to read the reading-group book well in time for our next meeting, rather than up against the wire as usual. (It's Doris Lessing's first novel The Grass is Singing.) (My report of our last discussion, Ironweed by William Kennedy, which I also finally got around to writing, is here).

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading group: Ironweed by William Kennedy

Doug suggested this book, written in the late seventies but set in thirties Albany (one of a trilogy, 'the Albany cycle'). It features down-and-out Francis Phelan, who, many years ago, ran away from his wife and family after dropping and killing his baby son while probably drunk, and the various characters from his past, many dead, some by his own violent hand, whom he hallucinates and converses with as he tries to come to terms with his life and seek redemption.

At the time of reading the book I thought it was brilliant, but now I come to write about it I find it hard to recall, and at this point my recollection of our discussion is hazy, too. I think this may not be simply because I have been very busy, but also something to do with the novel itself and a chief conclusion about it that I do remember we came to.

I think everyone agreed with Doug that the depiction of the underside of Albany life under the Great Depression was wonderful - searing and vivid - and that the narrative voice, lyrical but sharp - 'gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks' - was superb. We spent, I remember, a fair bit of time talking about this, and about Francis's character and motives at various points in the action - his violence and his kindness, his innate wit, his guilt and his need for atonement and redemption. But then I posed the question, What was the novel supposed to be about? I wasn't sure of the answer, and I had noticed that in none of the contemporary reviews I'd read had the question been answered either, with one or two reviewers giving what I thought undue significance to minor incidents, as if they were at sea with the meaning of the book. Doug had to think for a moment, but then said, Well, that, redemption, that was what it was about. It's true that this is a big preoccupation of the book, but it didn't seem entirely satisfactory as a summing up of its theme. At one moment in the action, after all these years Francis returns to his wife and family for an evening, and this indeed is Francis's chief way of finding redemption. A thought that occurs to me now, however, is that since he doesn't stay, and since the final section in which he returns and stays for good is, we decided, only a dream, any redemption is in fact somewhat shaky. Later in the discussion Ann would say that in fact she didn't find Francis's brief return to his family very believable, and now that everyone thought about this, they didn't either. I said that one strong idea in the book was that it's so easy to fall through the cracks in society - Francis was once the head of a respectable household and Helen, his companion, was once an upper-middle-class girl with a sparkling future as a musician ahead of her - though again this didn't seem to serve as a unifying theme. (I and others said we were moved to tears by the final, tragic scene concerning Helen, as well as other moments, but Jenny said she hadn't been moved to tears at all.) Someone said that they thought the point of the book was to depict the Irish-American society of Albany, which also seemed true.

By now we felt a bit lost, and the discussion was tailing off, Ann saying somewhat conclusively that she felt the book was somehow better in the sum of the parts than in the whole. John, not wanting however to abandon the novel, commented that the narrative voice - and Francis's hallucinations - made it very psychological: the interest is in Francis's state of mind, and in the state of mind of Helen whose point of view we take at one point - and that that's what makes it so dynamic as a social commentary: we share the emotional experience of those at the brunt of the Depression. John said that he thought this was a great feat for an author, Kennedy, who had trained as a journalist: unlike Hemingway, for instance, he was able to shift from objective social commentary to that deeply psychological dimension. The point John was leading up to then occurred to others of us simultaneously: that, in spite of this very psychological dimension, the book was nevertheless an essentially journalistic project - Kennedy is indeed on record as having said he wanted to map in his novels the stratum of Albany society hitherto ignored - and that this is why for us it lacked the unifying thrust and lasting emotional effect of a novel.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short Story Conference in Vienna.

I've now written on Fictionbitch about my impression of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story which has just taken place in Vienna, and about some of the panels and readings I attended. Also there's an anthology of stories by writers participating in the conference, edited by conference director Maurice A Lee, and which includes a new story of mine, 'Where the Starlings Fly', available here.

It was was my first-ever time in Vienna, and although there wasn't a lot of time left over, I did do a little bit of sightseeing, and here are some pics of moments snatched away from the conference.

Wide roads and imperial buildings:

Baroque doorways:

Freud's house in Berggasse:

Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz:

Cafe Central, where Freud, Trotsky and other famous figures once played chess:

And a group of us having lunch there. Ailsa Cox, Stef Pixner, Zoe Gilbert, me, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, Alison Lock and Catherine McNamara:

Lunch in a historic beer garden, once the garden of a monastery. With Felicity Skelton (left), Ailsa Cox (centre) and Allan Weiss:

Farewell dinner at the Heurigen. First, Moy McCrory, Ailsa Cox, Jim Grady, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Kath Mckay:

And Adnan Mahmutovic, Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman:

And drinks afterwards:

Egon Schiele in the Leopold Museum on the final morning before my plane:

The Secession building containing Klimt's Beethoven Frieze (which you're not allowed to photograph):

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tim Love writes about my work

I'm back from the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, held last week in Vienna. It was a pretty amazing experience, a fascinating and stimulating insight into the latest thinking about the short story, which I know has given a boost to my practice. I'm still digesting it all, and hope to blog about it soon.

While I was in Vienna I had an email from Tim Love, who has been devoting himself for some time now to thinking seriously and blogging about the short story, telling me that he had posted a blog about my work. It's an attentive piece in which he very much puts his finger on the kind of thing I'm trying to do in my writing - it's so wonderful when that happens. I'm especially touched that he includes a photo of the page in an exercise book where as a schoolboy he copied out one of my stories, 'Cautionary Tale'  - in fact, one of the first I had published (he's written and told me this before). (It's not one in my collection Balancing.) I thank him for his thoughtfulness and insight.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Inspirations: 'Clarrie and You'

I've written a post for the Unthology blog about the inspirations behind my Unthology 5 story, 'Clarrie and You', which can be read here.

Unthank also asked me to look for an image that connected with my story, and I found this amazing painting (above), Sisters of Rural Quebec by Prudence Heward. I love it for itself, but also can't believe how well it sums up the relationship between the two sisters in my story. Not only is it the right era - the era in which the two sisters of my story are children (a past which the story revolves around in the attempt to uncover the reasons for the present-day tensions between them) - but also it beautifully sums up the ambivalence of their lifelong tensions and connection. The way the sisters in the picture are turned from each other yet jammed together by the composition echoes precisely the situation between my two sisters, the preoccupied yet somehow painfully involved expressions of their faces, the light of one and the dark of the other, the greater but perhaps more quotidian stress of the one who looks the elder, and the more closed-off and potentially secretive expression of the other. The ambiguity of their positions: the elder higher, but backgrounded. And all the sharp angles that surround them, the daggers of the leaves, the uncompromising squares of the doors, and the triangle of the composition that plunges them together in their separateness.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Reading group: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Warning: spoiler.

Last month, just before the death of the author Daniel Keyes, we happened to read this, his 1966 novel, much-adapted winner of science-fiction awards and now accepted as a science fiction classic. However, John, who recommended it, said that when he read it years ago he didn't in fact take it as science fiction so much as a psychological study, psychology being a major interest in general in Keyes' work.

The novel consists of the diary entries of Charlie Gordon, a man of 32 with a low IQ who is chosen to take part in an experiment to improve the intellect, involving removal of part of the brain, an operation already carried out with spectacular success on the laboratory mouse Algernon, turning him into a mouse with superb intelligence, able to find his way swiftly through the most complicated maze. The operation on Charlie is successful too, and as the novel proceeds, the diary entries, begun as naive, awkwardly written and badly spelled, become gradually literate and insightful. Charlie's intellectual development, however, reveals the world to him in a different, more jaundiced light: he comes to realise that his bakery workmates have been laughing at him rather than with him, that they were not after all his friends, and as he overtakes them in intellect they begin to resent him, and through this he loses the job he has loved. Eventually he becomes a genius, able quickly to learn many languages and grasp complicated scientific concepts that even the doctors and academics in charge of the experiment don't understand, but his emotional development fails to keep pace, which results in his distress. It is at this point, when Charlie is intellectually lonely (and despising those considered experts) that the mouse Algernon's newly sophisticated faculties begin to falter, and it becomes clear to Charlie that a similar reversal is in store for him. He then devotes himself to investigating the flaws in the experiment before his intellect fails, which it does rapidly, the diary entries quickly returning to their former naivety and lack of literacy.

Most people in the group enjoyed reading the book but it didn't generate any deep discussion. Mark hadn't actually had time to read beyond the early diary entries, but said he really admired the way the author captured the semi-literate voice - 'Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on' - and the gradual way in which the prose style and Charlie's consciousness develop. The chief question the book seemed to be posing, people said, was whether intelligence makes you happy (or whether, as Thomas Gray put it, 'where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise'), which was considered an unoriginal point, Doug being pretty scathing about it, in fact. Someone pointed out that it was also about whether we should value intellectual intelligence over emotional intelligence as we do, a more subtle and important point, and the question of what it is to be human. John said that it was in addition about the morality of using science and technology to interfere with someone's personality - another important and prescient point. He pointed to the memories that Charlie begins to retrieve about his mother, and Charlie's gradual realisation that she rejected him out of an inability to accept his disabilities. The book thus, by implication, questions a similar prejudice and desire for perfection motivating much medical research. The choice of the diary form perhaps points to a concern with the extent to which attention is or isn't paid to the subjective experience of human subjects in clinical trials. In the book, John pointed out, the only people with real empathy with those with disability are those with disabilities themselves. (On the other hand, John, a child psychologist, told us a very interesting fact. We discover in passing that Charlie's condition is phenylketonuria, a congenital metabolic deficiency which if left untreated in infancy causes mental developmental difficulties, but for which, John explained, there is now a diet treatment which is in effect a cure, since patients treated in infancy and childhood no longer in adulthood suffer the metabolic deficiency with which they were born and are therefore no longer in danger of the same mental disintegration.)

Since the ending of the book is not happy, John said, it serves as a warning, but we all felt that the same effect could have been achieved without actually taking us through the reversal in Charlie's intelligence, which is predictable and thus boring. Indeed, John suggested, the book would have been better, and more emotionally affecting for the reader, if it had ended at the point where the highly intelligent and emotional Charlie is facing his doomed fate, rather than descending with him into affectlessness and lack of awareness or concern about anything much.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.