My review of John Burnside’s second collection of short stories Something Like Happy
has been posted on Review 31. This was my first Burnside despite having meant to read both his fiction and poetry for ages. After reading this collection I really want to get hold of his novels and collections.
A fundamentally optimistic satirist is hard to find. A satirist who is fundamentally optimistic and actually funny is even more elusive. Yet in Tenth of December George Saunders presents a plural and intensely humane collection of stories which probe the dynamics of motivation, self-consciousness, violence, and the abuse of language in supple prose which unfailingly captures the diverse voices of characters in sore need of an entirely feasible redemption. And it’s funny.
The opening and closing stories explore the different ways that language aids us in gaining traction on the world. In ‘Victory Lap’ a young girl’s emotional and linguistic naivety is shattered by a foiled assault, her rescuer repressed by the internalised edicts of his parents, his only release the strings of swear-words he composes. Here is the first hint of Saunders’ concern with the structures of thought which constrain action. That theme continues in the title story, where a boy for whom the world overflows with voices and a dying man for whom that world has narrowed to a cancerous point cross paths in the snow. In the process, how each meets the world changes, as the voices and concerns of one recede, and those of the other, in a manner quite distinct, begin to reassert themselves.
‘His aplomb threw them loops.’ I really like this sentence. It bubbles and flows and is simply happy. Anyway.
‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is in many ways the heart of the collection. It considers the commercial manipulation of thought and feeling in a grim caricature set in a penal laboratory where powerful drugs with eerily familiar names like ‘VerbaLuce’, ‘Vivistif’, and ‘Darkenfloxx’ are mainlined by human guinea pigs for whom the sheen of agency resides in their apparent freedom to ‘acknowledge’. The endurance of conscience throughout this harsh story of chemical manipulation is testament to Saunders’ belief that goodness is our natural state. False reductions of crime or of love are damaging, for what you can reduce a thing to is far from being that which you destroyed in the analysis.
In ‘Sticks’ Saunders encompasses an entire life and the contingency of its expression in two pages ostensibly about a metal pole and its various accessories. The different brands of irresponsibility and their problematic reduction to a deficit of love or kindness are addressed in ‘Puppy’, which opens with one of my favourite paragraphs from the collection: at once rhythmic, amusing, and insightful.
Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and a cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc., etc.—and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc., etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!
That insecurity inflected need for shared experience in the face of well-intentioned failure develops in ‘Al Roosten’ wherein the eponymous sufferer of an inferiority complex shifts and twists under the world’s gaze and finds himself exhausted by reflection. ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ echoes ‘Spiderhead’ and contains moments of pure brilliance as a medieval theme park employee’s day goes completely wrong under the influence of ‘KnightLyfe®’: an aid to improvisation which moulds not just its consumer’s vocabulary but their moral compass as well.
Did I want all home? I did. I wanted all, even the babies, to see and participate and be sorry for what had happened to me.
The most haunting and topical story is ‘Home’ in which ‘the power of recent dark experience’ emerges in the slowly discomfiting revelation of an Iraq veteran’s loss of self and the struggle to reintegrate on his post-court-martial return. His filter between thought and action has dissolved and brings him closer to the baby he isn’t allowed to hold than to those around him, each of whom thanks him for his service in such a way that it becomes a meaningless beat in an awkward conversation for a man who has lost almost all sense of home. The kernel which yearns to return is what makes this story heartbreaking.
Throughout Tenth of December Saunders resists the reduction of human behaviour to the things which condition our lives: drugs, military service, background, and language. Each constrains, but not irredeemably; and that possibility of redemption underpins a belief in a kind of prelapsarian goodness. Yet Saunders’ optimism isn’t metaphysical. It is here and now that we can do that tiny bit better. A plea for a common but plural humanity in the face of a thousand natural shocks, Tenth of December is a consummate collection which I thoroughly recommend.
Tenth of December is out on 3rd January from Bloomsbury.
My thanks to Bloomsbury for this review copy.
Publisher And Other Stories (Reviews: Swimming Home, Lightning Rods) ran a 500-word short story competition with the theme of ‘walking’ last month inspired by their release Zbinden’s Progress. I’m lucky to have been selected as one of two runners-up. The winner was Rishi Dastidar and my fellow runner-up was Nikesh Shukla. And Other Stories will post all three stories on their blog this week. I’m looking forward to reading the others. My story was the first thing I’ve written in a long time that wasn’t either philosophy or a review of some sort. I’m rather pleased.
I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I wanted to post a quick review of the excellent Battleborn which came out this week in the UK.
Claire Vaye Watkins is one of those writers whose own history threatens to overshadow their writing: which would be a shame, because her short story collection is marvellous. Her father was intimately involved with Charles Manson’s ‘family’ before aiding the prosecution in Manson’s trial for murder; and her mother was a depressed alcoholic who died of an overdose in 2007 two months before Watkins graduated from college. Against the background of such a family history, it is unsurprising that Watkins has produced a collection of stories so concerned with relationships, their tensions and failures, mostly set against the hard landscape of her home state of Nevada whose nickname is ‘Battle Born’ because it achieved statehood during the Civil War. That birth in a time of violence and fear underpins the whole collection, whose hot and scouring prose reveals an unexpected softness and tempered resilience in the struggling occupants of each story.
‘The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.’
This first line of the first story Ghosts, Cowboys announces the haunting of many characters in Battleborn. This story interrogates Watkins’ own history, her own attempts to understand the context of her birth, and where one should even begin looking: the birth of the state, the occupation of a plot of land, or the arrival of a group of young people at the ranch in 1968. How much we can gain from this probing of the past is questioned by Watkins,
‘Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.’
Intertwined with the personal is the West, the landscape shot through with veins of silver and death and memory. In Man-O-War a lonely old man finds a pregnant girl out in the fierce heat of the desert and comes to believe she could be a substitute for the wife who left him and the child they never had. The ease with which tenderness gives way to violence in the face of the frustrations of impersonal landscape runs throughout Battleborn. This is brought home strikingly in the excellent The Diggings which subjects two Forty-Niners to the heartless and grinding reality of the gold rush and the ‘lump fever’ which overtakes the narrator’s brother. (If nothing else, introducing me to the word ‘ripsniptiousness’ would be a virtue of this story.) He might be speaking for the whole collection when says,
‘Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have even been since.’
At no point does Watkins give her characters any quarter. There are no fairytale endings for the Italian boy who stumbles into a brothel and instantly destabilises its structure in The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past; nor do the memories of the degrading trip to Las Vegas the female character forced her vulnerable friend into ease with time in Rondine al Nido. Dysfunctional relationships, missing or effectively absent parents, and the challenges of parenthood stand starkly against the heat and memory of the landscape. You can’t dissemble in the desert, it doesn’t allow it; and nor does Watkins, whose voice emerges powerfully from these stories, as does the fierce character of Nevada. The strengths and failings of a rugged individualism are subjected to the cutting edge of an uncompromising style. It’s a very good collection and I’ll be keen to see what comes next: whether Watkins will further dissect her home state and their shared history, or chooses to move outward. Either possibility promises much.
Nearly a hundred years since it was first published in 1914 this collection of fifteen stories or ‘epiphanies’ remains powerful. In each Joyce depicts some aspect of damaged humanity as the collection moves towards its powerful consummation in ‘The Dead’. As the excellent, if severe, essay by J.I.M. Steward emphasises Joyce’s style is one of ‘scrupulous meanness’: he spares no one their sorrow, be they temperate and kind or coarse, ignorant, and drunk. All are caught in the social and political paralysis that so exercised Joyce and which is foreshadowed in the form of a stroke victim on the very first page. A kind, trusting, and generous but ugly woman destined to be an old maid is loved by all but meets with misfortune in a harsh city full of men who do not desire her in ‘Clay’. In ‘Eveline’ a girl wrestles with the possibility of love and obligations owed to the living and the dead and ultimately falls backward into the dark. It opens thus,
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce’s language is so precise and pared back, and yet so dense and resonant and rhythmic that it is a joy to read despite its lapsarian tone. Decline, decay, angst, and exhaustion are all contained in three taut sentences.
A sudden loss of innocence, a moment when the world opens out – never for the better – for a character or the reader is characteristic of each story. In ‘An Encounter’ a young boy sheds his innocence when approached by an old but impotent pervert. The story is full of play and of freedom until the old man becomes too free and frightens the boy away, his world changed. Indeed, the structure of the whole collection is one of maturation: youth, maturity, and middle age, and the shadow of death, with that shade extending back to pall each person occupying Dubliners’ pages. Joyce everywhere implies that religion is no protection against this decline even when it serves as a useful tool for an ‘us and them’ mentality. Priests come off badly throughout: in ‘The Sisters’ an elderly priest dies having lost his faculties and perhaps his integrity, a symbol of the Church in Ireland; in ‘Grace’ an unsympathetically portrayed Jesuit preaches to a gathering of businessmen, reducing a deeply human parable to a symbol of profit and loss for the consumption of a corrupt class. Poverty and shallowness of sentiment run throughout, particularly in the consecutive stories ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ wherein want of feeling is explored to the full and loneliness and regret tinge the latter story’s mercenary canvassers’ apathy and idealisation of the past.
Throughout drink and perceived injustice lead to resentment and violence of feeling and action. In ‘Counterparts’ a resentful clerk seethes with a sense of emasculation at the hands of his diminutive but dominating employer. He metes out an unwarranted beating to his son whose plaintive cries serve only to emphasise the irrelevance of religion and the lost world Joyce feels Dublin and Ireland has become.
The boy uttered a squeal of pain as the stick cut his thigh. He clasped his hands together in the air and his voice shook with fright.
“O, pa!” he cried. “Don’t beat me, pa! And I’ll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you…. I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don’t beat me…. I’ll say a Hail Mary….”
Undoubtedly the most powerful story in Dubliners is ‘The Dead’, at least in part because it draws in the threads of those which precede it, the shadows of those who have gone before hovering over a middle-class gathering in every sense. Memory, loss, age, and crude but sincere sentiment surround a highly literate but alienated school-teacher who comes to understand his isolation from his wife of many years. The final passage of ‘The Dead’ in which this realisation comes emerges from Joyce’s naturalism and consummates the social dissection of the whole in a symbolic identification of the human condition.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Or at your local bookshop!