Sunday, 22 June 2014

Where I ruminate on my favourite short story collections

I was looking at the bookshelf in the utility room today  – because books are everywhere in this house – and I started thinking about all the great short story collections I’ve enjoyed over the years. A few caught my eye: creased spines from spending a week splayed on armrests; creased covers from being lost in dusty handbags; folded down pages. I trash my books. With love. I like the things I love to have that lived-in look. That’s a backward compliment to all the men I’ve ever found attractive.

Anyway, I made a quick top ten – as I am wont to do. I like a good top ten. And then I thought I’d write down the top ten. On the back of an envelope, as it was handy, and I had a spare minute because I’d gone to the loo and the window of leaving mummy alone because she’s in the bathroom was still open.

Then, I remembered I had an underused blog, and I really should be using it more. So here’s my top ten (in no particular order: I like lists but rankings are beyond me) of great short story collections that may or may not have influenced my writing over the years. N.B – I mean in style. I have only ever written one short story, as a favour to a friend. Kind of a strange favour without context. And then I wrote this out, and I lost the will to live at eight. But eight is a lucky number for me, so I’ll leave it there.

Corpus – Susan Irvine
My fellow Quercus author (yeah, got a mention of my book deal in!!! whoop whoop) Susan Irvine is, in my opinion, one of our greatest living British authors. I have this collection and her novel Muse, which is also excellent, but it’s the short stories in this book that really stand out as something beyond the norm to me. Corpus is a series of stories that all meditate in some way on the nature of the making of art and the visual art world, whether it’s about a writer toiling away at her novel about perfumes or an artist raising a nongendered child as a contemporary art experiment. In “Chaplet of the Infernal Gods”, a story about a writer becoming a writer via Julia Cameron’s seminal art-practice-as-spiritual-work The Artist’s Way, there is possibly the dirtiest line I have ever read in a work of LITERATURE – about Napoleon writing home to Josephine, telling her not to wash until he came home. He was, apparently, a fan of the natural smell of the human (female) body. Irvine’s writer-narrator says

“he wanted Josephine ripe and runny as an old Camembert (…) you get a highly-sexed, olfactively-arousable skanky Napoleon who wants to dash home at the head of his victorious army and find Josephine emitting waves of vaginal effluvia from under her muslin court dress.”

And this letter to Josephine – “Home in three days. Don’t wash,” was the inspiration for the perfume Je Reviens. I return. Food for thought.

I like to give this story to creative writing students to read and discuss – on one hand because it is about the process of writing, of beginning to write – but also because of the vaginal effluvia. Separates the group somewhat. Amuses me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
One of the masters of the short story form, Flannery O’Connor was one of the many great American writers that attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1940s. She remains one of the best American short story writers, and my favourite story in this collection is “A Stroke of Good Fortune” mostly because the events typify what a short story is supposed to do. It covers a small space of time – the time it takes for a woman to climb a few flights of stairs. At the top of the stairs (the top of the story; the climax/realisation/epiphany) she realises she is pregnant. She comes back down the stairs and the tone changes a little from a sense of doomed expectation to a more ambiguous possibility that there may have been some good fortune. But only that there may. The writing is sparse but full of feeling; the imagery is physical and the stories – all of them in the book – have a kind of violent realisation in each one. O’Connor said that she was sick of people reviewing the book and talking about the horrors that lie within it, because in her mind they were everyday horrors. The everyday difficulties and spectres in most people’s lives.

First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan
I am not a huge McEwan fan, but this first publication is raw and beautiful and horrifying. Menace and threat permeate the pages in the inbetween places of the English landscape – canals, underpasses, rivers. I get disquieted every time I read it, but that just means it’s doing its job. If a book continually puts you on edge despite you knowing what’s going to happen, that’s something special. The stories are incredibly dense and full of sadness and weight at the same time, and all of the horror is horrifying and sad because it happens every day to ordinary people in exactly the kind of accidental and casual, unreported and unregulated way that McEwan depicts. Depressing. But that has never been a reason I put a book down. Depressing is at least honest and real. I tire easily of relentless optimism.

Pretty Monsters – Kelly Link
Canongate published this volume of the American writer’s ghoulish teen-esque/crossover short stories a few years ago with a cool cover (Shaun Tan illustrated) and I wanted it on sight. Imagine my joy when I discovered inside a writer that Neil Gaiman describes as a national treasure and Audrey Niffenegger lauds as “the literary descendant of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka”. I’m not too sure about that, as these are, after all, tales about monsters eating people at a campout in a kind of self-conscious humourous postmodern bloodlust and dead ex-girlfriends that you buried with your bad love poetry, and then dig up because you want the poetry back – only to find that the girlfriend is walking around with unmanageable hair, making derisory remarks about your literary skills.
But I can see where Audrey’s coming from, if she is a little grandiose – Kelly Link isn’t of the avant-garde. Neither has she created a whole new genre of fiction or written something so densely philosophical that it turns the whole notion of what reading is, what reality and knowledge is, on its head. But she does write about monsters and transformation, and she convenes a gothic horror sensibility with a post-something sense of humour and a quirkiness in a minimalistic, IKEA showroom, and dazzles you with a balance between literariness and the fantastical which is really, really, really good. Love Kelly. Because fantasy and gothic horror and genuinely good writing are NOT necessarily separate.

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful – Deborah Kay Davies
This is the kind of conceptual short story collection I love – where each story is its own microcosm, but they all contribute to an overall macrocosm of story. All of the stories in this book depict different moments in the lives of Grace and Tamar in the title. And what I really love about it, again, I guess, is the extreme physicality of the writing. Like, the way that Davies emphasises the reality of life – the body. Blood. Milk leaking from breasts. Lust. Snotty noses. That life is messy and people are primal, obeying their primal urges, and life is full of edges and sharpness. Tamar, in particular, is quite horrible in some of the stories. One of those heavy, aggressive kids, sticky, thrusting, selfish. And there’s a terrific reality to her and all the characters. The study of the (one presumes) badly post-partum depressed mother whose best dress hardly buttons over her somehow obscenely enlarged breasts, and who is convinced that the people are coming through the radio to get the baby. And as ever with a child narrator, the eyes don’t judge – we do. Really loved this book.

The Secrets of Dr Taverner – Dion Fortune
Dion Fortune, the pen name of Violet Firth, a Christian occultist and spiritual pioneer, was an author of many books of mystical fiction as well as nonfiction volumes about the Qabalah and working within the hermetic tradition. The first of these I read, in my teens, The Sea Priestess, made a huge impact on me and was one of the key texts that developed my interest in paganism. However, The Secrets of Dr Taverner is a collection of short stories I read much later on. The stories are a kind of “casebook” of a fictional modern (read 1940s/1950s) magician/occultist and his assistant, solving paranormal issues in people’s lives with magic. Kind of like Medium/Charmed meets Sherlock Holmes, and just as British as Conan Doyle, with the added bonus that all the stories were based on Fortune’s real life experiences. These things really happened.

And that, in many ways, influenced my own writing. All of Fortune’s fictional works are cracking good reads in the style of Ian Fleming meets Somerset Maugham; clipped and British and decidedly upper class, but with sensational content. I wanted to write something similar – that had a base in the reality of modern magical practice, but avoided being textbookish and was a really enjoyable read. Whether I achieved this with the Greenworld trilogy will be judged by history. In the same way that Tolkien considered LOTR history rather than fantasy, because it, to him, was a fictionalised version of his many years of research of Scandinavian and European mythology, The Secrets of Dr Taverner is not fiction or paranormal entertainment. It is real.

Dancing Girls – Margaret Atwood
I am a huge Atwood fan and so a collection of hers needed to be here, but in fact it was hard to choose which one. I landed on Dancing Girls instead of, say, Bluebeard’s Egg, because it contains the story “The Resplendent Quetzal”, a fabulous story, typically Atwoodian, that dissects the weaknesses of man-woman relationships – especially old relationships with old scars and fractures. In it, an apparently ordinary holiday is enjoyed by a man and a woman that don’t really like each other anymore, and ends up on a life raft, where the woman only starts to feel alive once her life, and his life, is threatened. It’s a tough choice between Quetzal and the story “LouLou, Or, The Domestic Life of the Language” in Bluebeard. Loulou is the story of a successful woman potter who finds she is financially supporting all the slack intellectuals and poets that form her ex-husbands and lovers; in return, they patronise her. You’re so Chthonic, LouLou, they say, and laugh at her face when she doesn’t understand the word. Finally she starts seeing an accountant and gains closure.

One of the many things to love about Atwood is her sense of humour; no situation is dire enough not to have a wry smile included somewhere. Even though humans are strange and terrible and great and wonderful, they are also usually a bit ridiculous. And I have also, in all her work, so greatly enjoyed her characters, specifically because she writes original, intelligent female characters that live real and large, and that love language. I somewhat feel that the title, LouLou, Or The Domestic Life of the Language is a reference to Atwood’s own meditations with language, and the practice of many of her characters of playing with it. Tony in The Robber Bride loves backward words. There is much joyful invention of words and punnery in the Oryx and Crake series.  And LouLou lives among male language, the elaborate mummery of over-intellectualism, being the only really real, well-drawn character; real, of the earth, her hands in clay. Atwood is one of the cleverest people on the planet, but she’s too classy to disappear up her own backside with needless pretension. Her abstraction and style is deep and sonorous, intellectual and real. Excuse me while I disappear in a cloud of worship. Ahhhhh.
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
I have a strange relationship with Carter. We haven’t spoken for years. Not since she died. Haha. Bad taste. No, I mean, I love her writing, but I only love it intellectually. There’s something about her characters that are not lovable. But that’s okay. The Bloody Chamber is so amazing that it doesn’t matter. This is a classic of the rewritten/reimagined fairy tale/myth/legend genre, and Carter interrogates the natural gore and sexual undercurrents of the original tales, as well as bringing bodily reality into the stories. I wrote, in my BA dissertation, all those years ago in 1999, “Carter writes the body on the page; corporeality pervades The Bloody Chamber”  - yeah, pretentious – but TRUE. It’s all sweat and piss and blood again. This is a bit of a theme in this list. More importantly, all the stories explore the role of the woman in traditional tales, and frequently re-present female characters in positions of power rather than weakness.
And – factoid - Punk band Daisy Chainsaw adapted the story of "The Lady of the House of Love" for their 1992 music video for "Hope Your Dreams Come True" (from the EP of the same name and also later the album Eleventeen). There you go.

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