Friday, 18 October 2013

Friday Five: Short Stories

The announcement of Alice Munro as the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize for literature has caused a minor flurry of interest as she is known pedominantly as a writer of short stories. Short stories are often considered the poor cousin in literary fiction, although many authors of full-length novels also excel at this discipline.

Meanwhile, the shortlist for the eighth annual BBC national short story award is comprised entirely of female authors. The chair of judges, Mariella Fostrup, suggests that the format is 'suited to the innovative brilliance of female writers'. This is clearly a contentious comment designed to create controversy. A such, it is not far removed from the patronising notion that women write short stories because they can only a snatch an hour here and there between rearing children and cleaning houses and their poor little brains can't cope with anything on too grand a scale.

When living in New Zealand, I read a lot of Kiwi short stories and I liked very few. The problem from my perspective was that they weren't actually stories with beginnings, middles and ends. One author stated she preferred to think of them as 'short fictions' as she felt the 'structured semantics of storytelling were tyrannous and restrictive'. In this case, you are not writing a story. At best, what you have is a poem; at worst, a creative writing exercise. Suffice to say there is much debate as to what defines a short story.

A good short story is a good short story, no matter who writes it. When I was a child I was incredibly impressed by Oscar Wilde's fairytales, Aesop's fables, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and Enid Blyton's accounts of pixies and goblins. I read my way through stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood. I progresed to Greek mythology and the Bible.

My parents gave me a book of Saki's short stories to read as a young woman: I can't thank them enough. Edgar Allan Poe tortured my nights and expanded my mind. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her tale of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' exposed me to an empathetic world I had never previously imagined. There are so many short stories that left lasting impressions, but I will attempt a truncated list.

5 Favourite Short Story Writers:
  1. Roald Dahl - going from his children's stories to his adult shorts was a revelation. I haven't touched royal jelly since.
  2. Alice Walker - her world is not my world, but she welcomes me in through her short stories.
  3. Stephen King - his stories are so well constructed and the format suits the horror genre.
  4. Edith Wharton - similar to the above, the glimpse of ghosts in her short stories are tantalisingly terrifying
  5. Jon McGregor - earlier this year I read This Isn't the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You: it was the best collection of short stories I have read in a long time.
One of Laura Beckman's illustrations for Roald Dahl's Royal Jelly

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Shining Example

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $29.99
Pp. 350

Every five minutes a child goes missing in the UK. This bald fact is reiterated throughout this novel, which deals with absent children, presumed runaways or victims of kidnapping. And yet it is not a police procedural.

Geordie is a logger working alone in the forest. His relationship with Mary is collapsing and his mind strays since the unexplained disappearance of their son, Theo. The overtones of the kindly woodcutter are strong and the presence of the trees becomes ominous like those in a pop-up storybook. “The trees are there because the trees are there.” If this is a fairytale it is more Brothers Grimm than Disney.

Another of the missing children, Becky, has an alcoholic mother and a distressed home life. A third, Karen, is comfortable and well-looked after. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern, but they all like to read. As in the best psychological thrillers, the familiar is rendered frightening, such as the mobile library van with its ice-cream chime luring children onto the street like a Pied Piper. But this is not a horror story.

Pompous politician, Norman Stokoe is newly appointed to the position of Children’s Czar for the North East. He isn’t sure what this entails but he sits behind a desk, patronises his secretary, Pippa, drinks a lot of coffee, and attends meetings. Although he doesn’t like children – “Children cost money. They take up time. They disrupt one’s routine” – he knows all the statistics about their welfare or lack thereof. “It is an industrial scale problem and it requires an industrial response. The UK leads the world – but whether in measuring the problem or solving it, it is harder to say.” There is a major discrepancy between the emotional and the objective, but this is not a sociological treatise.

An intrepid reporter, Willie Craig, stumbles across a potential story in the missing children and brings it to Norman’s attention. Willie finds life on the local paper in rural Nothumberland crushingly dull and is at loggerheads with his editor who believes that “a local newspaper should concentrate on community issues and leave the rest to the national tabloids.” There are elements of detection and deduction, yet the main focus is not on investigative journalism.

Paul Torday wrote the book-club favourite Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, made into a shiny film starring British box-office darlings Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, and criticised by some for being a little bit twee. Some of those capricious characteristics emerge in this novel. It is written entirely in the present tense with a refreshing lack of adverbs and attributions, and with undertones of humour implicit in the short, breathless sentences: “She listens. She is rapt, like a raptor.” But this is far from a quirky flight of whimsy.

In fact, it is hard to pin down exactly what this novel is, which is, obviously, the point. In this age of sound-bite culture, we like to pigeonhole and opine in definitive terms. Whereas previous ages looked to the supernatural to interpret things they couldn’t understand, we prefer scientific rationalisation while we worship celebrities. A crucifix hanging on a wall is deemed unusual. “It’s where most people Willie knows would have pinned up Newcastle Untied colours. In his own flat he’s got a shirt signed by Alan Shearer pinned to the wall as decoration. No crucifixes.”

And yet what possible logical explanation can there be for what we do to our children? “Look at the headlines in the papers most weeks: children are tortured as witches; they are tortured for recreational purposes; they are abandoned, abused, trafficked, exploited, or just lost.” Torday hints of something spiritual in the disappearance of the children, from the Angel of the North statue, which Norman spots on his drive up to Newcastle, “spreading its protective wings above the warehouses and factory units below”, to the shadows of the wind turbines, “like a cross over the road”, and the light shining in the forest, which startles Geordie as he lumbers there.

Although “Nobody wants to accept that the unreal can become real”, Theo displays stigmata – the physical representation of Christ’s wounds on the cross – which the authorities suspect are marks of abuse. When Torday invents a genuine Deus ex Machina, Pippa reflects, “there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for miracles these days”, but it is no more unbelievable than the horrific alternative of a person who plays God by taking and creating life.

Not all questions the novel poses are neatly answered, which can be frustrating if you like your stories to have tidy endings. The world may be “rather annoyed by something that it cannot easily explain”, but by not supplying pat explanations Torday’s latest novel remains mystical and tantalising. And due to a masterful control of tone, pace and suspense, in the hands of a sensitive director, it will make an excellent film.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Getting cocky

If you’ve ever wondered who
Would win in a fight
Between a sulphur-crested cockatoo
And a trio of Bratz dolls,
I could tell you.
On the roof
Are three mini macabre mannequins
With tatty clothes and tangled hair
Tossed there by the girls next door
Who find it hard to differentiate
Between torture and play;
Sugar and spice.

The cockatoo attacks;
It holds the dolls with a gripping claw,
Gouges their vacuous eyes,
And tears off their heads with
Its creatively curved beak.
Darwin’s design never envisaged
Such scenes of savagery.
The pompous image is punctured;
The tarnished attire is tattered;
The big-headed idols are vanquished.

A victory for the sulphur-crested suffragette
As she rips apart the ridiculous facade,
Exposing the ‘reclaim your inner slut’ mantra
As offensive, puerile hokum.
But the bird is a boy
And the violence feeds baser needs.
Some would say they asked for it,
Dressed like that.