Saturday, November 09, 2013

Single shorts from Nightjar

I don't know whether it was a deliberate reminder, but the day after my post on the publication of short stories in individual volumes, two new Nightjar Press chapbooks came slipping through my door, presumably from Nightjar publisher Nicholas Royle. For a few years now, Royle has of course been publishing chapbooks under this imprint devoted to the format, each volume containing a single story.

Genre-wise, the imprint is also devoted to the uncanny. I say genre, but of course the uncanny can be conveyed via a wide range of types of writing and, inevitably, I like some of it more than others. My narrative interest is above all psychological. By this I don't at all mean that I only like writing grounded in psychological realism, with complex and believable and 'identifiable-with' characters etc; no, no, I love a good surreal story, and am very ready to be lost in the uncanny. A good uncanny story operates of course by tugging on a reader's fear or uncertainty, and it seems to me that therefore the best uncanny stories are those that unsettle us by touching on serious existential fears rather than simply giving us a brief and therefore safe thrill of horror. (Others, I know feel differently, but quite frankly I've had far too many real-life scares to be interested in looking for a thrill of horror.) I'd say that stories grounded in psychology do the former, and those that hinge on circumstance and plot tend to do the latter.

The two new Nightjar stories exemplify for me this dichotomy. In Hilary Scudder's story, M, the first-person narrator flees from her husband, of whom she has been very afraid, to meet her lover, M. Before fleeing she leaves her husband a letter, daring (in her euphoria at escaping) to wish him as much unhappiness as he has caused her, indeed to wish him an agonising death. But as she approaches the place where she has arranged to meet her lover, things take a dark turn: it is not the cafe-bar scene she expected, but a dank and deserted docks... It's hard to say any more about the story because what counts in the story is what happens (and if I told you I'd spoil more or less everything about it). But what does happen happens to our protagonist. Rather than resulting from her psychology (either her idiosyncratic psychology, or the psychology we all share), the dangers she faces are out there, external to her. The final twist, while it does indeed provide a jolt of horror, is basically contingent: it could have happened, or it couldn't; chance is what determines that it does, rather than its being an inevitable consequence of the specific psychology of any of the characters or of human nature in general. There is an overall message - that it's hard to escape the horrors of sexist men - and the story is certainly vivid, with elements associated with the genre - a protagonist suddenly lost in a dark and threatening place, with lush glimpses of an erotic but sinister hidden world - guaranteed to give that bolt of thrill, and I'm sure lots of people will love it.

M John Harrison's Getting Out of There is for me a story of a quite different order. It couldn't begin in any more ordinary setting or situation: a web designer moves from London back to the small seaside town in which he grew up, takes a room in a run-down house and sticks most of his belongings in a lockup 'with untreated breeze-block cubicles of different sizes, behind doors that were little more than plywood.' So far so quotidian, indeed seedy. But what's not ordinary is the prose. This is how it begins:
Hampson came back after some years, to the seaside in the rain, to this town built around a small estuary where a river broke through the chalk downs. Everything - everything people knew about, anyway - came in through that gap, by road or rail; and that's the way Hampson came too, midweek, in a rental van, unsure of what he would find for himself after so long.
and right there at the beginning you know, from the rhythm, from that description of the gap in the chalk and the river taking everything with it, hinting already at gaps in reality and a sense of inevitability - not to mention that phrase 'everything people knew about anyway' - that you're in the hands of a master. This is a story about alienation: Hampson's alienation and everyone's alienation. When strange things start to happen, which they do, there's the possibility that Hampson is going mad, but we can't simply pass it off as this: the evocation of the world around Hampson, seen through his perspective, draws us into his psyche, we share his psyche, and are drawn right into the experience. What's most unsettling for the reader as well as Hampson is the disruption of reality, the uncertainty as to whether or not the phenomena are out there or not. As I interpret it, this is is a story precisely about the horror of the ordinary, about our fear yet need for it. The horror is partly within ourselves, in how we can deal with the world, and for me this makes it a deeply resonant story, one which both comments on and transcends the genre.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Austen modernisations, really?

Is there anything that better illustrates literary fiction's contemporary enthralment to the market than HarperCollins' series of Jane Austen modernisations? As John Mullan points out in the Observer, Austen's novels are specifically about the manners, modes and social constructs of the time in which she was writing, all of which have now gone by the board. He outlines them all and shows how Austen's plots hinge on them entirely: the formality of naming which creates the crucial romantic misunderstanding in Sense and Sensibility, the rigid rules of sexual behaviour which, adhered to or breached, can create commitments and misunderstandings that would never happen now (Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility), the unbreakable trap that marriage was, the fact that a single woman had lost her chance of it by the age of 27, and so on...

I  suppose people will object that it's the characters that can be replicated, that the interest is in seeing those same characters negotiate a different set of social circumstances. But this is to subscribe to a pretty naive concept of 'character' and, more crucially, of what a novel is. Most of us, I guess, have been told that we are like a certain older relative, that we share their character, and many of have us felt that indeed we are and do, and in that sense we can see character as something that is passed down through families, determined by our genes, and therefore given and constant. But we are not in fact those older relatives: we may share certain personality traits but we are also formed by the different things that happen to us and the different society in which we live. Change the circumstances and you change the way a person is going to a behave, and thus in turn their character. And what is a novel - that most social of forms - but a depiction of the way people behave (action) when a certain set of social circumstances is applied to them?

A novel and its characters, as I discussed in a previous post, are also, supremely, constructs of language: to change the language of a novel - an essential part of the project in any modernisation - is to destroy its soul. And as Mullan points out, when the Marianne of Austen's Sense and Sensibility is finally driven to swear it is a most dramatic moment, but Joanna Trollope has her 'using the F-word on page 6, so when things turn really bad what extreme words does she have left?' Swearing means something different nowadays: it doesn't indicate the same thing about situations or characters, and the fact that Trollope's Marianne swears does not make her the same character as Austen's.

I really can't see what's actually being replicated here. Except for one thing: the lovely glow that a best-selling classic lights in the heart and a publisher's bank balance.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Single shorts

Philip Hensher hopes that Penguin's issue of a single short story by Zadie Smith as a hardback and ebook indicates that we are 'at the beginning of a golden age of possibility, where writers can write at whatever length they choose'. I'm not quite sure sure that, as one commenter on the Guardian site points out, Penguin putting out what amounts to a Christmas-market taster from a novelist with Smith's profile is an indication of this, but I do hope, like Hensher, that the rise of the ebook is causing a sea-change in our attitude to the short story.

I have complained before on this blog about the fact that the manner in which short stories have generally been published in this country militates against the kind of reading that many short stories require. Many short stories need to be read as what Hensher calls 'exquisite singularities', and not 'as a chapter between chapters' in a collection. In recent years of course, we have had the market-driven rise of collections of linked short stories, in which individual stories are most supremely subsumed to the whole. Such collections have their charms, but I think they have pushed out the kind of short stories that are off-the-wall original and can't be repeated - which indeed the greatest short stories often are. As Hensher says, due to economic considerations, 'we don't publish books in the way they were conceived,' and this has been especially true for the short story.