I’ve written before about how the reading that gets done in a month doesn’t easily devolve to a simple list of books started and finished. Reading is partial and distracted; non-linear and parallel; speculative, paranoid and proleptic; nostalgic, forgetful and analeptic. (Either that or I’m just badly organised.) Books get flicked through, toyed with, stacked hopefully, reshelved regretfully. It might take weeks to get through a slim volume, with other, bigger books wolfed down in the meantime. And, the month over, it’s hard to know quite what was read.
All of which is perhaps to justify what feels like not many books in March. The books to the side are symbolic of the scattered short story reading I’ve been doing, in part trying to keep up with the welter of great recommendations produced by my A Personal Anthology project. The book at the bottom of the stack is Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest – bought at his launch in Feb; White is a, shall we say, literary acquaintance. His book, as you may or may not know, is a playful/serious (i.e. postmodern) novel that manages to cross-fertilise the contemporary police procedural with a utopian and winningly romantic coming-of-age narrative, while at the same time giving an insight into various French and English countercultures of the late Twentieth Century and much earlier.
There are a couple of OuLiPoian features (gimmicks) that, for me, don’t really add much to the reading experience – but then I’ve never really been much of a fan of OuLiPo. Of course the placing of constraints on the writer during the creative process is – not just fun, but a natural and essential part of the deal. It happens with every piece of writing, to a greater or lesser extent, just not usually as randomly or fancifully as with Georges Perec and Co. The problem is that the knowledge of the particular constraint applied often adds little or nothing to the reading experience. Oh, you think: the first word of each paragraph goes to make up the lyrics to ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and the characters’ names are taken from the European Cup-winning Aston Villa team of 1982. Oh, that’s nice. Well done, you. And you shrug, and move on.
So it’s not those elements that I enjoyed in White’s novel – or, if I did, it was because they were balanced out by the more prosaic joys of well-drawn characters, recognisable milieus (down to some useful recommendations for fry-ups, fish and chips and boozers in central London) and intriguing and credible plot developments. None of which I’ll share with you here. I had purposefully not read up on the book beforehand, and I suggest the same for you: its pleasures and surprises will be all the better for it.
It’s something I’ve been chucking at MA students recently that the Novel is Janus-faced, equally occupied with what is going to happen to its characters in the future, and with what has happened to them, to bring them here. In The Fountain in the Forest this plays out, deliciously, on parallel tracks, that run at different speeds. It is a murder mystery, and so we want to know: will the detective catch the murderer, and also: why did the victim die? I was really impressed with how White brings the past of his present into the book’s narrative, and then how he brings these two temporalities together in an ending that is, as the best endings are, both surprising and inevitable.
The question of dual narratives is one that came up a lot when Claire Fuller came to talk to our students on the Creative Writing MA at St Mary’s, Twickenham last month. We had read her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, and I reread that and her second novel, Swimming Lessons in the run-up. (Both books absent from the photo.) Fulller’s description to the class of how she came to write Our Endless Numbered Days is a good example of how constraints are an unavoidable part of writing. She said that the original germ of the novel was the story and then the image of a feral teenager emerging from the forest into civilisation, and that she moved from there to the image of the teenager entering the forest, as a child, with her father. By deciding to write the novel from a retrospective point of view – post re-emergence into civilisation – and one in which the father is not present, Fuller essentially removed from the novel one element of suspense (will the girl survive the forest?) and replaced it with another (what happens to the father?). Two constraints that she imposed on herself, but that came embedded in her vision of the novel. And, although most of the novel is backwards-facing, some element of forward-facing narrative is necessary. Something needs to happen to the girl in her new present tense. There needs to be some drama, some revelation. Janus-faced.
I finished reading Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers, and also Denis Johnson’s valedictory collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. A good double-bill, as Power guested recently on the Backlisted podcast to talk about Johnson’s earlier collection, the still frankly incredible Jesus’ Son. It seems incredible that The Sea Maiden was only Johnson’s second collection. But then Jesus’ Son is a once-in-a-lifetime book – for the obvious reason that if anyone continued living in that vein (and Johnson is clear in his interviews that most of the events in its stories either happened to him or to people he knew) then they wouldn’t be around to write a second collection. Johnson cleaned up, and got into writing novels. In the absence of the gut-wrenching, eye-stabbing instances of those early stories, what I love most about his stories in this later collection is how they cleave to the random. They seem able to go off at radical tangents, and, when they do, somehow stay true to both the old and new realities. They swerve, like a car driven by someone with only one eye on the road, but you trust them, because they’re a good driver. There are only five stories in the collection, but one them – ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ – is, in the lingo, a goddam masterpiece.
Power’s book (someone else whose book launch I rocked up at, who I am friendly with in a literary bubble sense) has got two things going for it: a handful of head-thumpingly good hand-grenade standalone stories, and a trio of stories that, leaning together, provide a kind of superstructure from which the other seven can safely depend. These are the three ‘Mother’ stories, all three of them about a single character, Eva, shown us first as a child in Sweden in the 1970s, then a young woman travelling alone in Spain, and finally as an older woman, back in Sweden and deliberately estranged from her husband and child. They are told from different points of view, giving a composite, parallax image of a character that work, together, but distantly. You never feel like you’re being pushed into a corner with regards to her.
Two of these stories are among the best stories in the collection, but more than that, their deployment in the collection show Power as a canny structural engineer of the collection. Sometimes a story collection is just a collection of great stories. Sometimes – as with Jesus’ Son – it is something more than that. Power seems to know this, and seems to have found an original and compelling way for a collection to show, and own, that something more. One way of flexing that something more muscle is to produce a ‘linked collection of stories’, but that seems somehow less impressive than it once was. Jon McGregor’s This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You manages to be not linked but still somehow coherent. It’s got that something more. Mothers is similar. To be regressively nerdy about it for a moment, there’s a line about R.E.M.’s first album that I read at an impressionable age in a book I used to pore over, that goes, from memory: ‘Reckoning is a great album, but Murmur is just this thing called Murmur.’ Great short story collections are like that, more than the sum of their parts. Mothers, you feel, hasn’t given up on giving up its secrets.
Other books: Spark and Hildyard I’m still reading and will hopefully report on next month. The Atwood I really enjoyed while reading but don’t think I quite finished. That one’s less certain.