Occasional review, of sorts: Dance Move, by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is the second story collection from Wendy Erskine, following Sweet Home, which had some killer stories in. Dance Move is a more consistent and impressive collection, I think. There are some stone-cold classics in it, five at least that I feel I will be reading for the rest of my life, and certainly none that don’t leave an impact.

There are three things that impress and astonish me about Erskine’s writing, and that’s what I’m going to write about in this blog post, which isn’t really a review. (There’s a single spoiler right towards the end).

So, here’s what I love about Erskine’s stories:

i) the ‘realness’ of the people that she writes about.

I want to say you can barely call them ‘characters’, they’re so real, and yes I know that sounds cheesy. But they are the kinds of people you simply don’t read about in most contemporary literature (or not the literature I read, anyway). They make most characters in books look like they’ve either been put there for a reason – because the writer wants to make a point: character as sock-puppet or a straw man – or else they’ve been put there for no reason at all: the writer can’t imagine anything other than a faceless avatar of their own desires and fears.

Erskine’s characters aren’t like this. They are the reason why people mention Chekhov around her name. The characters are ‘ordinary’, but not in a fill-the-blanks way, or a central casting misfits way (like those model agencies that recruit ‘interesting-looking’ ugly people), but in an organic, from-the-inside-out, seemingly verifiable way. Because – cheesy again – nobody in real life is entirely ordinary. They’ve all got some weirdness going on. That ordinary weirdness is what Erskine’s characters have got.

ii) the very un-Chekhovian twists she gives her narratives.

The gun not hanging over the mantlepiece, but in the attic. (And you can be damn sure that if the gun’s going to be fired, it’s not because Chekhov said so.) The faded pop star’s call out of the blue for one last gig. The sister/sister-in-law’s mega-expensive party. These interventions hover around the surreal, while remaining entirely believable. I don’t mean formally or programmatically surreal, but surreal in the way they affect the characters’ lives. They are at once overwhelmingly weird, and able to be taken in the stride. They are surreal in context, not form.

And iii) the way she ends her stories.

She ends her stories brilliantly. You are so immersed in these characters’ lives (that Chekhov thing again) that you want to stay with them, but the deftness of the narrative interventions means that the stories aren’t wedded to plot, so can’t end with a traditional narrative climax or denouement.

(As David Collard said, in response to my original tweets, “Wendy Erskine’s stories don’t end, they simply stop” – which is so true. Perhaps it would be even better to say, they don’t finish, they simply stop.) 

So how does she end them? She kind of twists up out of them, steps out of them as you might step out of a dress, leaving it rumpled on the floor. In a way that’s the true ‘dance move’: the ability to leave the dance floor, mid-song, and leave the dance still going. 

Take the story ‘Golem’, definitely one of my favourites in the collection. It’s a story that does everything Erskine’s stories do. It densely inhabits its characters’ lives, and it has its comic-surreal interior moments, but most incredibly of all, it manages to end at the perfect unexpected moment. The story goes on, but the narrative of it ends. It departs, exits the room, taking us with it.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that you feel that, yes, the characters are ready to live on, and yes, you’d be ready to keep on reading the prose and the dialogue forever, but no, you wouldn’t want the stories themselves to last a single sentence longer. In this she’s the opposite of Alice Munro, who has the miraculous ability to extend her stories beyond where you think they surely must end. (Think ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, or the incredible ‘Train’, from Dear Life.)

(NB, Wendy talked at her Social reading about ending stories, and it was great, and I thought I’d taken some notes, but I don’t think I did, so some of this is probably stolen from her. The only note I did take, I now see, is “against central casting”, which I now see I did steal. So it goes.)

In fact there’s one story in Dance Move where I wanted Erskine to ‘go Munro’, to stretch the possibilities of narrative: the opening story.

[Mild spoiler follows]

‘Mathematics’ introduces us to Roberta, a cleaner, likely cognitively impaired after a childhood accident, and happy enough in the circumscribed world of her job and life. (So far, so Chekhov.) Then, on a job, she discovers a primary school-aged girl in a hotel room, abandoned by her mother.

Six pages in, and Erskine has blown the floor out from under her story. Roberta tries to return the girl to her mother, via her school, but ends up looking after her. The ‘stakes’, for a story by Wendy Erskine, are incredibly high. So much could go wrong. We are so willing them to go right. Erskine has done something she doesn’t normally do: she has reached up out of the page, grabbed me by the hair and pulled me down into the story, forcing me to connect emotionally with the story. Normally she is too cool for that. (And that’s fine. I like her for that.)

And the story succeeds. Erskine pushes it just far enough, and then she does her brilliant effortless thing of deftly stepping out of it, ascending, quitting the room, leaving the dress on the floor, giving just enough for us to be sure that Roberta will go on with the narrative, on our behalf. 

But, BUT, I wanted, I really wanted the story to continue, and for the floor to be blown out again. I wanted that rush again. Damn.

Thanks to Picador for the original proof copy of Dance Move. I was very happy to purchase my own copy of the hardback at Wendy’s brilliant reading at The Social, London, last week, though I had to leave before I could ask her to sign it.

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