Short is sharp

John Sutherland

  • Firebird 2 edited by T.J. Binding
    Penguin, 284 pp, £2.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 14 006337 4
  • Bech is Back by John Updike
    Deutsch, 195 pp, £6.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 233 97512 8
  • The Pangs of Love by Jane Gardam
    Hamish Hamilton, 156 pp, £7.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 241 10942 6
  • The Man Who Sold Prayers by Margaret Creal
    Dent, 198 pp, £7.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 460 04592 X
  • Happy as a Dead Cat by Jill Miller
    Women’s Press, 120 pp, £2.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 7043 3898 X

The short story emerged as a major form in the 19th century, a by-product of the great Victorian periodical boom. Some years ago a pessimistic literary diagnosis assumed it would wither with its host – the non-specialist, general-interest magazine. Like the long poem, the short story would become a superseded species. But recently, things have boomed again. New careers (McEwan, Mac Laverty, Mars-Jones) have been founded on the short story. Other established writers have resourcefully played a two-handed game, writing full-length and short fiction turn and turn about. A learned journal has even been set up learnedly to study the form.

As it has now evolved, the book-length collection of short stories falls conventionally into three categories: the anthology, sometimes thematically or generically unified; the short-story sequence, which taken altogether makes up a loose-limbed kind of novel; the collection by a single author, often gathering the efforts of several years. Firebird 2 is an anthology without, as far as one can see, any linking principle or devices – a bag of nails, in other words. Firebird 2 is also a King Penguin (second series) which means that the ornithology of the anthology is strange. The candescent title and Lawrentian colophon testify to a fierce will to survive (perhaps also to the new style at Harmondsworth). Self-evidently, at least one rebirth has been achieved – although I would not bet on eternal renewal. As with its predecessor, the principle on which Firebird’s assembly is made seems to be that of multiple cross-section of work in progress. The editor has cut across age-group (the first author is 22, the last 70 plus) and national category (the West Indian writer Roy Heath is represented), and gathers into the volume the famous and the published-here-for-the-first-time. Subtitled ‘Writing Today’, the anthology presumably aims to give the smell of what’s cooking. How well it succeeds is hard to say. But at least it communicates a sense of exciting heterogeneity.

Older readers may turn to the end item, by Angus Wilson, anticipating a return to the form in which he first excelled. But ‘Sri Lankan Journal’ is thin stuff. Never having kept a journal before, he tells us, Wilson decided to do so during the travelling that coincided with the writing of Setting the world on fire. Whether we are to regard the material put on show here as a writer’s journal, a quarry or a literary souvenir album is not clear. Take the following snapshots:

In every village chillis spread out to dry on the road. Startling red, but depressing to think of how much good food is ruined by their use in cooking.

Elegance of men and women. A high proportion of strikingly handsome and beautiful men, women and children. Great contrast to the ugly, plain and ill-dressed tourists.

We were put down on the bill of a remote resthouse as: ‘Mr and Miss Ancos Willsin’. (About right too, was the comment of our travel agent when we got back to the UK.)

At the height of his fame, Trollope (against his wiser publisher’s advice) tried the experiment of writing anonymously. He was chagrined to find how indifferent the reading public was to the Trollopian article without the Trollopian label attached. Had some literary Nemo submitted his Sri Lankan journal to Firebird it would not, one feels, have got very far. But Sir Angus has reached such eminence that any shaving from his workshop floor is gratefully scooped up.

Other heavyweights in the collection are Fay Weldon and Francis Stuart. Weldon’s piece is an ironic unhappily-ever-after study of contemporary marriage, given in her familiar a-man-was-born-he-lived-and-he-died manner. Stuart’s ‘The Water Garden’ is a condensed novel, taking an unnamed hero-observer, in two and a half pages, from childhood fascination with cold-water fish to senile isolation. As a whole, the anthology is something of a bran-tub, with more fillers than prizes. The best things are from the youngest contributors, such as James Campbell and Alan Hollinghurst, and the less youthful A.E. Ellis. Each here performs the same narrative trick, telling some resonant or portentous tale through more or less awkward or impercipient or blindly obsessive observers. In Hollinghurst’s ‘A Thieving Boy’ adoptive parents of a gifted, wayward child follow him (unwittingly) to Egypt. He is working out some obscure destiny, they are on the holiday of a dull lifetime. Hollinghurst relishes the banal inflections of the latter, and cunningly manipulates the frustration of the reader irritated that the narrative is in quite the wrong hands. It’s a high-risk strategy, and not one which it would be wise to extend into longer fiction. But it works very well here.

The range of Firebird 2 extends from the naturalistic and brutal (James Kelman’s ‘Jim Dandy’, the semi-articulate monologue of a Scottish drunk, for instance) to Kazuo Ishiguro’s exceptionally delicate and oblique ‘A Family Supper’, which begins with apparently redundant ichthyological information:

Fugu is a fish caught off the Pacific shores of Japan. The fish has held a special significance for me ever since my mother died through eating one. The poison resides in the sexual glands of the fish, inside two fragile bags. When preparing the fish, these bags must be removed with caution, for any clumsiness will result in the poison leaking into the veins. Regrettably, it is not easy to tell whether or not this operation has been carried out successfully. The proof is, as it were, in the eating.

The sinister significance of all this becomes clear at the end of the story.

Firebird 2 is a jolting experience for the reader. One likes it and lumps it. By comparison, Beck is back is as comfortable as a club armchair. One story runs into another, all are subordinated to the sardonic, long since disillusioned gaze of the hero. Nor is he a stranger. Bech: A Book was published 12 years ago. In the meantime, three of the stories here collected have come out in Playboy, and one in the New Yorker. Bech is, as he was, a semi-successful Jewish novelist. But now he is on the verge of becoming a failed Jewish novelist, having declined into Salinger-like ‘meaningful silence’. The stories gathered here form a narrative sequence around the vacancies and small adventures of his career. Bech marries an Episcopalian, proud of her Scottish antecedents (‘Macbech’ deals maliciously with that). The union is fruitful, insofar as Bech – spurred by his new wife – at last gets out a novel, and finds himself a successful author. Simultaneously, he becomes an unsuccessful and adulterous husband. He wins a few and loses a few; the last story finds Bech back where he started.

The general narrative is no page-turner, as Bech would say. But the various episodes are, in themselves, very funny. Updike provides a hilariously sour account of the travails of middling, and superlative, American literary success. In his partial eclipse, Bech ‘supported himself by appearing at colleges. There, he was hauled from the creative writing class to the faculty cocktail party to the John D. Benefactor Memorial Auditorium and thence, baffled applause still ringing in his ears, back to the Holiday Inn.’ A subsidiary of the Superoil Corporation called Superbooks has him sign 28,500 pages of a special edition of Brother Pig (bound in genuine pigskin). At the end of this profane ordeal, Bech reaches the nadir of writer’s block – he cannot even write his own name. When he returns to active authorship, he finds that his old publisher Vellum Books could now more properly be called Xerox Copies: ‘the company had been sold to a supermarket chain who had peddled it to an oil company who had in turn, not liking the patrician red of Vellum’s bottom line, managed to foist the firm off on a West Coast lumber-and-shale-based conglomerate underwritten, it was rumoured, by a sinister liaison of Japanese and Saudi money.’ His editor now wears jeans, ‘and an open-necked shirt of the checkered sort that Bech associated with steelworkers out on their bowling night’. A long way, Bech thinks, from Maxwell Perkins.

Bech is like Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby, a minor sideline in fiction, to be relaxed with rather than worked at. But Updike nevertheless makes some sharp observations on current enemies of promise. And the whole set is enlivened by unrelenting bitchery. The rave notices of Bech’s novel, for instance, surely risk libel prosecution (or at least physical battery and certainly some come-uppance reviews) by burlesquing such mandarins as Alfred Kazin, Gore Vidal, Benjamin de Mott and – at inordinate length – George Steiner in the New Yorker (a bite at the hand which has, most famously, fed Updike): ‘An occasion to marvel once again that not since the Periclean Greeks has there been a configuration of intellectual aptitude, spiritual breadth, and radical intuitional venturesomeness to rival that effulgence of middle-class, Mittel-European Jewry between, say, Sigmund Freud’s first tentative experiments with hypnosis and Isaac Babel’s tragic vanishing within Stalin’s Siberian charnel houses.’ Shorter is Time: ‘Bech surprises.’

The short story would seem to be Jane Gardam’s criticism of life. Her view of things is sharp, yielding nothing more expressive than tolerant amusement at some of life’s more elegant little ironies. In what I take to be the best piece in The Pangs of Love, a story called ‘The Easter Lilies’, a dotty old lady resents buying Easter flowers when the things grow wild in Malta. Sacrificing custom regulations to common sense, she has a bunch sent over. The rich ungrateful bitch acting as courier drops her pearls in the bouquet. The old lady tries them on, expires at the bedecked altar and, leaving everything to the church, saves it from demolition. It’s mechanical, but in its way an almost perfectly satisfying story.

Gardam’s people are, typically, comfortably off but hopelessly uprooted. She has a very good line, for instance, in travelling executives and their camp-following womenfolk. As the heroine in ‘The Pig Boy’ muses: ‘The air must be full of flying wives, thought Veronica – airlines to Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Colombo heavy with wives flying husbandwards: oil wives, lawyer’s wives, army wives – complacent on the journey out, glum or tense or relieved on the flight home again, leaving their husbands not necessarily to any great amusement.’ In fact, Veronica has an unexpected fulfilment in Hong Kong: not with her husband, but with a stinking (and equally transient) lorry-driver who ferries cargoes of live pork from the mainland to the colony. Accidental encounters of this kind dictate Gardam’s world. In ‘The Kiss of Life’, a lonely man and woman are brought together after he resuscitates the supermarket kleptomaniac who has been persecuting her. Unmediated mouth-to-mouth contact between the principals is unthinkable. Like Shakespeare’s mechanicals, they can only kiss through walls.

Gardam’s sharpness stops this side of cruelty. If her work has a fault, it is one inherent in the short story form, I think: namely, a propensity to being too clever. Doing things in short compass (like writing the Lord’s Prayer on the back of a postage stamp, or playing ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’ in ten seconds) seems to encourage showing-off. In this respect, the title piece, ‘The Pangs of Love’ (the mermaid and her prince, updated and given a feminist slant), is the weakest offering in an otherwise consistently good collection.

Mary McCarthy, whose name somewhat overawes that of the author on the dust-jacket, evidently finds Margaret Creal ‘delightfully wicked’. Pleasing as her stories are, ‘wicked’ is pitching it rather high. The title story has a Canadian minister lose his faith. He descends to odd-job work, until a friend persuades him to a new vocation, writing personalised prayers (cash only, no cards or charge accounts – credit would imply faith). Business booms:

The telephone rang so often with long-distance and local calls that the Gwynns had to ask for an unlisted number. It made him feel unreal, Saintly said, to talk to clients, and besides, he was often confused with Dial-a-Prayer, a tape-recorded service sponsored by a life insurance company. ‘It can’t be good for their business,’ he said to Ann. ‘What kind of advertising is that? You’re promised a prayer, and instead you get a sleepy, voice croaking out Hullo, and waiting to hear who’s calling.’

After ten prosperous years, Saintly recovers his faith, and loses all his skill in customised orisons. For all the neatness, it’s basically rather a cosy idea, charmingly worked out.

Soft-centred as they are, Creal’s stories tend as narratives to be abrupt and jagged in their transitions (not unlike Fay Weldon’s, in this respect). Like Gardam, she prefers an interiorised and usually feminine viewpoint, which gives odd and typically depressed angles on familiar situations. The Man Who Sold Prayers is an impressive performance. But the fact that it has taken two years from publication in the author’s native Canada to come out here confirms that it’s easier to get a collection of stories into print with a well-known name attached. Such books still tend to be what the famous author does on the side.

Brevity and irony are Henry James’s bequest to the short story form; mystery and strangeness Poe’s. There is, however, another input of longer standing. This is the tract, or the short tale subordinated to frankly improving ends. In the 19th century, the tract fiction industry termed its hybrid products ‘rewards’ (they illustrated the providential rewards of right thinking and right doing). Jill Miller’s Happy as a Dead Cat is firmly in the line of such works as The Washerwoman of Finchey Common. Although it masquerades as a novel, mean-minded calculation reveals that it has a mere 24,000 words (some of the longer pieces in Firebird can almost match this). Written with a crudity that only sisterly solidarity could forgive, it chronicles the heroine’s growth to feminist consciousness and fulfilling lesbian liaison in the extramarital home. Most of the narrative is taken up with her inward fulminations:

He really is a pig. I brought up the subject of vasectomy once. He was raging, said it would make him feel less of a man, tried hard to persuade me to be sterilised after Rosie. Between him and my (male) GP, I was very nearly driven to a nervous breakdown ... I dreamed one night I’d cut twenty penises off, and fed them to a pack of wild dogs. He wanted to know why I woke that morning with a grin on my face. Never did tell him.

Pig yourself, I say.