Overloaded with Wasps

James Wood

  • The Secret Goldfish by David Means
    Fourth Estate, 211 pp, £14.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 00 716487 4

A controlling symbol or organising detail or image can be sensed fizzing away like a lozenge of meaning in most contemporary short stories. The delicate art of these stories allows the writer to draw our attention to such symbols or images without pressing too hard on the connection. Suppose that a man and woman are getting married. The bride feels that she may be making a mistake, that she will be swamped by her more successful husband-to-be. Weeks ago, she had been reading about a new dam being built in China, which had involved the flooding of entire villages and the obliterating of the evidence of hundreds of lives. At the wedding, the bridegroom’s mother knocks over the punchbowl, sending liquid all over the polished floors. The story can now expire into figurative ellipsis, the mere assemblage of careful parts having done its subtle work of implication and connection.

That is my own crude sketch, but it might stand as a template of the essentially poetic strategy of the short story (and this poetry of construction is the reason novelists and short-story writers are often quite distinct breeds). The American writer David Means will have none of this. His highly original stories are coats that have been reversed to show their linings. Rather than lightly hint at an exquisite pattern or organising symbol, he likes to accentuate the pattern, to dash it in the reader’s face. His stories wilfully resist the formal tidiness of most contemporary short fiction: they drift, fragment, expand, change perspective, and then run out of steam. (And not all of them are successful, even on their own terms.) They seem always to be asking of the reader: is this the right pattern? What can you make of it? In the title story of The Secret Goldfish, Means describes a nasty divorce in a comfortable Connecticut family. As the family is disintegrating, so the family goldfish is being neglected: the water becomes cloudy, ‘stringy green silk’ is blooming, the filter clogged. What would be the merest dab of implication in another writer – one fouled cosmos gently twinned with another – is here turned into a frank split-screen narrative: the two stories almost run alongside each other and the narrative is briefly turned over to the fish, from whose sunken perspective we sense family events. ‘A few times the downstairs door slammed hard enough to jolt him awake. Or there was a smashing sound from the kitchen. Or voices, “What in the world should we do?” “I would most certainly like this to be amicable, for the sake of the kids.”’ The divorcing wife remembers the fish she had as a child, and drifts into piscine theology as Means wittingly overloads the story with a crooked abundance of fishy material: ‘Did Fish remember that he had passed that way before? Was he aware of his eternal hell, caught in the tank’s glass grip? Or did he feel wondrously free, swimming – for all he knew – in Lake Superior, an abundant, wide field of water, with some glass obstructions here and there?’

Sudden expansions and contractions of perspective, jumps in time and place, and a generous flexibility with the formulas of realism characterise the stories of this singular writer. He seems never to have met a convention he likes. But he is not an American surrealist, nor even a postmodernist, really: all his tales are tied to human beings, to motive, desire, terrible restlessness. The oddity of the stories emanates from human oddity, not from authorial freakishness or ludic obstructionism (as in, say, David Foster Wallace). For one thing, Means has a geography and a landscape, to which he ceaselessly returns, and which grounds much of his work: the Michigan where he was born and raised. Again and again he hovers over the appalling emptiness of the Midwestern plains: the freezing, snow-seized fields of Michigan, the hot, brittle wastes of Indiana, Illinois and Ohio are described and redescribed with thrilling lyricism, from ‘the lacklustre flow of the landscape’, to the ‘husk-dry afternoons of the Central Plains’, and ‘the long-simmering nothingness of the fields beyond the edges of the towns … bluegrass and timothy and planted hay and corn dried to a brittle song; the endless, almost needless horizon’.

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[*] Reviewed by Daniel Soar (LRB, 8 August 2002).