Dying Falls

John Lanchester

  • Temporary Shelter by Mary Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 231 pp, £11.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0006 1
  • Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 287 pp, £10.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 224 02245 8
  • The Native by David Plante
    Chatto, 122 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3247 7
  • The March of the Long Shadows by Norman Lewis
    Secker, 232 pp, £10.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 436 24620 1

As well as having themes, preoccupations and voices, writers often have a favourite cadence, which is sometimes apparent as the shape towards which their fictions tend. If they do have such a cadence, it will be more apparent in short fictions than in their longer work, for very prosaic reasons: because the beginning and the ending of a short story are more likely to be read in the same sitting, and because you get more endings per volume to judge by. In poetry the tendency is more marked still – so marked, in fact, that a lot of contemporary verse seems to have the same shape, with the poem moving towards the ironic, downbeat shape that Terry Eagleton has called a ‘pulled punch’.

The pulled punch – the resonant and suggestive dying fall – is a common enough ending in short fiction too, and it’s exactly the ending Mary Gordon consistently avoids in her new collection of stories, which end with a single note rather than with a cadence, with the pressing-through of an emotion or a theme rather than with an ironic withdrawal from finality and closure. In ‘The Other Woman’ a husband, ambushed by a sentimental recollection, sobbingly tells his wife about a woman he loved-and-lost in the period before he met her. She dissimulates her appalled surprise and holds him to her while he weeps. The story ends: ‘She knew that he would never know what she was feeling, and knowing this, she had never loved him so little.’ No pulled punch there: the wife’s emotion is an intense one, and the story intrudes nothing between that emotion and the reader – if anything, it helps it along, and tucks a little lead into the boxing glove. Sometimes, the endings do a similar thing by stating a conclusion which is not always obviously consequent on what has gone before. In ‘Out of the Fray’, an uneasy pre-marital visit to London ends with Ruth watching her husband-to-be asleep and thinking: ‘She understood that when he left her it would be like death and wondered when it happened how she would go on.’ In that sentence, the word ‘understood’ helps to make Mary Gordon seem to be endorsing an emotion that another writer might have chosen to see as self-pitying, self-dramatising, or simply untrue.

Mary Gordon often seems to be almost a partisan of her characters, especially of their inner lives. The concern of the stories in Temporary Shelter is with the innermost areas of the personality, the secret reservoirs of individual identity: all her main characters have a place (often an idea or an affection) where their identity is bound up. The stories avoid irony because, Gordon suggests, the inner life is not ironic. ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ takes its title from a sentence of Henry James’s (‘But I have the imagination of disaster – and see life as ferocious and sinister,’ James wrote in 1896 to a startled A.C. Benson), but the story itself could not be less Jamesian: it is a thousand-word-long lament, in which a woman faces the prospect of a nuclear war, and confronts the inadequacy of any possible imagining of it. ‘I could weep for my furniture. The earth will be abashed; the furniture will stand out, balked and shameful in the ruin of everything that was our lives.’

Standing as it does immediately after the title story, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ implies that the emphasis throughout Temporary Shelter on the inner life is partly polemical: as the very existence of the earth seems more fragile and contingent, the writer becomes more passionately committed to the most private and hidden areas of human life. (One of the stories in Margaret Atwood’s new collection treats very similar imaginings of nuclear war, and we learn in an aside that the central male character of David Plante’s new novel works on a science project related to Star Wars. A lot of writing in the last few years – The Burning Book, The Golden Gate, Or shall we die, Einstein‘s Monsters – shares in a helpless obsession with the nuclear threat: perhaps this writing represents the delayed and brooded-upon fruits of the great wave of anxiety about nuclear war that swept the Western world in 1982/3.) At times, this commitment takes Gordon into areas of her characters’ experience which are pre-verbal and inchoate, and require the reader to take a lot on trust. In ‘The Thorn’, Lucy’s memory of her dead father’s voice is accompanied by the feeling of a thorn in her heart going ‘thint’. She is sent away to stay with relatives; gradually the voice fades, the thorn is felt no longer. ‘She had lost it. There was no one whose voice was beautiful now, and little that she remembered.’ Lucy’s isolation in her grief is well conveyed, but the thorn which goes thint is an obstacle to comprehending her inner life rather than a vivid, or even a competent, vehicle for transmitting that inner life to the reader. The reader thinks: thint?

‘The Magician’s Wife’ is more successful, because in it Mary Gordon strikes an ingenious balance between the external action and the story’s actual subject. Mrs Hastings has a successful architect son, but her real life is bound up in the fact that she is much prouder of her husband, whose good looks and beautiful manners accompany brilliant gifts as an amateur magician. He has been performing magic all their married life – once for the private benefit of the Roosevelts – and his magic, as well as marking ‘all the vivid moments of her life’, has also helped him to manage the potentially dangerous transition to retirement. Mr Hastings has, however, gone blind, and can now perform his magic only in private for his wife, ‘making his almost total blindness into a kind of gift for her, a perfect glass he had blown and polished’. Then his grandchildren, aided by his son, persuade him to perform in public for one more time, at the Fourth of July fair: in a gruesomely embarrassing scene, his tricks fail disastrously; he is too blind to notice, but the crowd applauds him anyway. Mrs Hastings accosts her son:

  ‘Shall I get you a plate?’ he asked.

  ‘You’ll do nothing for me after what you’ve done to your father.’

  He stopped walking and waited for her to catch up.

  ‘You know, Mother, Father is twice the person you are,’ he said. ‘Three times.’

  She stood beside him. For the first time in his life, Mrs Hastings looked at her son with something like love. For the first time, she felt the pride of their connection. She took his arm.

This is melodrama, of course, but the internal melodrama is balanced by and juxtaposed with the partly-farcical external melodrama of the blind magician at the fête; the outer world is as grotesque as the inner, and both are more credible for it. Mary Gordon’s stories are often dramatic but never really surprising, and just as ‘The Thorn’ was predicated on a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief in that ‘thint’, so ‘The Magician’s Wife’ is predicated on the notion that people have an unremittingly intense and unconfidable inner life: if you don’t like that premise, you won’t like Temporary Shelter.

Margaret Atwood doesn’t have a favourite cadence in quite the way Mary Gordon does, but the endings of her fictions do nonetheless have a familial similarity with each other: they tend to leave things slightly in the air, and to present themselves to the reader for interpretation. The dystopian fantasy of The Handmaid’s Tale was followed by a framing fiction – of the kind that is more usually put in front of a narrative – which pretended that what we had just read had been the material presented at an academic conference, centuries after the events depicted. The academic ended with a question: ‘Are there any questions?’ Many of the stories in Bluebeard’s Egg implicitly ask the same thing.

The material treated in Bluebeard’s Egg is largely conventional, consisting as it does of relationships of one kind or another (parents in the stories which begin and end the collection, elsewhere first boyfriends, ex-lovers, new husbands: the usual). Her narrators are constantly interpreting themselves, their pasts and their relationships – a business that often goes on ruefully and after-the-event. The ideas behind this interest in the act of interpretation have been around for a little while now, and Atwood’s focus on the subject is not flame-belchingly original. But the subject is an important one for her for reasons which can be discerned from little asides in the stories. When a boy gives an identification bracelet to his girlfriend, he misnames it an ‘identity bracelet’: she ponders a possible reason for the error, and then says: ‘Another interpretation has since become possible.’ The remark is more of a clue to her concerns than the interpretation which follows it: it gives us a sense of the way feminism has empowered Atwood to take familiar material and scrutinise it from a new perspective. The point about ‘Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother’, the first story, is that not so long ago, or to another writer, the moments would not have seemed to signify anything at all. Perhaps it is her Canadianness – the fact of coming from a country where you can say, ‘Yes, I am a liberal’, without feeling ridiculous – which helps her to retain that combination of feminist ideas with an essentially traditional aesthetic which is one of her great strengths. ‘If writing novels – and reading them – have any redeeming social value it’s probably that they force you to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else.’ George Eliot might have said the same.

A flexible and thought-out moral and critical position is rare enough: Atwood is also a talented writer. She has a particular gift for aperçus which combine sympathy (for the character), insight (into the character) and a wry, ironic humour (which is often a matter of catching the reader’s eye behind the character’s back). She is very good at all varieties of rationalisation and minor deceit. Loulou, a sculptor, lives with a whole collective of male poets – very bad poets, too, we soon gather, though are never directly told. The poets use their more developed vocabularies to tease and bully her: when they call her ‘marmoreal’ she looks it up in the dictionary ‘to find out whether she’d been insulted’. (The story’s full title is ‘Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language’.) After sleeping with one of the poets for the first time, she had cleaned up his definitively squalid room for him. ‘Bob looked on, sullen but appreciative, as she hurled and scoured. Possibly this was why he decided to love her: because she would do this kind of thing. What he said though was, “You complete me.” ’

Moments like that provide much of the pleasure of Bluebeard’s Egg; that kind of insight, and that kind of comedy, come very easily to Atwood. Perhaps too easily. There are times when it seems that characters are being described and events are being evoked rather mechanically, through a few carefully-chosen details and a well-modulated irony or two – giving a feeling that things are being made to happen in order to give the ironic tone of voice a work-out. In ‘Scarlet Ibis’, for instance, a character wheeled on to provide local colour on page 187 (‘a trim grey haired woman in a tailored pink summer suit that must have been far too hot’) changes her hair colour by her next appearance, two pages and about five minutes of narrative time later (‘Christine talked with the pink-suited woman, who had blonde hair elegantly done up in a French roll. She was from Vienna ...’). It’s not a disastrous lapse, but for me it crystallised an unease with the way that what goes on in the stories sometimes comes to seem a consequence of the kind of narratorial voice Atwood has decided in advance to employ.

The title story shows her at her best. Sally is in love with Ed ‘because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity’; he is a heart doctor, ‘and the irony of this is not lost on Sally: who could know less about hearts, the kind symbolised by red satin surrounded by lace and topped by pink bows, than Ed?’ In plot terms, very little happens. We meet Sally as she stands looking out the kitchen window at Ed: their marriage is described (it’s his third); we see that Sally, though brighter than her husband, is not as bright as she thinks she is; we watch the progress of the dinner party Sally was preparing (as in a lot of the stories, the background is filled in while the main character is performing a domestic chore). After the dinner party she walks into her study and sees Ed with his hand on her best friend’s bum. Everyone acts as though nothing has happened.

While this has been going on, Atwood has been exploring Sally’s attempts to understand Ed, whose wall-like stupidity makes him very engimatic. Sally has been attending a night class in ‘Forms of Narrative Fiction’, in which the set text is an old version of the Bluebeard story: the class has been told to write the story from the point of view of any one character. Sally is inside a version of the Bluebeard story herself, of course, though she cannot realise it: the incidental ironies of the narrative all serve this larger structural irony. There is an unsummarisable richness about the thirty-page ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’. Many of Atwood’s concerns are present in it, vividly dramatised: her interest in adapting and co-opting genre; relationships between women; the nuances of modern marriages and re-marriages; the nature of female experience; what men are like. The climax of the story – as well as being thematically important (it presents Sally with a crisis of interpretation) and funny (in an adult and uncomfortable way) – is a moment of pure, dreamlike awfulness for the heroine, who is seeing happen what is for her the worst possible thing. The personal, for Atwood, is political – but it is personal too. Enjoyable though most of this collection is, ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ gives the reader a sense that Atwood has available a whole extra set of gears.

David Plante’s new novel – which continues the story of the Francoeur family of Providence, Rhode Island – begins in medias res with Philip Francoeur bursting into the bathroom where his daughter appears to be trying to drown herself. He pulls her out of the bath and throws her onto the floor:

  ‘You want to kill yourself, really kill yourself? I’ll show you how, I’ll help you ...’ Her head in his hands, he shoved it down to the water. ‘I hate, I hate, I hate a faker.’

  ‘No,’ she howled, ‘no.’

  He pressed his daughter’s face to the water. Her breasts against the side of the tub, she strained to hold her head up. His wife came in, shut the taps off and turned the handle to release the plug.

The first two-thirds of the novel explains how they all got to be like that: by having this scene – the only one in which the violence is of the physical rather than the emotional kind – at the beginning of the book, Plante warns us that behind the clipped, stylised manner of the narrative, passions run very high. The texture of the novel is stark and self-consciously powerful (a typical sentence: ‘He knew he shouldn’t have an erection.’) And the scenario – of intense emotions confined within a small family circle – is of a type which is traditionally compared to Greek tragedy (by its admirers) or to Cold Comfort Farm (by the unconvinced).

Philip is married to Jenny who is, like her name, bright, optimistic and Protestant: she belongs to a very different America from that of the Francoeur family. Their daughter, Antoinette, develops an unwholesomely close attachment to Philip’s mother and starts to imbibe the family’s dark and haunted French variety of Catholicism. Antoinette and her father find it increasingly difficult to be together; she is less uneasy with her mother but, in a deeper sense, perhaps more estranged from her still (even husband Philip finds it difficult to believe that Protestant Jenny has a soul). As Philip’s mother grows older she starts succumbing to a mixture of senility and despair – when she loses her false teeth, and Philip tells her to get a new set, she says: ‘No, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be dead soon.’

The final third of the novel, which has by now caught up with and overtaken its own opening, starts with a barbecue party thrown by Philip and Jenny. The day seems to offer the prospect of assimilation to Americanness for Philip: he thinks that perhaps, after all, ‘he could belong to the same bright country as Jenny,’ and realises that ‘his mother, at any time in her life, would have been incapable of giving a party.’ Playing tennis towards the end of the day, Jenny collapses; tests are made: it’s an inoperable cancer. For Philip and for Antoinette, her death seems to confirm the existence of their kind of God: as she weakens and dies, they grow closer, a process which has a lot to do with realising how alike they are.

Norman Lewis is not famous for being an advocate of literary Post-Modernism, but the title of his book The Sicilian Specialist comes close to flirting with self-referentiality. The March of the Long Shadows is set in Sicily in 1947. The narrator, John Philips, is keeping a watchful British eye on the nascent movement for Sicilian separatism. Things begin badly, with a note which tells us that ‘all the languages and major dialects of Europe but one share the saying, “where there’s life there’s hope.” The exception is the Sicilian dialect, which on the contrary asserts “where there’s death there’s hope.” This unique dissent may typify certain aspects of the island character.’ Fortunately, there isn’t too much of this kind of thing, and Lewis does not overstress those aspects of his situation with a potential for cliché (the relentless sun, the wise, enduring peasants, the cold-eyed mafiosi). He is strong on conveying mundane realities like hunger and lust, and the psychology of his Sicilian characters is not made impossibly exotic and colourful. Though Sicily has been central to Lewis’s life and writing, he does not make extreme claims for it: it is simply an interesting foreign place he happens to know a lot about. The structure of the novel, which has Philips returning to an environment with which he is already acquainted, is calculated to display both his and Lewis’s practicality and competence: the sense of complete familiarity within a milieu, and the well-worked plot, make the book something like a much-better-than-usual Dick Francis novel.