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.’

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