Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Dig (Six Shorts, 4/6)

“The Dig” is the fourth story in the anthology of short pieces of fiction called Six Shorts. For me, it was an utterly otherworldly story. That is often something good to say about a story. Lovecraft’s fiction, for instance, tends to have an otherworldly quality that is enthralling.

But here I don’t mean it in a flattering way. “The Dig,” written by Cynan Jones, struck me as a story about a world both bleak and boring, in which a story tries to shoot out from the ground but it is caught and shriveled by a thick layer of permafrost.

So I got carried away with the metaphor. But the eponymous dig does take place in a rugged and gelid setting. A father and his son are helping a man—slovenly, stout—dig out a badger. They are in command of a pack of terriers that are skillful in chasing and cornering badgers in the maze of tunnels they build.

So they dig. So they find. So they kill. So they bring back. You can read it for yourself, courtesy of Granta, here.

It really didn’t do it for me. It did work for the shortlisters who put together the anthology, though, so maybe the bleakness that deadened the story for me livened it up for them. Just for the record, I have nothing against stories set in the cold: take Jack London, for example, or Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich. This one, well, I think I’ve said enough.

I want to single out a passage I liked. One of the main characters is a young man—the son—and this is his first dig. He doesn’t hate badgers. When he sees a badger for the first time, he marvels at its sight and wants it to put up a fight. The animal doesn’t do it at first. And here come the sentences I found interesting. They describe how the boy teaches himself hatred. The process is instantaneous and piercing, as so often happens through movies, through newspaper articles, through chance encounters in the street, through tales told by hearsay—which end up victimizing a whole group, a whole ethnicity, a whole nation. Here is how the boy learns to hate the badger:

“He had to develop an idea of hatred for the badger without the help of adrenalin and without the excitement of pace and in the end it was the reluctance and non-engagement of the animal which drew up a disrespect in him. He built his dislike of the badger on this disgust. It was a bullying. It was a tension, not an excitement, and he began to feel a delicious private heartbeat coming. He believed by this point that the badger deserved it.”

Monday, April 29, 2013

Evie (Six Shorts, 3/6)

This is now the third short story in the Six Shorts anthology, which I started to talk about a couple of days ago. It’s called “Evie,” and it was written by Sarah Hall. It’s probably the most thought-provoking of all the stories in the anthology. We are led along in a way that is both luscious and cunning.

The story begins when Evie, who is married to a man called Alex, arrives home and starts eating a large chocolate bar. This puzzles Alex, since Evie is not fond of sweets, but what the hell. This continues during the next few days, and Evie starts adding a whole lot of alcohol to her routine. Then comes the sex.

Evie develops a sexual appetite that she has never had before. She looks at Alex with an “unboundaried gesture.” (Great description.) She watches porn. She entices Alex into a wide array of postures and desires. Reluctant at first, Alex plays along. She even asks him to invite their friend Richard to their house for a threesome. This makes Alex cringe and pause: “he knew too that there was a line, over which, if they passed, there was no coming back. The dynamic would always be changed; they would be beyond themselves.” So it goes. By this point, the story has already become an erotic story, with irrepressibly carnal language.

Please skip this paragraph if you haven’t read “Evie” because I’m going to spoil the story for you. Right when the narrative is at its most erotic, with a drowsy and spent Alex watching intermittent scenes of Evie having sex with Richard, Evie breaks down into convulsions. Bile, alcohol, and spit ooze out of her mouth. At the hospital, we find out what was really happening: a brain tumor has disrupted Evie’s behavior. This is a masterful stroke from Sarah Hall. She has made us accomplices of the salacious spectacle put on by Evie. Like Alex, we may have been reluctant at first, but by the time we learn about the tumor we have been led through page after page of explicit sexual scenes. Our acquiescent silence has inevitably turned us into voyeurs. We thought we were watching Evie at her freest. We were watching the tumor acting out. We should’ve pitied her. Instead, we have come to share Alex’s guilty pleasure, which surfaces at the end, as he reflects on the night spent with Evie and Richard: “he thought of it, often, more often than he should.”

No way we can ignore Evie’s name, especially in a story in which Evie convinces Alex to follow her lead into a luxuriant, lustful, and, sure, sinful life. Hall might even be making a theological point: is she to blame for what happened when she was victimized by a disease that atrophied her free will? How often don’t we, as a society, blame people for decisions that are ultimately beyond their control? It’s a clever touch by the author.

One thing I do think was unnecessary in “Evie” was a section—grafted onto the story about a third of the way in—that starts with “He had never really loved his wife.” It is pure backstory. It is interesting, sure, but it breaks the onward march of the story to tell us how Evie and Alex met, how Alex felt about her, how they married. Interesting, as I said, but it should have been weaved into the story without having to interrupt the narrative.

Still, I wonder why “Evie” wasn’t chosen for the award. For what it’s worth, it gets my vote.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Gun (Six Shorts, 2/6)

The second story in the Six Shorts collection I discussed last time is a story about a young kid called Daniel who goes through a life-changing event while playing with a gun with the kids next door. These are the same kids that his mother constantly warns him about.

The story is called, fittingly, “The Gun,” and its author is Mark Haddon. I cannot say too much about the plot without ruining the story, but the story does capture quite well the hectic randomness of childhood… and the poor choices we often make along the way.

The sentences were artisanally forged to convey descriptions that are precise and lush—even to the point of slowing down the narrative. Here is a good example of a description: “running across the second carriageway to the gritty lay-by with its moraine of shattered furniture and black rubbish bags ripped open by rats and foxes”. The lay-by is gritty. The rubble and trash form a moraine. And there isn’t just rubble or trash, but shattered furniture and garbage bags. We are told these bags are black, and we even know which animals ripped them open. Somebody might have advised Haddon against conveying so much detail since it can come at the expense of pushing the plot forward. But the story opted for detail, and it calls for a little patience on our end. It rewards our patience with clear and textured representations.

At one point, as we are gearing up for the action of a fight or a confrontation, a deer steps into the story. As it lays dying, we get this: “It’s weakening visibly, something dragging it down into the cold black water that lies just under the surface of everything.” Nice. Chilling.

This story also offers the most quotable part of the whole anthology, in my eyes: a revealing description of how, when we look back at our childhood, we puzzle over why we didn’t choose this instead of that, why we didn’t behave then like we would behave now. Haddon stresses, instead, how miraculous it is that we survived the myriad potential casualties we faced when growing up. Here’s the quote: “He will be repeatedly amazed at how poorly everyone remembers their childhoods, how they project their adult selves back into those bleached-out photographs, those sandals, those tiny chairs. As if choosing, as if deciding, as if saying no were skills like tying your shoelaces or riding a bike. Things happened to you. If you were lucky, you got an education and weren’t abused by the man who ran the five-a-side. If you were very lucky you finally ended up in a place where you could say, I’m going to study accountancy . . . I’d like to live in the countryside . . . I want to spend the rest of my life with you.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Miss Lora (Six Shorts, 1/6)

The main character of the story is a young man whose family immigrated to the United States. The language of the story is English, but it is peppered with nuggets of Spanish, many of them coarse, most of them regional, some of them blundered (e.g., “Se metío por mis ojos,” instead of “Se metió por mis ojos”). There is plenty of sex. An older brother casts a long shadow over the narrative. Take a wild guess who the author of the story is.

It’s Junot Díaz, of course. The short story is “Miss Lora,” which you can read online on the New Yorker website (here). It’s the first of six stories selected as finalists for the 2013 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. The collection of six stories is sold as an ebook on Amazon (here). It’s a good snapshot of contemporary short fiction.

The story, told in the second person, describes how the main character became romantically involved with an older woman, a neighbor called Miss Lora. “Romantically involved” is a silk-laced way to refer to an aggregate of sexual escapades, hidden from the main character’s mother as well as from his girlfriend. There is no shortage of explicit descriptions of these sexual episodes.

The narrative is forceful, and it moves briskly through the plot until it reaches a nostalgic ending, years after most of the actions described in it. The story has that going for it.

But I am always puzzled by the interest that Díaz’s fiction manages to spark among English speakers. Can people who have no Spanish in their lexicon really follow some of the paragraphs in the story that jump back and forth between Spanish and English? I wonder, and I have wondered it before (here). For native Spanish speakers, the dose of Spanish here has to seem suspicious, and Díaz’s stories have an unfailing share of Spanish 101 mistakes. So where does the excitement come from? I cannot go beyond wondering.

Unbelievably enough, though, this story snatched the award (here). It surprises me, because, as we’ll see in later posts, there were at least two other very robust candidates in the collection. But de gustibus, I guess. It’s not an outright bad story. And the award did attract some good fiction, so kudos for that.