Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It's what you expect and how you read

Here's our reading group discussion of Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. It's perhaps an interesting insight into the difficulties of innovative fiction. It's a book based on hindsight rather than 'what-happens-next' plot (what happens is given from the outset), with a resulting non-linear structure and an innovative prose style. Opinions in our group were strongly divided, with most people finding the book stunning, but others left cold and unengaged and one even seriously irritated. Most strikingly and interestingly, the two camps had wildly differing impressions of the pace of the book, with those who were positive (and accepting of the premise) finding it urgent and emotionally involving, while those who were negative (and who I suspect preferred to read for plot) found it insufficiently urgent, static and repetitive.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday, January 03, 2014

Reading group: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

Here's what our reading group thought of this novel based on the real-life case of the Rosenbergs, charged with leaking the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union and executed in 1953.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Single shorts from Nightjar

I don't know whether it was a deliberate reminder, but the day after my post on the publication of short stories in individual volumes, two new Nightjar Press chapbooks came slipping through my door, presumably from Nightjar publisher Nicholas Royle. For a few years now, Royle has of course been publishing chapbooks under this imprint devoted to the format, each volume containing a single story.

Genre-wise, the imprint is also devoted to the uncanny. I say genre, but of course the uncanny can be conveyed via a wide range of types of writing and, inevitably, I like some of it more than others. My narrative interest is above all psychological. By this I don't at all mean that I only like writing grounded in psychological realism, with complex and believable and 'identifiable-with' characters etc; no, no, I love a good surreal story, and am very ready to be lost in the uncanny. A good uncanny story operates of course by tugging on a reader's fear or uncertainty, and it seems to me that therefore the best uncanny stories are those that unsettle us by touching on serious existential fears rather than simply giving us a brief and therefore safe thrill of horror. (Others, I know feel differently, but quite frankly I've had far too many real-life scares to be interested in looking for a thrill of horror.) I'd say that stories grounded in psychology do the former, and those that hinge on circumstance and plot tend to do the latter.

The two new Nightjar stories exemplify for me this dichotomy. In Hilary Scudder's story, M, the first-person narrator flees from her husband, of whom she has been very afraid, to meet her lover, M. Before fleeing she leaves her husband a letter, daring (in her euphoria at escaping) to wish him as much unhappiness as he has caused her, indeed to wish him an agonising death. But as she approaches the place where she has arranged to meet her lover, things take a dark turn: it is not the cafe-bar scene she expected, but a dank and deserted docks... It's hard to say any more about the story because what counts in the story is what happens (and if I told you I'd spoil more or less everything about it). But what does happen happens to our protagonist. Rather than resulting from her psychology (either her idiosyncratic psychology, or the psychology we all share), the dangers she faces are out there, external to her. The final twist, while it does indeed provide a jolt of horror, is basically contingent: it could have happened, or it couldn't; chance is what determines that it does, rather than its being an inevitable consequence of the specific psychology of any of the characters or of human nature in general. There is an overall message - that it's hard to escape the horrors of sexist men - and the story is certainly vivid, with elements associated with the genre - a protagonist suddenly lost in a dark and threatening place, with lush glimpses of an erotic but sinister hidden world - guaranteed to give that bolt of thrill, and I'm sure lots of people will love it.

M John Harrison's Getting Out of There is for me a story of a quite different order. It couldn't begin in any more ordinary setting or situation: a web designer moves from London back to the small seaside town in which he grew up, takes a room in a run-down house and sticks most of his belongings in a lockup 'with untreated breeze-block cubicles of different sizes, behind doors that were little more than plywood.' So far so quotidian, indeed seedy. But what's not ordinary is the prose. This is how it begins:
Hampson came back after some years, to the seaside in the rain, to this town built around a small estuary where a river broke through the chalk downs. Everything - everything people knew about, anyway - came in through that gap, by road or rail; and that's the way Hampson came too, midweek, in a rental van, unsure of what he would find for himself after so long.
and right there at the beginning you know, from the rhythm, from that description of the gap in the chalk and the river taking everything with it, hinting already at gaps in reality and a sense of inevitability - not to mention that phrase 'everything people knew about anyway' - that you're in the hands of a master. This is a story about alienation: Hampson's alienation and everyone's alienation. When strange things start to happen, which they do, there's the possibility that Hampson is going mad, but we can't simply pass it off as this: the evocation of the world around Hampson, seen through his perspective, draws us into his psyche, we share his psyche, and are drawn right into the experience. What's most unsettling for the reader as well as Hampson is the disruption of reality, the uncertainty as to whether or not the phenomena are out there or not. As I interpret it, this is is a story precisely about the horror of the ordinary, about our fear yet need for it. The horror is partly within ourselves, in how we can deal with the world, and for me this makes it a deeply resonant story, one which both comments on and transcends the genre.