Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Best British Stories 2017: Part 3: From Realism to Magical Realism


Vesna Main, “Safe”
Perhaps because they are usually based on the mimetic notion of a “mirror in the roadway” reflecting the “real” world, realistic stories often seem to have some “ripped from the headlines” social issue embedded in them. Vesna Main’s story “Safe” focuses on a young woman who finally rebels against being abused by an exploitative boyfriend and stabs him while he is deep in a drunken sleep. The boyfriend has compelled her into doing a strip for two of his acquaintances, who pull her clothes off and rape her.
This is a realistic story—no symbolic language or transition into a magical realism world. The only metaphoric language focuses on the notion of some “force” that takes over the woman and compels her to stab the boyfriend: “Her hand moved as if someone was directing it, pushing it with a long stick as if she were a puppet.” After she has killed the boyfriend, the “force” releases go of her and she is “safe.”
While she is in a holding cell, her lawyer keeps asking why she did not just leave, suggesting a common view that she was “asking for it.” The lawyer says her best defense is to present herself as a confused young woman who killed her violent boyfriend in self-defense.  The focus of the story is on the “force,” although it is not clear what that force is, other than a kind of  just rebellion against male domination of women.

Sophie Wellstood, “The First Hard Rain”
After a first reading of this story, you are apt to say, “There’s nothing going on here.”  After a second reading you are apt to say, “There’s something going on here, but I’m not sure what it is.”
Nothing much suggested by the first scene, in which the central character Rachael, accompanies her ex-husband Peter and Peter’s mother Val to dump the ashes of her father-in-law Terry over the M6 because it was his favourite motorway.
The second scene takes place at the King’s Head Hotel where the three go for drinks, where we learn from the waitress Lorrelle that the father-in-law, Terry Hastings, was a teacher and that her niece was one of his pupils.  Lorrelle says she recognizes Terry’s wife  from her picture in the papers and refers to as a “poor cow.” Why the wife’s picture was in the newspaper is not clear. However, something seems to be suggested by Lorrelle’s comment that the niece “passed first time. Surprise surprise.” We can only guess that Terry has had sex with  the niece and that he has been arrested.
After Peter and Val leave, Rachael stays to have a drink with Lorrelle and asks her, “Your niece, how is she now?” After a paragraph describing  seagulls over the landfill, “rising and dipping crazily in their unknowable world,” Lorrelle takes a deep drag of her cigarette and lets the smoke leave her mouth and nostrils “like a ghost leaving her body.” She replies, “She’ll be OK. You know. She’s going to go back to college. She’ll be OK.”: Rachael sees tears on Lorrelle’s eyelashes.
The only metaphoric context for the story is introduced in the first paragraph. And concludes the story. Rachael thinks a tempest of  Biblical proportions has occurred over the Irish sea, causing a flock of hundreds of seagulls to be driven miles inland, making her doubt if they can ever find their way back to “their desolate ocean home.” But then she thinks the real reason for the screeching was “unromantic and mundane”—it is the city’s landfill and the gulls are swooping over hillocks of human waste.
Short stories often are reluctant to provide explanatory information or background context for their mysteries, but usually there is a reason for such reticence.  I am just not sure that there is any reason in “The First Hard Rain” for leaving out  story information that actually makes this a story.

Giselle Leeb, “As You Follow”
In this second person story, the focus is on the narrator at an Octoberfest celebration in London, who cannot keep his eyes off a young blue-eyed, blond-haired boy who he thinks is too young to be there—a boy who, dressed like the men, is happy, happy, pure joy.
The narrator feels he is in a magic place and recalls when he was young and  the world was pure, full of “beauty and truth.” The narrator thinks he is young again, at his first wedding, and he cannot believe that this life he has waited for all those years when he was growing up has finally arrived.
At the end of the story, he looks into the river Thames and cannot take his eyes off his own reflection, a boy in shirt sleeves, “bursting with pride and with joy.”  The narrator follows the boy, that is, his reflection into the water, and as he reaches for the light above his head, a small hand drags him into the darkness of the water and as he is pulled down as the waves whisper and move on.
This story begins realistically, but the Octoberfest creates a magical context that moves the narrator from reality into an identification with the boy and a return to his own past, until he becomes the boy/man and is drawn Narcissus-like into his own reflection. The reader is not given any explanation for the events in this story, but the context of a magical, metaphoric world is so pervasive and the identification between the narrator and the boy is so emphatic that the reader is ready to accept the Narcissistic fall into the self at the end.

Francoise Harvey, “Never Thought He’d Go”
The question that preoccupies this story is announced in the first few lines. A boy named Norm has been found at the edge of a graveyard with a broken arm, three broken ribs, a black eye, a broken collarbone and lots of bruises. Three friends have three different theories about what happened to him: He fell off the church spire says Davi, a gravestone fell on him says Davitoo, he was trampled by cows says Saz. The question of what Norm was doing in the church at night is more easily answered: his friends have dared him to do it. The title comes from the narrator’s notion that none of them ever thought Norm would do it, since they warned him the church was haunted.
Made uneasy by guilt, the narrator cannot sleep and sees a light flashing from the church bell tower. “Flash and gone. Flash and gone.” And then “Flash and hold” as if the light had spotted him. All members of the “gang” have seen the light and agree to meet at midnight in the cemetery, although now they worry it will be Norm’s ghost who shows up for revenge. Then Davitoo is found  just as Norm was--with a broken wrist, jaw, two broken ribs, a broken nose, and lots of bruises. The story ends with the mystery of what happened to the two boys still unsolved and the light in the church going flash and gone, flash and gone, until it stays on. 
Is this a story about  kids involved in pranks or a supernatural story in which the church really is haunted?  In either case, the injuries of the two boys are never motivated in any meaningful way.  How did they happen? Why did they happen?  What is the point of this story?

Daisy Johnson, “Language”
“Language” is from Johnson’s book Fen which has received good reviews both in England and America.  The stories are fantasy/reality stories of the kind that American writer Karen Russell got a lot of buzz for a few years ago, although they do not have the self-consciously flippant language of Russell’s stories.
“Language” opens as a kind of female sexual initiation story focusing on Nora Marlow Carr, at age sixteen, a big girl, perhaps a bit overweight, with childbearing hips and milk-carrying breasts, a “natural woman,” or what some called big boned, in love with a big guy named Harrow Williams. Nora is a kind of a nerd, smart in the ways of math and string theory; Harrow not so much.
Nora seduces Harrow into sex and convinces him they are “entangled.” They get married and she says she wishes someone had told her what a messy affair  living with a man was. Then abruptly Harrow dies and Nora takes care of his mother, who, it seems knows a bit of magic and manages to bring Harrow back from the dead.
The final gimmick of the story is that when Harrow speaks, he creates a physical pain in Nora and Sarah. For example, a single syllable can cause Sarah to vomit, while a sentence an cause her to have nosebleeds.
Nora tries to fix this by having Harrow try out different words to see what effect they have. Some of her attempts to “cure” Harrow are religious in nature, others are linguistic, but nothing seems to work. It reaches a point when even Harrow’s thoughts cause Nora and Sarah physical pain. The story ends with this sentence: “And though there were someone else’s thoughts hooked and barbed inside her, she saw the dark passage of where she was going: not a rescue at all, only a stripping away, a cursing back into nothing.”
The problem of the story is that there is no causal or metaphoric connection between the female initiation theme at the beginning and the  return to life zombie story at the end. Even more important, there is no meaningful connection between  language and physical harm.
Johnson has said in an interview that the Fen, where her stories take place, is a liminal landscape with one foot in water an d one on earth, which seems to “resonate” with certain themes in the stories, such as the “fluid boundaries between myth and reality.” However, if we are to accept a merging of reality and myth, there should be some justification—not simply that it meaninglessly occurs.

Claire Dean, “Is-and”
Once again, we begin with a realistic story:  a woman goes with her recent husband to visit his mother who lives on an island. Nothing much happens; he seems a taciturn lout and she is lonely. The house is haunted by the memory of the man’s first wife.
The story seems to center around a mysterious package that the postman brings the husband, although it does not have his name on it. The wife opens the package, which contains a baby board book of nursery rhymes with panels a child can push to play different tunes, e.g. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Three Blind Mice,” etc.
Significantly, some letters have been blacked out in the book, e.g.
 w…e…w…a…n…t…t…o…c…o…m…h…o…m…e
It seems clear that the missing letters are not important, but that the remaining letters spell out: “We want to come home.”
The wife goes to a bookstore and talks to the owner about stories with blacked out letters, and he tells her about the lhiannan shee, an undead vampire female who is drawn to bards.
The story ends with the husband leaving the house, the mother whipping up broken eggshells, and the wife hearing someone whistling the tune she heard from the book the first time she opened it.  She turns to yell at him, but “everything within her stopped. The stranger held her there with his gaze. She took his outstretched hand and let him lead her away.”
The realistic first part of the story does not lead to the unrealistic last part of the story for any meaningful purpose. Are we supposed to believe that the first wife was a lhiannan shee and that the taciturn husband is a bard who lures the second wife into his fairy tale world? Was there a child in the first marriage? What happened to it? Nothing really seems to justify all this. And nothing seems to suggest that such a transition from the real world into a magical world really signifies anything.
It is not enough, it seems to me, that stories are interesting in their various parts.  They must be unified in such a way that they coherently signify something about the human condition.




2 comments:

tips to send gifts said...

I m first time of your story blog, but it's really interesting one. I found all these stories are very interesting like either it's Vesna Main’s story of “Safe” of a young woman or Sophie Wellstood, “The First Hard Rain”. Whenever I will have time, I will read all. Thanks for your kind and good work for sharing these sort stories.

Muhammad Asad said...

As usual it is always something new that keep me updated about this blogging word. Thanks for sharing information on platforms.
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