Short Stories for Millennials

Another pure coincidence: in the same week, I read short story collections by an American and a British millennial trying to find themselves, love and a purpose to life. But, oh, how different their approach!

slutLauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People

One story is told from a male point of view, another from a dog’s perspective, but in fact all the stories share the same first-person angsty young person’s voice, recognisably white American female and from a privileged background (regardless of how broke they might be at present). The stories are also not really constructed as stories, more as a slice of life, with no seeming conclusion or character development. They almost feel like writing exercises to me – and, as such, they do succeed. They are funny, often outrageous, with that deadpan honesty and wide-eyed egocentricity that is often endearing even if it makes you squirm a little.

I particularly liked: ‘New Girls’, the story of a youngster moving from America to Germany with her family and having to fit into her new school – although it did feel a little superficial; ‘Desert Hearts’ about a young woman who pretends to be a lesbian to get a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop; the interaction with a confused patient at a sex clinic in ‘Mike Anonymous’; and the title story ‘Barbara the Slut’, which seems almost like a nasty fairytale about American high schools. The 16-year-old Barbara is an absolutely brilliant student but also somewhat indiscriminate with her sexual favours (because she doesn’t believe in men and love), until she turns down one of the boys and gets labelled a slut and publicly bullied/shamed. Oddly enough, another recently read book, Viral by Helen Fitzgerald handles the same topic of labelling and bullying, although in that case it’s largely internet-based.

Perhaps my own high-school years were too long ago or not traumatic enough, perhaps I can no longer relate to the aimless and self-centred rambling of young people (at least as depicted in these stories), but I struggled to empathise with the characters in Lauren Holmes’ stories. The situations described were often quite sad, quite hopeless, yet I never felt emotionally involved.

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye

blinkBy contrast, these stories punched me in my emotional gut!

We come back to the grey shores of Great Britain, except there is nothing ‘great’ about it. It is perceived as a diminished, impoverished island, with fearful people and dysfunctional families, in this collection of loosely related short stories. We find here stories about birth and death, love and work, stories of violence and unfulfilled needs, of having hope leached out of you again and again. This is a much bleaker view of life, and there are many different and distinct voices, of all ages.

In ‘Bad Company’ we first meet Alex, the person who appears in almost all of the stories and acts as a sort of connection. He is a young man working on a building site and hurts his back badly, but dreams of becoming a poet. In a separate story, ‘Keep Still’, we meet Rupal, stuck in a violent marriage with a drug addict husband. This is a virtuoso monologue chronicling her life of abuse and her feelings of abandonment. In the third story, ‘Building Six’, these two characters come together in a rather unexpected way, seen through the eyes of a young security guard working in an office building. Alex is his older colleague and a stickler for correct procedure: with his inflexibility, he torments Rupal when she forgets her ID pass. She has a nervous breakdown as she attempts to humanise the unforgiving Cerberus. The third time we encounter Rupal, she is dead, viciously stabbed by her husband, whose time in prison we witness in ‘Yellow Daffodil’. Alex reappears in another story, ‘Cowboy’, which seems to take place earlier. He is waiting patiently in the car for his girlfriend to say goodbye to her mother as she prepares to leave home and move in with him, but in the next story their ‘great gamble of life and love’ is falling apart in a morass of expectations drenched in failure, shame and reproaches. Alex then tries to work for a charity dealing with patients with brain injuries and meets Arthur, an old man who shows him ‘an entire universe trapped in a wheelchair’.

I read this book before I met Anthony, but I was familiar with his poetry. This short story collection is certainly the work of a poet: despite the gritty subject matter, there is something so right about the choice of words and the emotional fireworks we are witnessing. These are stories made to be read out loud and to be reread.

Full Moon on Monday and Writing Plans

The setting full moon over the Jura mountains got me singing ‘Full Moon on Monday’. Although, a while later, I realised that the Duran Duran song of my childhood was actually called ‘New Moon on Monday’. The lyrics are as vague and nonsensical as all Duran Duran lyrics ever were, but the video seems to suggest a revolution in the making, so this is my personal writing revolution, rather than a New Year’s resolution. I will be, as always, ruthlessly candid.FullMoon

  1. No one else is going to write my novel for me.
  2. Agents and publishers have a short attention span and will not wait for me forever.
  3. In fact, it may already be too late for 2.
  4. But that is no excuse to lay down arms.
  5. The next few months may be my last chance to focus with anything resembling single-mindedness on writing.
  6. Yes, there are still major logistical hurdles before me (moving house and country, changing schools, job hunting), but I will worry about those nearer the time.
  7. So what if everyone and their dog are writing ‘domestic noir’ and I am getting bored with the genre? That doesn’t mean I should lose confidence in my own project. If I don’t believe it offers something fresh and unique, then who else is going to believe it? Besides, it’s more of a gangster and police chase novel than a pure domestic.
  8. Volunteering for all sorts of writing-related responsibilities and tasks may be fun, but do they help me to finish the novel? If the answer is no, then I need to be ruthless about turning down these requests.
  9. I will still read and review crime fiction – it helps to know what is currently being published – but I should also read more widely and critically, with particular emphasis on the writers that I can learn from. Not to copy them, of course, but to understand the mechanics rather than just be wowed by the style.
  10. I also want to read for fun, without reviewing, without pen in hand, according to whim and fancy. Because life is too short to be earnest all the time.
  11. And on that note, always have something to look forward to and something to celebrate. That is my remedy for depression. Yes, there are all the other possible solutions as well: medication or talking to someone, exercising more regularly, using my daylight-simulating lamp or just going out more above the cloud level, exploring the settings for my novel… Add to that things such as a writing conference in March, the crime festival in Lyon on 1-3 April, and a writing retreat in June, and you can see that 2016 will be all about drive but also treats!
  12. If I don’t take care of myself, no one else will, and I won’t be able to take care of others. Yet I must also allow those others to take more care of themselves, without agonising too much about what kind of a parent I am.
  13. Don’t think diet, think lifestyle change. I intend to write more than one novel, so I need to form lifelong habits.
  14. Stop caring what other people say about my decisions and my life. No one knows what pain feels like for other people, no one can live my life for me.
  15. And no one can write my life for me either. Or my novel. Or my poems.

The Refugee Problem in Germany

Jenny Erpenbeck has written THE most timely novel about refugees, although of course it’s just a coincidence that her book (which must have been written a few years back) was published just as Europe reached boiling point in discussions about the refugee crisis.

gehengingGehen, Ging, Gegangen [Go, Going, Gone] is the story of refugees, but (wisely, perhaps) Erpenbeck does not write it from the point of view of the asylum-seekers themselves. Instead, we become acquainted with them through an intermediary: a retired and widowed German classics scholar, Richard. This is very clever, because Richard represents any one of us who is ignorant but a bit curious about the plight of refugees, and then finds his mind and heart expanded through his regular contact with them. Yet he is by no means an altruistic saint: he hesitates and makes silly mistakes at first, and when he finds his house broken into at some point, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that one of ‘his’ refugee visitors has burgled him but cannot quite confront him with this. And, although there are hints of selfishness in his personal life (and talk about a mistress), at the very end of the book, we discover some additional things about his marriage which put him in a rather unflattering light.

So Richard is very human, rather lonely and bored, and he happens to pass in front of the Red Town Hall in Alexanderplatz in Berlin and sees a group of men on hunger strike, protesting and refusing to reveal their identities or nationalities. At first Richard keeps his distance.

As a child, he’d learnt all about hardship. But that’s no reason, just because someone is desperate enough to go on hunger strike, for him to starve. So he tells himself. It wouldn’t help the person on hunger strike.

Richard was born during the Second World War and grew up in East Germany, so throughout the book he contrasts the poverty and deprivation of the young men he encounters with the life of his friends and neighbours under Communism. He starts out with a scientific curiosity and a rather comically naive questionnaire for the refugees, who have been moved to a hastily repurposed old people’s home. Gradually, however, he opens up his own heart and allows the men themselves to open up and talk freely, all the while treading a fine line between pity and patronage, companionship and superiority. He begins to distinguish between the men coming from Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Syria, Chad, even Touaregs. He learns how to pronounce their names: tall Ithemba, quiet Abdusalam, shy Osarobo, massive Raschid (and initially thinks: all refugees can’t be doing too badly, if Raschid is so big). Sometimes he creates his own nicknames: young Apoll, sad Tristan, thin Caron, who believes in ghosts…

He helps out with their German classes, he invites some of them back into his home to play piano or to read Dante (his only book in Italian). He is often embarrassed when he is invited to eat with them, knowing how they struggle to live on the tiny sums of money allocated to them. Most of them are boat people, who landed on the shores of Italy, and so have no right to claim asylum in Germany. They want to work, they don’t want to live off charity. They miss and worry about their family back home. Slowly, Richard befriends them and starts believing that he and a small group of friends can make a difference, that it is all about personal relationships, about small-scale understanding. He wonders about the artificiality of borders, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that people are at such pains to maintain:

Was the dividing line, the trench, between them really so endlessly deep and that’s why it caused such turbulence? Was it between black and white? Between rich and poor? Between stranger and friend?… Between one language and another? And how many borders were there anyway in this one universe? Or, to put it another way, which was the real, ultimate border? Perhaps the one between the living and the dead? Or between starlit sky and the clod of earth that he stepped upon each day? Or between one day and the next?… If you think about all these possible borders, then it seemed to Richard that the difference between one human and the next is ridiculously tiny and no deep trench at all.

jennyerpenbeck
Author photo from Deutsche Welle.

Of course there is no conventional happy ending: all the refugees have to return to Italy or be deported. There are only 12 exceptions out of 476 cases – mostly because of attempted suicide or ill-health, in which case they have been given a few weeks or months’ additional permission to stay before being deported. So Richard and his friends jump in to help and offer accommodation and there is a final note of humanity and warmth, despite the sadness of the last few pages.

For a really excellent review of this book (which we hope will be translated soon into English, all the translations above are my own weak attempts), see Tony Malone’s blog. There is also a fascinating interview with Jenny Erpenbeck on Deutsche Welle about the problem of being ‘visible’ only as a refugee.

Friday Fun: Abandoned Places

January and its sunless days are taking their toll on me, so after cemeteries I now offer you ruins and abandonment. Picturesque, of course! Cheerful? Well, you decide…

Abkhazia, Georgia. From lifestyle.allwomenstalk.com
Abkhazia, Georgia. From vmulder.livejournal.com
Beelitz Hospital near Berlin, from 28dayslater.co.uk
Beelitz Hospital near Berlin, from 28dayslater.co.uk
Chateau de Carnelle, from reddit.
Chateau de Carnelle, from reddit.
Another French chateau, from a website dedicated to ruins www.bcd-urbex.com
Another French chateau, from a website dedicated to ruins http://www.bcd-urbex.com
Wooden house in Oblast, Russia, from russiatrek.org
Wooden house in Oblast, Russia, from russiatrek.org
The sand-covered town of Kolmanskop in Namibia. From National Geographic website.
The sand-covered town of Kolmanskop in Namibia. From National Geographic website.

Sic transit gloria mundi, as Mary Beard might say.

Avoid Those Darned Clichés!

It’s amazing how difficult it is to stay away from clichés when writing poetry… or anything, really! As part of last week’s fabulous poetry workshop with the performance poetry guru that is Anthony Anaxagorou, we had to work on random concrete nouns and associate them with interesting adjectives. Harder than it sounds to produce a coherent poem out of it. Here is my pitiful result, which I am linking to dVerse Poets Pub and their Open Link Night. Join us there for very diverse explorations of poetry!

Indifferent sunshine taps on the bleary-eyed windows
a cat burglar in white
but fails to wake her.
She grips the eiderdown, she swallows the grumpy phlegm
lodged in her system.
And ten versatile coffees later
she waltzes with the wandering pencil
on the frisky paper.
From the pregnant bag of ideas
she selects yet another, caresses it with bloated thumb,
while a reborn supper
announces itself shyly on the dancing table.

From British South Indians website.
From British South Indians website.

Quick Crime Reviews: One Out of Four

Would it be fair to say that about one in four books being published today constitutes a memorable read? Judging by my current crop of crime reads, I’d say that proportion is roughly right. It may seem ungracious to say that, especially when I have yet to finish my own novel! (So they are all clearly better than me for a start.) So let me qualify this somewhat.

None of them were bad enough to make me want to stop reading them. In fact, they were entertaining and quite accomplished for debut novels. However, after just a few days, I can barely remember the storyline or the characters. I am sure they will all do well in terms of sales, however, probably better so than the last one, which I liked and remembered most. Is that because publishers or the reading public think of crime fiction as a ‘disposable genre’ – easily read, all about a puzzle and a twist and a quick entertainment, and then forgotten? Or am I being too harsh? Many of my fellow bloggers enjoyed them a lot, so why do I always need a ‘bigger theme’, an exotic location or a social context to keep me happy?

disclaimerRenée Knight: Disclaimer

Quick and easy to read, but failed to rise above the run-of-the-mill for me. Another middle-aged woman with a secret alternating with chapters from the POV of an older man who has suffered loss and is seeking revenge. A set-up which is intriguing – what would you do if you found the worst moments of your life story displayed in a novel? –  but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

 

whatsheleftT. R. Richmond: What She Left

An interesting concept of reconstituting a person and their last few days through all the documents and detritus of life that they have left behind. You’ll find a good variety of voices, from lecherous middle-aged professor to wide-eyed naivety. However, overall, the story strained belief – so many gathered by the river’s edge on a winter’s night! – and did not quite live up to the premise.

 

followmeAngela Clarke: Follow Me

Once you manage to suspend your disbelief that the police would be so unfamiliar with Twitter and would depend on a 23-year-old freelance journalist to be their social media consultant, this is quite an entertaining and fast-paced read, although the end is a trifle predictable. It raises some interesting issues about online privacy, but I felt that the issue of what Nas and Freddie had done in their teens was deliberately obfuscated and hidden just to create some artificial suspense.

watermusicMargie Orford: Water Music

This is the fifth novel in the series featuring social worker Clare Hart, working with abused and missing minors in Cape Town. So yes, I jumped midway into the story arc about Clare and her boyfriend, the cop Riedwaan Faizal, but I was still captivated by the interactions between the characters and the storyline. South Africa is a place where life is not easy for poor young women and children, and the author reflects that in this emotional story about an abandoned child and a missing young cellist. This is not the touristy Cape Town we like to imagine, although the natural setting is very beautiful, but a gritty story about violence against women and the consequences of poverty. Corruption at the highest levels and the conflict between police and unions in a post-apartheid South Africa are also tangentially addressed. My first Margie Orford, but most certainly not my last.

How much Richard Yates can one bear?

Richard Yates: Young Hearts Crying

youngheartsIt’s no secret that I am fond of the way in which Richard Yates cynically pierces the bubble of the American Dream, and thereby makes us all cringe as we recognise our own undesirable tendencies to envy others, to keep up with the Joneses, to be self-absorbed, to be unable to live up to our ideals, to be unrealistic and so on. Self-flagellation is alive and kicking in his novels and the rather sentimentally entitled ‘Young Hearts Crying’ is no exception. It is the story of a mismatched couple, as is so often the case with Yates, but interestingly enough, it does not end with the dissolution of a marriage and tragedy (as Revolutionary Road does). In fact, it might even be said to have a mildly upbeat ending. At least there is some hope that life goes on and that the characters have learnt a bit of a lesson.

Michael Davenport is a young war veteran determined to succeed as a writer without recourse to his wife’s trust fund. He is confident he will be able to support his family through his job without compromising his art. His motto seems to be:

Once I get the hang of it, I’ll be doing [this job] with my left hand.

His wife, Lucy, is initially adoring and supportive, but as Michael gets stuck in one dead-end job after another, and never gets around to writing, she becomes increasingly disenchanted. As in all Yates books, a lot of drinking is involved. It doesn’t help that the young couple keep comparing themselves with the Nelsons, who seem to be able to effortlessly combine artistic merit with commercial and social success. The grass is always greener on the other side and Michael believes that the mark of a true professional is to make difficult things look easy. However, he personally finds writing very difficult, so he becomes bitter and twisted in the process.

After the marriage breaks down, both of them drift. Lucy attempts to find herself through acting, writing and art, each time grasping at the straw of an artistic mentor. Meanwhile, Michael has a nervous breakdown and searches for ever-younger female company. Each of them reaches some kind of conclusion, although I would hesitate to call it ‘wisdom’, more like a ‘compromised way of life’.  But the journey there is marked by the fierce humour and cringeworthy anecdotes, as well as the quietly controlled style that makes Yates such a master of discontent.

Despair would have to wait at least a few more hours, because this was a party night at the Nelsons’.

DorothyParkerI remember a friend advising me not to read Revolutionary Road (which was my first book by Yates) unless my own marriage was happy and I felt fulfilled. I have to admit he is so ruthless in his dissection of human flaws and so pessimistic in outlook that he does not make for the most comforting of reads. I can certainly not bear to read more than one of his books at a time (and then move on to lighter things). However, unlike Jean Rhys, he is not unremittingly tragic (perhaps because his characters are so pitiable but not likeable at all). There is a lot of satire and comedy in his work, which occasionally reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s (woefully underrated) tragicomic short stories.