31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 11: “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima; Geoffrey W. Sargent, trans.

May 11, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Death in Midsummer and Other Stories

Death_In_Midsummer_MishimaOn February 26, 1936, a group of young radicals in the Japanese army attempted a coup that resulted in the murders of several senior political officers. According to G. Ralph Falconeri, writing in The Journal of Asian Studies, the purpose of the coup was to eliminate what the rebels saw as corruption at the top of the Japanese political structure and to “place reformist generals in power to solve the empire’s political, economic, and diplomatic dilemmas.” Though the plot was quickly put down, and the perpetrators executed, the incident had lasting effects on Japanese society, the most immediate of them being a push toward increased militarization and entry into the Second World War.

Yukio Mishima, once considered Japan’s premier modern writer and a candidate for the Nobel Prize, uses the February 26 Incident as the springboard for his story “Patriotism,” about Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Imperial army so “profoundly disturbed” by the actions of his military colleagues that he decides to make a public display of his dissociation with them by committing seppuku – ritual disembowelment that has its origins in the feudal society of the samurais. In a show of loyalty, the lieutenant’s wife, Reiko, agrees to act as his witness, following which she too will commit seppuku.

Mishima’s story is an exercise in artistic control. From the opening paragraph, readers know what is going to happen and why: the story is narrated retrospectively, opening with a factual description of the lieutenant’s feeling of betrayal by his fellow soldiers and his decision to commit suicide along with his wife. We are given the content of the lieutenant’s suicide note (which reads, in its entirety, “Long live the Imperial Forces”), and told that it has been fewer than six months since he married his wife.

The rest of the story flashes back, first, briefly, to the couple’s wedding, full of promise and purity, then to the final night of their lives, which is described in careful, studied detail. The dutiful wife runs a bath for her husband, warms some sake (he refuses dinner), following which the two make love for the last time.

Though the scene detailing the couple in bed together is in no way pornographic – indeed, Mishima makes a point of turning away at the crucial moment – it is nevertheless highly erotic, made all the more so by the knowledge, on the part of both characters and the reader, of the couple’s imminent deaths. The care they take in their interaction, the way they run their hands over each other’s bodies, as if trying to map every minute curve and crevice, is at once sensual and heartbreaking. There is a true sense of connection here – a connection that will soon be severed by a razor-sharp blade.

The seppuku, when it arrives, is every bit as graphic as the previous scene was restrained. Lasting approximately four pages, the lieutenant’s suicide is hideously violent and frankly difficult to read. It unfolds slowly – as the act of seppuku itself does. (One reason the method of suicide was considered honorable was the time it takes to commit; the difficulty in making the requisite cuts, and the extreme pain involved, was thought to highlight the practitioner’s loyalty and dignity.)

One paragraph will suffice to indicate Mishima’s approach here:

Was this seppuku? – he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation. His clenched fist had grown moist. Looking down, he saw that both his hand and the cloth about the blade were drenched in blood. His loincloth too was dyed a deep red. It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.

The juxtaposition between this passage – replete with violence and gore – and the idyllic scene of the couple’s marriage day is startling and effective. It is also typical of an author who, as a post on The Asia Collection makes clear, was “a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus estheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, and finally, the notion of ‘brave hara-kiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.'”

Indeed, the notion of “brave hara-kiri” has strong resonance in the author’s own life, and provides a disturbing real-world connection to the events detailed in “Patriotism.” In 1970, the author himself led a ragtag militia in storming the headquarters of the Japanese military. After delivering a rambling speech to more than 1,000 massed troops, Mishima himself committed suicide by seppuku. An article in the Guardian on the thirtieth anniversary of the writer’s death indicates that although Mishima was dismissed as a “crackpot” at the time, his political ideas have gained traction with particular factions in Japan in the years since his death.

“Right-wing politicians distanced themselves from Mishima after his suicide by saying it was the act of a madman, but in certain nationalist circles he is held up as a god,” said Henry Scott-Stokes, the author of a biography of Mishima. “He showed sincerity in a way that cannot be denied. He stuck a knife into the heart of today’s Japan.”

The word “sincerity” is significant: it is the word that is inscribed on a scroll, created by an army lieutenant general, that hangs on the wall of the room in which the lieutenant and his wife take their lives: “Even if it were to become stained with splashes of blood,” Mishima writes, “they felt that the lieutenant general would understand.” Certainly, Mishima the author never questions the sincerity of his character, nor his nobility. “It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than the lieutenant at this moment,” the author writes, having just described the horrific scene of the military man’s intestines spilling out into his lap.

Mishima’s own death was a terrible instance of life imitating art, and continues to provoke disturbing questions about the often subtle distinctions between patriotism, heroism, and madness.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 10: “The Typewriter” by Dorothy West

May 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader

Portable_Harlem_Renaissance_ReadeerIn 1926, Langston Hughes published an essay titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in which he decried the impulse among black American artists to dilute the racial content of their writing to assuage dominant white sensibilities or, more worrisome, to actively court white approval or mine white culture for their subject matter (a pose he likened to bribery). Hughes, who Poets.org calls “the voice of black America in the 1920s,” is critical of a fellow poet who claimed that he wanted to be known as a great poet, not a great black poet. This statement, which Hughes says made him “ashamed,” has behind it a submerged embarrassment about the state, and therefore the value, of black life and culture in America. For Hughes, the assertion means “‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.”

Hughes, whose own poetry (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Jazzonia,” “The Weary Blues,” etc.) unapologetically incorporates rhythms from and references to quintessential black musical forms such as jazz and blues, isolates one of the key stumbling blocks for black American artists, in the 1920s and afterward. To achieve success, they must gain acceptance among the dominant culture, which by default is white; this requires at best compromise, at worst subservience. To remain pure, the black American artist must ignore the dictates of the dominant culture, which of course risks the culture ignoring the black artist in return. For Hughes this was not a problem; for the black writer or musician or actor trying to raise money to buy food or provide shelter for a family, such strict adherence to a principle might be a bit more difficult to effect.

Outside the realm of art, the Horatio Alger myth continued to hold sway over the American psyche in the interwar period; if its lustre has diminished today as a result of decades of war and increased economic disparity between the rich and poor, it still remains a potent idea. The rags to riches notion – work hard, and anyone can strike it rich – was never true; it was always an aspirational lie based on a misreading of the essential ways in which capitalism operates.

The aspiration, however, is strongly embedded in American mythology; it informs the attitudes and ideals of Dorothy West’s protagonist in “The Typewriter.” The man at the story’s centre – “an abject little man of fifty-odd years” – is a migrant from the South now living in Boston, and hating every minute of it. He is one of the group of black Southerners who fled the plantations for the North, only to come up short against the depredations of the cold, bleak city. West’s character left the South for Boston as a teenager, hoping to find his fortune; he quickly realized that the lucrative office jobs he coveted were closed to him. Ever since, he has been reduced to taking a series of menial service jobs. His current employment is ironic: he works as a janitor in one of the downtown office buildings in which he originally imagined himself ensconced behind a mahogany desk and plate-glass windows.

At his wife’s urging, the man rents a typewriter for his daughter at the rate of three dollars a month – “Ain’t ’nother girl in school ain’t got one,” the wife says to him, “An’ mos’ of ’ems bought and paid for.” Here the man’s wife, Net (note the name: as in, something one gets caught in), appeals to the two aspects of his character she knows will yield results: his male pride, and his innate sense of competition in a capitalist society. “You’re a poor sort of a father if you can’t give that child jes’ three dollars a month to rent that typewriter.”

The office implement is another ironic reminder of the man’s failed aspirations: it is not accidental that the noise of its keys is called “murderous” and likened to “a vampire slowly drinking his blood.” But his attitude changes when his daughter, Millie, asks him to dictate letters to her so that she can practice her typing skills. She insists they be authentic business letters, and the man dictates what he assumes such important correspondence would entail: “Ah – Beaker Brothers, Park Square Building, Boston, Mass. Ah – Gentlemen: In reply to yours at the seventh instant I would state –”

In this, the man is able to imaginatively project himself behind the mahogany desk he has always coveted. He adopts the persona of a financial bigwig and even creates a name for himself – J. Lucius Jones. “All them real big doin’ men use their middle names,” he tells Millie. “Jus’ kinda looks big doin’, doncha think, hon? Looks like money, huh?” Of course, another abiding irony is that West’s character remains unnamed but for the aspirational pseudonym he adopts. His character in reality does not merit a name: only as J. Lucius is he significant enough to be individuated in this way.

But J. Lucius Jones is a fiction – a fiction that must, at the end of the story, die. The heart attack the character suffers is the final indignity: his death is rendered in terms of his businessman alter-ego. Even at the ultimate moment of his life, J. Lucius is more real and more significant than the “abject” transplanted Southerner who worked as a janitor cleaning the offices of white men.

It is interesting to consider how West’s story fits into Hughes’s conception of black American art. David Levering Lewis, editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, remarks that West was a prodigy, but was “conventional in her fiction.” Formally, “The Typewriter” is a more or less straightforward piece, though West employs local argot in her dialogue and mines contemporary black experience – as degraded and frustrating as that might be – for her subject. She does not seem to share the attitude of the poet Hughes disparages: in her story, she is writing as a black woman, about the black experience. The fact that the ironies in her story are so dispiriting and acerbic speaks to a culture that continues to disregard the potential for upward mobility among non-whites. The author remains true to this submerged culture simply by writing about it honestly.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 9: “The Clancy Kid” by Colin Barrett

May 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Young Skins

Young_Skins_Colin_BarrettMany reviews of Young Skins, the debut collection from Irish writer Colin Barrett, quote the book’s opening line, from “The Clancy Kid.” And well they should, because it’s a great line. “My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.” The rhythm and cadences of the prose draw the reader in, as does the commingled sense of anonymity and familiarity. You’ve never been to this town, but you’ve visited thousands like it. It’s nothing special. Except when filtered through the prism of Barrett’s language.

“‘Voice’ writing is all there is, to my mind,” Barrett told The New Yorker. “Taking ‘standardized’ language and deforming it, beautifully. Certainly, with fiction, you have to be trying to do that at some level – your story or novel can be about anything, but one of its subjects has to be the operations and consequences of its own language, or it’s nothing.”

The lilt of Barrett’s particular voice can be found right from the opening words of “The Clancy Kid,” and pouring forth into the descriptions of “the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes” with their “Zen bovines” contemplating “the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.” Another frequently quoted image describes “the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories.”

This is high-wire writing, without a net. The slightest imbalance could send the entire thing crashing to the ground, but the author’s innate sense of musicality and his feel for dialect keep the prose from tumbling. As an introduction, the first paragraph of the first story in this debut collection is a hell of an opening salvo.

Published in Ireland in 2013, Young Skins had already won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature by the time Black Cat brought out the North American edition earlier this year. The great Irish writer Kevin Barry was an early enthusiast of Barrett’s writing; other writers who have been effusive about the work include Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, and Colum McCann. It’s not difficult to see what other writers admire in Barrett: his assured prose elevates his core subject – the struggles of young, working-class men in the fictional town of Glanbeigh – into something that feels fresh and new.

“The Clancy Kid” is a strong distillation of Barrett’s strengths as a writer. The story focuses on two friends, twenty-five-year-old Jimmy and Tug, one year his junior. Jimmy is a drinker who has had a long-term relationship with a woman in town named Marlene. “[I]f we’ve never quite been on we’ve never quite been off, either,” Jimmy says, “even after Mark Cuculann got her pregnant last year.”

For his part, Tug doesn’t drink, “which is a good thing,” according to Jimmy. Tug, you see, is a bit unhinged:

Tug is odd, for he was bred in a family warped by grief, and was himself a manner of ghosteen; Tug’s real name is Brendan, but he was the second Cuniffe boy named Brendan. The mother had a firstborn a couple of years before Tug, but that sliver of a child died at thirteen months old. And then came Tug. He was four when they first took him out to Glanbeigh cemetery, to lay flowers on a lonely blue slab with his own name etched upon it in fissured gilt.

It’s the last detail, dropped in almost as an afterthought, that sets a reader back on her heels. There is such pervading sadness in the image of a four-year-old boy laying flowers on a grave with his own name etched into it – sadness for the loss of a brother he never knew, and sadness for being forced into a confrontation with his own mortality far earlier than should have been necessary. It is little wonder that Tug grew up “odd” (the nickname people use for him behind his back is “Manchild”), or that as an adult, he takes pills “to keep himself on an even keel.”

Tug is obsessed with a local child who has gone missing – the Clancy kid of the story’s title. Tug has various wild and unsupported theories as to what befell the ten-year-old, but his fascination bespeaks a tenderness that is otherwise absent from his character. That the missing child echoes Tug’s dead brother is clear, as is what the Clancy kid represents: innocence, in particular, lost innocence.

This notion is also explicitly connected to Marlene, whom Jimmy conjures at the end of the story. Marlene is associated in Jimmy’s mind with a newspaper picture of the Clancy kid Tug has clipped and tacked to the wall of his room; if the Clancy kid represents for Tug a kind of prelapsarian state of existence, so Marlene does for Jimmy. Marlene betrays Jimmy by rejecting him and aligning herself with a man whose surname – Cuculann – chimes with that of the hero Cú Chulainn of Irish mythology; Jimmy reacts by goading Tug to vandalize Cuculann’s car, following which he scrawls the words “Marry Me” on the window in Marlene’s lipstick.

The conflict between innocence and a fallen or degraded world also manifests at the story’s end in an encounter between Jimmy, Tug, and a young boy who claims he is a king guarding a bridge across the town river (more mythological undertones). After the boy smites Tug with a makeshift spear, Tug pretends to be dead, which sets the boy to weeping. Tug “revives” himself and addresses the boy: “Don’t be teary now, wee man … I was dead but I’m raised again.”

On one level, this is literally true: Brendan Cuniffe has died and his younger brother has been forced to lay flowers at his grave. In a sense, Tug’s notion of having been raised from the dead is absolutely accurate. Barrett’s story, however, will not allow either Tug or Jimmy succor from reality for long. Marlene has discovered happiness with the mock-heroic father of her child, and the Clancy kid remains missing. That’s the way life goes in the town of Glanbeigh. It is no accident that when Jimmy looks back after crossing the bridge over the river, the boy with the spear has vanished.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 8: “What We Talk About” by Andrej Blatnik; Tamara M. Soban, trans.

May 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Law of Desire

Law_of_Desire_Andrej_BlatnikThe English title of Andrej Blatnik’s 2010 story collection is You Do Understand. This could reasonably serve as a motto (the question mark is implied) for much of the Slovenian author’s work. Blatnik writes about understanding or, more frequently, misunderstanding: the struggle of individuals to make themselves relatable to others and the difficulties inherent in communicating even basic needs. The law of desire, in Blatnik’s conception, is that it must remain unfulfilled: “A desire fulfilled seems not to be our desire anymore,” the author has said. “Isn’t that alone enough for doubt or pain?”

As its title suggests, “What We Talk About” riffs on Carver, focusing on the fraught nature of interaction between men and women in a post-postmodern world. The first-person narrator encounters a woman at a library where he is returning a book (the book is Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love). The man strikes up a conversation with the woman – both of whom are appropriately unnamed in the story – and they go for coffee. They go back to the woman’s apartment, where they engage in a telling dialogue:

“And what are we going to do now?” she said finally.

“Now we’re going to kiss,” I said.

“Oh no, we’re not,” she said.

“I didn’t think we would,” I said.

“Then why did you say it?”

I shrugged.

“You thought you had to. But you didn’t.”

I made no comment on that. “What do you suggest?” I asked.

“We could talk.”

“About what?”

“About kissing, if you like.”

“It’s too innocent,” I said.

“Okay, then about something less innocent.”

“About what?” I pretended not to understand.

“About exactly that,” she said calmly, unruffled.

“You don’t talk about it, you do it,” I objected.

“You’re behind the times all right,” she said.

“So what’s in then?” I asked.

“Not to do it, but only to talk about it.”

Actually having sex, in this conception, would be passé; to talk about having sex, however, perfectly fulfills the post-postmodern impulse for absolute subjectivity. It is impossible to truly know another person, therefore any attempt at intimacy is doomed from the start.

Not to mention that sex is dangerous. The man tells the woman of a friend who is afraid that his girlfriend might catch AIDS by eating salad out of the same bowl as someone else. Then there is the violent confrontation that occurs on the street on a subsequent night. The woman is surrounded by a group of roughnecks who threaten her with physical (read: sexual) violence; the narrator steps in and gets beaten for his efforts, saved from a much worse fate only by a passing police car.

The physical confrontation here is of course another means of communication and, in the event, one that is more direct and clear than anything else in the story. There is a political aspect underlying this confrontation (the gang leader derisively curses the man by saying, “Fuck off, southerner”), but largely it is gendered: the men communicate through violence and, quite explicitly, through the kind of violence they have consumed in the media. “I was aware I had to do something,” the man thinks, “but I don’t have much experience with this type of situation. Well, I knew what they did in the movies, at least.”

Much of the man’s approach to human interaction is gleaned from the movies. He borrows a videocassette of the movie Short Cuts from his brother (more Carver); Altman’s film is probably not the best thing to watch if one wants to clarify how to negotiate smooth interpersonal relationships. But the man admits that his understanding of the world is mediated and second-hand: “Most of the people I come into contact with are like me. We go to the movies. We read books. We listen to music. No harm in that, but it’s not real either, so to speak.”

It may not be real, but it is one of the only ways by which the man knows how to interact with other people. When he and the woman end up in a bar, their conversation swirls around mundane external matters, resolutely refusing to become in any way personal or significant: “we thoroughly exchanged our views on the development or rather decline of motion pictures since Casablanca, touched upon the exorbitance of rents, lauded the new municipal decrees allowing much longer opening hours for bars than in our student years, and so on. Small talk.”

Yet small talk is ultimately better than no talk: it transpires that the man has a girlfriend, who has abandoned him for a trip to the mountains with a mutual male acquaintance. The two are probably having sex, but the man will never know for sure, because he and his girlfriend have a tacit understanding that they will not discuss it. Similarly, when the girlfriend comes home early and encounters the man and the woman at their apartment, she leaves them alone for the night and does not ask questions about what transpires (answer: nothing sexual).

The man spends much of his time in the story trying to convince the woman to divulge to him the nature of her business. He is initially convinced she operates a phone sex line; the truth is much less salacious, but more absurd and finally quite sad. The woman runs a service whereby people call her up and divulge their innermost secrets, thoughts, and desires, which she then strips of all emotion and writes down in an objective, third-person voice. This is the ultimate actualization of an inability to communicate or to acknowledge the importance of a feeling or desire; callers must shroud themselves in anonymity before they can talk to another person about their true emotions or intentions.

Needless to say, any kind of true communication is unavailable to the narrator of the story. “I couldn’t possibly do what I had been contemplating doing for the last couple of minutes,” he thinks. “I could not tell her my story. The one that weighed on my chest.” For the sparse and denuded universe of Blatnik’s story, this is the ultimate tragedy: in a world that has been reduced to media-saturated subjectivity, what we talk about is nothing.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 7: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

May 7, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Stone_Mattress_Margaret_AtwoodThe issue of the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine that hit newsstands on April 2, 2015, featured a cover profile of Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, who had just published his seventh novel, The Damned. The profile began in an odd way. Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine’s books and entertainment editor, led by essentially slamming Pyper for writing what amounts to a ghost story: “Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.”

This distinction – between genre fiction and what Cole refers to as “conventional novel[s]” – continues to hang around, like a particularly nasty chest cold, though it is getting harder and harder to draw as more and more writers insist on eliding it. Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One, is a zombie novel, as is All-Day Breakfast, the latest from Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder, who has to this point confined himself to the apparently more respectable genre of historical fiction. (Cole singles out Helen Humphreys for praise as the kind of writer she wishes Pyper would emulate, apparently unwilling to admit that historical fiction itself represents genre writing.)

Never mind that Pyper has forged a lucrative career over the better part of three decades by insisting on the artificiality of exactly these barriers. Suggesting that writers who practice their craft in the areas of genre fiction are “wasting [their] time” immediately discounts at least some of the output of such diverse figures as Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, John le Carré, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elmore Leonard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan.

Not to mention Margaret Atwood. Pyper actually does reference Atwood in response to Cole, a comment Cole calls “provocative.” But it isn’t provocation: it’s a simple fact. Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, is The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist work of dystopian speculative fiction. Her recently completed MaddAddam trilogy of novels also constitutes spec-fic, this time with a healthy dose of environmentalism added to the mix. And the author’s upcoming novel, The Heart Goes Last, is also set in the near future.

In fact, the further on Atwood gets in her career, the less interested she appears to be in writing what Cole dismisses as “conventional” fiction. In his review of Atwood’s 2014 story collection, Stone Mattress, the critic Jeet Heer noticed this tendency, positing that before The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood “spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism,” while thereafter “realism would become a minor chord” in the author’s work.

Atwood herself notes that the pieces in Stone Mattress are not stories at all but, as the subtitle attests, “tales.” This is not an arbitrary distinction. Atwood is deliberately staking out a position outside the confines of social realism, aligning herself instead with tellers of fabulous tales – Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner, or Robertson Davies, whom Atwood quotes as saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”

None of the nine entries in Stone Mattress constitutes a work of realism; “Lusus Naturae,” commissioned for Michael Chabon’s anthology McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, is an all-out allegorical fairy tale.

In terms of genre, the title story could reasonably be considered a work of noir fiction – it is a revenge tale, albeit told from a feminist perspective that is typical of its author. Its central figure, Verna, is a murderer. Or, to be more precise, she is what is colloquially known in crime novels as a “black widow”: a woman who marries men in a series and bumps them off one by one. Verna is careful to note that all of her victims die of natural causes, she merely helps them along, by leaving a double dose of medicine at bedtime, or offering “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire,” such as unhealthy food or too much booze. She entices them into sexual congress, knowing full well that their hearts or their arteries won’t be able to take it. Viagra, Verna says, is “a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure.”

Also on display here is Atwood’s unique brand of acidic humour, something critics – most of them men – have castigated her for, but an aspect of her writing that devotees recognize and appreciate. It is a strain of humour that stretches back at least as far as the 1971 poetry collection Power Politics, which includes the brilliant four-liner “You Fit into Me”: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye.”

Sure, there is a strong element of nastiness in all this, but the viciousness is rarely misplaced in Atwood’s work. Consider what sets Verna off on her homicidal career: when she was a teenager, she was date raped, an experience that left her pregnant and a pariah. More than fifty years on, Verna encounters her rapist on an Arctic cruise; he doesn’t recognize her and tries to hit on her, she responds by forging a plan to kill him.

Verna’s plot to kill her assailant is also pure Atwood: the cruise ship is to make an unexpected stop at an area replete with stromatolites, “the very first preserved form of life on this planet.” A scientist explains to the vacationers: “The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.” One such fossilized cushion becomes the weapon with which Verna bludgeons her rapist to death, following which she carries the rock back on board the ship for the other passengers to admire and, not incidentally, get their DNA on. “She’d read a lot of crime novels,” we are told.

Atwood, too, has clearly read a lot of crime novels, to say nothing of novels in any number of other genres. Though some devout science fiction aficionados have charged Atwood with being an interloper – a literary writer merely pretending an affinity for so-called lower genres – Heer points out that “[t]his accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.” Atwood’s affinity for genre writing is evident in the joy she seems to glean from it. And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s all a form of storytelling, after all. How could anyone presume that this was somehow a waste of time?

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 6: “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” by Edward D. Wood, Jr.

May 6, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Blood_Splatters_Quickly_Ed_WoodIt is rare to encounter an authentic pulp sensibility. Raymond Chandler employed pulp tropes, but he was also a gifted stylist, as were Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. James Ellroy is a stylist who has also created a sex-and-violence-infused alternate history of America in the twentieth century. Jim Thompson possessed disturbingly acute insight into deviant psychology. But real pulp – quick and dirty, unrefined, salacious – was frequently confined to cheaply produced magazines of the 1930s and ’40s with titles like Spicy Detective, Dime Mystery Magazine, and Weird Tales. Beginning in the late 1960s, another place to locate this material was in the less reputable (though glossier) skin mags.

It was here that Edward D. Wood, Jr. found gainful employment with Bernie Bloom, publisher of Pendulum Publishing, whose titles included Flesh & Fantasy, Balling, and Young Beavers. Bloom apparently prized Wood for his productivity, at least until the writer’s problem drinking became too much of an issue and he was fired in 1974. (Wood died of an alcohol-related heart attack in 1978.)

If Wood is remembered today, it is likely not so much for his fiction (though he was undeniably prolific, producing both novels and stories), but for his work as a filmmaker. In the 1950s, Wood and a company of actors (including an aging Bela Lugosi and professional wrestler Tor Johnson) made a series of films that are cult classics, essentially for being among the worst movies in motion picture history. Most famous among these are the cross-dressing epic Glen or Glenda and the sci-fi disaster Plan 9 from Outer Space. (According to Bob Blackburn, who provides the introduction to Blood Splatters Quickly, the original title – Grave Robbers from Outer Space – was changed at the behest of the Beverley Hills Baptist Church, which was one of the financial backers on the movie.)

In 2014, OR Books brought out Blood Splatters Quickly, which collects thirty-three of the author’s short stories. What is most immediately surprising about these is their range: yes, there are stories about lesbian cowgirls, misogynistic cannibals, and cross-dressing porn stars, but there is also the Vietnam war story “No Atheists in the Grave,” the mock-elegiac “Epitaph for the Village Drunk,” and the naturalistic “Pray for Rain,” which, if you close one eye and squint, could be channelling Steinbeck.

“Scream Your Bloody Head Off” owes more to EC Comics than East of Eden. The opening story in the collection, it is representative of an author steeped in the tropes and traditions of genre horror and Grand Guignol. Writing on Flavorwire, Jonathon Sturgeon coins the term “horropornonoir” to describe Wood’s default mode; this word seems as good as any to characterize the particular approach the author employs here.

The basic story is straight out of James M. Cain: a woman comes at her cheating husband with a knife, the husband kills her, then has to decide how to dispose of the body. It is in its specifics that “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” deviates, quite substantially, from the work of the earlier author.

Stella, the dead wife, has discovered that her husband, Johnnie, has been having an affair with the couple’s neighbour, Barbara. What most infuriates Stella, however, is not the mere fact of her husband’s infidelity. Stella has also been sleeping with Barbara and can’t stomach the idea that her husband was having sex with the same woman. Her revenge fantasies involve (naturally) a butcher’s knife and emasculation: “She was going to cut him up but good and see that he went to the coffin without that thing between his legs. What he had used on earth so often he was not going to get a chance to use in hell.”

Wood injects a stream of jet-black humour into the post-mortem scenes in the story, as the hapless Johnnie searches for a way to dispose of his wife’s corpse. His initial idea – to dump the body in the lake – is not feasible because it is the dead of winter and the lake is frozen. Similarly, the ground would be too solid for a shovel to crack, so burying the body in the woods is out. The solution he comes up with – which is as implausible as it is outrageous – is to bleed the body dry in the bathtub, cut up the dessicated remains, and feed them into the kitchen garbage disposal.

Of course all of this is sick and perverse – that is the point, and the nature of the medium. And Wood displays absolutely no facility with psychic distance, switching indiscriminately from Johnnie’s perspective to Stella’s when necessary to convey essential background information to the reader.

But there is an undeniable energy to the story, and an evident glee at the prospect of seeing just how far the author can stretch his scenario. The offences perpetrated on a woman’s body are standard genre tropes that have fallen into disrepute in some corners of late – in many cases, for good reason – although the same kind of stuff can be seen pretty much any night of the week on reruns of CSI or Criminal Minds. As for Johnnie’s retribution at the story’s end, it comes in a form that is unexpected and mordantly funny (it involves a neglected piece of Stella’s bloody scalp and a flight of stairs).

“Degeneracy runs rampant!” Wood writes in “I, Warlock.” “Call down the degenerates!” This could be a rallying cry for the author’s entire oeuvre, and for “Scream Your Bloody Head Off” specifically. There is a kind of degeneracy to the story that is absent from the work of other, more respectable genre practitioners. It is true pulp fiction, not the ersatz, art-house stuff that too often gets filtered through a soft-focus lens to render it palatable to a mainstream audience.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 5: “Goodnight, Sweetheart” by James Purdy

May 5, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

Complete_Short_Stories_James_PurdyJames Purdy is a writer who constantly found himself shut out of the front ranks of the American canon. This was not for want of admirers. Among the literati who sang the author’s praises, Purdy could number as fans Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Gore Vidal. Reviewing the novel Cabot Wright Begins in 1964, Susan Sontag called Purdy “indisputably one of the half dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously.” Contemporary fans include filmmaker John Waters (who supplies an introduction to the Liveright edition of the Complete Short Stories), Jonathan Franzen, and Tao Lin.

Not everyone is so effusive, however. Waters points out that the critic Edmund White “claim[s] to be ‘allergic’ to Purdy’s work,” while Dwight Garner, reviewing the Complete Short Stories in The New York Times, suggests that Purdy “remains one of those American originals who is mostly more interesting to read about than to actually read.”

No doubt Purdy is controversial, as even a casual acquaintance with the stories should indicate. He is frequently disdainful of women, if not outright misogynistic. The story “About Jessie Mae” features two nattering biddies who are a caricature of small-town gossips, and “Lily’s Party” is a pornographic horror show about a woman who is passed back and forth between two sexually ravenous men. In “Don’t Call Me by My Right Name,” a husband viciously beats his wife after she admits wanting to revert to her maiden name. (The husband’s name, which “irritated her,” is Klein, adding at least an incipient note of anti-Semitism to the mix.)

There is no doubt that Purdy, who died in 2009 at the not unenviable age of 94, was a provocateur of the first order, which goes some way to explaining his appeal to people like Waters and Lin. He could also be an irredeemably cruel writer, which helps explain Franzen’s affinity. And he was possessed of a streak of vicious humour that is pure Dorothy Parker. But in terms of his tone and approach – part satire, part fabulist – his closest literary relative is arguably Nathanael West, whose depictions of a specifically American kind of malice and anomie feel right at home alongside Purdy’s own writing.

The story “Goodnight, Sweetheart” begins with an eighth-grade schoolteacher named Pearl Miranda fleeing her schoolhouse and taking refuge in the home of a local man named Winston Cramer. When she arrives on his porch, Miss Miranda is completely naked; she claims that when she was alone in the classroom after school, a man with a gun burst in and stole her clothes as “a trick” to avenge his younger sister, whom Miss Miranda had had expelled. Winston suspects that Miss Miranda has been raped, and tries to convince her to visit a doctor in the morning.

It is tempting to read the story in a straightforward manner, but as always with Purdy, such temptation should be resisted. A brief sketch of the story’s plot belies the elliptical nature of Purdy’s treatment; “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is ostensibly a work of naturalism, but its plain dialogue hints at hidden meaning beneath the surface. Miss Miranda claims she has taken refuge with Winston because she was compelled to: “I had to come here tonight,” she tells him. “You know that.” This snippet, so easily passed over in a cursory reading, is strongly suggestive of something beyond what we know of these characters directly. As is Winston’s dismissal of his neighbour, Bertha Wilson, witnessing the naked schoolteacher enter his home: “‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Winston said. ‘Nobody will think anything about us.'”

The italicized final word draws attention to itself, prompting questions in the reader’s mind: what is it about Miss Miranda and Winston – apart or in tandem – that might exempt them from suspicion in the eyes of their fellow townspeople? At almost sixty years of age, Miss Miranda is a spinster, and Winston lives alone in the house he shared with his mother until the older woman’s death. He does his own cooking, a fact that prompts an odd reaction from Miss Miranda: “‘I bet you’re a good cook, Winston. You were always a capable boy.’ Her voice lowered as she said the second sentence.” To what, exactly, does the reference to Winston being “a capable boy” refer, and what would prompt Miss Miranda to lower her voice at this moment? (When Winston responds, Purdy underlines that it is in an artificially loud tone.)

There is another reference to lowered voices between the two, at the story’s end. They are in bed together, Winston having tucked the woman in after she succumbs to violent paroxysms of shivering. “He had thought to go upstairs and sleep in the bedroom that had been his mother’s” we are told, “but he didn’t know whether he had the strength to get up there, and in the end he had crawled back under the covers next to Miss Miranda.” He speaks to the old woman twice, telling her goodnight. The second time he does so by uttering the story’s title phrase: “‘Good night, sweetheart,’ he said again, in a much lower voice.”

The repetition of the hushed voice here is notable, as is the term of endearment, though there is nothing overtly sexual about this particular moment. On one level, it could be read simply as one person attempting to comfort another, though the context and the nature of the experience Miss Miranda has undergone renders this reading problematic at best. As the two lie together in bed, we are told, “both muttered to themselves in the darkness as if they were separated by different rooms from one another.” This, too, is an echo of an earlier moment in the story, when Winston absents himself to the kitchen and Miss Miranda overhears him mumbling to himself. “She supposed all lonely people muttered to themselves, and it was one of the regrettable habits she could never break in herself.” Are these, then, merely two lonely people, one of whom has suffered a traumatic experience, or is there much more going on?

The story is largely suggestive of the latter. During their interaction, Miss Miranda – to whom Winston always refers with the honorific – reverses roles with her supposed comforter, holding his head when he becomes sick from what he initially blames on a virus, then later attributes to appendicitis. “The doctor will come and fix us both up,” Winston tells Miss Miranda late in the story, an assertion the reader cannot help but question.

The unease in the story resides in what is deliberately withheld. The true nature of the relationship between Miss Miranda and Winston is never revealed, and at the story’s penultimate moment Miss Miranda catches a glimpse of Winston’s deceased mother in a picture hanging on the bedroom wall; she appears “pretty much as Miss Miranda remembered her.” This remark is never explained or clarified, nor is the exact nature of what happened to the teacher made explicit. “Goodnight, Sweetheart” provides a snapshot of small-town America in which the home appears to be a haven or a refuge from the evil of the world at large, but it remains unclear exactly what truths the home itself conceals within its walls.

In her assessment of Purdy’s output, Sontag identifies a number of distinct modes in which the author can be seen to work: “There is Purdy the satirist and fantasist; Purdy the gentle naturalist of American, particularly small-town American, life; and Purdy the writer of vignettes or sketches, which give us a horrifying snapshot image of helpless people destroying each other.” The author of “Goodnight, Sweetheart” appears to hover somewhere between the latter two states; in its glancing, abstruse presentation, the story leaves it to the reader to determine how to interpret the discomfiting particulars. Like many of Purdy’s stories, “Goodnight, Sweetheart” is constructed like a trap, with the careless reader its unsuspecting victim.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 4: “The House Made of Sugar” by Silvina Ocampo; Daniel Balderston, trans.

May 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Thus Were Their Faces

Thus_Were_Their_Faces_Silvina_OcampoThe work of Argentinian writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has largely been overshadowed by that of three other figures: her sister, Victoria, a publisher and critic; her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friend, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. These four luminaries formed a tight circle, promoting and influencing one another. In 1931, Victoria Ocampo established Sur, a significant literary journal of the modernist movement in Latin America. The journal published the work of Casares and Borges, along with other important writers such as José Ortega Y Gasset, Ernesto Sabato, and Julio Cortázar. Victoria was also, not incidentally, the first publisher of her younger sister’s literary work.

Ocampo, whom Borges describes as “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” came to writing after having studied as a visual artist with Giorgio de Chirico. “I came to know the trials of artists, and the joys,” she wrote in 1987. “I submerged myself in colors that reflected my soul or the state of my spirit.” She claimed to have grown “disillusioned” with painting, and turned to writing as a means to reconcile concepts of colour and form. “Writing is like having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die.”

The tensions involved in this assessment – between sprite and demon, happiness and a “wish to die” – are strikingly prevalent in Ocampo’s fiction, which is not in the realist mode, but operates rather in the realm of fabulism. In her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a newly released compendium of Ocampo’s selected stories (some appearing in translation for the first time), Helen Oyeyemi refers to Ocampo as “a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school.” This might make her stories appear unfamiliar to North American readers; they may appear less so to Latin American readers steeped in a tradition of magic realism.

“Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry,” Oyeyemi writes, “where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses.” If an encounter with Ocampo’s fiction on the part of a reader weaned on the subtle epiphanies of Chekhov and Joyce proves initially disjunctive, the writing is nevertheless entrancing, calling the reader back or driving her forward, notwithstanding the unfamiliarity and sense of discontinuity. In Oyeyemi’s words, “there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray.”

“The House Made of Sugar” is typical in this regard. Originally collected in Ocampo’s 1959 volume The Fury, the story is a bitter fable about a failed marriage, full of uncanny happenings and weirdness. It begins in a manner that is straightforward enough, with the unnamed male narrator meeting and marrying Cristina. The new bride is highly superstitious, and refuses to live anywhere there has been a previous tenant who might have left psychic scars on the property. When the narrator finds the titular house, he lies to his wife about its former occupant, a woman named Violeta. In short order, visitors begin arriving at the property and mistaking Cristina for Violeta; as the events of the story become stranger, Cristina’s identity blurs into that of the other woman.

Ocampo plants the seeds for what is to come from her opening sentences, which refer to the superstitions Cristina suffers from. The second sentence makes reference to a “coin with a blurry face” and “the moon seen through two panes of glass” – images of distortion and elision that will be actualized by the story’s end. These details immediately place the reader off kilter, nodding at a sense of unreality and creeping unease that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds.

The house itself contributes to this sense of disturbance. “Its whiteness gleamed with extraordinary brilliance,” Ocampo writes, hinting at notions of innocence and purity that will be systematically dismantled by the story’s close. The appearance of the house as being made of sugar lends it an otherworldly aspect, like the magical castle in a fairy tale, but this also proves chimerical. “It seemed our tranquillity would never be broken in that house of sugar,” the narrator says, “until a phone call destroyed my illusion.” In this story, as elsewhere in Ocampo’s work, domestic bliss is illusory, a condition the narrator testifies to, albeit unconsciously, by his admission that in the early days of their marriage he and Cristina were “so happy that it sometimes frightened” him. “We loved each other madly,” the narrator claims, and the attentive reader will note the thud of foreboding in the final adverb.

Of course, the marriage is doomed from the start, based as it is on a lie. The narrator is so paranoid about the possibility that Cristina might discover the truth about the house’s previous tenant that he begins to spy on her and follow her on her travels. For her part, Cristina takes in a stray dog, is visited by a mysterious man dressed as a woman who accuses her of dallying with someone named Daniel, and begins to sing spontaneously and incessantly. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life,” Cristina says, “her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes. I’m bewitched.”

The narrator’s lie becomes manifest in his wife, whose identity – and, perhaps, even her actual person – gets subsumed by Violeta. By the story’s end, the wife has fled and the pristine white house stands empty. “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar,” laments the narrator.

Oyeyemi points to an interview from 1980 in which Ocampo suggested that she had been passed over for a national literary prize because her fiction is too cruel. “The House Made of Sugar” does not read as a cruel story; in its uncanny aspects and the central doubling motif (not to mention the manse at its centre that serves as a locus for the characters’ dissolution) it resembles Poe, but the overall feeling is one not of malignancy but sadness. It is a fable about the ineffability of personality and the ultimate inability of anyone to truly know anyone else. It leaves its readers, like its characters, gutted and empty, as empty as the titular house – “the ideal place, the house of our dreams.”

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 3: “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” by Hilary Mantel

May 3, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories

The_Assassination_of_Margaret_Thatcher_Hilary_MantelIn February 1989, Elvis Costello released his twelfth studio album, Spike, which contained a track called “Tramp the Dirt Down.” A furious political lament, the song viciously lambasted Margaret Thatcher, at the time the U.K.’s sitting prime minister. “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam,” Costello sang with unbridled venom. The song imagines the politician’s eventual death and burial: “[W]hen they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

One year earlier, Morrissey released his first solo album, Viva Hate, which included the song “Margaret on the Guillotine.” Morrissey addressed the sitting politician in lyrics that are less poetic than Costello’s, but no less corrosive: “The kind people / Have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine / Cause people like you / Make me feel so tired / When will you die?” In a statement following the Iron Lady’s death in 2013, Morrissey reiterated his detestation of the woman and her politics, and decried the fact that the media had taken the opportunity of her passing to engage in a healthy dose of revisionist history: “Thatcher was not a strong or formidable leader. She simply did not give a shit about people, and this coarseness has been neatly transformed into bravery by the British press who are attempting to rewrite history in order to protect patriotism.”

First elected in 1979 as Britain’s first – and to date, only – woman prime minister, Thatcher remained in office until 1990, when political infighting prompted her resignation. During her time in power, she presided over a country fiercely divided about economic policies that many felt targeted society’s most vulnerable citizens (Thatcher was a proponent of the U.S. economic platform favouring low taxes, spending cuts, and tax breaks for the rich and powerful, a platform that came to be known in the 1980s as “Reganomics”). More potently, perhaps, she was also a fierce policy hawk, advocating increased spending on the military and intervention abroad, most notoriously in the Falkland Islands. In 1982, Thatcher went to war against Argentina in the tiny South Atlantic colony, a contentious move that nevertheless resulted in her election victory the following year.

To say that Thatcher was a divisive figure is anodyne, though her opposition was solidified – as Costello and Morrissey’s musical responses attest – among artists, a group largely disdained by the government of the day, and a group that can usually be counted upon to express empathy for the victims of neoconservative policies – victims who typically congregate among the ranks of the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the disaffected.

What is remarkable about artistic responses to Thatcher along the lines of Costello’s and Morrissey’s is the fact that they focus, explicitly and literally, upon the desire for their subject’s death. Costello assumes a death by natural causes, whereas Morrissey imagines a more violent retribution; in this, he is closer to Hilary Mantel in her story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” which caused a stir last year when it was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Book at Bedtime” program.

Whether a story that imagines Thatcher’s assassination in 1983 at the hands of an IRA assassin could be considered gentle bedtime fare is one thing. But the furore that erupted around the broadcast took a much more political bent, with conservative commentators expressing outrage that a writer could imaginatively convey the murder of a British leader, even one year after the former politician’s death and some twenty-four years after her stepping down as prime minister. A commentary in the Mail on Sunday at the time referred to Mantel’s story as “an insignificant catchpenny squib,” and stated that her opinions of the former prime minister are “adolescent.” The editorial did grant the author a certain backhanded freedom: “She is free to offend and upset those who were maimed or bereaved in an actual IRA attempt to murder this country’s legitimate premier – just as others are rightly free to despise the author’s views.” But it went on to suggest that the BBC’s decision to broadcast the story was a result of left-wing media bias.

The attacks on the story arose, naturally, from a position of outrage and completely ignored the fact that it is a work of imagination (whose author, significantly, waited until its subject was actually dead to publish it, unlike the two musicians cited above, and unlike the American author Nicholson Baker, whose fantasia about killing George W. Bush, Checkpoint, was published while the notorious U.S. president remained in office). Nor do they note the story’s evident literary qualities. The IRA sniper’s gun, for instance, is colloquially known as a “widowmaker,” a defiantly ironic appellation when dealing with a story about Britain’s first female prime minister. The first-person voice (that of a woman whose apartment the sniper cons his way into in order to carry out his scheme) is consistent and believable, shifting imperceptibly from the kind of tea she has to offer the intruder to considerations of whether he plans to murder her, too.

And the political analysis is, all protestation to the contrary, nuanced and thoughtful. Here, for instance, is the narrator ruminating on the state of Ireland during the Troubles:

Patriotism was only an excuse to get what they called pie-eyed, while their wives had tea and gingernuts then recited the rosary in the back kitchen. The whole thing was an excuse: why we are oppressed. Why we are sat here being oppressed, while people from other tribes are hauling themselves up by their own ungodly efforts and buying three-piece suits. While we are rooted here going la-la-la auld Ireland (because at this distance in time the words escape us) our neighbours are patching their quarrels, losing their origins and moving on, to modern, non-sectarian forms of stigma, expressed in modern songs: you are a scouser, a dirty scouser. I’m not, personally. But the north is all the same to southerners. And in Berkshire and the Home Countries, all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.

Moreover, the same controversy did not befall the author’s two Man Booker Prize–winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which similarly deal with political violence and intrigue, but are set far enough in the past that sensitive readers can refrain from having their feathers too unduly ruffled. (Though certain cynical commentators did note the timing of the BBC’s broadcast of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” and suggested that it was a PR stunt to promote the upcoming television adaptation of Wolf Hall.)

And if the story gives offence, where is the harm? It should give offence: its subject is grave, the history behind it is dire, and the issues it raises are still ongoing. As a work of imagination, it reckons with difficult material in a way that is direct and unsparing, but not without empathy for all that. It’s just that its empathy is located with the victims of the Iron Lady’s reign, not the government she presided over or its beneficiaries.

31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 2: “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by Edna O’Brien

May 2, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Love Object: Selected Stories

The_Love_Object_Edna_O'BrienEdna O’Brien begins her story “‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” by breaking the rules. Short fiction, we are told, is a form that relies on concentration: of theme, of language, and of character. Stories are most often psychological, but the psychologies they limn tend to be individual; it is uncommon for a work of short fiction to incorporate a large cast of characters or to examine a cross-section of society. As Frank O’Connor has pointed out, the novel is the great social genre in literature; stories focus closely on one or two characters.

“‘Oft in the Stilly Night’” is approximately twenty pages long; the first half is taken up with an expressionistic, bird’s eye view of an Irish town. Addressing the reader in the second person, O’Brien presents brief sketches of a number of the villagers, past and present. These include Angela, an ex-nun who leaves the convent and takes up residence with her less attractive sister. Angela becomes enamoured of her sister’s husband and eventually dies of a wasting disease. We are introduced to a “respectable lady” who has her shoes stolen by an itinerant tinker (a kind of Irish gypsy). Another abode houses a defrocked priest; yet another contains “an unfortunate woman” who spends her day as a cleaner “while her husband skulks in woods to assault girls and women.” Some of the town’s women are so wanton, we are told, that the predatory husband does not need to force himself on them: they give themselves over to him willingly.

It is far from accidental that O’Brien, in her opening paragraph, insists on the sleepiness of the town, its apparently boring and “somnolent” aspect. A traveller might find the village “picturesque,” a place where life “has a quiet hum to it.” Such a traveller, O’Brien’s omniscient narrator asserts, would hardly pause while passing through “on [the] way to somewhere livelier.”

O’Brien is operating in the manner of David Lynch in Blue Velvet: she offers the veneer of a quaint village in rural Ireland, only to yank back the curtain to display the perverse venality that lies behind it. There is a strong streak of Gothicism in all of this, along with an emphasis on religion: one of the first landmarks noted in the opening paragraph is “a stone, Roman-type church.” Yet there are early indications that the religion that infuses the town is fractured and debased: Angela has left the convent, after all, and the priest has been defrocked.

From these early intimations, O’Brien zooms in and sharpens her focus in the story’s second half, which moves from the general to the specific. Here we are introduced to Ita McNamara, a devout sacristan who turns out to be the story’s central character. (It is surely atypical for a writer of short fiction to withhold the first appearance of her protagonist until the latter part of the story.)

Ita now lives across the road from the church, secreted inside a two-storey house that huddles behind a “disgrace” of a garden. “Everything is rampant: trees, shrubs, briars all meshed together in some mad knot, not only obscuring the path, but traveling right up along the windows, so that no one can see in.” In the context of the enfeebled and degraded images of religion we have already encountered, it is impossible not to read this as describing a kind of overgrown and decaying Garden of Eden, symbolic of Adam and Eve’s ejection and fall from grace.

Ita’s story is narrated retrospectively; at the time of her “catastrophe,” we are told, she was “a paragon” in the town, “the most admired devout person there.” Her downfall is precipitated by the arrival of a parish priest named Father Bonaventure, with whom Ita becomes entranced (the parallels between Ita and Angela are persistent and deliberate). Following a thunderous sermon during which Father Bonaventure rains down hellfire and brimstone on the village congregants, Ita steals a lily from the church. When she is found in her room after a commotion that night, she claims that the flower raped her.

Ita is, of course, branded a lunatic and sent off to an asylum, “where she spent the best part of a year and took to sucking in her cheeks, refusing to speak to anyone and having to be barred from the chapel because the sight of flowers drove her into a frenzy.” Here we have the psychological explication for the horrid state of Ita’s neglected garden in the present; it is also notable that the flower she steals from the church is a lily, with all its commingled associations of innocence, spirituality, and romantic love. The lily stands in for Father Bonaventure, the object of Ita’s desire who remains untouchable to her. When her brother discovers her in her room at night, Ita demands he seek out the priest so that he can exorcise the demon she is convinced resides within the flower.

The images of religious torment and disaffection that began as glimpses and allusions in the early stages of the story become furious and orgiastic by the story’s end; the picturesque town with the stone church at its entrance masks a seething tide of perversity and frank insanity. (It is notable, too, that the one specific feature of the church that gets mentioned in the opening paragraph is the graveyard that adjoins it, an association that gets picked up at the end in a reference to Angela, her sister, and her sister’s husband being “morsels for the maggots,” all of them buried creepily close together in the cemetery.)

Only in retrospect does O’Brien’s careful construction become clear; the symbolic and allusive elements seeded in the first half of the story blossom forth in the second. In the final paragraph, the narrator swivels round to address the reader directly one last time: “Now I ask you, what would you do? Would you comfort Ita, would you tell her that her sins were of her own imagining … or would you drive on helter-skelter, the radio at full blast.” O’Brien insists on the reader’s complicity, but does not quite condemn the reader who, like the wayward travellers, might want nothing more than to get the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible. To remain is to be forced to contend with what lies beneath the town’s placid surface, what roils at the heart of this odd, disturbing, and audacious story.

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