Category: daily shorts (Page 2 of 2)

Daily Short: Lionel Shriver – Kilifi Creek


This review has been revised. I felt it was too easy to criticise a writer on one piece of work with no ‘back-story’. I have done that and for me it didn’t get any better in fact….

Lionel Shriver – Killifi Creek

I have now re-read the original short story and I have flicked through a copy of ‘We need to talk about Kevin’. All I can say is I even uneasier and less impressed with the short story than before and the Kevin book..I read the last chapter to see what the tiresome hype on cover would reveal and…..well nothing. Sensationalist kid uses bow and arrows instead of a gun ending. Why god knows as if a kid in emotional distress would be organised and calm enough to fire a bow accurately in such a situation let alone massacre a group. The device of the kid deliberately setting a trap when the majority of these student shootings spur of the moment left me totally cold. No I will not read the book. It well written as in reporter turns writer well. We are however not talking Charles Dickens here.

Having read the few online interviews and Shriver’s ungracious arrogant acceptance speech for the Orange Prize which apparently is doing it for women everywhere by being as obnoxious as any man I can honestly say I actually dislike this writer and will not be reading her again.

The list of subjects she mentions in one gloriously ingratiating ‘interview’ with a ‘friend’ suggested that the author was retreading news stories as sensationalist fiction…Kevin was the only one that took. Take another minor news story (admitted to in interview) about a faulty bannister rail and a premeditated riffing on every wholesome middle class parents worst nightmare, the gap year fatality, and we have Killifi Creek (don’t you just love the way Kill in Killifi echoes the theme).

In purely writing terms the short story not bad I just read better and probably Shriver has written better. The cardboard cut-out Henleys don’t do it for me. They read like a typical ex-pat Yank who so British now but actually isn’t (tax reasons for spending half a year abroad?) with ‘ponytail’ man being just one of many false notes. The story is not factually accurate ..it derives ‘probably’ from a student drowning on the real Killifi BEACH..which totally sand as is ‘probably’ most of the nearby creek that nobody would swim in (let alone ‘Africans’as the story rather arrogantly and subtly racistly suggests) as the current too strong. All this I gleaned in ten minutes on the internet as did the author I am presuming. Way after the actual period she spent in Nairobi and yes I believe she may have visited the area but it doesn’t heighten the realism which Jilly Cooperish at times especially in the simpering sexuality misfires.

The panel chose a former Orange prize winner who high profile and bolshy..over the rest of a strong list thus rewarding arrogance over craft and ignoring better home-grown writers for the ‘British National’ award. Jon MacGregor didn’t make the shortlist which suggests that the judges listened to the radio abridgements rather than reading the actual story which has a marshmallow soft middle section which awful….drowning woman muses on mathematical equations yeah just like insane murderous teenagers choose Robin Hood as a role model…it just ain’t real to me. The abridgement is better which suggest the BBC back room better judges.

No matter the author well versed in publicity and PR rolls out for the BBC and all stakeholders including one presumes a heavyweight American publisher so everybody happy. It just the art of the short story that the loser…left high and dry up a creek without a paddle here unless you like your profundity ‘lite’.

For anybody seeking inspiration like Shriver’s at short notice when a competition deadline looming try looking at previous book covers by first-time novelists who you puffed in a previous Guardian book of the year special..never know it could help….better still ignore Shriver and read Pochada.


Daily Short: Bernard MacLaverty – A Foreign Dignitary

In 'Friendship: 12 masterpieces of short fiction' for John McCarthy, Ryan Publishing Co. Ltd; First Edition edition (1990)
Also collected in:
"A Foreign Dignitary,in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by GilesGordon and David Hughes. 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, 1989.

Walking the Dog and Other Stories. 1994.

A tricky one this. I have read quite a few of MacLaverty’s stories but not this one  and was unprepared for this particular tale. A lot of his shorts revolve around Northern Irish themes so the sudden departure to ‘Non-Place’ as one reviewer terms it a jolt. The tale was spun in 1988 and first published in The New Statesman which is significant. It was later anthologised in a best of and the collection ‘Walking the Dog’ from 1994. In 2002 MacLaverty submitted a radio script of the story to BBC Radio Scotland. I do not know if it was aired.

1988 was two years into John McCarthy’s captivity. It was also the year Bush elder started to run for presidency, the Soviets started to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran stopped fighting. If any of these turbulent events affected the author is unknown but the fact that it selected for the ‘Friendship’ anthology and first published in New Statesman suggests it an advowedly ‘political’ fable.

I say fable because it a strange story. A ‘foreign dignitary’ of the title, whose manners suggest British rather than European background or from any ‘Western’ power, arrives in a ‘foreign’ city. He is welcomed and entertained by his male counterparts and two events take place. He is offered a ‘virgin’ as a gift for his personal pleasure and he is shown a barbaric means of imprisoning political dissenters (including children) whilst all other crimes are dealt with by reason and discussion.

A Voltaire like political fable? The offering of the child is sickeningly simplistic and believable but the incarceration of political prisoners in steel coffins that repeatedly smashed with a hammer when they disobey is a little blunt to say the least. It like a written version of a Polish animation of a boot stamping on a head ad infinitum. The message clear. Maybe it was written with the hostage situation in Lebanon in mind but MacLaverty has enough political demons closer to his actual home to fuel the tale too. The title story of ‘Walking the Dog’ concerns a man abducted in Northern Ireland.

The story is unforgettable and striking and probably a one-off in his overall career. It skilfully sets up the reader through the mild-mannered Manadarin’s charming habit of writing a letter to his wife. This gentle introduction sets up the blunt horrors to come. As for the ‘other’. The sense of a slightly all-encompassing’heathen’ nature of the barbarians is just this side of racist suggesting a kind of people ‘not like us’ …i.e. Eastern,or Islamic. Nowhere is this stated but the contrast is clear. I think if the tale had not crashed to the rapid and circling conclusion as he quietly writes a letter home as the child is tortured it would have become to complex to succeed.

A short parable that leaves the reader puzzled, sickened and possibly relieved it not longer. I felt bemused after reading.

Daily Short: Ron Hansen- Playland – 1989


I had the idea of reading at least one short story a day. It sort of working and I have managed three so far this week. The first on Tuesday was Ron Hansen’s ‘Funland’ from ‘Nebraska’ a collection of short stories published in 1989. I purchased it at the time because of the cover which I later found out was a photograph by Wim Wenders. No apparent connection between the two artists just a lucky graphic design intervention I guess although film does connect to this story.

The collection contains a series of historical re-inventions or ‘factions’ that whilst starting from historical certainties and research lift off into unknown territories. The collection was published after several more ‘historically’ accurate novels including the ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’ now a movie with Brad Pitt. Hansen went on to write several novels on historical themes. He is now the Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. Professor at Santa Clara University – San Francisco. Teaching fiction and screen-writing.



Source: http://www.playlandspeedway.com/history.html 

‘Playland’ is a classic case in point. When first read in 1990 with no internet there was no chance of quickly and easily searching out images (see above) from the ‘real’ Playland or reading anything about its existence. Now I can,and whilst not spoiling the story (which I read first), it does provide an intriguing backdrop and filter on the writer’s intentions. The theme park started life as a dog track run by gangsters after the second world war and this adds a sheen to the tale which revolves around an ‘innocent’ post-war couple. The story is seemingly set post or during WW2 as the cast mention various ‘Talkie’ stars like Peter Lorre and Betty Grable .

The introductory pages however create a ‘paradisical’ indeed a veritable Eden from the Depression created some time after 1918. This rather strange as the story suggests it long established as the story unfolds in a vaguely 1920s to 1950s neverworld, perhaps deliberately. The real Playland was a more humdrum affair built in the 1940s and probably a place Hansen visited as a child.

The exotic and unreal nature of the tale is heightened by the landing of a  seaplane (just after a pelican!) carrying the ‘evil’ and rich protagonist. It is like something straight out of The Great Gatsby. He is the female ‘lead’s’ cousin (I say lead because the whole story so ‘filmic’) who is a sexual predator and the essential ingredient in the plot’s progression and the final denouement. The atmosphere suggests Hansen playing with the dreams rather than the reality of Nebraskan lives.The imagery and lighting throughout is so dreamlike the whole story could be read as existing on a film set.

The structure is straightforward. The ending slightly open-ended and bristling with perverse sexuality. A very good short story not quite as draw-dropping as the tour-de-force ‘Wickedness’ that opens the collection and was featured in Tobias Wolf’s Picador anthology of Contemporary American Stories in 1993 but still very good.

This short is a  good read and suggests that ‘reality’ can be manipulated and used as suits even if twenty years later your reader can pick apart the reality from the imagined which affects all ‘faction’. Indeed where do we draw the line on historical authenticity and fiction these days when even historians questioning such notions? Is the image above any more real because sourced from the internet. it looks real but even that could  have been created by an ingenious graphic designer..maybe that is the entrance to another theme park..or hell.

A review at the time is interesting noting the precision of the writing at its best and its sloppiness at worst…but marks Playland as one of the ‘bests’

What makes the violence in these stories so powerful and disturbing is Mr. Hansen's meticulous control of his prose. The action of his tales is always carefully grounded in a welter of precise description (hens sitting on their nests ''like a dress shop's hats''; ''goldfish with tails like orange scarves''; a man who ''chews gum instead of brushing his teeth''), and the language constantly engages us by moving back and forth between the colloquial and the poetic, between the understated and the brutal.
Published: February 7, 1989
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