I have been collecting John McGahern books for twenty odd years. Like William Trevor and Frank O’Connor he was part of the Irish Parthenon of writers that just sort of there…like kindly uncles. Because of my focus on poetry to the exclusion of all else I had neglected them.
I hadn’t read any of them for years so it was with a little trepidation I opened a recently purchased copy of McGahern’s final edition of his collected short stories re-titled ‘Creatures of the Earth’ from 2006 that he had re-edited before his passing that same year.
The story I chose was a classic McGahern tale of three rural characters interacting. A police sergeant,a housekeeper and a visiting surveyor. Denis Sampson’s study of McGahern ‘Outstaring Nature’s Eye’ has a detailed analysis of the story and picks up on a Yeats reference to his ‘Coole Park 1929’ and swallows which also more prosaically refers to the Sergeant’s imbibing of whiskey.
I immediately fell under this tale’s spell. Not least because of the depth of ‘suggestion’ dovetailed by a craftsman into the ‘simple’ story. The poetic way the story unfolds like a well made bed is deeply satisfying. Sampson picks out the overall theme of ‘timor mortis’ lurking behind all three characters actions. Only ‘Biddy’ the deaf housekeeper is involved with the day to day and knows that will get her ‘ safely to the toe’, an apt metaphor for impending death, as she knits socks oblivious of art and the frustrations and failures of life around her.
The mirror must not be cracked before the last breath.
Meanwhile the sergeant and the surveyor both grasp at the lure of art in folk melody and Pagannini’s example but fall back into the workmanlike clutching at straws and dragging Roach into a boat…the day to day that need not even be eaten and is thrown back.
The collision of simple folk’s aspirations and dreams with reality like the young man mown down on his way to a haircut by a negligent ‘rich person’ is simply the matter of fact reality. It is how things are. We are none of us Paginnini nor Christ though we strive to be.
Beautiful deep and rich writing that continues on re-reading to unveil itself.
A bit like coming home. This is how to write.
Listen to your uncles now for we are all just creatures of the earth….
‘His greatest fictional achievement so far; never before has he shown the horror and grace of consciousness better than in these gems’ (The Times – no author traceable).
When John Burnside started publishing fiction he was in the curious position of already being a well-respected ‘award-winning’ poet. So his dalliance with ‘fiction’ and memoir could be tolerated. In fact the dalliance was quite long term and he now has almost as many published books in fiction as poetry.
This collection from 2000 follows two novels,’The Dumb House’ and ‘The Mercy Boys’. Both garnered good reviews and this collection of short stories…more a collection of stories around a similar theme appeared to the above adulation.
I have only read the last story ‘Graceland’ as intrigued as to the Elvis fixation and the only review I found online quoted verbatim the last few lines suggesting the reviewer may possibly have skipped the stories in-between as well.
Burnside had just published the excellent poetry collection ‘The Asylum Dance’. There is nothing in this short story at that level for me. The dreamlike, strangely sinister, tale of a boy lost and vulnerable on an aborted attempt to find Graceland who is instead being led to a substitute (dream?) version where he tortured by a fake Elvis in an Elvis mask struck me as simply silly. More League of Gentleman than Poe.
Fake or unverifiable popular culture references to TV or film ooze from the paragraphs pores. I only found an obscure film that matched ‘Best years of our life’ starring Kathy Burke, and she didn’t look anything like the ‘Wendy’ here ,which left me a little bemused. Not having read the rest of the book it appears that it a linked selection that needs to be read together like Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’.
Overall I felt like I was being driven around in a car tuned to David Lynch station ad infinitum but nothing more. Disappointing.
I checked out his memoir ‘Waking up in Toytown’ which far more clearly documents his life in the early 1980’s which catalogues his drug abuse and mental illness. This last story felt to me like a dispatch from the other side of that illness. Uncomfortable but not of itself satisfying like the poetry.
Not what I expected. The other books blurbs appear to offer no escape from this hinterland. Dark and bleak and full of strange furniture from the seventies but not somewhere I want to stay long…..a bit like Graceland.
Ok I do not like this. I do not like a short story that throughout refers to a mentally disabled young boy as a ‘retard’. I do not like constant referrals to physical slobbering and chimpanzees in reference to said boy even if it is a smart-arse crack at the ability of drummers too ( instead of banjo jokes?). The writer edited a soft-porn magazine called Juggs in New York and has been published twice by Salt which makes one wonder about editorial morality there too. I will avoid like the plague from now on.
Like a bad dose of Loaded or lads-mag the writing is OK but the obsessive drummer -speak (paradiddle diddle dum) is technically correct but like the characters fake names. Munger (rhymes with Hunger..please…)..oh yeah run that one by me again. I found the whole story tedious, morally ambivalent ..maybe it all a ‘in joke’ but if one spends ones days staring at large breasts I doubt it.
Oh and having worked with a musical prodigy who had downs syndrome and severe autism I can verify that my student’s ‘retardation’ included an ability to recall music note for note on one hearing way beyond most ‘able-bodied’ people.
In one sense then the story accurate in all others it a piece of shit.
I purchased this volume when it came out back in 1989 or 1990. Probably as flagged up by Raymond Carver or the Granta anthologies of Dirty Realism. I remember being impressed at the time. Going back to the collection I started with ‘Mississippi’.
Like a Townes Van Zandt (both from Fort Worth Texas) folk tale this story of a rich oil prospector’s son and a working class kid hanging out fishing in the swamp and finally wrestling a snapping turtle out of the mud before returning it unharmed (an early sign of Bass’s environmental concerns) was as I recalled i.e. impressive. This continued through to last story in the collection ‘Redfish’ where the poetic description of a menacing seascape and the futile actions of the two dwarfed humans acting out their drunken attempt at fishing was againjust as powerful as I remembered. The white BMW digging itself deeper into the bay at Galveston is an apt metaphor for industrial ‘progress’ and doubly ironic in light of subsequent events offshore at the Deep Horizon Rig which about as poetic a name for a disaster as one could dream up.
Rick Bass’s ‘other’ Deep Horizon has subsequently extended to a deep environmentalism and a string of ward-winning books including a fair amount of well-respected environmental books investigating the impact of human degradation on different species such as wolves and bears.
The cohesion is one of place revealed through man (and woman) testing themselves against both. That love of place and understanding human involvement has remained with Bass throughout and it a pleasure to return. I have one other Bass volume ‘Platte River’ his second book published in 1994. I have never read it since I purchased it in 1994, like some kind of time capsule, now I will.
The wonders of Poundland…..one of my favourite current book trawling locations where the cheap Wordsworth anthology above was available for yes a pound.
Today’s gem is a tale from 1895 by Arthur Machen who thanks to Wikipedia I now know has been an influence on a diverse range of writers including John Betjeman, Javier Marias, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore!
Heavily indebted to both Conan-Doyle and Stevenson the tale is a galloping, coincidence led ambulation around Bloomsbury with a wealth of London detail ( explaining Sinclair and Ackroyd’s link to Machen) indeed the plot denouement depends on the criminal’s habit of walking the same route. One can feel Machen’s own interests in a proto-psychogeography here.
Once I got used to the use of the unlikeliest plot-forwarding coincidences which almost comical at times as Machen dispenses with what does not interest him. A sequence of a drunken woman depositing the key ‘mystic tablet’ into the investigator’s hands in a pub is by far the most ridiculous. One can still enjoy the chase and the atmospheric conclusion where the ‘supernatural’ finally intervenes. The devilish artifact ‘Pain of Goat’ referred to is actually a line from a sacred text to the Great God Pan and links to other stories by Machen a devout Christian by the way.
So if a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Stevenson…and leaning toward the macabre and supernatural Machen is your man. Not sure if I will be a major fan but there enough beautiful extraneous detail to prompt further investigation. For neo-gothic and fantasy types it essential. A cheap introduction thank you Poundland I shall be back especially as they had virtually the whole Wordsworth Supernatural series.
The Edwin Smith commission is turning out to be a detective story….nothing is what it seems…this photo is not Kentish Town station as represented in his catalogue..it is Walthamstow Central and it still standing. Wonder how RIBA will take the news. Shame I spent two days researching Kentish Town station and linking it to George Orwell.
The clue was the angling shop in background..there hasn’t been a river above ground in Kentish Town for over a hundred years.
I now know that the photo probably taken late evening as the line goes due north-east-south-west and the light illuminating the posters…deliberately chosen I suspect by Smith for that reason.
As for the poem….I think it might turn into a series 🙂
Will Self paraded his verbal skills with a reading at NTU on Saturday which proved that there is some content behind the bravado, solipism, debauchery and sheer profligacy. Looking at SELF’s career it hard to find an entry point such is the sheer weight of verbiage trundled ad nauseum across every promotional page available. The key to SELF is he a metropolitan journalist’s nark…forever providing copy whether the journos need it or not ( indeed his wife is a celebrated journalist which rather apt) although even she must tire of the SELF promotion.
The evening was a success and interviewer Georgina Lock who an able inquisitor stood up to the verbal battering-ram. SELF proved that his latest novel ‘Shark’ is an entertaining if rambling tale of drowning shark-food and the big theme of psychological trauma being associated with BIG events i.e. wars. A entertaining if not completely proven thesis based on what looked like a fair amount of internet-trawling and digging deep into R.D. Laing’s historical record. In case we missed these allusions Mr Self flagged them up for us and we mostly swallowed it apart from one punter doing an impression of Groucho era SELF who declared it all ‘horse manure’ which a little out of date surely shit would have done. I will definitely pick up a copy when it remaindered and top marks to the designers for wrapping it in a parody of a SELF cover from 1998. Lest we forget this is the second part of a very important trilogy which redefining modernism/postmodernism and the kitchen sink before the death of the novel in 2019 (SELF). As SELF said it the only trade he has banging out the old tome and full marks for keeping going young man..sorry middle aged man.
Now where this all gets truly unctuous is in his recent attack on Orwell….now I don’t give a shit for his arguments but I do disapprove of such obvious crap profile-raising being launched via the BBC which was the location of some of Mr Blair’s finest work. That and the weaselly way the tirade launched just in time for Xmas oh sorry just in time for the book launch tour before Xmas….it stinks like some of the dialogue did on Saturday but that another matter.
SELF isn’t the best novelist in Great Britain let alone Ireland but he is a master of SELF-seeking attention grabbing in that he a clear master. I came to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying by chance through some separate research and remembered reading it fondly..
let Eric Blair have the last word…note to SELF…could do better….
Keep the Aspidistra Flying 1936 page 2.
But it was the snooty ‘cultured’ kind of books that he hated the worst. Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep–and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.
Coda: SELF grew up in Hampstead…did PPE at Oxford smashed out of his tree and got a third.. sailed back to fame in the environs of Greek Street and Fleet Street yup you got it..spoilt rich kid now lives in oppulant surroundings of Stockwell not Vauxhall as ‘downmarkedly’ claims but then as he said he lies a lot.
A strange one this and no mistake. Mark Strand who had arisen as poet in Sarah Jackson’s lecture is now discovered lurking in Shapard and Thomas’s 1986 anthology of the then recently termed,’Sudden fiction’ which now typically called ‘Flash Fiction’.
The anthology I picked up in 1989 when fairly obsessed with post BASS* 1986 American Literature and many of the same individuals such as Carver, Barthelme, Coover, Wolff, Paley are present here
Dog Life is a slight, amusing yet somehow ephemeral take on male fidelity (I presume unless one meant to read the protagonist’s confessions as surreal realism and he actually was a dog). The male in bed (echoes of David Belbin’s Games in Bed here!) confesses that he formally a dog with dog-like instincts ….it hard not to read the list of conquests as anything other than male boasting and the female’s reaction of going back to sleep and forgetting about it just about sums up the tale.
Strand in this period up to 1985 had stopped writing poetry for ten years and the collection evidences a talent somewhat at sea by this example. Amusing but hardly on a par with his deep and melancholic poetry. He didn’t produce another volume of short stories nor a novel but did complete some children’s fiction and art criticism before returning to poetry in 1990. His comment in a interesting group of afterwords by the authors is oblique and not entirely convincing. He speaks of sudden fiction as ‘runtish’ which maybe sums up his feelings for it. I was no more convinced by his afterword than his story.
Far more significant is the development post 1986 (with the undoubted extra boost of the internet) of Sudden Fiction into Flash Fiction and the ensuing ‘movement’. A quick web search on ‘flash fiction’ shows that what was a curiosity in 1986 has bloomed into a veritable sea of algae with ‘Flash Fiction Day’, Competitions and even its own Wikipedia definition.
For what it’s worth it really isn’t anything more than very short pieces…rather than normal short stories. In my opinion it isn’t really a container for prose-poems that separate but can overlap if a poet feels it fits the term.
For me I come back to runtish….do I want to be a runt?
*Also the BASS (Best American Short Stories) 1986 edition edited by Carver probably a better place to look for where the entire short story was at this point.
This is the hardest Daily Short story so far. Not only have I never read Joy Williams before I also had no idea of her background so the interview above, which is excellent, has filled in the gaps. I started this Daily Shorts idea confidently expecting to read and comment on a short story a day. That seems unobtainable now. Maybe one every two days maximum is a better target. ‘Dimmer’ is a challenge from the get go. Long, maybe closer to a novella, and stylistically wonderful but breaking most creative writing workshop rules from the start. Thirty-eight pages (roughly) of galloping, imagistic and totally riveting prose in which the main P.O.V. character ‘Mal Vester’, as Daniel Alcorn says in his introduction above, never speaks.
It is a virtuoso performance by a skilled narrator at top of her game. A product of Iowa MFA, who was in the same year as Carver and Andre Dubus (she actually worked with Carver’s first wife Maryann as a waitress) it was for me a revelation. I instinctively, perhaps the Australian setting, thought of Nick Cave (another preacher’s offspring coincidentally) or rather I thought of Cave reading Williams which makes sense.
There is a luminosity to the writing. It is packed with images that haunt like the father’s boots ‘hanging’ way before we find out he hangs himself in prose which scrupulously accurate yet not sensationalist but conveys the ‘meat’ of the action. The mother’s death in a shark attack is conveyed in one line about a pool of blood, big as a paper plate, floating shore-ward nothing more perfectly capturing the moment.
It slowly builds a picture of a ‘simple’ boy growing into adulthood who too ‘feral’ for the small Australian town he orphaned in. He is an instinctive, animalistic individual, almost an ‘Enfant Sauvage’. In a blisteringly dry piece of writing he is shipped to America and encounters another female ‘Wild Child’ driving for a living before the story disappears along with the beach-side dwelling they occupy in a cloud of questions. The lack of resolution is well handled clouding our knowledge of who responsible for the child-man and perhaps suggesting that nobody ever was.
Online forums suggest many readers regard her story as ‘experimental’ and difficult which I didn’t really see although maybe the length as mentioned above is beyond short story maybe a ‘Long Short’. As the story was published by George Plimpton in 1969 it very early for Williams and I have yet to encounter her later collections of short stories or novels. It may be stylistically different for that reason. It certainly feels more modern than 1969 and, but for some of the flight cabin details, could have been written yesterday.
In the interview she is wonderfully dismissive and grumpy…
What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.
She recommends DeLillo as truly ‘avant-garde’ and two Russian contemporary (I presume) authors as follows…
DeLillo is first among them. A writer of tremendous integrity and presence. Mao II is an American classic. So, too, is White Noise, though it’s been taught to splinters. His later works are fierce, demanding. His work can be a little cold perhaps. And what’s wrong with that? The cold can teach us many things. Coetzee I admire very much. On a lighter note, the Russians. Vladimir Sorokin and his crazy Ice trilogy. The short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
I find her tone one I can trust and her involvement in Eco Politics and her ‘Earth First’ comments striking a chord. Ultimately she believes in a certain ‘transcendentalism’ but not one bound by a particular religion. She is beautifully wary of formula and ends thus…
Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.