The last bit of summer warmth has disappeared and a cold wind has taken over the air outside; whatever illusion I might still have had about a pleasantly calm autumn with later afternoons of a weekend in the garden has been swept away. The whole of last week seemed full of unease an tension and he weather provided the basket in which the world was shaken about: the credit crunch with its accompanying dismay in America and across Europe (we don’t seem to hear much about the rest of the world in all of this, or am I missing something?), the bitching between Labour and the Conservatives across the front pages here in England, and at a personal level the pressure to deliver projects in an ever tighter timeframe with trains cancelled leaving me tired and desolate for hours on draughty station platforms and then packed in overcrowded trains, and internet connections that fail at crucial times. In weeks like this one everything seems to collude to build up an inner tension and unease that is difficult to shake off, like the chilly wind outside.
It was a week for short stories, for short bites, rather than sinking into a long novel that forces you to abscond from the real world, in fact, the world would not let me.
On my night table and in my overnight case for working-away-from home days and nights I have the last edition of Granta (no. 103 – The magazine of New Writing) which has as its title ‘The Rise of the British Jihad’. Inside, there are other writings as well, including a poem by Carol Ann Duffy The Woman in the Moon. The first stanza makes playful reference to the children’s rhyme of the cow that jumped over the moon:
Darlings, I write to you from the moon
where I hide behind the famous light.
How could you think it was ever a man up here?
A cow jumped over. The dish ran away with the spoon
It is a serious poem. I love the word play throughout, the rhythm and then the end
What have you done, what have you done to the earth?
I have not yet read Richard Watson’s The one true God, Allah which is in fact the main ‘story’ in this Granta, and will try and do that this week, if not today. It’s in my Salon!
I’ve also been reading stories in Tobias Wolff’s collection Back in the World and these stories are much in tune with my mood of alienation. They are about people who somehow or other are slightly off-beat, they don’t quite fit in with whatever is around them, even if to them their lives are completely normal, at least, they never question, never pose existentialist questions about themselves. They just are. The first story in this book is Coming Attractions and is about a girl called Jean who works nights in a cinema. Her boss, Mr Munro tends to disappear and although at first she suspects him of adultery she sees him one night on the ice rink, skating. As Jean waits for him to come back this evening (he usually gives her a lift home) we learn quite a lot about her: she’s a shoplifter, she usually keeps the things that she fancies when she finds them left behind on seats at the end of a show rather than put them in the lost-property, she plays pranks by telephoning people and pretends she’s someone else, her parents are divorced and her father has a new wife and when she rings them, it’s Lynda the wife who answers the phone and Jean is irritated by her. Then she rings home and she realises that her younger brother is still up watching television and that her mother is out with a boyfriend and when she tries she cannot get hold of her. The tone of the story telling is matter of fact, subdued and this brings out the loneliness of Jean, even if she does not give it a thought. Despite her pranks, her lying, her shoplifting, she does not think twice about trying to retrieve an old bike, which is too heavy for her, from a freezing cold swimming pool because she know her brother wants it badly and she wants him to have it.
Other stories are similarly about outsiders: there’s Leo, a priest, in The Missing Person and there is the couple, Mark and the heavily pregnant Krystal, who with their young son in diapers and stifling heat cross the desert in search of a forever receding better existence (wishful thinking on the part of Mark?) in the story Desert Breakdown, 1968.
I am absolutely taken by this style of writing, it is so measured, the stories so beautifully constructed, and I tried to do something similar with my draft story on Write on Wednesday, this week. Wolff is really the ‘masterful story teller’ as the New York Times tag has it. This collection was published in 1985 and I am well aware of his most recent collection Our Story Begins, which by the way is also the title of one of the short stories in this 1985 collection. The last collection is on my tbr list. Have any of you read it? Is there a link between the short story in the 1985 collection and the title of this new collection?
Meanwhile I have started reading another novel, Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. More about that later this week! I’m sure I’ve exhausted your attention span. It’s started to rain and my outside salon is wet so it’s back inside – enjoy the rest of your Sunday.