Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday 8 September 2008

"The White Road and Other Stories" by Tania Hershman (Salt, 2008)

I looked first at the 2 pages of acknowledgements. I too raid "New Scientist". I too have been in "Transmission" but never on BBC Radio 4. At least 14 of these 27 pieces are Flash (102 words is I think the shortest) and the others, by being set against the Flash, risk being accused of lacking intensity or not exploiting the possibilities afforded by the extra length (up to 12 pages), so bear with me while I digress about Flash.

Evolution's mutation and natural selection leads to several effects, amongst which are combination, dwarfism/gigantism (part or all of the organism changing size) and neotony (the retention of juvenile characteristics - humans are part-neotonic apes). Genres in the Arts can develop similarly. Before the neotony of Impressionism, artists wouldn't try to pass off their on-the-spot paintings as finished versions, even if those sketches captured the essence of the experience. Though Flash didn't evolve from 2000-word stories or free verse - it pre-dates those by centuries - it's inevitably compared with them. Some Flash focuses on a particular short story feature - epiphany-gigantism, for example - whereas others try to be a miniature, perfectly scaled version of a short story. How do the Flash pieces in this book compare?

  • "Mugs" successfully introduces 2 characters, a scenario, and an epiphany. It's not just a sketch towards a painting, it more like how masters used to work in art studios - doing the face and hands, leaving the rest to the apprentices (in this case the readers). It works well, and doesn't need padding into story-sized prose.
  • "Drizzling" is my favourite piece in the book, a short story in miniature with a final kick.
  • "Heart" effectively combines two images
  • "Hand" could easily pass as poetry

Some of the rest save space by being lo-res, fuzzy, or faded. They don't have the initial impenetrability of an autostereogram followed by a "Wow", or that mysterious flatness of a hologram that only reveals its depth when the reader changes viewpoint - not for this reader anyway. They don't magnify a particular aspect of story-writing, or elegize a significant moment. I'm not suggesting that any Flash that transcends my makeshift taxomony is necessarily bad, but if evolution leads to less complexity, the offspring should at least be ideally suited to its habitat. "Heavy Bones" - so what?

Now onto the longer stories. "White Road" has a first person voice (it's been on BBC Radio 4) belonging to the owner of the last cafe before the South Pole. It has innocent phrases with hidden depths - "The road don't cut through it, it's part of it, just flattened out a bit". The ending's a surprise - a dramatic physical event whose timing has no obvious psychological justification. It works for me though, and it's prefigured earlier in the story. It's not the only story about blindness (and preparing for it) or about cold climes, or childbirth problems. Of course, snow doesn't really cause permanent blindness, but the character wants to be blind, and prepares accordingly - "Some things the eye shouldn't see". It could have a symbolic meaning - Death, Dementia, Madness, or most likely the desire to Forget.

"White Road" begins the book. The final story is, neatly, "North Cold" which I've read before in "Riptide". I guess it could be classified as magic realism. I like that too, and "Rainstiffness", which ends particularly well. They're 2 of the stories where it's as if weather corresponds to some internal state.

I'm not so convinced by the "Brewing Storm", "Evie and the Arfids", and "Space Fright" stories. All include near-future technology and some light comedy. The endings of the first 2 are predictable, but I don't really get what the pieces are trying to be. The plots and character studies don't cut it for me, and I can't read them as satire or social comment - they suffer too much in comparison to some other pieces here.

In a story with a title like "Self Raising" one expects double meanings, and we're not disappointed. Cake making is mentioned, and we're given some Science, but what's the connection? We're soon told - the narrator's an under-achieving science-graduate widow, self-employed making themed cakes. The story's last paragraph's a surprise though - again, there's a dramatic event (involving an open window rather than breaking a glass ceiling) without an obvious internal analogue. Something snapped, but why does the internal monologue go suspiciously quiet at the crucial moment? It's a story convention, but all the same.

"Sunspots" exemplifies most clearly the author's ability to speak in voices - it has a believable medieval setting. The voices aren't exclusively female either, and a discursive tone's sometimes adopted - "Express" looks like an essay set in the 2nd person. The material's promising - with a more pressing side-plot it could have been a conventional story. "The Incredible Exploding Victor" is fun idea with a tame conclusion (the characters suddenly acting like grown-ups when "the doctor" intercedes) - so tame I wonder what I've missed. I prefer stories that become pretentious when they fail, rather than fizzle away.

Maybe alternating the long and short pieces wasn't a good idea. I feel that all the required components of stories are in the book, but rarely together in a single piece. To continue the evolution analogies (see "New Scientist", 30th Aug 2008 for details) it's as if the book were a soupy Virosphere with left-over fragments that could be recombined with the larger units to accelerate evolution. The contents needs another shake, more cross-infection, more survival of the fittest.

Surprisingly for a Salt publication there were typos - p.23 has "working it's way", and p.43 has "a annoying".

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