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.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

"The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories" by Valerie Martin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006)

Many of the characters are artists. The stories' tensions often revolve around artists becoming famous or rich (frowned upon even if the work's unaffected, poverty being a badge of authenticity). Waitressing and casual bisexuality are common amongst the women.

The first story - "His Blue Period" is leisurely - little exploitation of language, and yet still quite a lot of "tell, not show" - sentences like "David came back to us with a bemused, wondering expression of one who has met up with a natural force and miraculously survived". By "The Bower" I'd got used to the style, though phrases like "Sandra spent the rest of the semester picking over the affair obsessively, like a monkey grooming her offspring" didn't appeal, and the description of the accident on p.48 is implanted by a different voice. "Beethoven" has some snappy dialog, but the final paragraph's a let-down "'No.' I said, 'I want to.' Then, as I followed him to the rumpled matress, I felt, in spite of everything, of the heat, of my disillusionment and frustration, of my fear of the future in which, we both knew, Phil would no longer figure, a perverse but unmistakable throb of dark desire."

"The Unfinished Novel" is novella length - not surprising given that it takes half of p.79 to describe a little event. We've seen the conversational sparring in other stories

"How about tomorrow?" she said.
"No, I've got appointments all day." This was, in fact, true.
"Thursday?" Now she was amused, watching me squirm. I decided to limit her pleasure and my own suffering. "Thursday would be fine," I said. "In the afternoon, around three."
"I'll be there," she said.
Yes, I thought. I don't doubt you are there most of the time.

Then there's a dream. Then the narrator helpfully reminds us that "that corporal substance, once beautiful, later unlovely, containing the turbulence that was Rita, was no more. For twenty years she'd been a dim figure from my personal past, and there had been moments, not many, when I wondered what had become of her. Now I knew.", taking the words from the author's mouth. "The Open Door"'s final paragraph begins "The ugly business at the college had shaken Isabel, Edith understood. She was wounded by it in some vital center of her confidence. It was her way to dismiss what she couldn't control, and put the best possible face on every failure, and that was what she was doing now, but it was hard, she was having a hard time of it."

The plot of "The Change" is telegraphed - perhaps intentionally so, but I still don't like lines like "giving Evan a quick, complex look made up in parts of gratitude, flirtation, and suspicion" that pretend to be "show" though they're "tell".

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