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.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

"A short history of synchronised breathing" by Vanessa Gebbie (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2017)

These short pieces (2-15 pages long) come from BBC Radio 4, Smokelong Quarterly, and several anthologies. I'm playing safe by calling them "pieces" rather than stories because some of them step outside the story-frame. For instance, the first begins as follows

There is, in Rue Carnot, a greengrocer's that still bears the name of Claude Romerin. But this is not necessarily a story about greengrocers. This is the story of how the electrification of a small railway led to a most miraculous near-disaster. And it is a story about facts. How, in the wrong hands, they mean nothing.

Post-truth it's not, but the collection's often non-mimetic. The title story also has numerous authorial interjections - e.g.

(I am very sorry this story begins with a secondary character. The main character is also secondary, at least at the beginning)

Non-standard though several of the pieces may be, they're all accessible, set recognisably in France, the Far East, Brighton, Prague, etc. No tear-jerkers, though lots of wry humour. Whatever criteria you classify texts by (narrative distance, metafictionality, realism, essay/story, etc), you'll find texts in this book that span a range. I'll look at a few themes that emerge, then I'll consider some individual pieces.

Names

"Frank Merriman" is an ironic name for a taxi driver and "Ed" might be editing himself, but it's the very concept of naming that matters in several pieces.

  • Why could he not stay 'a waiter'? Now he has a name (p.32)
  • This woman has a name, but Ed doesn't want to think about that (p.36). What was the woman's name, this morning? What is a name anyway? (p.38)
  • "Naming Finbar" has a lot of names in it (though I don't think it's one of the best pieces)
  • "Literary Analysis" studies names. Re "Earnest" - "the last four letters spell 'nest'. Nest is synonymous with 'Bed', therefore the author was thinking of sex and sex is communicating itself subliminally to the reader via Ear 'nest'. He is serious about bed. Or seriously good in bed. ... But what of the 'Ear' of Earnest? We are meant to think of ears of corn, perhaps? Is he a country man? Or maybe he is deaf?". Later it's considered "important that THE station has no name"

Symbolism

In stories generally, symbols can be explicit or have varying depths of embeddedness. For example, a story could include the phrase "life is a maze", or the story could be set in a maze with significance attached to each decision, or the maze could be a minor (albeit synecdochal) incident in a story.

Authors often have a favoured symbolic depth. In this book however there's much variety. Symbols are contrasted with proper nouns - people's names especially. In "Literary analysis" the trick's explained - THE station. THE. Symbolic, important that THE station has no name. In "Parallax" the characters point out the effects of parallax explicitly.

Communication

Most of the characters are single - some have always been, and it's easy to see why. Though two pieces involve a Vulcan-like mind-transfer there's no love-driven meeting of minds. In "Parallax" it's clear that two people will always see the same thing differently. People can spend decades together and still not know each other. In contrast, people like those in "Taxi" who've never met can strike up a relaxed bonding.

In "Selected Advice for Strangers" people seeking company are told "They cannot fathom any more about you than you can about them". Communication is frequently via objects. The woman in "Housekeeping" tries to seduce the man she's only talked to once by leaving articles of clothing around. In the epistolary "Letters ..." the narrator "began to think of letters, and why we write them at all. I began to think about whether anyone will ever write the definitive letter, after which there will be no need to write anything. Ever.".

In some pieces, the most direct channel of communication is from narrator to reader, talking over the heads of the characters.

Parts

Several pieces involve objectifying, making something into a (lifeless) part so that it can be stored or exchanged. Things represent people, and sometimes things are thought to be animate in some way -

  • partial mind-swapping ("How Claude Romarin ...")
  • part of a deceased body is created in wax ("The Properties of Wax")
  • parts of a wife are spread about an apartment ("Wei-ch'i")
  • a stone baby ("Letters from ...") is put on a shelf
  • a package without an addressee is taken away in an unexplained hearse ("Gifts")
  • a person gains an additional persona ("Third Person Singular")
  • a painting represents a father ("Pavel's Grey Painting")
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" dissolves some differences between humans and the inanimate world.

Individual stories

  • "Were it possible to just have sustenance" - The 2nd-person persona wants some quiet time in a little Parisian café but a distressed man comes in thinking he's soon going to be the victim of a firing squad (Life/Death), three women come in, having had a good time (Living the moment), then a wigged judge plus another man come in, both with dogs which may need putting down (Judgement). The persona (whose aspects may be represented by the others) can't cope. As he leaves, the first man says "Mind. Aim straight for the heart. It is quicker that way", which is open to interpretation. It needn't be a plea. It could be a suggestion to use his mind, to aim for love, to kill all thoughts of Life/Death issues.
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" - Ed's walking into the sea to kill himself. A woman's just left him - "She'd said to him, his woman, that he was hopeless. Treated her like an object" (p.37). But Ed has a revelation that "there is a soul in the smallest thing" (p.37) and turns back.
  • "Taxi" - a taxi driver who's had two women (mother, then wife) desert him, picks a woman up from Brighton station who tells him to "just drive", and he does. They're last seen heading north into a new life. One of my favourite pieces.
  • In "Revisiting Luther" Letitia Hooper comes to believe that a parrot that she's looking after for a colleague is really her ex-husband. In the penultimate paragraph, "Letitia settled down on the settee with a new book, Best American Short Stories. I happen to own "The Best American Short Stories 1996" which contains "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" by Robert Olen Butler, a story in which a woman buys a parrot, not knowing who the parrot was in a previous life. That story is told from the parrot's PoV. Like the parrot in "Revisiting Luther" he still has yearnings. Unlike Luther, he sees his ex-wife with another man.
  • "Captain Quantum's Universal Entertainment" (subtitled 'an expanding story, with no boundaries') never sags, though it's long. It's my favourite piece - a tour de force. No surprise that it's already been printed elsewhere. A reporter (with a recorder - this is the quantum world) visits a fairground, shown around by the "Most Qualified Guide to the Fairground". "Captain Quantum" is the ring-master. "The Great Maximilian" (a juggler) and "Lucille, The Incredible Shrinking Bearded Lady" are the star turns. It's their last show, and perhaps the universe's last too. The piece is replete with scientific allusions that like their quantum counterparts, flicker in and out of existence. In the extracts below I detect black holes, special relativity, space-time curvature, epicycles from a bygone age, black holes, worm-holes, and quantum vacuum
    • "Your dark, veiled hats - so attractive and mysterious, the very thing our greatest stars cannot resist"
    • "But wait. Is the story going a little fast? Let's slow it down a little. Too slow? Then speed it up by all means. It is simple enough - this is a partnership, is it not? Everything is relative."
    • "Knives ought to fly in straight lines, these do not. (Apparently)"
    • "The schnauzers also 'speak' in nursery rhymes (their Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is unforgettable, apparently), and ride penny-farthings round the perimeter"
    • "as she nears her own vanishing point"
    • "The [tunnel's] ceiling sags. You can reach up and touch it, covered as it is in half-hearted stars"
    • the spectators ... sit separated from each other by patches of darkness that seem almost elementary, full of strange possibilities"
    At the end the big stars disappear. "Just the dwarves remained with their little rakes, sadly smoothing infinite grains of sand, ready for whatever came next".

One nit-pick - the passage "in the kitchenette, Shaozu found no note. Instead, in a room in which" (p.12) has too many "in" sounds for my liking.

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