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 19 July 2017

"Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman (Unthank books, 2017)

This book has about 40 pieces taking up roughly 150 pages. They're nearly all narrative, edging into vignette but never essay. The shortest piece is less than half a page. The acknowledgements last for 3 pages, mentioning Ambit, Bare Fiction, Nature, New Scientist, Stinging Fly, "The Verb" (BBC R3), etc.

I follow Tania Hershman's career with interest. At one point I thought I might be able to use her as a role model - she's a science-trained writer. But then she engaged warp drive, got a Ph.D in literature, and all hope of my catching up with her disappeared. She writes poetry too - unsurprising given the exploratory nature of her Flash. She's been a writer-in-residence in science establishments, and quite a few of the pieces involve science in some way, bio-fluorescence in particular featuring. When the result is SF it's of the Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood variety. Opportunistic affairs seem common in labs. In "Experimentation" the scientific method and dating intermix.

Individuals are sometimes subsumed into types - phrases like "The scientists" and "the young scientist" are common. It's after all how society views individuals who introduce themselves as scientists. People who introduce themselves as "poets" are pigeon-holed just as much I think. The scientists come in different varieties. In "The Party" the biochemists seem to feel inadequate amongst physicists and mathematicians. They're asked "Please … give us some? Some of your words? Your biochemistry words!" And they do - "lymphocyte", "organelle", "lamellipodia and especially, "Green Fluorescent Protein" - which pleases the physicists and mathematicians. In "God Glows" Emmylene, who used to be a physicist, loves "lymphocyte", "organelle", "lamellipodia and especially, "Green Fluorescent Protein" too. Emmylene thinks herself strange.

I might be the target audience for this book. I chat to post-docs at work - moving from contract to contract (and often country to country) they're a different breed to established staff and post-grads. I've a medical statistician in the family who helps runs cancer trials and is caught in statistics vs individual-case dilemmas. There's little here about conflicts between the scientific outlook and other approaches, except perhaps in "Hold the baby". Some of the characters struggle with technology, but don't we all. The focus is on people, and scientists can do other things than science -

  • In "There is no-one in the lab tonight but mice" "instead of experiments, the scientists are doing art, playing music, meeting in coffee shops to talk poetry"
  • In "The House of Meat" Ellen says "I've had it with bloody science. I'm going to retrain"

There's compression and imagery galore, e.g. -

  • "It begins with watching birds, in the trees, and in its middle, later, there is a kitchen, and the woman stands, the teakettle's small hard tears of water dripping onto her fingers" (p.4)
  • "I was the bird then, and you were in the chair" (p.143)
  • "Carly is a lonely child, time wandering through her like insects, and it scatters, like beetles surprised, whenever she is spoken to" (p.90)
  • "If kissed by a dragonfish, do not bite. If kissed by a dragonfish, make sure you are sitting" (p.143)

Bird imagery is frequent, and it's central to several pieces. There are encounters with unknowable others - people puzzled by people, people empathising with octopi. More generally people look to the elements of air and water for transcendence.

In "Burrowing Blind" a dead metaphor is revived - spies are blinded to become "moles". They burrow, doing underground work. Readers don't know whether the spies were operated on, or whether the blindness is symbolic. Other stories mention taking metaphors literally - "And What if Your Blood Ran Cold", for example. Sometimes there are more quirky deformations of standard usage - "A bad lie, she says, outbreathing" (p.5). In "And what if all your blood ran cold", alignment is used to show the passage's PoV. "The Plan or You Must Remember This" has 10 sections presented in reverse order.

One advantage of writing short pieces is that you can take more risks - if one story fails with a particular reader there are always other stories and readers. Some pieces puzzled me, in a "so what?" rather than meta-fictional way - "Tunnelling", "Empty Too", "The Perfect Egg", "A shower of curates". The pieces on p.74-83 didn't work for me. I didn't like "God glows" either. I liked "War Games", "Special Advisor", "There is no-one in the lab tonight but mice", "We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others" (the top of p.116 in particular), and "Octopus Garden" with its surprising, satisfying finish. "The House of meat" certainly has its moments.

The title piece contains many of the themes and devices used in the other stories. Readers have to weave together the back-story from episodes that jump back and forwards in time. It begins with a son showing his mother Sarah a beating fish heart under a microscope. Then a young scientist works with jellyfish. He wonders why they glow. Sarah, on the shore, is watching the young scientist lying in a rowing boat. Another man, in another time studies worms. A boy takes schoolgirl Sarah to a movie - her first date. Simon thinks about his son and daughter. Simon takes Sarah to a movie - their first date. Sarah's "skin is tingling and in her stomach is a glow". Sarah has a job cutting jellyfish. The young scientist has made a discovery. Sarah is pregnant. Her husband isn't Simon. The man who thinks only of worms succeeds with his glowing worm experiment. Sarah (now a mother) paints "silently luminous" pieces that she sells. She sees Simon and jellyfish on TV - "they show the pictures, little green glowing cells". Shouldn't "PH" on p.120 be "pH"?

Other reviews

  • Alan McCormick (Like all truly original ambitious books that I’ve loved and savoured, there are some parts I don’t get or respond to ... I found myself thinking of Barthelme, Borges and Lydia Davis in the wit, brevity and range of the stories, of Atwood in the disturbing science fictions, but Tania Hershman’s voice and vision is all her own.)
  • Richard T. Watson (The prose is taut and tight, whipping along and leaving the reader to catch up in its wake – or not, as the case may be (some, like ‘Tunnelling’ could do with a few more words, and being a bit less oblique, for my taste). ... Like ‘Biography (Ongoing)’, ‘Burrowing Blind’ is admirable in its epic scope and brevity.)
  • skylightrain (unmistakable blend of the poetic, the uncanny and the deeply human ... Hershman explores our predilections and imperfections with effortless eloquence. ... A little beyond the central pages of the collection hovers the story There Is No-One In The Lab Tonight But Mice. On the surface it seems whimsical – a playful fantasy – but here we find the heart of Hershman’s curiosity, and a perfect truth that curls between the lines in many of the pieces here.)
  • Rupert Dastur (The reader is afforded a glimpse into a world usually hidden by closed doors, technical language, and spreadsheet models. Hershman lights upon some of this mystery and discovery, delighting in the sensuality and playfulness of scientific syntax, while also acknowledging the tedious reality of repetition after repetition that is so necessary to research. Two of my favourite short stories in this collection, ‘And What if Your Blood Ran Cold’ and ‘The House of Meat’ aptly explore these concerns ... Both stories step along the difficult lines of co-worker relationships (the driving force in most of these short fictions) ... Other short stories which I particularly enjoyed – ‘The Special Advisor’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ – deal with death, contain same-sex-relationships, and circle around loneliness. ... ‘Flavours’ ... stuck with me for a particularly long time.)

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