A short story I recently read

The Man on the Stairs’ by Miranda July

Read it here in about 10 minutes.

Thinking about time and characterisation…

I love this story.

In the opening, the narrator wakes to hear someone on the stairs outside her bedroom. We have this repetition and extension of things she can hear and feel, which demonstrates her panic, reflects the way sleep dissolves into concrete reality, and builds tension: tiny sound / human sound; I held my breath / I tried to whisper; I squeezed Kevin’s wrist / I was squeezing air.

Then we have a digression, which pauses the tension. Rather than continuing to focus on this terrifying intruder, the narrator tells us about her character flaws: ‘That is my problem with life, I just rush through it, like I’m being chased’ she says. This must be the fear taking over, we reason; seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes at a moment of danger.

Then, we begin to doubt her: ‘I would forget the danger for whole moments at a time, and almost slip back in to sleep’. How can the man on the stairs be real, if she’s able to fall back to sleep as he advances?

She says she can’t wake her boyfriend, because his voice would signal to the man ‘how vulnerable we were’. Vulnerable; we can read this in two ways – are they vulnerable, or is their relationship?

More character flaws are revealed: ‘There are three main things that make me a drag’ – our narrator is selfish and fake, and feels guilty about it; she’s not happy with her friendship group; she wants to change her life; have a fresh start. What does this mean for her boyfriend?

Things take a disturbing twist. She reveals she had a crush on Kevin when she was twelve, and he was twenty-five. Another reveal: she was his student. Ok, we’re revaluating this narrator now; her relationship, her choices, the power dynamic. We may revaluate why Kevin tells her who he fantasises about; it this just annoying, or controlling?

We have a flashback to the narrator’s first date with Kevin, and how she thought the teenager who cleaned the car windshield was a more appropriate boyfriend for her. Lack of self-esteem, or reality?

Another hint about the relationship, about how different these two people are: ‘My eyes are open too. Kevin’s eyes are shut, he is so far away and he always will be.’

She confronts the man on the stairs, and rather than seeing some nightmare vision, he is ‘an ordinary man’ who breathes out ‘the bitter air that makes women doubt everything’, while she breathes out ‘everything I had destroyed with doubt’. Okay, so this is about the narrator and her relationships, with other people and with herself, not about a real man on the stairs?

Final paragraph. The flashback to the first date continues. She is difficult on their date. Kevin makes jokes, and she refuses to laugh at them; ‘I would rather die than laugh’, she tells us.

‘I didn’t laugh, I did not laugh. But I died; I did die’ she says in the final line. Wow. So, we can read this in lots of different ways: Rather than giving in to Kevin’s silly jokes, she has given in to him in some other way? Has the self-doubt she feels destroyed her? Is this a deeply unhappy woman looking for a way out? Or is the man on the stairs real?

A short story I recently read

The Sea Shell’ by Osama Alomar

Read it here in about 1 minute (there are two flash stories on the page – scroll down for ‘The Sea Shell’).

Thinking about use of narrative point of view…

This magical little flash story features an unnamed man walking down a beach in an unnamed land, and finding a sea shell.

The story opens with an omniscient narrator switching between describing the man’s actions (‘He was walking’; ‘He bent down’), and aligning to his point of view (‘enjoying his yearly vacation’; ‘meditating’ on the beauty of sea).

The combination of minimalist language and structure to tell, and sudden, unexpected maximalist descriptions to show, is effective at depicting the man’s wonder at the beauty of nature.

For example, all of the sentences, save one, begin with a pronoun, and most have a verb as the second word (‘He was / He bent / It was / He put / He felt /He wished’). But the sentences move like waves lapping on the shore, with some shorter, and some longer, reaching higher, further in the sand, and becoming more maximalist: ‘ It was a big shell.’; ‘the golden pearls embedded in the creases of the waves far out to sea beneath a sun held up by ecstatic joy.’ The man cannot help but be captivated by the beauty he sees, which renders him poetic.

Here, alliteration mimics the echo of the seashell: ‘enjoy the enchanted echo of the wave’.

Then, mid-paragraph, we switch without warning, and the omniscient narrator aligns to the female shell’s point of view. Now, we have a long sentence containing multiple clauses – an overwhelming list of the pain the man causes the shell by holding her to his ear, because, in a wonderful twist, while the man hears the sea, the shell hears the pain in his soul. The author is Syrian, and based on what the shell experiences, we can count this story as a subtle piece of protest writing: ‘the wailing of the tortured, the cries of mothers who had lost their children, the tears of orphans’.

The final sentence continues this switch, as the man throws the shell back in the water: ‘She dove excitedly into the depths… and he returned to his sea.’ – the man is released, into his sea, as it were, and the shell is released into hers.

This story is beautiful. I’ll be looking out for more of Alomar’s work in future.

Book review

You Let Me In, by Camilla Bruce

You can read the opening here (‘look inside’).

This is a deeply disturbing novel. The protagonist, novelist Cassandra Tipp, has vanished, leaving behind what is essentially a memoir, a document containing two competing narratives about her life. In one story, Cassie tells of a vampiric 1,000-year old faerie who abused her in childhood, then married her, and destroyed her family; in the other story, that of her therapist, but related by Cassie, it was not a supernatural being that abused her, but a human one, and she has constructed this elaborate fantasy to cope with the trauma. But which story is true?

The thing is, if a friend told me they’d married a faerie, I’d think they were crazy, but this is a novel, so it could actually be true – it depends on whether the novel uses realism or magical realism. In this instance, the reader doesn’t know if they’re reading realism or not, because only one character witnesses the magical elements, so the reader has to ask themselves Is this narrator reliable? The effect of this is fascinating. Because first-person narration is used, I couldn’t help but believe the narrator about her faerie world; but then, there are also lots of clues that it’s her therapist who should be believed (plus, logically, I want to believe the therapist). The competition between the two narratives drew me in, and involved me in the story, because the reader is being asked to choose between the two versions.

Metafiction and intertextuality are used. The novel opens with a newspaper article, then instructions relating to Cassie’s last will and testament. The opening of the memoir uses the second-person, and direct address, to talk about/to her niece and nephew. The author is Norwegian, and I think the folk horror elements may come from her culture. The character names are interesting; I wonder if they’re intertextual links to Greek mythology: Cassandra (cursed; not believed), her niece Penelope (traditional; perfect wife), and nephew Janus (two-faced; signifies beginnings and endings).

If you hate ambiguity, you’ll probably hate this novel – I love ambiguity, so I loved it – but at the end of the day, both stories Cassie tells are two versions of the same thing; regardless of which version is ‘true’, she has been abused, disbelieved, and abandoned by the people who should have protected her, and been blamed for the actions of others and events out of her control.

Book review

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

You can read an extract, here.

I’ve just finished reading Cloud Atlas, and wanted to write a review about how amazing it is, but it’s difficult to do that while avoiding spoilers, and I really don’t want to ruin the reading experience of anyone who hasn’t read it yet, so I’ll be careful…

Experience is the word to describe this novel. Due to its structure, I was drawn in, and enjoyed being involved in figuring our how the characters, and their stories, were linked.

The novel comprises six stories, which are arranged in a Russian Doll formation, and each written in a different style. The six stories are then linked through characters, events, and metafictional/intertextual references to each other. I love metafiction and intertextuality, and am experimenting in my own writing, so it was interesting to see how Mitchell used different techniques in each story.

Certain words (including people and place names), images, and ideas are repeated throughout the six stories – this is what I found fascinating, more so than the actual stories or potential overall arc; there are so many ways to interpret the meanings of these repetitions, and having looked at some wiki fan pages, I see there are lots of theories out there.

Some people refer to the novel as being ‘challenging’, but it’s only challenging in the sense of being experimental, and therefore not everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I loved being involved in the story, and coming to my own conclusions. I would recommended Cloud Atlas to anyone who wants to explore the use of structure or experimental nature of this novel.

A short story I recently read

‘Gubeikou Spirit’ by Te-Ping Chen

Read it here in about 45 minutes.

Thinking about use of surrealism…

The opening of this story depicts experiences that visitors to China may be familiar with: the stereotypical crowds, dashing about, pushing and shoving (‘she was beaten back against the wall’); the ‘state-of-the-art’ underground train system; the ubiquitous security guards (you’ll find them stationed outside every apartment building, shopping centre, and train/subway/bus station); the straight-forward language, which some might call impolite, especially when addressing people of a lower station (‘“I’m in a hurry,” she said plaintively’); the recitation of traditional Chinese expressions (‘Haste didn’t pay, she reminded herself’); the national pride (‘No other city in the world had built its subway stations so quickly’); the faux sense of community (‘”We’ll get there together”’, so says the guard who is not trapped on the station along with our protagonist).

The story then descends into surrealism, which is the perfect genre to capture what it sometimes feels like to live in China, as an outsider. The people on the station become trapped. There’s a lack of information – the passengers are repeatedly told the train is delayed, but not why, or when it’ll be up and running again. No one takes responsibility for the problem; no one seems to try and solve it. The security guards won’t let the passengers leave. The passengers spend the night on the platform; then another night; then several months. It’s like a terrible nightmare.

The surrealism is also used to comment on Chinese government and society. There’s a sense of apathy; why bother resisting? The people are happy, comfortable, and safe on the platform, with clothing, food, and shelter provided by their benevolent leaders. The situation is presented as a natural disaster (hence the handing out of ‘humanitarian supplies’), and used for propaganda purposes (the newspaper runs ‘an editorial that praised them for their bravery, for “inspiring a nation with their fortitude and optimism”’). There’s a lack of independent thought; the guards unquestioningly do their jobs (‘“It’s in the rule book”’), when they could simply open the gate and let the passengers leave.

In the end, Pan alone has the will to escape, although not necessarily to the outside world – who knows where her train will eventually stop, if it ever does. So, there is hope, of a sort, at least for something different, if not something better.

I haven’t yet read Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection, Land of Big Numbers, which is where this story comes from, but it’s now on my wish list.

A short story I recently re-read

Black-Eyed Women’, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Read it here, in about 40 minutes.

Thinking about metafiction…

Metafiction is fiction that is self-referential. Fiction that draws attention to its own fictionality, either overtly (e.g. the narrator directly addresses the reader) or covertly (e.g. the story is about writing stories).

Black-Eyed Women’ is all about the nature of storytelling. The narrator is a Vietnamese-American working as a ghostwriter, writing the memoirs of a man who survived a disaster that killed his entire family; the narrator’s mother verbally tells stories, usually beginning with the words ‘Let me tell you a story’; the man who survived the disaster tells his story, over and over, in TV interviews, and to the narrator so she can write it for him; storytelling is depicted as an essential part of Vietnamese culture (‘tall tales, folklore, and rumors’), with the eponymous black-eyed women being ‘the ancient crones’ who keep the country’s stories safe, telling and re-telling them to anyone who’ll listen.

The three characters – the narrator, her mother, and the man – are all are haunted in some way – by memories, guilt, or actual ghosts – and use storytelling to express and make sense of this. There’s a contrast between the stories they’re willing to tell, and those they aren’t, or whether they tell their own stories or the stories of others.

I love how the story ends, with the narrator embracing her mother’s/motherland’s/own stories, and writing her own book, with her own name attached, no longer a ghost.

This is the first story in the collection The Refugees, and sets the tone for the whole book, which, as the title suggests, focusses on Vietnamese refugees who are haunted by their reasons for leaving their home county, and by what they left behind (the final story subverts this, though). Recommended.

A short story I recently read

‘Sleeping Beauty’ by Laura Demers

Read it here in 18 minutes.

Thinking about intertextuality…

Intertextuality simply means there’s a link between one text and another. ‘Text’ here doesn’t just refer to literature; it could refer to any text, such as art or music or architecture. Some theorists argue all stories are intertextual, because every story links to others in some way, e.g. through a theme the writer was inspired by in another story, and wants to explore themselves; or because they’ve chosen to use a trope usually seen in the genre they write in.

There are no rules to intertextuality – a writer can use it as they wish, and achieve many different effects. For example, a character might say their relationship with their lover is like that of Romeo and Juliet, demonstrating they don’t actually know how that story ended; the story might be an adaptation, with the same characters, but from the point of view of a different character, or with a different outcome; the writer might follow the plot of another text, but with more modern characters and ideas.

In ‘Sleeping Beauty’, several references are made to fairy tale characters – the titular slumbering princess, Cinderella, Belle, Snow White, the stepsisters, and the Prince. But these are not the characters from the original violent and terrifying oral fairy tales; these are characters from the Disney animations. The beautiful, feminine, princesses with their long hair and pretty dresses.

The protagonist in this story is pretty far from a Disney princess. Her job involves attending children’s parties, dressed as their favourite fairy princesses. She lives in a house share, a long commute from the homes of the rich people who want her services. She argues with her ex, wanting access to her daughter. Her life isn’t going well. But she’s trying.

The story covers a day-in-the-life, the ups-and-downs of a princess. At her first job, she’s offered a pathetic slice of cake by glaring parents who want a perfect party for their child. She experiences disbelief from some children (‘This isn’t the real Cinderella’). She collapses on the sofa between jobs, a sweaty mess, anxious for a phone message from someone. Unusually, her second job of the day is at a 40th party, where she is the entertainment for the drunken birthday boy, who seems to know his Disney princesses rather well. Finally, she experiences some moments of kindness at the party, and gets the phone message she wanted.

The effect of the intertextuality is irony. She is the Disney Princess for other children, but not her own daughter. There are no Princes masquerading as frogs; no Fairy Godmother to save her; just life – the long, hard slog – with only the occasional sprinkling of magic.

A news report I recently read

Inside Xin Jiang’s Prison State, by Ben Mauk

Read it here.

Thinking about bending genres and mixing forms…

This report is an amazing combination of visual graphics, reportage, and creative nonfiction. It tells the story of the history of Xin Jiang (a province in China), and the ongoing repression of the Uighur people (which has now been classified as genocide according to several world governments, but not yet the UK).

The shadow puppet type images at the beginning are sinister, and they illustrate how the truth is hidden in Xin Jiang; how the victims are hidden; how their treatment and fates are hidden. The animations are composite images, depicting the claims made by multiple former detainees.

The report is divided into named chapters, with a prologue and epilogue, and peppered with facts and statistics, maps and charts. It revolves around several characters, and their experiences, which are connected. The events are mainly told in chronological order. The report ends with the author’s inclusion in the story; his research, his observations and impressions.

The sentence are short and easy to digest. The language is plain and unemotive (except the final sentence, which uses the simile: ‘Then, with a voice as bright as a mountain stream, he sang it.’). There are quotes from those interviewed, and embedded links to other news reports, to back up the claims.

This is a powerful piece, not just for its content, but also for the way it’s presented. More like this, please New Yorker.

A short story I recently re-read

‘We Wave and Call’ by Jon McGregor

Available here. Read it in 30 minutes.

Thinking about how structure and themes interact…

The story begins after the young man’s death, in the present tense (simple and continuous).

For me, the opening creates a sense of detachment – it’s a combination of the use of present tense; second person; the unnamed ‘you’; the way his body is described in the 1st paragraph (‘his limbs hanging loosely beneath him’) – not emotive*, or even unusual, but at one with the ocean (‘his body moving in long, slow ripples with each passing shallow wave, the water moving softly across his skin’). The only thing ominous/dangerous is ‘the electric crackle of waves’. The punctuation and length of clauses are amazing in this paragraph – they are like waves themselves, washing over him.

* the only emotive aspect is the use of ‘young man’, which is repeated, the second time emphasising, in case it wasn’t obvious from ‘lying face down’, that he’s dead.

So, the story has started in present tense, fine, but then the author decides to continue in present tense (as before, simple and continuous), rather than using past tense, even though he’s now talking about events earlier in time. Why? In the second paragraph the young man is alive, in the water, face down (looking ‘down at the sea floor’). The reader may think, ‘Wait, he’s not dead, the narrator was mistaken!’ I think the author wants the reader to feel a sense of disorientation, like the character would have had as he struggled in the sea.

Also, the story is circular, beginning and ending at the same point, so maintaining the tense supports this circular movement. And the circular structure traps the young man; he’ll spend eternity swimming in that bay, young, his whole life ahead of him (a metaphor for dying young?). The structure is supporting the themes here – being young, on the brink; the passing of time; destruction; remembering.

Past perfect is used here to talk about something that happened before something else happened: ‘You’d left [past perfect because this happened first] behind long months of exams and anxieties in the flat grey east of England and landed [past simple because it happened after] suddenly in this new world of cheap beer and sunshine, of clear blue seas and girls who wore [past simple] bikinis and short skirts and slept [past simple] in the room next door.’ — It’s grammatically accurate, but it’s jarring going from present to past (although, it’s always hard moving from present tense to something else).

The author has had to make grammatical choices in this paragraph. If he writes the whole thing in the present tense, there’s no layering of time, so no texture. He could have written most of this paragraph in past simple, but again, there’d be limited layers. If he wants to have one thing happen before another, he’s got to use past perfect; he couldn’t mix past perfect with present, because it would be grammatically inaccurate: ‘You’d left [past perfect] behind long months of exams and anxieties in the flat grey east of England and land [present] suddenly…’.

But at the end of that paragraph, we switch back to present tense: ‘The girls have already made it clear, by their pointing out of waiters and boys on scooters, that they’re more interested in the locals than in the two of you. But there’s still a chance. A feeling that something could happen; that anything could happen. It seems worth thinking about, at least.’ All the author’s really doing here is returning to present tense, because it’s the main tense used in the story, and he doesn’t need past perfect/simple anymore. However, based on what’s said in this part of the story, is present tense also being used symbolically because the hope is eternal? The hope that that the girls love the boys is juxtaposed with the hope that he can make it to the shore – or are we even talking about the girls? Remember, the young man is in the sea and this is analepsis.

Perhaps the use of past perfect also draws attention to the before and after? Making a comparison? As in, alive then dead. In the paragraph beginning ‘One of the boys, in the memorial photographs’ uses a lot of past perfect – our young man wonders about another young man, in a photo, who died. Foreshadowing. Juxtaposing.

So, in my opinion, the structural choices relate to the creation/development of the themes.

A short story I recently re-read

The Paper Menagerie’, by Ken Liu

Read it here in 15 minutes.

Thinking about using foreign language and genre to illustrate a theme…

I love how Liu uses words from a foreign language, and the magical realism genre, to show the character’s confusion about his identity.

Chinese is character-based, but Liu Romanises the words so the reader can speak them, aloud or in their head, even if they can’t understand them; Liu wants the reader to hear the mother’s foreign voice, just as the narrator does.

The protagonist is a mixed-race American. He struggles with his cultural identity, and has a poor relationship with his mother because she does things ‘the Chinese way’ and won’t speak English. You can see this in his recollection of a childhood incident, where his mother tries to soothe him by making origami animals.

The first thing his mother says is not translated, and there are no clues in the dialogue about what it means (“Kan, kan”) – he is refusing to engage with her, by not telling the reader the meaning of the words.

The second thing she says is also not translated (“Kan,” she said, “laohu.”), but the narration that follows indicates what the mother has just done, which vaguely suggests the meaning of the words: ‘She put her hands down on the table and let go. / A little paper tiger stood on the table’ – the boy’s interest in his mother is piqued, because of the paper tiger.

As the boy starts to enjoy his new paper tiger, laughing and playing with it, the next thing she says is translated: ‘“Zhe jiao zhezhi,” Mom said. This is called origami.’ – a connection with his mother has been established, through her creation of the paper animals; he’s engaged with her, and her language. 

Later, the protagonist accidentally speaks Chinese in front of this English friend: ‘“Xiao laohu,” I said, and stopped. I switched to English. “This is Tiger.”’ The protagonist is starting to value his culture; to want to share it. But, sadly, this is ruined by his English friend, who tells him the tiger is ‘trash’.

One of the things I love about ‘The Paper Menagerie’ is that you can read it in two ways: either his mother has actual magical powers, and can make paper animals that come alive; or the child was just using his imagination, and the origami was only magical because it was ‘foreign’ to him (ironic).

I speak Mandarin, and it does annoy me when people say not to include foreign words in English writing. Bi and polylingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world, and as you can see from this short story, using a foreign language in your writing can be used to create effects such as showing a character’s isolation or their connections with others. So, go ahead and use your languages.