When “a skillful literary artist has constructed a tale,” writes Edgar Allan Poe, he “has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents … as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.”1 Plot, in other words, should be secondary to the broader impression a story conveys to its readers. Three recent collections of “tales,” by Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, and Rivka Galchen, pursue their own unique effects by projecting just such a vivid sense of the present. As Poe suggests, they succeed where they lean lightly on the architecture of plot, aiming instead for a mood that captures the social and political complexity of contemporary life without reducing it to “incidents.”
Near the end of the last, eponymous story in Hilary Mantel’s collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, we learn: “History could always have been otherwise.” The moral fits a counterfactual tale like this one, which imagines an alternative history by following a middle-class woman as she becomes the accidental accomplice to a successful IRA hit on the Prime Minister sometime around 1983. The moral fits—a bit too well, since the first condition of counterfactual storytelling is the premise of otherwiseness, the idea that past events could have transpired differently than they did. But Mantel is a didactic writer, and she wants to make sure you get the point. What could seem like a retort to the amnesiac parade of good feeling that followed Thatcher’s 2013 death (from natural causes), or an exercise in wish fulfillment, instead appears as a high-concept query into the might-have-been.
Most of what is laudable in the collection is limited to this one story, though for fans of what Terry Castle calls Mantel’s “bleb moments”—images designed to give readers the low-level creeps, like when a chair is graced with “a gray rime of dust, like navel fluff”—there’s plenty to go around.2 As her title suggests, Mantel intends to refresh our awareness of the here and now by paddling around in the recent past. “In those days,” are the book’s first words, and versions of that phrase—“on those afternoons,” “on that first day,” “it must have been twenty-five years,” “it’s a long time now since,” “I’m going back to the early seventies”—obtrude as often as a nervous tic. Mantel is best known for her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies), but in The Assassination she treats the short story as a swinging door between the near past and the present, here a rat’s nest of political economy and private life beheld through flickering light. The trouble is that her blebs-and-all realism entails a certain meanness of invention, an imaginative insularity that finds Thatcher’s IRA assassin handling the parts of his gun “with gentle reverence, like an altar boy polishing the vessels for mass.” A Catholic person doing something like a Catholic person would do something; an alternative history announcing its commitment to alternative history. Like her metaphors and her aphorisms, Mantel’s world is a closed, listless one, and the micro-histories she mines from its shallows do not record contemporary life so much as fossilize it. They’re also a drag to read.
The airlessness of Mantel’s milieu suits her assessment of her audience, which she has described as “heirs to the liberal tradition” grown “ironical, comfortable, self-absorbed and fatally smug.”3 Perhaps in an effort to replicate the experience of that self-absorption, Mantel tightens the vise around both her prose and her narrators, whose equilibrium is reliably disrupted by people who are poor, Muslim, or in some undetermined way “foreign.” From scabby working-class teenagers to drunken Irishmen to “squat,” “hairy,” and homicidal Greek taxi drivers with “regulation mustache[s],” menace is directed at a type of narrator whose voice is consistent from story to story: articulate, educated, depressive, snobbish, and motored by an invincible disdain for others. This narrator, meanwhile, is bereft of physical characteristics, neither hairy nor squat but tending toward a pat Anglo generality.
Mantel is a didactic writer, and she wants to make sure you get the point.
Mantel may be out to satirize the cozily acerbic Britishness her protagonists embody, but her stories suggest otherwise by nominating the most odious narrators as exempla of good secular sense, braving a world of irrationality and poor manners. This is nowhere more apparent than in “Sorry To Disturb,” which recounts an acquaintance formed between a British writer, living with her husband in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and a Pakistani businessman named Muhammad Ijaz. Ijaz meets our narrator when he knocks on her door and asks for directions; he soon returns, time and again, turning up on her threshold when she is trying to nap, write, or read. Soon it emerges that Ijaz is maneuvering to divorce his American wife in hopes of marrying the narrator, who at last prevails upon her husband to write Ijaz and ask him not to call anymore. The story ends at a good distance from “the flat on the corner of Al-Suror Street,” with the narrator wondering what she “should have done,” how she might have “managed it better,” and concludes that the right thing was “never [to have] have opened the door in the first place.”
“Sorry To Disturb” is a dispatch from the everyday life of empire in the style of Orwell, though Mantel is dealing with the empire of global capital and not the managerial colonialism described in “Shooting An Elephant” or “A Hanging.” It, too, rolls out a stylized cast of non-white figures whose exclusion from the norms of characterization shows how swiftly racial prejudice turns people into types. Ijaz, with his “scuffed Oxfords,” “fake Rolex,” and unidiomatic English (“You went to this premises alone?”) is toadying and “aggressive,” “full of feeble jokes that he laugh[s] at himself.” He invites the narrator and her husband to dinner, where “a vast lumpen elder preside[s], a woman with a long chomping jaw … in a spangled sari” who “put[s] away a large part of the food, pulling the plates toward her and working through them systemically till the pattern show[s] beneath her questing fingers”; in the kitchen, “some oily skivvy [is] weeping into the dishes.” Then there is Munira, a Saudi neighbor, who is enrolled in a part-time college course in literature but can’t “even begin to do her assignments.” The narrator does them for her while Munira sits “on the floor in her négligée, watching Egyptian soaps on TV and eating sunflower seeds”:
Munira took my forty chapter summaries [of Oliver Twist], flicked through them, yawned, and switched on the TV. “What is a workhouse?” I tried to explain about the English poor law, but her expression glazed; she had never heard of poverty. She yelled out for her servant, an ear-splitting yell, and the girl—a beaten-down Indonesian—brought in Munira’s daughter for my diversion. … Munira laughed at her: “White nigger, isn’t it?” She didn’t get her flat nose from my side, she explained. Or those fat lips either. It’s my husband’s people, but of course, they’re blaming me.
The narrator takes her distance from Munira’s treatment of her servant and child, but what about her resolve in contrasting her own erudition—the chapter summaries have been done “in [her] idle moments”—to Munira’s laziness and ignorance? It is a contrast thrown into relief by the fact that “Sorry To Disturb” is threaded with references to the books the narrator reads while stuck in her Jeddah apartment: The Twyborn Affair, the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, The Philosopher’s Pupil, Zuckerman Unbound. Where she is an intelligent woman with enviable taste, Munira is a dunce and a bigot. Where her body is invisible, she is surrounded by other bodies that are “coarse” and “eager,” “lumpen,” “oily,” “sour,” “slim, sallow,” “bearded” with “hairy legs,” and, of course, brown. Munira may discharge the story’s one flare of overt racial hatred, but it says little for Mantel’s ingenuity that the word “nigger,” and the familiar beats of “flat nose” and “fat lips,” bear the burden of representing provincialism in a story that would not exist without it.
The liberals who populate Lorrie Moore’s Bark are the sort commonly called “bleeding hearts,” and are as far from fatally smug as Jeddah is from Anycollegetown, USA. Moore gives us characters who think and talk obsessively about Iraq, Barack Obama, and Abu Ghraib, and do so in terms so sociologically precise that Bark can seem like a fictional version of NPR. The book description on Bark’s front flap calls this “gimlet-eyed social observation,” a tired phrase that maps onto Moore’s tendency to get lost in what one of her characters calls “spells of inexplicable and vapid conventionality.” Her short stories describe a present at once intensely subjective and frustratingly monolithic, tenanted by virtuous despair (“I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet”) and by metaphors that cloy like gasoline (“the walls, like love, were trompe l’oeil”). Their tedium often comes down to Moore’s syntax, which falls readily into clumsy patterns: in a little over a page, “Debarking” rounds off three sentences the same way, with a pair of adjectives (“paralyzed and cold,” “tired and unsure,” and the aforementioned “vapid and inexplicable.”) More noticeable, however, is the boredom that sets in after so many stories recounting the conscientious, articulate confusion over politics that defines Moore’s characters, all of whom seem like versions of one another projected into different bodies at different ages. When a character deviates from this model, she quickly shrinks down into caricature. “Foes,” which takes place at a fundraising dinner for an arts magazine, throws this tendency into high relief, pitting a right-wing lobbyist with inflexibly irrational views against a sympathetic liberal historian capable of seeing all sides of an issue. When Linda, the lobbyist, informs Bake, the historian, that the Democratic presidential candidate—a thinly-disguised Barack Obama— has “terrorist friends,” Bake thinks privately that he himself has “a terrorist friend”:
Midwesterners loved their terrorist friends, who were usually fine and boring citizens still mythically dining out on the sins of long-ago youth. They never actually killed anyone—at least not intentionally. They aged and fattened in the ordinary fashion. They were rehabilitated. They served their time. And, well, if they didn’t, because of infuriating class privilege that allowed them to just go on as if nothing had ever happened, well, they raised each other’s children and got advanced degrees and gave back to society in other ways. He supposed.
What’s going on here? We begin from a position with which Moore’s readers are likely, demographically speaking, to sympathize: armed political resistance is a thing of “long ago,” resistance itself is fundamentally admirable but its consequences can be tragic, and left politics is a set of beliefs that should lead to the acquisition of an advanced degree, not to violence. It’s a position that, in short, flattens the meaning of radical pasts in the name of securing an inoffensive present.
But what of the italics, which interrupt the stiff language of “rehabilitation” to lay down some cold, hard truths about “class privilege”? Whose voice is this? Does it belong to those same Midwesterners who, having advanced degrees of their own, know that they are welcome to defend their friends only if they also acknowledge structural inequities as well? Or does it belong to Bake, who, even though he lays claim to a terrorist friend of his own, also distances himself (“he supposed”) from the Midwesterners’ perspective? Moore has us in a tricky position, because that remark about class privilege is presented with more than a hint of skepticism, the labored addition of “infuriating” making it a recitation of postures learned by rote—turning it, that is, from critique to cliché. We are left, like Bake, unable to have anything like a belief with respect to the significance of other times or of our own.
Moore does not identify the “fine and boring” people to whom this passage refers as former members of the Weather Underground. Nor does she identify Bake as a supporter as Barack Obama, but rather of “Brocko”; the virulently right-wing lobbyist Bake finds himself sitting next to at a fundraiser “keeps referring to Brocko as Barama.” In another story, “Subject to Search,” a woman meeting her lover in Paris finds herself privy to his so-far secret knowledge about a prison whose name “sound[s] like nonsense to her … as if plucked from Jabberwocky’: ‘the mome raths outgrabe.’” Barely a grade above babytalk, these aphasic elisions of hot-button nouns suggest a political awareness not simply inarticulate but infantile. Like Bake’s extended meditation on another era of American radicalism, they reduce history to topicality at the same considerable speed at which Moore’s prose devolves into puns: in “Debarking,” the slang term “wack” is “like wacko, but not like Waco” (at least, “not yet”) while protestors holding “honk for peace” signs are “a congregation of mourning doves! but honking like geese in a wild chorus of futility.” Moore seems to be aiming, in each of Bark’s eight stories, to conjure pathos out of variations on the theme of futility, but there’s only so many stories of well-meaning, miserable people in the suburbs one can take before honking the horn for another reason: a longing to move on.
All this said, it is to Moore’s credit that she affords political feelings—rage, resentment, confusion, depression—the same page-time writers of short fiction reliably give to terminal illness, family secrets, or lost love. She succeeds most when she comes at politics obliquely, in a story called “The Juniper Tree.” Named after the 1990 film starring Björk, and dedicated to its director Nietzschka Keene, this dreamlike parable uses Moore’s brand of stagey realism to unnerving effect, turning a predictable drama of neurotic university professors mourning one of their own into a ghost story in which America is the real apparition. Robin Ross has just died, and the narrator, her friend and colleague, is woken up in the middle of the night by two other colleagues, both of whom have recently experienced some kind of medical trauma. Pat is on disability leave after a massive stroke “wiped out her ebullient personality and short-term memory”; Isabel’s arm had been amputated in a car crash and re-attached surgically, but in her first dance performance after the operation it “flung specks of blood to the stage floor,” prompting Isabel to have it finally removed again. She now drives herself, Pat, and the narrator “one-armed” to Robin’s house where, Pat and Isabel insist, Robin is waiting for them. And so she is, “regal and appraising” but with “a white cotton scarf wrapped and knotted around her neck.” “Everything’s a little precarious,” dead Robin explains, “between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week … the scarf’s the only thing holding my head on.
This is entertaining stuff, part Brothers Grimm, part Woody Allen. But the story achieves something genuinely moving when it enlarges its elegiac scope to mourn the lost possibility of uncomplicated attachments to one’s friends and to one’s country. After Pat gives Robin a small painting and Isabel recites a poem in her honor, the narrator, at a loss, decides to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “It’s been a terrible month,” she begins, “first the election, and now” Robin’s death, and so she delivers the song “very slowly and mournfully … alter[ing] not just the attitude of the song but the actual punctuation, turning it into a protest and a question … not without a little twang.” The moment would come off as heavy-handed if Moore did not drop it almost immediately, sending Robin’s friends back into the night and wrapping things up with the narrator’s memory of an evening spent with Robin before she fell ill, an evening that culminates with Robin smashing a lemon meringue pie into her own face for no other reason than always having wanted to: “‘Everything,’ she added, from behind her mask [of pie], ‘everything, everything, well, almost everything about it … is appealing.’” The pie, too, is a protest, the slapstick flipside to the narrator’s downtempo anthem, and both seem to formalize the promise of resistance—to sickness, to the plodding nightmare of (non)democratic process—in a new key, “not without a little twang.”
This is entertaining stuff, part Brothers Grimm, part Woody Allen.
“Surrealism could not be made up,” Moore writes in “Wings,” “it was the very electricity of the real.” Moore’s stories are not especially surreal—even “The Juniper Tree” sits comfortably within its ghostly genre—mainly because Moore relies overmuch on the irrationalities of domestic and foreign policy to generate an off-kilter charge. But content is not style, and more often than not Moore shackles readers to a reality that is merely familiar, with few surprises in it. For more genuine surprises, the place to go is Rivka Galchen’s glorious American Innovations, which turns perfect somersaults on the tightrope between the probable and absurd. The ten pieces in this collection riff on well-known short stories, from Gogol’s “The Nose” to Borges’s “The Aleph,” but if you didn’t know that it wouldn’t matter. These are not winking waltzes with the literary past but adventures in Galchen’s own extraterrestrial prose, which is trained on the lives of people suffering from afflictions both minor and, somehow, cosmic. “The Region of Unlikeness” corrals Borgesian loopiness into a story about a woman who falls in with two hipsterish intellectuals who may or may not have mastered time travel. And yet, for all its speculative flights, the story is most brilliantly bizarre when it holds tight and squeezes the details of everyday life. As Roland Barthes observes in his essay “The Reality Effect,” the details in realist fiction matter not for themselves but for their capacity to transmit “realism” as a kind of air or atmosphere.4 Thus the offhand mention of “a TWA mini toothbrush” in someone’s bathroom ripples our brains with thoughts of TWA Flight 800 or, more benignly, of having flown TWA ourselves, but the real magic of the toothbrush is that it abstracts these associations into a sense that this story is giving a plausible account of life as we know it. The world is like that, full of corporate acronyms and the strange, useful detritus of trips taken long ago.
It’s not clear that Galchen could produce a cliché if she wanted to; her sentences have a way of subtly shifting their weight away from the expected word or cadence. As a consequence, the stories in American Innovations are unpredictable down to their punctuation: “I was betraying so many, I felt so clean.” Her style involves regular shifts into a technical or, again, corporate patois that deftly channels what Moore calls the “electricity of the real,” and Galchen is indeed at her most electric when she sidles up to the drabness of life under late capitalism. “Sticker Shock” begins by explaining the peaks and dips of the gross income of characters it will only refer to as “the mother” and “the daughter” for the years 2007-2011, and continues on narrating events in their intimate and fiscal lives by jumping between decades and dividends, marriages and real-estate ventures, Jenny Craig Centres (“[sic]”) and the difference between “1099 income [and] W-2 income.” Here Galchen retreads the familiar ground of mother-daughter heartache not by subordinating emotional pressures to economic ones but by treating the latter as though they have as much depth, pathos, and explanatory power as the former.
It’s not clear that Galchen could produce a cliché if she wanted to.
Similarly, “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire,” a story about the end of a marriage, devotes equal space to the “particularly nice Parmesan grater” with which one partner has absconded and to “the Kantian sublime,” “a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.” Galchen is far too subtle a writer to be interested in chasing sublimity, but in their nimble oddness her stories do point toward the riddles that make up the “itty-bitty” domain of ordinary life. She has the nerve to leave ends loose, so that each story does not so much end as dim, leaving the reader with a sense that Galchen’s world, in all its luminous strangeness, merges its shadows with our own. “Did I then take that … meeting, all unprepared?” the narrator of “The Entire Northern Side” asks in the story’s last moments, “Did I have no ideas? Did I start talking about the Kantian sublime, and about meteors about love?” “I did,” she concludes, but we don’t and will not know how. Like the fact that “meteors enter the earth’s atmosphere every day,” this character’s life is left to us as a fact and a mystery. It is a mystery that dovetails with the one presented by Galchen herself: who can say how she does it? It is this enigma that suffuses her stories with Poe’s “unique or single effect,” untethered not only from plot, but from the stubborn enthusiasm for making a point that hobbles Mantel and Moore, and forces their own stories into deep ruts. By avoiding morals and maxims, and through an apparent commitment to writing both seriously and with pleasure, Galchen gives us the world as we know it, replenished.
- Edgar Allan Poe, quoted in Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 335. ↩
- Terry Castle, “Within Her Sights,” New York Times Book Review, October 2, 2014. ↩
- Hilary Mantel, “If You’d Seen His Green Eyes,” London Review of Books, April 20, 2006. ↩
- Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language, translated from the French by Richard Howard (Blackwell, 1986), pp. 141–148. ↩