Those senseless moments cannot make a novel, but they do constitute a story

On Sunday I posted a grumpy, dissatisfied response to the Guardian Weekend’s Summer Fiction Special. I’m still dissatisfied with the fiction they published but it is time to step beyond general irritation and think in more detail about why I dislike the stories, particularly when, to judge from some of the comments they’re gathering, other readers think they’re wonderful.

It may be that I am a fussy and demanding reader, less inclined than other people to mistake pyrite for gold. It may just be that I find my entertainment in criticising rather than in praising stories. Maybe, finally, I have just read so much fiction that it is now practically impossible for me to find the new or novel in anything I read, because I have seen it all before. It’s quite plausible but I refute that straight away, because if I genuinely felt like that, I wouldn’t bother reading fiction any more, and obviously I still do. I still start to read, hoping I will be thrilled, moved, excited, entertained by what I am about read. Yes, I still have hope, even when it is so often dashed.

Yet, I read an opening sentence like this and already I am uneasy:

And sometimes it happens like this: a young man lying face down in the ocean, his limbs hanging loosely beneath him, a motorboat droning slowly across the bay, his body moving in long, slow ripples with each passing shallow wave, the water moving softly across his skin, muffled shouts carrying out across the water, and the electric crackle of waves sliding up against the rocks and birds in the trees and the body of a young man lying in the ocean, face down and breathlessly still.

This is the first paragraph and indeed the first sentence of Jon McGregor’s ‘We Wave And Call’, the first of the five stories in the Fiction Special. It is a sentence/paragraph that does a number of things. First, it suggests calm, distance, detachment. The one long sentence, composed of a series of clauses, each about the same length, divided from the next by a comma, evokes ‘each passing shallow wave’, waves which ripple through the body of this young man ‘lying face down in the ocean, his limbs hanging loosely beneath him’. There is presence – the young man – but absence too; where is everyone else? There is a motorboat somewhere in the distance. It drones slowly, suggesting no urgency, so it is not coming to him. There are muffled shouts, so they are some distance away. The only distinct noise comes from birds in the trees. But if the young man is face down in the water, how does he know that the muffled shouts and birdsong are happening are there? These are a grace-note from the author to the reader, scene-setting moments; the motorboat the young man might know about, from vibration in the water, but the birds and the people? On the other hand, their presence, their noise, suggests he is not too far offshore. As yet, he is not entirely out of touch with the world.

Finally, the young man is ‘face down and breathlessly still’. We are surely supposed to think he must have drowned. The motionlessness, the drifting, the movement up and down in time to the waves, the twitter of the birds to suggest that, callously, indifferently, life goes on. And, most importantly, that ‘breathlessly’. I suspect the abnormal length of the sentence is also supposed to suggest that he has drowned, though if that is so, I think it’s undermined by the fact that commas are intended as mental and physical breathing pauses. But let’s for now assume that we are supposed to assume that he has drowned.

But wait, what is this? In the second paragraph, the narrative suddenly switches from third-person narrative to second-person:

‘You open your eyes, blinking against the light which pulses through the water. You look down at the sea floor, hearing only the hollow suck and sigh of your own breath through the snorkel’. Gotcha! Oh, what an amusing theatrical coup. He could breathe all along, he was just hanging there, looking down into the ocean, and the narrative voice had forgotten to mention the snorkel. We might wonder what else the narrative voice has forgotten to tell us. At the same time, the possibility of there being a drowning has been planted in the reader’s mind. It sits there, waiting.

And finally:

You swim, and you rest. It won’t take long now. It’s not too far. You look up, past the headland and into the next bay along, and you swim and you rest a little more. Sometimes it happens like this.

It might, I think be possible to read this story and believe that the swimmer does in due course make safely it back to the beach, but the heavy foreshadowing in that first sentence, indirect references to Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ (not least in the title, ‘We Wave And Call’)and a constant underlining (damaged and repaired buildings, bombed-out hotels, war memorials) that the story’s subject and his companions are holidaying somewhere in Eastern Europe suggest to me that the swimmer, ‘you’, drowns. He has, as the poems suggests, been ‘much too far out all my life’.

It is undeniably a well-constructed story but for me that is the problem. I can see how it has been constructed, how everything links together. It’s been done competently, nothing missed, nothing left loose, not even that ‘open ending’. And as I said on Sunday, by using the second-person narrative viewpoint, it is as though the author doesn’t trust the reader to draw the right conclusions without controlling every moment of the encounter between reader and prose. It is competent but also crude and unsubtle. At the end of the story, I feel as though I have been pushed and pulled through it rather than having it open before me as I read. It is a story that, if you like, does my reading for me.

I’ve been trying to account for why this story, like the others, disappoints me so much and I found a clue in a piece that Paul Kincaid published on Big Other on Monday night, ‘The long and the short’, a mediation in response to a couple of paragraphs from the Preface of E.L. Doctorow’s new short-story collection, All The Time In The World. As Paul noted, Doctorow drew a compositional distinction between novels and short stories. The key points for me were that however a novel begins, it starts as ‘something that proposes a meaningful world’ whereas a story ‘usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it’. I don’t write fiction but Paul does, short stories at least, and for him, Doctorow’s comments felt right.

Paul’s primary concern was with generic differences between short story and novel (and as he notes, that’s genre in the broader theoretical sense, not the marketing sense). Critically, as he pointed out, Doctorow’s differences perceived by him as writer rather than by the reader, who is not as a rule privy to the author’s writing experience. However, Paul argues, ‘generic difference has to be at least as much about the nature of the work as it appears to the reader’.

This brings us back to the ‘meaningful world’ of the novel, as opposed to the ‘situation’ of the short story. Paul suggests that ‘Even if you attempt, in a novel, to lay out a meaningless, an irrational world, by the end of the work, either as reader or as writer, you will be trying to impose some sense upon the words. A novel says that there is something to be grasped.’ Although a short story can be, and most are, set in a ‘rational, explicable world’, there is no actual need for them to do so and, important, I think, ‘no generic requisite for them to do so.’

A story can present a moment, a dream, an encapsulated experience cut off from all its contexts. In broad terms, over the passage of time, life makes sense (or, at least, we expect it to, we behave as if it does). In the short term, moment by moment, it often makes no sense whatsoever.

And it is this, I realise, more than anything, that I look for in a short story, that senseless moment. One might actually think of it in terms of that body floating face down in the ocean, dead, alive, dead, alive. While a novel is, to my mind, always working towards a resolution, a sense of closure perhaps, arriving at a safe haven, or at least reaching a point of quiescence, a short story is generally a much more open-ended entity, offering possibility, inviting speculation, something that necessarily unfolds in the mind after the story on the page has ended. It can stop suddenly in a way I don’t think a novel can (even in a multi-volume series, individual novels need to pause in a logical place); the reader’s imagination is, I suggest, engaged in an entirely different way. In a short story, as Paul put it, we experience the moment.

And this is where the Guardian Weekend stories fail me. I’ve already discussed in some detail the way in which Jon McGregor controls the telling of his story, the end overly foreshadowed by the beginning, but even more than that, his floating swimmer, ‘you’, does not so much meditate on what has brought you to this particular moment as simply narrate your failure so far to establish a relationship with Jo. It’s the fictional equivalent of running rebar through concrete. Nothing is left to the reader’s imagination.

But before it starts to seem as though I am pounding McGregor into the ground, the other writers are doing much the same, incidentally suggesting that editorial taste is clearly in play. David Nicholls’ story, ‘Every Good Boy’ focuses on the piano, the ‘black lacquered monster’, that the narrator’s father and uncle rescue from a pub. It is represented as a chance for the narrator, ‘remarkable for being entirely without ability’, to find something he can be good at. Instead, he and his new piano teacher endure months of his failure to make any improvement whatsoever. The narrator is clearly recollecting from some distance the travails of his nine-year-old self, and the story is being told in part for comic effect as, week after week, the young pianists tortures classical and light music without fear or favour. At the heart of the story, though, is the moment when Mrs Chin, his piano teacher, drops dead over the keys, and the narrator’s response to that event, which is to conceal that he had been present when it happened, and to calmly cross the street and go home. The point is supposed to be that he believes he killed her with his rendition of ‘The Entertainer’ but I doubt the narrator believes that any more than I do as reader. The ‘black lacquered monster’ is pressed briefly into service again to be ‘satanic’, but it had no more to do with Mrs Chin’s death than the narrator. We are, I think, supposed to derive more story from this knowledge but there is no more story to retrieve or speculate about. Even the author knows this, finishing off with ‘Six months later, I started violin lessons, but that’s a whole other story’. I’m sure it is but oddly, I find I have no interest in learning that story or in imagining it either.

Jennifer Egan’s ‘To Do’ is perforce the most tightly structured story of the lot because it is nothing more than a list. There is no way to read it except by starting at the top and going to the bottom, guided every moment of the way. One might, I suppose, argue that at any point in the list one can pause and engage in reverie but I think one would have to be really pushing one’s luck. There is no way out of this story and no life beyond it, even though, I think, there is supposed to be one. It opens up no possibilities at all.

Tessa Hadley’s In the Cave is, in fairness, the most ‘open’ of the stories, in that it is beset with anxieties. Middle-aged woman, divorced, alone, advertises for male companionship, meets middle-aged simpatico academic and a tentative relationship develops, only to be ripped apart by ‘one of those tiny twitches in conversation that, unbeknownst to the speaker, tear fissures in the moment out of which power and pleasure drain.’ Are we there when it happens? No. It is a moment that has to be recovered later, after apparently perfunctory sex, while the academic lies fast asleep, with Linda, the viewpoint character, ‘returned too soon into her own possession’, a small but significant phrase in light of what comes later, pondering on what it was that had so irrevocably changed her view. She is about to sneak out the door but as yet can’t quite bring herself to do it and as she ponders, she realises that she initiated sex in order to cover up that realisation that they were not compatible. It is a small revelation, and once delivered it is done.

Fan Flaherty’s ‘Trade’ is about milieu, about knowledge of a milieu, in this case horse-trading. A small, callous, terrible moment is represented as being necessary for business. Detail is everything here, perhaps not surprising as the writer has herself been a horse trader, so verisimilitude is the order of the day. Possibly she is aware of an event happening in the manner she describes it, the smothering of a foal in order to ensure the mother’s continued saleability. It is a terrible, shocking moment, but if we are supposed to see repercussions beyond the frame of the story, I cannot see what they might be. The story is folded in, tied off neatly, done and dusted. There is no room for ‘what if’, no senseless immediacy, just an account of what happened next.

And at the end of this reconsideration of all five stories, I find myself back where I began, dissatisfied, I think because these are five stories written as miniature novels, making sense and finding resolution, rather than five stories written to open the reader up to the moment. They have no life beyond their endings.

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5 thoughts on “Those senseless moments cannot make a novel, but they do constitute a story

  1. irinarempt

    It does take –I can only call it "cheek"– to start a story with "And". That got me interested, but I lost interest before the sentence was done. Especially as "breathless", for me, doesn't mean "without breath because one is dead" but "out of breath because one is exerting oneself".

  2. BuffySquirrel

    I abandoned Wave and Call about halfway through the first sentence/paragraph. Clever-clever, eh? Pass.I quite enjoyed the piano story up until the point where the nine-year-old narrator rearranges the scene of Mrs Chin's death, and I thought, no kid that age is going to do that. Disbelief unsuspended. Crash. Considering that a kid that age probably *would* believe they'd killed the teacher, his thoughts on the subject were surprisingly unconvincing. It struck me that the story, for whatever reason, desperately didn't want the reader to feel anything much.

  3. Paul Kincaid

    I am more and more coming to the conclusion that the novel is about explanation, about making sense of the world, while the short story is about experiencing the strangeness of the world. Which in turn suggests that the novel works towards its end, when all is revealed; the short story is meant to be taken as a whole, an immediate impression. (This means that some novel-length works are actually short stories – I'm cool with that.) On that basis, all of these stories are actually novels, the writer has the end in mind before they even begin and the whole thrust of the story is meant to make sense of that ending. There's nothing wrong with that, many fine fictions follow exactly that pattern, but these do seem to be particularly pedestrian examples of the model, too keen on everything neatly tying things off. If the end is there before you even begin, then the whole enterprise is closed off, going nowhere. As you say: 'They have no life beyond their endings.'Very nice post by the way, which has made me revisit my earlier post and see other things that are probably going to find their way into another post in their turn. The internet as conversation, indeed.

  4. Maureen Kincaid Speller

    @Paul, I think you raise a good point about 'experiencing the strangeness of the world' and the short story as an 'immediate impression'. That's certainly how I see it.My impression of the Guardian selection was that perhaps there was a particular editorial hand at work in the selection. Certainly, the selection seemed very similar rather than making any effort to ring the changes or explore the possibilities of current short-story writing.

  5. iansales.com

    Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled is not a novel in which making sense of the world appears to have been an objective. Which may be why I hated it.

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