You looked worried but I worried that if I asked you about it, you might be more worried – sometimes when you are worried you don’t like to think about your worrying worrying me, but this means I worry that you are worrying about something and not telling me about it, because you worry so much about my worrying about you. I want to tell you this, because I’ve been worrying about it, but I don’t want to worry you. I do not want to worry you.
Are these short stories or a novel? Nobody seems quite sure what it is, so I think it would be best to just categorise under bloody good writing. Reflecting the rhythm of idle thoughts, these tales – or tale – of a young woman living alone in a house in Ireland is a peaceful read, not a difficult read, but all the more thought-provoking for it. Strange, new, beautiful.
The title of this collection refers, of course, to the name of the file on a personal computer and, fittingly, this is a selection of what feel like quite autobiographical stories. Computers play a part in a number of these stories too – for example one tells the story of the human protagonist but only over the lifespan of a certain computer he owned. Zambra writes with a confident, unshowy style which leaves you wondering quite why you are enjoying reading him, though it is clear you are enjoying reading him – maybe because of his honesty and his insight, little poetic touches.
I read a lot of Salinger this summer – pretty much everything that isn’t ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ – and found that pretty much all of it is pretty great. My favourite of his short novels about the fictional Glass family was ‘Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters’, in which Buddy Glass finds himself in an awkward situation at a wedding gone wrong.
The first story in this collection is ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’, which features Seymour Glass – subject of much hero worship in the other Glass stories. This seems to be Salinger’s most famous short piece, but the two I want to concentrate on are the titular piece and one called ‘Just Before The War With The Eskimos.’
The appeal of that second story is difficult to explain – it revolves around some chance encounters which Salinger shows us, and whilst not a lot happens, so much is hinted at. It feels like we are seeing just a small portion of these characters’ lives and that the references they make and the things that seem important to them are intriguing.
The story ‘For Esme – With Love And Squalor’ is a miniature masterpiece in two parts. In the first, an American soldier stationed in England during the war is engaged in conversation by a teenage girl, for whom he promises to write a story. As they part, she tells him: “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact.”
Inevitably, when we catch up with the narrator again, the war is over but his faculties are not intact. This, he explains, is the squalid part of the story. Between the two halves, it encapsulates so much of Salingers work – gentle encounters, with a sense that crisis always awaits around the corner.
For reasons that must only be commercial, novels are expected to last around 250-300 pages and so short story collections seem to have to be about the same size, which is ridiculous and a shame because they should just be as long as they need to be. And if this had been about 150 pages long it would have been perfect because there are that many fantastic pieces of writing here, but then there’s some that just aren’t as good and it distracts from the great stuff. The titular piece, which won the BBC National Short Story Award, is a poetic, intense, funny tale of life, illness and death, and stands out as a highlight.
I kept getting told to read Carver and eventually I gave in and got a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This is a set of spare, terse little encounters which nevertheless do not have the air of careful cultivation you might expect from something so minimal. These moments feel very real – none of the characters are happy, quite, they are just trying to get by, none of the endings are happy either, but then they don’t feel like endings. Clearly life will continue once the story ends.
These stories are bright, funny, weird – like tales told by a high school friend when you catch up with her years later and she is just as odd as she ever was. E.g. ‘Majesty’, in which the protagonist’s dream of an encounter with Prince William has a profound effect on her. She describes, “that day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.” She imagines that the best way to meet him would be through her role as an earthquake safety expert. “Last year a little boy asked me what made me the expert, and I was honest with him. I told him I was more afraid of earthquakes than any person I know.”
Halfway through, what it becomes is a block of rough grey on a pale yellow background, but then it swirls away to get made – through some invisible process – in to a neat new suit. “It needs taking in, just a little.” “How long will that take?” “Only a few days, call in at the end of the week.” Adverts for running shoes and running kit and running and running and the joys of running. A little plastic figurine popped out of a packet, played with, lost in the sand, eaten by the sea, bon voyage, bon apetit. The pleasure of writing things down, tippy tappy tippy tappy, getting somewhere. A block of rough grey on a pale yellow background. A neat new suit. “No, I would say that fits you perfectly.” “Perfect.” The calm rolling in of the year like a ball in to the pocket of a snooker table. No ending where there’s supposed to be an ending. An elbow jigged, a drink spilled, a stain slapped across a sleeve. “Oh, I’m-“ “It’s nobody’s fault.” Still. Feet pounding, running, running, the joys of running. A rough little shape, hard and difficult, lodged, impossible to get to go anywhere.
With his pen, the newsreader
etches an angry little face,
in to the surface of the desk.
“I love my hair in the winter,” she says, when it’s daylight outside, flinging it about. It’s so cold. “I can’t get the taste of soap out of my mouth,” he says, and he doesn’t even know where it came from.
Two in the afternoon and it was uncommonly dark with big grey clouds filling the sky and when people talked about it, making dulled observations to one another (“it’s so dark, you wouldn’t think it was two in the afternoon would you?” “no, it’s like the middle of the night!”) , there was something in the tone of their voices to suggest culpability – as if to acknowledge their own part in chipping away at the world.
And when the rain fell there was hardly anything hard for it to fall on, so it fell softly on everyone and everywhere that was bundled up, covered in the protective layers that seemed necessary.
Busy times are breakfast and lunch, that is when the café is full. Then people start to notice and they aim instead for mid-morning and the point halfway between breakfast and lunch becomes a busy time.
This same couple always come to the cafe in either the gap between breakfast and the breakfast-lunch midpoint, or the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch. They have a favourite table and, coming to the café when they do, they get to sit there nine times out of ten. They always sit at a table for four, occupying just two of the seats – the two next to the window, so they are facing each other, and they always sit the same way round – he occupying the position facing the counter, she with her back to us. They have a distinctive look – he is tall and pale, with fair hair and clothes that are tight against his body, she is short with long black hair and usually wears loose-fitting, flowing dresses.
There is one more thing. When they come to our café, they always argue.
The kind of café we run is not one where we make friends with our regular customers, so we do not automatically start making their drinks when we see them come through the door, not that they always order the same thing anyway. We might give them a quick smile of recognition as we take their order, but we don’t make small talk with them or ask how their day is going.
They always argue in the same way – quietly, tersely, their heads close together, as if their disagreements are about the fine details of their arrangements, negotiations, not big thematic decisions.
You have a theory. “Maybe they only argue when they come here. What if this is their one place where they can argue, it’s like a rule they have. Maybe it stops them arguing anywhere else.” You seem convinced. I’m not so sure. We have a rule – we never argue in the café, in front of the customers. There is a little store cupboard just behind the counter, which is the perfect size for two people.
If everything is set up properly and run well, this is a steady business to be in. It’s a good profession if you like things to go on for a long time. There is no coffee season or tea close-season, there is no time of year when people stop talking to one another and sharing cake.
After a while, the young couple stop visiting the café. There is no explanation for it, but then, why would there be, we cannot expect a letter of resignation whenever regular customers cease to visit. We just don’t see them anymore. You worry for a while that we might have done something – it is as though they are children for whom we should feel somehow responsible.
When the tall young man with the fair hair enters the room, the short, dark-haired young woman closes her notebook and places her pen on top of it. He asks what she has been writing about and she tells him nothing much really.
He says he fancies a nice cup of coffee, tells her they should go out somewhere, how about that nice little café they used to go to but haven’t been in such a long time? She scrunches up her face, then unscrunches it as she suggests a different place.
He doesn’t understand why recently she hasn’t wanted to go to the place they used to frequent regularly, a very nice little place where they had a favourite table and a quietly friendly relationship with the owners. But he agrees to her counter-suggestion, it’s not a problem.
The short, dark haired young woman tells the tall young man with fair hair to give her a few minutes, she just needs to finish what she was doing. He leaves the room.
But soon after that couple quit our café, this other young couple started coming. They were more precise in their timing – they always came in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and lunch, in fact they were always in the gap between the breakfast-lunch midpoint and the breakfast-lunch to lunch midpoint.
They too consist of a tall young man with fair hair and a short young woman with dark hair, but to us they appear inferior copies, like actors who have replaced the original actors in a favourite televison program. And they don’t play the roles right, they chat in a relaxed manner and gaze lovingly at one another. There doesn’t seem to be anything to them. We start to resent their presence in our establishment, but there is no way we can ban them or fire them from their roles as café attendees, and no way we can write to the previous couple to invite them back.
There are only certain types of music I can listen to whilst I work. Nothing too intrusive – i.e. nothing energetic or with distracting words. Preferably something creative that acts as a constant reminder that the world is an interesting place. Here are some words about five favourites…
Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack to the 1990 television show Twin Peaks unfolds slowly and is rich in mystery – though, as with its parent television program – it does not offer up these mysteries easily. It never gives you a straightforward answer – moments of peace are haunted by a spooky unease, fear-drenched sequences break down in to moments of beauty.
Consisting of three pieces of music based on the latter part of David Bowie’s Low album, Philip Glass‘ The Low Symphony is just a very beautiful and calming piece of work – it somehow manages the trick of being simultaneously enjoyable to concentrate on listening to, yet also something that it is possible to let fade in to the background.
Moving to something more recent… Haiku Salut’s first two albums, Tricolore and Etch And Etch Deep are two of my favourite records released in the last few years. All of their music is instrumental and inventive, everything feels handcrafted. They are the kind of band whose track titles – e.g. Sounds Like There’s A Pacman Crunching Away At Your Heart or Things Were Happening And They Were Strange – say a lot about them, and even sound a bit like the titles of interesting short stories.
I came across Leave Now For Adventure by Feedle in about 2007 and I don’t remember how or why. It has a great title, a kind of faux-naïve picture of a train on the cover, and an odd little piece of writing in the inside cover that ends:
when you close the front door behind you on a weekend morning the garden is only the beginning, the shops beyond, the town further still, the city and then the ocean. if you leave now, you’ve got all weekend, if you call in sick, you’ve got all week, if you don’t call at all, you don’t ever have to go back
Beyond that, the music itself is something I just don’t understand. It is electronic and a lot of it has the rhythm of a train, but I have no ability to describe music, so it is not possible to give you more detail.
Finally, on the slower, lower, more spacious end of the scale is The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull on which Earth manage to make every moment sound momentous, portentous. Its best track, Hung From The Moon, ambles along for minutes before beautiful shafts of light break through.
THEN AND ONLY THEN
Big raindrops. The rain stops and you can see now how big the sky is. Your heart reboots like an old computer left to gather dust, but which is, it turns out, miraculously still alive, though breathing unsteadily now. Joyous, you think words to yourself, processing. There is always so much to do – the clock wheels away in delight. The winter sky is big and you are getting up late, going to bed early, turning in smaller and smaller circles. And all those three-in-the-mornings when you’re awake, you are super-determined to do your absolute best the next day.
COLLAGE OF FACTS
The sad beauty of failures,
the quiet injustices in success.
This is fantastic, this is reality.
“Just how many leaves do the trees
actually have in them?”
“How many times will we sweep them in to a pile?”
“What can we do with them afterwards?”
Were they legal tender
we might afford to
the local legend
we do not know
whether to believe
There’s a kid on the bus screaming his little head right off, looking round to make sure we all know exactly how awful it all is.
The bus stops and a man gets on, carrying a small dog under his arm. The kid, wide-eyed with dog, forgets the awfulness and stops screaming. Man and dog go upstairs and the kid remembers he was in the middle of something, so starts up again.
I wish – and I bet everyone else on the bus does too – that I could turn in to a dog, like in that old programme Woof! But when I try – and I try really hard – it comes out more like the awful transition from man to wolf in An American Werewolf In London.
I tell my friend that I am writing a short piece about the fire brigade, based on a story my neighbour told me. She agrees to cast her eye over what I have so far.
The fire brigade received a call from an elderly gentleman:
“All of my furniture is collapsing, and I cannot hold it up on my own. Please come and help, quickly. I don’t know what to do.”
The fire brigade chastised the caller and did not attend the emergency. Furthermore, when the time came for their annual publicity drive to warn members of the public against wasting fire brigade time by making inappropriate calls, they released the recording to be played on local radio. When the elderly gentleman wrote to complain, telling them that their inaction had caused him to lose many valuable things, and that their subsequent actions had caused much embarrassment, they did not reply. He could only imagine them passing his letter round, taking turns to laugh at it.
She hands the piece of work back to me.
“You can’t use this,” she warns. “Even if it’s true, you can’t. The fire brigade are brave and courageous. They’re the good guys – people don’t want to read bad things about the fire brigade.”
“But it is-”
“I don’t care. People won’t want to know. Trust me.”