Business News/ Health Update

The price of toilets kept going up, for example.  It was getting harder to live in the town, financially – financially things were getting pretting difficult.  And there were other worries too, like the fact that the dentist was making noises about closing his surgery and leaving town, which seemed like crazy talk in the current financial situation, a financial situation in which even the price of toilets kept going up.

The dentist had been preparing his patients for a future free of dental care, talking them through various procedures, lending them books so they could learn at home.  He was not the kind of man who would have wanted the town’s collective dental hygiene to suffer, but by the time he left his patients were nowhere near being ready to fend for themselves.  One morning they discovered that there was a sign hung on the door to his surgery, a kind of suicide note in reverse, a sign that explained the reasons for his exit, and wished them the best of luck.  The sign did not say whether he would be coming back, and this caused his patients more angst than the mere fact of his absence, the not-knowing whether this was a temporary state of affairs or a permanent change, not knowing whether the price of toilets would eventually fall and their dentist would return to the town and care for their teeth again.

A postcard appeared on the town bulletin board.  “Living in the woods, just watched a bear dining from the river until he was full of fish, like a whale.  Have taken up yoga and jam-making.  Look after those teeth.  Love, The Dentist.”  They did love the dentist, but they wished they knew when he was coming back.  Their attempts to master dentistry from books were not going well.  They could imagine him living out in the woods, standing, stretching, boiling fruit, watching the bears and the fish, having time to concentrate on what he was concentrating on, finding free toilets in the trees and not having to worry about money or teeth.

All the while, it was getting harder to live in the town, financially and hygienically – the money the patients were saving on dental care did not cover the rising costs of toilets.  They tried to make the best botched jobs they could from the parts of the dentist’s books they understood, but it was tough going.  Teeth turned out to be far more complicated than they had ever realised, it felt a lot like their mouths were mocking them, partially erupting with rude laughter.  They concentrated on what they were concentrating on, but when they stopped they began to make some discoveries – secreted away in the books that he had left behind were various small personal items, a moustache comb here, a postcard from a former lover there, an old and favoured finger puppet tucked inside the dust jacket of a volume about gums.  Clues that hinted that perhaps he would be coming back, that living in the woods was just a phase.

The price of toilets continued to soar.  Each time it was reported that they had hit a new all-time high, it would inevitably increase further, so that reporting the latest price rise became pointless.  The price of toilets had become liquid, but like a river it ran in only one direction.

The dentist, out in the woods, heard rumours but did not think that the flowing river of toilet price hikes was as idyllic as the river near which he spent days watching bears eating fish.  Since leaving the town he had entertained not one single thought about teeth, though he did think about his patients.  He scribbled another postcard and addressed it to the town, telling the people there all about his latest adventures.  It did not mention whether he would be returning or not, the dentist deciding it would be kinder not to mention it, hoping that they would work out for themselves what he thought they should do.  He did not sign it ‘dentist’ either, deciding to use his real name instead – he did not feel as though he could claim to be a dentist any longer.

He was just a man who lived in the woods, far away from a world of toilet price rises and dental hygiene problems.  And until everyone realised the same thing, things were not going to get any better.

Day #10462

Adventures in Writing and Reading, Part 8

I’ve been reading a lot recently, which is good because reading lots and reading hard and reading well are, I think, key to writing better.  At the risk of seeming completely uncharacteristically up-to-date I’m going to write about a book of short stories released relatively recently (October) and which I’ve just read.  But it’s ok cos I’m going to write about something old in the same post.

ADAM MAREK: The Stone Thrower

The Stone Thrower is Adam Marek’s second collection on Comma Press, and I was keen to see what he had been up to since Instruction Manual For Swallowing, which I picked up a couple of years ago.  Adam’s stories typically mix elements of sci-fi/ fantasy culture with everyday worries, as in Testicular Cancer Versus The Behemoth, from his first collection, in which a Godzilla-esque monster stomps into a city just as the main character emerges from a fateful consultation with the doctor.  Instruction Manual had some great stories but seemed a little uneven – whereas stories like The Forty Litre Monkey and Meaty’s Boys burnt themselves into my memory, some others were entertaining but too slight to really stick.

In his new book, Adam continues to build futuristic, apocalyptic worlds which are just a stone’s throw from the here and now, worlds filled with new dangers – superpowered dictators, tornadoes, earthquakes, mutated technologies and twisted ecologies.  He then has these new terrors rent ordinary families asunder, until all that matters is their impulsive reactions as they attempt to save each other.  The plots are wildly inventive, full of ideas and mysteries and his writing seems to serve this well – his sentences are packed tight with clues and little jokes, he teases the reader before they can find out what is going on.

Maybe what strikes a chord with me is that these are stories in which the world rears up to leave the reader with feelings of fragility and helplessness, unable to comprehend the forces conspiring against them.  When stories get written by myself, I find that they too are mostly about things happening to people, not people wrestling events in the direction they wanted.  I wondered for a while whether these were the kinds of stories people liked reading, and worried about it until I realised that it didn’t matter, they were the kinds of stories I was going to write.  And now I don’t think it matters.

I was struggling to identify the quality that made Adam’s new collection seem better than his debut, and eventually I realised that these stories are about more/ mean more/ matter more.  And that those are the kind of stories I have been trying to write too.

MARCEL AYMÉ: The Man Who Walked Through Walls

On a recent holiday in France I took a book by a French writer and sat in France reading the work of this French author (the book was translated into English).  The author in question was Monsieur Marcel Aymé.  Marcel Aymé was a French short story writer whose surreal tales twist time and space in unusual ways.  There’s a statue of him in Paris, in which he is emerging from a wall in the manner of the main character in his most famous story, also the title of this collection (see above).

Against the backdrop of WWII, Aymé twists time and space into new shapes and populates his stories with characters stretched and strained by the stresses of war.  This set of stories was originally published in 1943 and war is never far away from the narrative.  For example, in my favourite story here, Tickets On Time, time is rationed as part of the war effort, with farcical consequences as people begin to trade time on the black market, stretching their lives into bizarre new shapes.

A lot of Aymé’s characters should be unlikeable – they are greedy, jealous, deceptive, delusional.  But he has such a kindly way of explaining his tales and shows such compassion that I was left with the feeling that they were good people thrown into strange situations.  Like a lot of my favourite writing (e.g. Brautigan, Vonnegut) it manages to be funny and sad at the same time.

Just as Marek is doing now,  Aymé used fantasies to try to make sense of the world, representing the senselessness of war by sending time and space out of sync as well.  I would recommend both of these books to curious readers, but also to short story writers who want to carry on learning about the form and keep track of what is going on at the moment.

Notes On The Accumulation Of

There are so many rooms with so many lights.  We try to keep the situation under control ourselves, but there are already too many, it would take forever and we have other work to do.  In the end, we seek advice.  Apparently the savings we could make to our electricity bill would more than pay for a temp to go round the building and switch off some of the lights, the particular lights we want switched off.  We listen to the advice and nod.  Afterwards we say to each other, “How did we get into this?”  “How did we get to this point?”

We try to imagine the kind of person who would be attracted to the job of switching off lights.  And when he turns up, he is exactly what we expected, a young man trying to cover up his complete lack of interest in any kind of work.  We show him, this is this and there is this, and this is what you have to do.  He starts off eager, but when he realises that we are making no show of monitoring him, he slacks a little, and when he gets away with it, he slacks even more.  We watch to see what he will do next.

The advisor would have chastised us for our curiosity, told us that this is how we got into this mess in the first place, but we phone him up and tell him that the situation is improving.  This keeps our advisor happy.  We should be cracking the whip, but instead we are fascinated by our new toy, and now neither he nor us are getting much work done.  We have research projects to conduct, paperwork to complete, correspondence, chores to do, but we are mesmerised.  We like watching the temp to see how long he can spend in a room, how much time he can waste, before he gets round to actually flicking the switch and moving on.  It becomes a study in procrastination.

It is also a chance to remind ourselves of all the beautiful rooms we have built here, and why the situation got out of control.  “I think this is how we-”  “Yes, this may have something to do with it,” we say to each other.  When the temp flicks the switch and plunges a room into darkness, we wonder if it is still there any more.

We watch as he goes into a room which is full of machines that are making other machines, which will make more machines.  He looks at the contents of the room, procrastinating for longer than usual.  We wonder what will happen next.  By now, the temp has given up on going home, he just wanders from room to room looking at things and switching lights off, until eventually he stops and falls asleep somewhere.  We speculate on his mental health, wonder whether this job has become something else to him, has evolved into a vocation.

He is still looking at the room which is full of machines that are making other machines, machines that will make more machines, will make more, will make more, will make more machines.  It is a good choice, it is one of our favourites.  Or rather, the room had not been one of our favourites before now, it had never quite seemed finished.  Now, as the temp stands and watches the machines, it is complete.