Day #10555

Adventures in Reading and Writing, Part 11

Sometimes, when writing is going well, I find that everything becomes sentences, sentences are all over the place, it’s good.  Since Christmas I’ve had my head down, getting some new pieces finished that I hope to send off to some of the competitions I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Anyway, below I’ve gone on a bit about some short stories that I have read recently and which have had made an impression on me, in the usual style.

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LYDIA DAVIS:  ‘The Professor’ from The Collected Short Stories Of

I find that Lydia Davis’ short fiction – and some of the pieces are very short – are best taken in ones and twos, which means I will be enjoying her 700 page ‘Collected Short Stories’ for some time yet.  Which is a good thing, because I imagine it might take a little while for me to properly figure her out.  What makes her such an interesting storyteller is the elements that her stories so often lack – description, characterisation, direct speech,  analysis of what is going on.  The language she chooses to use is simple, and events are reduced down to movements, thoughts, reported speech.

Without being wordy or obtuse she is still experimental, playful – sometimes she presents situations, domestic disagreements for example, as if they were mathematic formulae, sometimes the story is viewed once-removed and the piece of writing we read is the the author’s meditations on how best to approach the telling.  In the context of the whole these stories occupy an interesting place because there is a feeling throughout that the author is never far away from her work, so that the accumulation of short, dense tales is some kind of autobiography or amassed worldview (this is something I wonder about when considering a lot of short story writers).

At eight pages, ‘The Professor’ is actually among the longer pieces I have come across so far (who knows what might await in the next 500-ish pages) but this is the one that really struck a chord with me.  It is a story about a professor who aspires to marry a cowboy, though really it is about wanting to change the way she thinks and the way she approaches life.

I even had to think about thinking and wonder why I was thinking it.  When I had the idea of marrying a cowboy I imagined that maybe a cowboy would help me stop thinking so much.

To me at least, Lydia Davis has managed to pull off the trick of accurately reflecting the patterns of my own thoughts.

DEBORAH LEVY:  ‘Cave Girl’ from Black Vodka

Deborah Levy’s new collection is a wholly different beast, poetic and packed with life.  The story that made an impression on me, the one which I read over and over, was ‘Cave Girl,’ a potent slice of magical realism in which the narrator tries to get his head around the fact of his sister changing from ‘stone age girl’ to ‘airy woman’, and his very modern worries.

I sometimes hope that an Ancient will find me shivering in front of the TV eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.  He will teach me how to sharpen a flint and I won’t know what to teach him because I don’t know how to make antibiotics.

‘Cave Girl’ plays a little fast and loose with the rules of storytelling, is packed with bright, sparkling, clever images and has all the right words in the right places.

I’m pleased I enjoyed this book so much, since it actually has my name in the back of it.  Black Vodka is published by And Other Stories, an enterprising venture that uses funds from subscribers to get the publishing process underway.  This ensures an audience for their books, which means they can be more adventurous when picking the stories they wish to print, many of which are translations.  One of the main reasons I chose to subscribe was Juan Pablo Villalobos’ brilliant debut ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’, a bizarre novella about the young son of a Colombian drug baron, and his second book, ‘Quesadillas’ is due later this year.

Black Vodka has only recently hit the shops but I’ve had my copy since before Christmas, which gives me the advantage of looking like I’m on the ball for once.  Hurrah!

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Notes On The Playing On Of

We watched him hobble across the room, just barely keeping ourselves together until he had disappeared through the door that lead to the toilets.  Then we started gathering up our things – our coats and hats and canes – as fast as our losing-control bodies would allow.  We were all giggling now, struggling to pick things up because the laughter had infected us so completely.

One of the waitresses came to see what was going on.  Maybe she thought we were planning to run away without paying, though this would have been appalling impudent – we were after all a group of men and women in our seventies and eighties and the waitress was was young enough to be one of our granddaughters.  I told her to please help us carry the glasses to the table on the other side of the room, and gave her a wink.  When she asked why we were moving, the only way I could think to explain was to say that we were playing a trick, which was the truth.  We were playing a trick.  It was the way we had always done things.

Having decamped to the table on the other side of the room, we settled as best we could, trying to stop tittering, trying to act natural.  He emerged soon enough, stood in the doorway and looked up and down the room.  It is true that he is the oldest of us all, that his bladder is weak, that his eyesight is failing.  We could see him visibly deflate, then he blew his nose loudly before setting off towards the exit.  He is not good on his feet, relies more heavily on his cane than the rest of us.  For him, getting anywhere requires a lot of effort.

We kept our heads down, some of us had to clamp their hands across their mouths.

The waitress caught my eye and I put a finger to my lips.  Keep quiet.  She looked at us, then looked at him, turned back to us, registering concern or disgust or something.  She was not to know that we did this to him all the time.

When he reached the door and struggled to push it open we collapsed, exploded into laughter, some of us almost died I swear.

The Town News

The boy is pleased that it is his friends who all have minor defects.  They are playing in the street, then standing and watching workmen fix the courthouse roof, the courthouse roof having been blown away as the finale of last month’s storm.  In last month’s storm some of the laws got lost and in the process of looking for them the historian claimed to discover evidence of a king from centuries ago, and this king from centuries ago has never been heard of before now by anyone in the town.  This changes everything, and it already feels like these are end days.  In these end days most of the entries in the encyclopaedia use the word ‘was’ instead of ‘is’.  Then there are all the things the courts did last week.  Last week they hanged the wrong man and didn’t even apologise to his family when they realised their mistake, and they also sacked the schoolteacher for having a tattoo of an old film star on her butt cheeks.  The tattoo of an old film star on her butt cheeks apparently made the schoolteacher unfit for purpose, it was not something of which the new old king would have approved.  The new old king would not have approved of any discrepancies or defects, and so that is the way things will have to be from now on.  From now on the boy will be pleased that he is not a discrepancy, and he will consider it a small and unavoidable misfortune that all his friends have minor defects.

Day #10535

I set up Digestive Press exactly five years ago today, making my first post at 22:44 on 8th February 2008 (day #8708).  Hurrah!

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At the time I was in a bit of a rut and I needed to do something that would make me start writing things again, a way that I could quickly publish things and gain some momentum.  I put myself under pressure to produce new pieces so that I could post every couple of days – mostly very short stories which I wrote and then put on the blog with little revision or editing.  My first post was titled Body Modification #1, part of a short series.  Here it is again:

When Uncle Ted lost both of his hands in a freak shaving accident the whole family rallied round in support.  We sat him down to watch Hook, Short Citcuit and Edward Scissorhands and made lots of helpful suggestions.

Everyone had their own ideas.  Aunt Linda thought that instead of fingers he could have a tin opener, a pair of scissors, a whisk.  He would be such a help in the kitchen.  My parents had other ideas.  They suggested a career in home improvement – he could have a set of screwdrivers attached, maybe a hammer and some pliers.  Granddad said it would be handy to have a corkscrew and a bottle opener whilst Gran preferred knitting needles and a bingo dabber.

Uncle Ted complained that he wouldn’t have enough fingers for all these suggestions, but we didn’t see why he had to stick to ten.

We suggested pens and pencils, paintbrushes, torches, knives, forks, spoons, tape measures, spirit levels, keys, radio aerials, toothbrushes, USB sticks and a Sonic Screwdriver.

Uncle Ted threw his stumps up in frustration and announced that he was going out for a walk.  We carried on drawing up a list of possibilities.

When he returned hours later we were all disappointed to find that he had been to see the doctor and been fitted with normal fake hands.  It was fair enough, it was his decision after all but we couldn’t help feeling let down by his lack of imagination.

Aunt Linda, on the other hand, was livid.  This was his chance to be useful around the house, she said.  Now he had ruined everything.

None of us were surprised a week later when Uncle Ted lost his new fake hands in another freak shaving accident.

I’m quite pleased that was my first post – I’ve posted some rubbish at various times in the last five years, so it’s nice that I still like the story that happened to become my first post.

Since then, the way I use Digestive Press has evolved along with the way I work.  Five years ago I used to post everything I wrote, often as soon as I had written it – now I write stories and leave them for a bit, then edit them and decide whether to try to find a homes for them beyond the confines of these pages.  I have started to use the blog for writing about short stories, though I will continue to post some sudden fiction as I go.

Anyway.  Many thanks to anyone who has visited over the past five years and especially to the (currently) 11 whole people who have subscribed.  I am grateful to anyone who has decided to spend some of their leisure time in reading the words I have chosen and put in order.  And thanks to all the people who at various times have helped with pictures/ proofreading/ editing etc, they know who they are.  THANK YOU.

TWO TRICKY SITUATIONS INVOLVING BEARDS – SITUATION #2

The whole thing is one big mistake.

He finds himself saying this on the phone, much later, lightly wailing about how it is all unfortunate, not ironic, just another dead weight fuck-up around his shoulders. He feels quite, quite depressed by the whole process.

He wonders whether he will ever make a name for himself as an actor, wonders whether it is because he has not established an identity for himself or whether it is because he does not yet know who he is. He wonders whether his flitting between being bearded and not marks him out as a chameleon or whether it just flags up his indecision.

Back to the beginning of this little saga, and saga is the right word because this kind of shambolic episode could serve as a microcosm for his life, where it should be explained that the original beard was accidental. Not perhaps a mistake, but not really intended – a product of laziness. The beard sat there and the same laziness that allowed it to grow in the first place left the actor with no drive to remove it once it had taken root. He had some vague feeling that it was a parasite, and in one very lucid half-awake early morning daydream he posited the theory that the beard was in fact the reason for his laziness, was sucking up all of his energy to grow bigger, longer, fuzzier. This type of vivid imagining was typical of his shambolic path through life on a wave of consciousness, in which the real world was obscured by fictional events.

The beard was still in-situe when he went for the audition, an audition for which he held out little hope due to his parasite-induced laziness, and subsequent low morale with regards his career and talent. As soon as the audition was over he pretty much forgot everything about it, but afterwards he was gripped by an energy which he had not felt for a while, the kind of rousing empowerment which does not last long enough to ever be truly effective.

It was long enough for him to decide that the beard must go. Soon the sink was full of hair and his face was fresh and clean again. He followed up this success by filling in his tax return, applying for some part time jobs, arranging to visit some friends.

Then he heard back about the audition.

The phone call came a lot sooner than he had expected, and the news was different from the kind he had expected so, to summarise, both of the elements of the call – the timing and the content – were unexpected.

To cut a short story shorter still, the play for which the actor had attended an audition was about post-apocalyptic survival in the Arctic and the despondent, lived-in quality he unintentionally presented was what had attracted the producers of the play to pick him ahead of the other attendees of the audition.

It should be noted that the actor was at that point so despondent and lived-in that he was utterly unaware of the fact that he was exuding just such a quality, and thus he was utterly unaware of the fact that this quality of his was seen as a tremendous asset in the circumstances. Had he been aware that his despondent, lived-in quality was an asset in this situation, it may have detracted from the effect he was subconsciously creating, thus making his despondent, lived-in quality seem inauthentic, lessening the impact of the impression he made on the producers of the postapocalyptic Arctic survival play.

Over the phone, the producer congratulated him.

The producer praised the way he had acted with the whole of his despondent, lived-in body.  But he also praised the actor’s look, most importantly his beard, which the producer said was just the kind of thing they had been looking for, and it was only when he said this that the now beardless actor realised just how long he had been growing his beard for and also, as the beard had become symbolic of such things, just how long he had been feeling so utterly despondent.

He hung up on the producer, feeling despondent again. But this was a different type of despondency, the wrong kind of despondency. Not the kind of despondency suitable for portraying post-apocalyptic Arctic survival.

The whole thing is one big mistake.

He says it over and over whilst he is on the phone to one of his friends, explaining how depressing he finds the whole thing, how tiring it is to constantly display this level of ineptitude.