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Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Cusp of Something

I don't read much contemporary literature, there are too many books that have stood the test of time that I haven't read and I frankly prefer my authors dead or dying, but every now and then one or two get through. Last year there were two, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Jai Clare's The Cusp of Something, two quite different animals. I think enough has been said about the McEwan but Jai Clare doesn't have a publicity machine the size of a Chieftain Tank; she has an elastic band and a few friends behind her.

But let me first digress. In Waiting for Godot, one of the insults the pair sling at each other is "Crritic!" It's a difficult thing to sit down and review the work of another. A lot of damage can be done with a bad review as Beckett could testify to; reviews of his early works were rarely glowing. I mean, at the end of the day who the hell am I to say one piece of writing is better than another? I can say what I like and why I like it and leave you to make your own mind up. Why would I do this? Simply because no one has the time to read every book that comes out to make his own mind up about it. Critics, love 'em or loathe 'em, are necessary.

And if they publish a bad review are we not tempted to say, "Well, if you think you can do any better go on then?" Jai Claire is not only a writer; she has also tried her hand at criticism. She wrote that the stories contained within Best American Short Stories 2004 largely bored her:

They’re all very well done of course, but not only do they sound extremely similar in the overall ‘tradition’ to which they belong, but none of them have any POETRY in them. Of course all the sentences are smooth and extremely competent but they don’t SING, or dazzle or have any true rhythm. None of them are interested in capturing the cadences of the characters, the cadence of the situation, the cadence of the story as whole. They all read like sentences from essays. In fact, I have read more journalism with a greater feel for rhythm and poetry than these stories. It seems the writers are so concerned with delineating character and drowning us in mainly skippable details that they forget creation of atmosphere through words, that they forget to make their story sing with a rhythm of its own. - The Cusp of Something blogspot

I'm sure there would have been a few who read that review who thought, Put up or shut up, and now she has, put up that is. In November her first collection of short stories was released by Elastic Press.

A word first about the publisher:

Elastic Press is a small publishing house dedicated to showcasing the talents of previously published independent press writers. We produce small print run, high quality, single author short story anthologies in a variety of genres with the intention of raising the profile of writers who are looking to consolidate their reputations within the independent press and beyond.

I met Andrew Hook, the founder of the press, a few years back and was quite impressed with the impassioned young man, someone who was very keen to prove that the short story was far from dead. I was impressed enough to submit a couple of stories which were politely rejected. Shniff. His loss. Since then Elastic Press has scooped the BFS Best Anthology award for the three years running so he obviously has been doing something right. Anyway, enough about him.

The problem with having read so many books is that, when you are faced with a new author, it is impossible not to compare. Weighing one author to another is not saying that the newbie's work is necessarily derivative in any way but it is a good way to convey the flavour of their work.

It's like a wine. Let me illustrate:

The wine is of a straw yellow colour with a subtle shade of green. Its flavour is reminiscent of the leaves of wild strawberry and rounded off by the pleasant aroma of the acacia blossom.

Eh? I'm sure you've heard similar overblown descriptions. I have no appreciation for wine. It all takes pretty much the same to me – awful or next-to-awful; bubbles help a little but give me a raspberry milkshake any day over an overpriced Bordeaux.

Jai Clare's book is like one of those bottles of wine, though at £5.99 it certainly isn't overpriced. I want to describe her by referencing other writers. On first sip the Jeanette Winterson is unmistakeable (particularly her choice of geographic locations and mythological references), the opening of 'Delaney Wears a Hat' compares favourably with the vivid metaphorical opening to McIlvanney's Laidlaw and there is even some Nabokov in there ("Islands are like moments; sheer moments of joy in water. Tiny perfections lasting a finite time; situated in a particular space and occupying the ecstasy of the brain." From 'More Moments of Sheer Joy'). All three of these authors have their own way with metaphors and so does Jai Clare. There are flashes of poetry that would not look out of place in an Elizabeth Smart novel. And there is definitely a touch of the A L Kennedy there too. Kennedy's short story 'A Wrong Thing' (Indelible Acts) could slip easily between the sheets of The Cusp of Something and no one would think anything of it. Neither of these authors pussyfoots around sexual issues.

But she is not Smart, or Winterson or Nabokov or any of the other writers that will doubtless spring to mind when you read through these short stories; she has her own voice (or voices to be honest). There are stories about men, women and children; some are barely visible, pencil sketches if you like; others have depth, colour and character, a reality you might not expect a few words on a page to be able to convey. Not all make easy reading due to the subject matter (the rape at the end of 'Mad Angels', although not graphic, is disturbing), with others, it is her approach to the subject matter, refusing to spell everything out for her readers. None of her characters seems particularly satisfied with their lives, from the wealthy competitive cousins in 'Ramblista' to the island-(and-bed)-hopping woman in 'More Moments of Sheer Joy'. Some of the stories are set in foreign locations which accentuate the alienation these individuals feel. They are all looking for something, a lost city, love, validation or answers to questions they hardly know how to answer; in that respect she has a lot in common with A L Kennedy. Part of the blurb on the back of Kennedy's short story collection, Indelible Acts, reads:

The … stories … are variations on a theme of longing – the unassuageable human need for contact, for completion, for that most fugitive gift or all: reciprocal love. Their characters are thwarted, dashed, impassioned, each in their own way immolated by hope.

The author could easily be talking about characters from Jai Clare's book.

Her collection is variable, at least in style. The quality is not. The problem with the collection – and this is a problem all editors face when compiling a short story or poetry anthology – is finding stories that work together and, to be blunt, not all of these do. The dark story 'Shallow Shore' in particular, although a very good story, seems a little out of place; the setting for some reason evoked Beckett's radio plays Embers and Cascando and I found that flavoured my reading the story. Not her fault, mine, as if I'd been sucking on an extra strong mint before I took a slug of that wine we were talking about earlier.

Clare acknowledges her roots. In an interview in The Fix she talks about where her style of writing comes from.

[M]odernism turned the short story poetic-less plot based; novels could survive like this, but short fiction, which originated as a popular rather than elitist form, couldn’t survive this, and the average reader who enjoys a good literary novel finds the short form hard to digest, with no plot and characters you just get to know before you never see them again.

Her influences are manifold, including lyricists:

The Cure’s lyrics were an early influence in terms of writing outside the mainstream, using metaphor and emotion and power. But writers initially: Enid Blyton! I can never forget The Magic Faraway Tree and her version of the Greek myths – extremely important. I had a book beautifully illustrated of poetry for children, loved it (Jumblies! The Waggle Taggle Gypsies!) and stories about toadstool rings and other magical things. Then came the incomparable Alan Garner. The Owl Service is a masterpiece. Then later came D H Lawrence, Hardy, T S Eliot, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Milan Kundera, Deborah Levy, Jeanette Winterson, Anna Kavan, Jayne Ann Phillips, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Christopher Priest (everyone should read The Affirmation) I could go on! I am inspired by language and audacity. Pushing boundaries with a voice, cadences and musicality as well as ideas. -

Remember what she said earlier?

…all the sentences are smooth and extremely competent but they don’t SING, or dazzle or have any true rhythm.

Now read this and tell me it doesn't sing and dazzle:

Bubbles to the waterway, waterway to stream, to brook, brook races off rock, through fords to rivers, the river slow, wind-scurried, reed-filled, bird-heard, past boats and fields and marshes and lost tumble-down houses to vastness of sea widening to the horizon of sky.

It's from 'Memories of Sky' which you can read in full at SmokeLong Quarterly. For me it isn't the best story in her collection by a long chalk. For many that will be 'Bone on Bone', a love story where the narrator falls in love with a jazz pianist, which was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2004 by storySouth. I particularly enjoyed the two opening stories, 'Balloons' which tracks the breakdown of a relationship following a fatal ballooning accident (shades of Ian McEwan there) and 'Ramblista', that absorbing consideration of familial rivalry I mentioned earlier. I appreciated 'Saft' too because it was written in dialect and isn't like anything else in the book, besides you all know I have a soft spot for writers who attempt this, however it was a little too short for me, besides it reveals its origins as an exercise. That said, it was the only one of the very short stories which didn't read like a prose poem, a form I have yet to develop an appreciation for, and if Margaret Atwood can't win me over I'm not sure who will.

I could give this collection stars out of five but I'm not going to. At least not here. I wonder what Beckett would have said if I gave him 5 stars? I'm sure he'd think I was being overgenerous. People don't judge a bottle of wine, they savour it, they share it and they get squiffy on it. Aw, if you've got any taste, just buy the damn book.

Jai Clare was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, was brought up in a small village in Worcestershire but now lives in London. Her work has appeared in many places including London Magazine (UK), The Barcelona Review, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Night Train, The Wine Dark Sea (Australia), The Absinthe Literary Review, Literary Potpourri, In Posse Review, Bonfire (UK), The Paumanok Review, Buzzwords (UK) and Voyage Magazine (UK), amongst others.


Dave King said...

Thanks for that Jim. Quite a post! (Do you ever get to eat and sleep?) But "Bubbles to the waterway, waterway to stream... " that's what did it for me. I'll get the book. As for critics in general, I fight like mad with myself not to let them put me off someone or something, but someone thinks some thing's good... I'm listening.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dave. Yes, I both eat and sleep, a little too much of both recently, but I make a point of not posting too often to make sure I have a chance to keep the quality up. Admittedly this was a bit longer than my usual posts but there are a lot of quotes from Jai which bump up the word count quite a bit. I wanted to present a more rounded picture of her rather than simply look at the book in isolation.

Conda Douglas said...

I must admit, I was hooked with the cover of The Cusp of Something. Too intriguing for me not to want to pick it up. I used to work in a bookstore, and as shallow as it is, covers matter.

Excellent, well-balanced review, Jim.

And I also struggle with the Best of collections, but for a different reason than Jai Clare: As I read the short stories I always end up thinking: "Why wasn't this story included?" and "Why was this story included?"

Dave King said...

Didn't make mesel' clear, Jim. Bad habit o' mine. I wasn't so much alluding to the length of your post(s), impressive though that be, as to the wealth of links. The extent to which you provide them , now that's impressive!

Jim Murdoch said...

Adding in the hyperlinks isn't so hard, Dave, and that is the beauty of the internet, the fact that I can provide my readers with background if they're interested. I think it's especially important because I'm writing for an international audience and whereas names like Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin are well known over here I have to assume that non-Brits won't know them, in fact a lot of younger Brits may not know them.

Most of my links are to Wikipedia which is not perfect but it will last. If there is a website devoted to an author or a subject I quite often use that instead. I've always hated those articles with a pile of references appended at the end because I almost never have copies of the books to hand and it would mean a trip to the Mitchell Library if I wanted to learn more; this is the best I can do with what I've got. The main goal of my articles is to make people think, to pique interest.

Maryanne Stahl said...

quite an engaging and authentic review ( what I mean by that: honest and open but also nuanced). jai is fortunate (and of course talented).

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