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Monday 14 September 2009

Balancing on the Edge of the World


Balancing on the Edge of the World I wanted this book twice. It comes from having a failing memory. I don't remember the first time I wanted it but I found it lying at the bottom of my Amazon shopping basket so somewhere along the line I'd read something about this book and decided it was for me. Not sure why I didn't buy it at the time but I clearly intended to buy it later.

The second time was when I read one of the many articles that have been afloat amongst the flotsam of blogs lately mentioning that Salt Publishing were in danger of going under. A call was put out to throw them a lifeline. Buy a book. Just one. But buy one now. So I did. I'd never bought anything from them before and I really didn't know that much about them other than the fact they seemed to be held in high esteem by a lot people so I logged onto their website and started to go through their back catalogue whereupon I chanced across Balancing on the Edge of the World and thought: I'll be having that.

Only after that did I realise this was the second time I'd decided to buy it. Some people would regard that as an omen. I don't. But this was clearly a book that interested me. Maybe it was just the cover. It's relaxing. One of my friends thought it was more interesting that I'd chosen a book of short stories from a publisher known for the quality of its poetry collections. What can I say?

After I finished the book, which took several days what with one thing and another, I had mixed feelings about my choice. Now, of course you'll jump to the wrong conclusion and think: Oh, he mustn't have liked some of it and there you'd be wrong. Feelings are not black and white. It's not a matter of 'like' or 'not like' because even if I said I liked the book you'd expect me to qualify that remark. And so I will.

If you're interested in traditional stories with beginnings, middles and endings with plots and clearly-defined characters then this may not be the book for you. If you subscribe to the slice-of-life school of storytelling and you believe that a story can get by with a point rather than a plot and if you don't need a CV for every character who pops his head into the tale then read on. This is storytelling for the 21st century. No preamble, no pussyfooting around. Readers are expected to contribute to the overall experience. Which has its risks but the payoff is much greater when the right reader and the right writer get together on the page.

After I'd finished the book I sat down and thought: Now, which of these stories can I remember without picking the book up?

There was:

  • The one about philosophy in a pizza shop.
    'Condensed Metaphysics'
  • The one about the boy who gets attacked.
    'Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth'
  • The one where they were wandering around on the beach.
    'Going Back'
  • The one where the boy went camping with his dad.
    'Compass and Torch'
  • The one with the cat and the kid with the power.
  • The short one chronicling a generation.
  • The 'experimental' one with all the names of rolls.
    'A Glossary of Bread'
  • The one with the sex scene.
    'Into the Night'

I added the titles afterwards – I couldn't remember any of them. Now, for a guy with a lousy memory, eight out of fourteen is not bad. What's interesting is that I didn't remember the last two stories in the book, particularly considering the fact that the very last story, 'Who's Singing?', is actually quite a well constructed character study and the penultimate story, 'The Way to Behave', has the best bit of extended dialogue in the book; Baines is also a playwright so no great surprises there. All in all, I'm not sure what my little exercise proves.

Each of the eight brought forth a different set of emotional responses, none of which was 'hate' or 'not like' let me hasten to add, and I could probably rearrange them into a Top Eight but I'm not going to. These are the six I couldn't remember:

  • 'The Shooting Script'
  • 'The Way to Behave'
  • 'Who is Singing?'
  • 'Holding Hands'
  • 'Star Things'
  • 'Leaf Memory'

Looking at this list I found I could remember the gist of the first three I've listed but I didn't have a clue about the rest. When I did flick through them I discovered that these were among the more abstract of the stories on offer, paintings, impressions, rather than sharp photographs. 'Star Things' is actually more like watching a slide show, individual snapshots that build up to a composite 'picture':

No one knows where the Johnson children come from. No one knows where they go. Everyone knows what the business was their father went away on; some can guess why he broke down the back door with a hatchet.

In the wood there's something crackling.
        Angela Johnson leaves the gate swinging. Down the hill there are boys. Johnson boys and others, breaking branches and slinging them. They jump, knees bent, swinging, till the whole tree winces; twigs and leaves spark and sizzle as they hurl them down the slope.
        'Don't worry, no one will see.'

My daddy might come looking.
        For children like the Johnsons the Social Services come looking. Children like the Johnsons have heads that are alive.
        The boys come round, fists like pebbles in their pockets, legs in corrugated socks, their cropped hair bristling in the sun.
        'Your dad's a Jew, then, isn't he?'

My daddy's got a star that fell out of the sky.
        'What star? Hah!' Doubled up, snorting, kicking the tree trunks, throwing sticks looping upwards, 'Got a star, my eye!'
        'Yes, he has, he's got a meteorite he found while he was walking.'
        'You're joking, what's it look like?'
        Split across, and in the middle there's a wheel shape all in silver.
        Elbows leaning on the tree now. 'What's this made of?'

Now, think about it, this is an excerpt from what I thought was one of Baines' least memorable stories. And I think you would agree with me that it's not bad writing at all. Do you see where I'm coming from here? This is what she had to say about that story:

'Leaf Memory' consists of the splicing of two narratives, the protagonist's first-person memory of being pushed in a pram by her grandmother interwoven with the starker (and italicized) authorized family version of her grandmother's life. As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to tell this story: it was both the way that 'came to me' and it was the way that, when I thought about it editorially, best conveyed the impact of the difference between two dynamic but clashing realities or versions of the truth. In fact, this story – and much of my work generally – is about the fact that the ways in which we tell stories, the modes we use to tell them, can very much affect their meanings. – Barbara's Bleeuugh!

'Leaf Memory' is actually where the title of the book originates. I dropped her an e-mail and this was her response:

[I]t's meant to echo (though not replicate of course) the recurring phrase in the story 'Leaf Memory' 'the rim of the world...', 'resting on the peak of the world' etc. I hoped it would sum up the theme of the book, which is power balances, and in particular the struggle to keep a balance of power for those who are disenfranchised or on the edge of society and its mainstream stories.

Baines does children well. They make appearances in several of the stories. If 'Star Things' was (for me) one of her least memorable stories then 'Compass and Torch' has to be probably the most memorable. It's a simple enough story – none of her stories are complex, at least not on the surface – a boy is going camping with his father, a father who is no longer living with the boy's mother. A straightforward, short paragraph near the beginning sums up everything:

The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dadness.

It's almost a poem. It's certainly poetic. This conceit, this pencil sketch, is then teased out into a full-blown character study. The boy is working hard to find common ground with his father. I found this section here to be the most touching:

But they don't need a compass after all. They are adventurers, after all. Compasses are things that boys and dads tend to have, but which, when they are alert and strong at heart, they can leave behind. It is no accident that they both left their compasses behind.
        'I keep mine by my bed,' he tells his dad. 'Where do you keep yours?'
        'In my desk,' says the man.
        The boy nods with satisfaction.

A lot of people – especially non-writers – get overly interested in the origins of a story. 'Compass and Torch' has cropped up in several interview Baines has given online but here's the gist of it:

This story was triggered by actually seeing a young boy and his father setting off for a camping trip in the way the father and son in the story do, but I soon realized it was really informed by my own childhood and family experiences. These last probably affected my perception of the real-life pair in the first place: I wasn’t even really seeing them for what they were – maybe in reality they were as happy as Larry and had a wonderful understanding – so the story was not at all about them. – Sarah's Writing Journal

CompTorc.JPEG A much more detailed account can be found in her interview with Vanessa Gebbie, here and you can actually read the whole story online here. Watch out for the end of the piece, especially that final paragraph.

It is a simple story, as I've said, and – and this is probably true about most of the tales told here – they're easy to get through and then you can move onto the next. Even though I read the book over four days – bear in mind it's only 95 pages long – I still feel that I rushed it. This is always a problem with short story collections. I sometimes feel that I should ration myself to one story a day and read something else, a novel, say, for the rest of the time. My gut feeling is that I bolted down some of these stories and the ones that I couldn't remember were the ones that required the most chewing before digesting. My bad.

I particularly enjoyed the structure of 'A Glossary of Bread'. It's something I've seen done before in fact I know of a novel and an autobiography written in the form of a dictionary – The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry and Encyclopaedia of an Ordinary Life. No doubt there are others. I've always wanted to do one myself. 'A Glossary of Bread' is a linear story that tracks the British towns that the narrator, a young girl, moves to along with her peripatetic family, from Wales ('baps') to the Midlands ('buns') to somewhere else ('cobs'), up to Glasgow ('muffins') and then back to somewhere else in the Midlands where they call rolls 'barmcakes'. It could have been anything but bread is a metaphor and an important religious symbol; the story has a particularly religious undercurrent. I was a little surprised to discover that she had a hard time placing it:

I had a devil of a job getting it published. It was turned down by most of the few print literary magazines which still existed and passed over in several competitions before at last making the finals of the Moondance film festival story competition and being published in Stand and on East of the Web (short stories were just then taking off on the web). I have to say that before I finally placed it I had almost completely lost faith in the story, and was even doubting my own aims as a prose fiction writer. – Me and My Big Mouth

GlosBrea.JPEG You can read the whole story online here.

One of the things that I liked especially about this collection as a whole was the lack of a sense of place. And even where place names are used, as in 'A Glossary of Bread', they're just names. I have never been to Rhyl in Wales and I've no idea what they call rolls there. It doesn't matter. They could have been made-up names.

This story also highlights a technique Baines uses to good effect throughout the books, slight of hand, directing your attention to something small when she's really talking about something big. She does it in 'A Glossary of Bread', in 'Compass and Torch' and in 'Who's Singing?' where, as you've probably guessed, singing is not what the story is about. Everyone eats bread and everyone sings or at least attempts to. Not everyone discusses metaphysics over pizza although apparently this story was based on a true incident. I say based in italics because the story was originally published as reportage. She explains how that came about in an entry on her blog here.

Fathers take a back seat in this collection, significant in a book "about power", which is what the blurb on the back says, and yet they are rarely the strongest of characters. In 'Power' the family haven't seen the father for weeks, in 'Holding Hands' he's dead (not a spoiler – honest), in 'Compass and Torch' he believes he's already "lost his son", in 'Star Things' he's a subject of derision by the neighbourhood kids, in 'A Glossary of Bread' he's a man slowly losing control of his family and in 'Going Back' another husband is losing his wife to, what one reviewer suggested as, Post-Natal Illness. Most of the other males fare poorly too, like the man in 'The Way to Behave' when his wife and his lover arrange to meet and the underhand agent-sum-mentor in the satirical 'The Shooting Script'. Power here belongs to others.

The only male protagonist is in 'Daniel Smith Disappears Off the Face of the Earth'. And it's the only one where males exercise power, the males being the people who accost him. On the whole this is a straight blow-by-blow account until the end of the piece when it melts into poetry:

And they're off, down the end of the road.


flicking out on a sulphur circle

and they're away, assimilated in a city of

flicking images

and pulsing sounds


Daniel Smith is dissolving

while prehistory glitters out of the sky.

I have no idea who the man is in 'Into the Night' for example. It's one of the shortest stories in the book at three pages – only 'Conundrum' is shorter, at two – and it's basically a snapshot of the lead up to and the morning after a one night stand. In it the woman is the hunter. We have no names, we don’t know where she is other than the fact it's a "different city" and "[s]he's far away from home." My guess is it's probably a business trip but that just a guess. It's integral to the story I believe that we know as little as they know about each other. It's hard finding representative quotes at times because often you need a page or more for the true flavour to come out but in this story one single paragraph is an absolute tour-de-force: this woman can write. Just take note of how much she packs into this little block of text:

They stumble alone into the lift of his hotel, two strangers, two points of pure desire coming together, pure body, yellow-stained hands mapping breasts beneath the black fabric, parting her thighs, jutting cock clamped in her fist, their particular personal histories washed away by their blinding bathing mouths. He shuts the door of his room, shuts it on the city, on all that each of them was before this moment, this night; entangled, tearing at clothes, they move towards the bed, tripping briefly on something, some possession which might define him, which he kicks deftly out of the way. They arc towards the bed's surface, and all of their pasts is tongued, licked, sucked from their bodies, chased to the base of her spine, flicked from her nipples, her cunt, drowned with his cock in the lagoon of her mouth and the liquid delta between her thighs, lost altogether in the widening rings of their orgasms.

This is tight, effective writing that manages to be erotic and poetic and yet it reveals more than two anonymous, writhing, naked forms. This was written by someone who knows how to squeeze meanings out of words till they squeal.

This book was well-plugged when it first came out. You'll find interviews with the author all over the web so I'm not going to list them all off. The couple I've mentioned will probably be enough for most of you and even they contain links to others. I read the book from beginning to end something which I learned she rarely does and yet she's clearly put thought into its layout. The opening stories are almost comical, they're certainly light-hearted, but I wouldn't say they're typical. There's not a huge amount of humour in the rest of the book. The two stories that bookend the collection are also a little different, more ironic. Adults dominate these stories too which makes them stand apart from the rest in which children have a more central role. So, it's a literary sandwich.

Elizabeth Baines Baines describes her aim as to write a story that is "something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it" and I think she has managed that in this collection. Not every story shines; there are some semi-precious stones in here, even a couple of lumps of hematite which isn't the most exciting thing to look at but it feels cool. There is variety here. Some of the stories are straight narratives, others are lyrical. This is a book of literary fiction and I define 'literary fiction' as writing in which how something is said is more important than what is said. I think it will be a rare thing to find a reader who loves every story in the book but they do serve as an excellent showcase of her abilities. I'd read her again but I'd probably go for a novel next time. Chamber pieces have their place, and they are often – wrongly – dismissed as light music, but there are times you just want to wallow in a symphony.


Too Many Magpies Elizabeth Baines was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is an occasional actor as well as the prize-winning author of plays for radio and stage, and of two novels, The Birth Machine and Body Cuts. Her stories have appeared in numerous print magazines such as Stand and London Magazine, and in anthologies including Bitch Lit, Power (which is where I first read her) and Best Short Stories from Stand Magazine. She has won previous awards for her stories in a Radio 3 competition, in the Listowel Festival competition, in the Writers' Inc competition and twice in the Moondance International Film Festival short story competition. She was a founder co-editor (with Ailsa Cox) and publisher (with Ailsa Cox and John Ashbrook) of the acclaimed short story magazine Metropolitan.

Her new novel, Too Many Magpies will be released by Salt Publishing in October and a further collection of stories is currently in the works.


ken armstrong said...

I quite like the sound of this one (for 'sound' read 'review', I guess)

It seems familiar to be - is that because I see it in the shops a lot or because the cover colours make me think of 'On Chesil Beach' for some reason.

I like your lines about how story can be acceptable with a point rather than a plot. That's good, that. I'm altogether too plot-orientated myself. I'll have to learn this lesson rather than just repeating it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I preferred this to On Chesil Beach, Ken. I felt the same about the cover although I like this one better too. It was what attracted me to the book in the first place. Whether we're supposed to or not we do judge books by their covers. And that's never going to change.

I'm the opposite to you when it comes to writing. I actually wish I was better at plotting but there's an artificiality to the process that I can't work my way round. My stories just begin and seep towards an ending. Only in the last novel did I have any idea how it would end and that's because the ending is pretty obvious right from the start but other than that I just keep writing until I've said all I need to, and somehow that seems to work.

As for the point to the stories, its only looking back on them that I can see it usually except in the last one again when as soon as my character uttered the words, "There are no reasons for unreasonable things," I knew what the book was really about.

Now, see, there's another great quote. How come everyone found picking them so hard? Someone once said that Shakespeare wrote in quotes. I thought that was funny.

Dick said...

I've never been a great fan of the short story. I seem to need a deeper, longer absorption in narrative and I'm aways out the other end of a short story too soon. But you've stimulated my interest, particularly with the extracts so i shall cautiously investigate.

Wasn't 'Chesil Beach' a frigid little book? Exquisitely composed, but with a cold heart, I thought.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've read quite a lot of great short stories over the years. I've not read so many great short story collections. I can see why publishers might shy away from them. This is where I think the Internet will come into its own in time, in the development and promotion of the shorter forms; poems and flash pieces are already everywhere but I don't find myself drawn to any short story sites nor have I submitted to that many in fact I don't have a single short story out at the moment which I really need to attend to.

For me the best kind of short stories are like poems in that we're presented with the essential information in such a form that we can fill in the blanks and make connections without being asked to make too many leaps of faith. This is where science fiction authors like Bester and Bradbury come into their element and I really can read one story after another by them even though each one is selling me a completely different universe. How do they pull it off?

As far a McEwan goes, On Chesil Beach has been the only book by him since he dropped the 'in' from being infamous, in other words after his first novel. I remember him being interviewed back then because of his subject matter and he had a lot of people stirred up. I also saw him interviewed not that long ago and he said that after having a family he couldn't see how he could have written that stuff . . . or something along those lines; don't quote me.

Your description of the book is quite accurate though and that does remind me of the old McEwan. Carrie's got all his books I think but he doesn't call to me like he used to.

Dave King said...

An enthralling post, that, Jim. Short stories are something I go off from time to time, only to come back on eventually. I think I am in a coming back phase - or just about to enter one. You may have timed this just right for me.

Incidentally, I have twice bought the same book on two occasions. Last time it was Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Although I could remember the story perfectly, I had completely forgotten the title - or rather, didn't associate it with the story. I did something I never do: picked up the book to make up the value of a token, thinking: Ah, another Ishiguro - didn't stop to read the back cover!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Dave, you could do a lot worse than give this one a go. I can't say I've ever gone off short stories in fact if I see a collection then I'm more likely to pick it instead of a novel. It's basically due to my fondness for streamlined narratives. I'll buy a novella rather than a novel every time. I think actually that's my preferred length, not too long and not too short.

I'm not sure if I've ever bought two copies of the same book for myself. I have been gifted books that I already have but that's what eBay's for. I did buy Carrie two copies of a book by Sandi Toksvig once now I think about it.

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