Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 24 February 2013



I wanted to show you what was happening here. Because anybody who sees it and can carry on with his life as if nothing’s the matter belongs before a firing squad. – Chris Barnard, Bundu

Biafra was the first I remember. We told jokes about starving Biafrans in the playground. We should’ve known better. Then there was Ethiopia, then Ethiopia again, Somalia, the Sudan, Ethiopia once more, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Sudan again, Malawi, Niger, the Horn of Africa. And these were just the newsworthy ones. The sad fact is there’s hardly been a year since the 1970s when thousands of Africans haven’t been starving. I was often starving in the 1970s. I’d rush home from school and dive into the biscuit cupboard and tell my mum I was starving but, of course, I wasn’t starving; I probably wasn’t even especially hungry. All my life people have been appealing to us for aid and bit by bit compassion fatigue’s set in. Images of little black babies with bloated bellies don’t shock us like they used to or ought to but they’re still not attractive images so when I learned that Chris Barnard’s novel Bundu focused on an African famine I didn’t find myself exactly desperate to read it; what fresh could he possibly have to say?

Bundu is not a new novel. It was first published in 1999 in Afrikaans and has only now been translated into English; other reviewers have commented on the quality of the translation but I can only take their word for it. The book centres on an isolated clinic somewhere on the South Africa-Mozambique border whose settlement starts to become the destination for a number of refugees, the Chopi, not the thousands we see on the TV, just a couple of hundred, but the doctor and nurses are simply not equipped to deal with even that number; this was not what they signed up for; they’re not aid workers. As I started to read about them the first thing I found myself thinking of was Northern Exposure of all things. It’s a certain kind of individual who moves into an isolated setting like that; they usually have pasts they want to be as far away from as possible and that’s exactly the kind of people we have here; damaged individuals who now have to cope with people even more damaged than themselves. But let’s not be too quick to pity the Chopis:

That the Chopis had waited until halfway through the third summer of drought before crossing the border was proof of their extraordinary endurance.

We don’t learn a great deal about them which I thought was a pity. I would’ve liked to see them as more than just ‘the refugees’ but maybe that was done deliberately because these are people who are not only dislocated but disenfranchised and deculturalised; we don’t see them hauling their musical instruments with them—their music was proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005—all that has been abandoned.

Our narrator is Brand de la Rey, a wildlife researcher who applied for the position because it put him as far away from civilisation as possible; no one else wanted the job anyway. He’s not a complete misanthrope though and there are a few fellow eccentrics whose company he can tolerate like Julia Krige, the local nurse who he’s developed a soft spot for (and it is reciprocated) but neither is in a rush to do anything about it; neither has been lucky in love before so why should this be anything different? The blunt fact is that no one can afford to be completely alone in such an inhospitable place. None of the natives could be described as loquacious and even when they did talk often what they said was cryptic and no amount of pressing would get them to say more than they felt needed to be said; Strydom, the archaeologist, talked in half-sentences and avoided addressing people directly (“the addiction to first names probably figured to him as an excessive show of brotherliness”), Tito de Gaspri, who delivered de la Rey’s each month, never gave a straight answer to a question and Bruyns, one of the Red Cross doctors, “was not a man for detail. He supplied only the most essential of facts.” None of them are much into talking about their pasts.

LifeboatYou couldn’t really describe the structure to this book as a crucible but it does have that kind of feel to it. When Hitchcock was populating his lifeboat or O'Bannon deciding on the crew of the Nostromo I’m sure they spent a long time figuring out what the perfect mix of people would be. Getting the balance is important. We do get to learn the backstories of most of the characters—Julia was a nun before she turned to nursing, Mills was a musician before he became an alcoholic pilot, presumably Strydom has a first name once upon a time—but now they’re all pretty much alike and, like the baboons that circle de la Rey’s house, keep everyone at arm’s length.

There’s no antagonist in this book—unless you count bureaucrats, the military and Mother Nature—and everyone takes their turn playing the hero; either that or there are no heroes and it’s just a bunch of people doing the best they can in impossible circumstances. Surprisingly the refugees fade very much into the background despite the fact the book’s focus is How are we going to save as many of these as we can? A couple stand out, a woman with red beads and a child who insists on bringing Julia feathers but mostly they remain nameless, faceless and voiceless. We learn more about the baboons but I wonder if that’s not deliberate. The monkeys are also starving. There’s been no rain for a very long time and the vegetation is quickly disappearing. The humans can be kept alive by slaughtering the odd animal—an injured hippo early on in the book is a real find—but what can one do for a troop of baboons? Two scenes in the book are worth contrasting. The first involving the humans from the beginning of the book:

[Julia] was making her way towards a woman lying in a patch of shade just outside the shelter. There was a baby in the woman’s arms about three months old and reed-thin. The child was dead still and every now and again the woman tried with jerky movements to drive the flies from its face. I stood looking, stirring the pot, at Julia patiently trying to get some soup into the child’s mouth with a piece of reed.


The child vomited up the few scraps of soup in his throat—there, take it, it’s too late—and closed his eyes. The woman on the ground stretched out her arms to the child as if she wanted him back. But Julia put him down on the ground, because he was dead.

This second one comes near the end:

There was a strange sound among them which we couldn’t quite make out. It was a very soft tapping sound as if one of them was walking on a badly made wooden leg. We watched them more closely to see if we could trace the origin of the sound. After a while Vusi pointed out one of the larger females. She had something in her hand, a scrap of sack or cloth. As long as she could get by on three legs, we could hear her walk—but as soon as she had to use the other front paw and couldn’t move the cloth to another foot in time, something inside the cloth—something like a dry wild orange or calabash—struck the rock. […] For a second it lay there on the rock in front of me before she could grab it and take off with it. It was the dry head and scrap of hide and tail of what earlier in the summer would have been her offspring—only the nostrils and eye sockets recognizable in the little skull rattling in the desiccated scalp when she stepped on the wrong front paw.

Both are equally tragic and yet it was the latter that had the greater impact on me. I’ve thought about this for a couple of days now and I think the difference between the two mothers boils down to language; the human can be comforted with words, can bury her child and start the grieving process; we think of most Africans as primitives and yet she’s civilised enough to realise there are appropriate ways to deal with the death of a child. The baboon, however, does what the human might want to—not let go.

Thankfully the book is careful not to overpower us with too many images like this; it would be an unbearable read if it did. It focuses instead on the lives (and loves) of the foreigners. Essentially though there’s no difference between the humans and the baboons other than the fact the humans live in hope of being rescued; all the baboons can wait for is rain or death. A few pages after the last quote de la Rey returns to the clinic and makes this observation:

“This poor…” I couldn’t find a word for the little flock that above us in the three stuffy little wards was lying waiting for the night. They were no longer people; they weren’t just matter either; they were not dead and no longer really living. “These poor… wretches.” That was the only word I could find.

The_Flight_of_the_Phoenix_-_1965_-_PosterOkay, so we know what the problem is. What’s the solution? Phone calls are made daily. Long stories. Reasons. Excuses. Apologies. And every day, thanks to the efficiency of the bush telegraph, more arrive than are dying. Time is against them. The answer comes in the unlikely shape of Jock Mills who, we learn, has been rebuilding a Dakota DC-3 in the middle of the jungle pretty much for the hell of it; it had been abandoned by the army, gutted by the natives but the superstructure, engine and electrics were still mostly intact. And so the next film to jump into my head had to be The Flight of the Phoenix, the 1965 original, of course. It’s not quite that bad—the DC-3 from all accounts is now actually airworthy. At least that’s what de le Rey is told when he first broaches the subject with Mills; Mills’ airworthiness is another matter entirely but he’s certainly up for the job. The fact that the plane can only carry about sixty means three or four trips and that’s asking a lot of both plane and pilot.

First things first, let’s see if he can get the damn thing off the ground. That proves easier than probably either of the men expected it to be but as de la Rey sees the plane rise into the air he notices that one of the landing wheels doesn’t look right. This initial flight was supposed to last fifteen minutes but an hour passes, and then two. No sign of Mills and with no radio no way to find out what’s happened. Have their plans been scuppered? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a book if they had but no one is going to make life easy for this small group despite the worthiness of their cause. Mills had noticed the wheel too and realising that it would be foolhardy—if not downright suicidal—trying to land in the jungle, had headed immediately for the nearest runway he thought he had a chance of landing safely on. This turns out to be Manzini in Swaziland. Of course as soon as he touched down they arrested him. After some interrogating and wrangling his story is confirmed and one Jenny Grobler appears on the scene. As usual with this lot we don’t get to learn much about her or her relationship to Mills, not at first anyway (bits are filled in later), but despite, to quote de la Rey himself, being “not particularly pretty”, “dressing like a man and behaving like a man” and insisting on calling him “Mr Brand”—and even years later (which is when this book is written) looking back—he finds himself unable to explain why “she had such a paralysing grip on [him] almost instantaneously.” But, of course, this does toss the spanner into the works with regard to his feelings for Julia.

How though, at a time like that, can people worry about stuff like love and sex? Because when you don’t have a roof over your head, a blanket to wrap round your shoulders or a mouthful of food to keep you going you find comfort where you can. Some people are never more alive than when they’re dying, never more aware of being alive. It’s really no different from those convicts who find God five minutes after they’ve been locked up in prison only to forget about him the second they walk through the gates to freedom.

I’m not going to say how the book ends. Nothing goes to plan but that would’ve been too easy. Barnard has done some screenwriting in his day—his script for Paljas was the first South African film to be nominated for an Oscar—and he clearly knows that we need a moment or two of crisis in the middle to keep our interest (the ‘boy loses girl’ bit or in this case ‘boy loses plane’). The basic plot structure here is not especially exciting—Barnard’s doing nothing new here essentially—but I found once I got over that I started to appreciate the under and overtones. I can easily see this being adapted for the small (or big) screen where (probably) all that will be lost.

In her short review of the book, Karen Rutter says:

[T]here’s the odd tendency to “Over-Africa” the novel. You know, when writers start pulling “dark continent” clichés out the bag – fiery sunsets, starving children with flies in their eyes and superstitious natives.

I’m not sure I agree with her and it’s a sorry world where starving children have become a cliché. Okay there were a few words I would’ve liked to have had explained, bundu, for starters:

bundu [bʊndʊ]
(Sociology) South African and Zimbabwean slang
a.  a largely uninhabited wild region far from towns
b.  (as modifier) a bundu hat
[from a Bantu language]

but mostly you could get the idea from the context: stoep [veranda], kloof [ravine], kraal [cattle enclosure], veld [outback], donga [an eroded ravine; a dry watercourse], vlei [an area of low marshy ground, especially one that feeds a stream]. I can’t pretend not being familiar with these words wasn’t a little annoying but it’s not like there were hundreds of them. A number were clearly the names of common plants like the calabash mentioned in one of the earlier quotes which is a gourd… whatever a gourd is.

This book could’ve gone in several different directions. It avoids being preachy but it makes its points well enough. What I particularly liked was the ending. Circumstances have galvanised these disparate individuals, created a necessary bond but once the crisis is over—their involvement in it at any rate—they no longer have sufficient reason to cohere and drift apart far too easily. You would think what they’ve been through was a life-changing experience but perhaps these people’s lives had already been so changed by what had happened in their pasts that nothing was ever going to bring them back. It certainly made me pause for thought because, at least as far as Africa goes, nothing has changed there. A few people manage to get saved but who’s to say that where they ended up will not face its own famine in two or three years? All part of what de la Rey calls “the Great Process”, not a Divine Plan but an admission that “Nature had no use for chance”.

You can read a lengthy extract from Bundu here.


Chris BarnardChris Barnard was born in Nelspruit in 1939. His full name is Christiaan Johan Barnard but I can see no connection with the famous South African heart surgeon, nor, if it comes to that, the infamous South African executioner. He matriculated in 1957 and completed a BA degree in 1960 at the University of Pretoria. He worked as a journalist for seventeen years and as a script writer and film producer between 1978 and 1994. Barnard has published thirty books, including novels, plays for stage and radio, short stories, film scripts and children’s books. In February 2012, he was recipient of the Department of Arts and Culture’s South African Literary Awards (SALA) for lifetime achievement.

Sunday 17 February 2013

Breeding words


It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. – Friedrich Nietzsche

My novel, Milligan and Murphy, is 169 pages long. On page 131 I end the sixth chapter with the following three paragraphs:

This is where their story could have ended. Indeed in one way it did. They had ended up where they had started off and it hadn’t taken them too long to find a new life that so closely resembled their old one; it was almost indistinguishable from a distance. Not all stories are epics and very few epics are that interesting; even the ones involving lots of Russians. If everything were interesting then nothing would be interesting. Interesting things are not always significant things either. Think about that.

Would this be a happy ending, though?

Happy endings are nothing more than matters of timing. We are in the midst of beginnings and endings all the time. Every sentence has a beginning and an end and they’re supposed to make sense in between; that’s the rule: a grammatical unit that is syntactically independent; that has a subject that is expressed or, as in imperative sentences, understood, and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb. This book may end—there are no never-ending stories; we could just quit right here—it’s as good a place as any other—but the story goes on and who is to say that the ending we finally decide upon; the one that ends up at the end, is really happy or not so happy? It all depends on what follows. If we quit here you might draw the wrong conclusions about these two entirely. That’s the thing about being an omniscient narrator, I know where things should end and, if the characters start to veer off in the wrong direction or get too settled, well, I can always gee things up for them. Sometimes, however, all you have to do is wait a bit for the action to catch up…

You see, at this point in the story the brothers have gone full circle, i.e. they’ve basically gone nowhere. Since the novel was based on a book by Beckett whose characters famously never go anywhere in particular I could have stopped the book there and I even thought about it. It’s hard to know where to stop especially when you’re not reliant on a conventional plot. Plots lay out everything for you and we really don’t appreciate the storyline dawdling around on after the hero’s quest is over. A short coda is permissible but only a short one. And often writers use these opportunities as an excuse to lay the groundwork for the next book.

When I wrote Living with the Truth a sequel was the furthest thing from my mind. Just writing a single novel felt like such an achievement and to top everything off I killed off my protagonist at the end of novel which pretty much put the nail in that coffin. Or so I thought. Death ain’t what it used to be though, certainly not after George Dixon was resurrected in 1955 for Dixon of Dock Green (his character having been killed by a young Dirk Bogarde at the end of The Blue Lamp): Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower in the May 1986 cliff-hanger episode of Dallas, Superman’s died and come back (actually several Supermen did), Spock was reborn, Buffy made a veritable habit of resurrection but she’s a rank amateur when compared to Kenny from South Park. Be it through revivification, reincarnation, mucking around with time, cloning or some form of magic, death these days may still be quick but seldom permanent. The thing I’ve come to realise with hindsight is that I really hadn’t done all I intended to with that first novel. As much as it rankles me to admit this—and it does because on the whole I’m not a huge fan of sequels—the two books do form a cohesive single unit; Living with the Truth feels like a better book once you’ve read Stranger than Fiction. And yet I left Stranger than Fiction on a cliff-hanger with absolutely no intention of ever writing a third book and, nearly twenty years on, I still feel no inkling to return to that universe; it’ll just have to limp on as a duology. (No, I didn’t make it up.)

I have a motto: Say what you have to say and get off the page. Despite the lengths of some of my blogs it’s something I take seriously when it comes to my creative writing. I’m not saying there haven’t been worthy sequels but I’m struggling to think of any. But when exactly have you said what you need to say? It’s a hard call. I mean you can always think of something more to say, that little bit more, that teensy tiny smidge of a bit just so you don’t have to hit that final full stop and be done.

Schopenhauer said that life is “too short for bad books” and “a few pages” should be quite enough, he claims, for “a provisional estimate of an author’s productions.” I think most of us put this into practice, even if we’ve never said as much out loud. In bookshops we open a book, perhaps in the middle even, scan a few lines—perhaps a whole paragraph—and judge the author based on one- or two-hundred words. But let’s say he or she has roped you in based on those words, you take the book home, settle down with your beverage of choice, commence reading, enjoy what you’re reading, get to, say, page 131, and think: This seems like a good place to stop and so that’s what you do, you stop there, shelve your book and never worry for a moment what might have happened next. No one does that, do they?

If it was a bad book I can fully understand stopping when you’ve had your fill. There aren’t a lot of books that I’ve never finished but there are a few. Three that jump to mind are: Gertrud by Hermann Hesse, Dangling Man by Saul Bellow and the second volume of Don Quixote; told you I’m not one for sequels. There will be more I am sure but not many mainly because I buy books with care. And there have, of course, been books that I’ve attempted to read but returned to years later and wondered what the problem was the first time. The best example of that is the book that was the inspiration for Living with the Truth, The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind which I failed to get through twice before finally, recently, reading it through to the end and thoroughly enjoying it too.

But what, as I said, if it was a good book. Why would anyone decide to stop reading a good book. I know it’s said you can get too much of a good thing but seriously, if you’re enjoying something surely you want to prolong that experience for as long as possible? That’s why we get so many sequels and threequels and quadrilogies and whatever made-up names marketers think will convince us to buy. (Seriously what’s wrong with ‘trilogy’ and ‘quartet’?) Here’s a wee anecdote from novelist Tim Parks:

One of the strangest responses I ever had to a novel of my own—my longest not surprisingly—came from a fellow author who wrote out of the blue to express his appreciation. Such letters of course are a massive pep to one’s vanity and I was just about to stick this very welcome feather in my cap, when I reached the last lines of the message: he hadn’t read the last fifty pages, he said, because he’d reached a point where the novel seemed satisfactorily over, for him.

Naturally I was disappointed, even a little angry. My leg had surely been pulled. Wasn’t this damning criticism, that I’d gone on fifty pages too long? Only later did I appreciate his candour. My book was fine, for him, even without the ending. It wasn’t too long, just that he was happy to stop where he did. – Tim Parks, ‘Why Finish Books?’ The New York Review of Books, March 13, 2012

There are a number of unfinished works out there that we treat as if they are complete. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is the one that obviously jumps to mind even though attempts have been made to polish it off. But is it incomplete and is it fair to compare a symphony to a novel? Wikipedia has a whole page full of unfinished novels which leads me to believe that there is definitely something to be gained by not reading to the very end but in these cases all we have is all we have and I imagine most people reading those books wished they knew just how the author would have ended it. I mean that adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Dark Towerwe had over Christmas last year was fine, it made sense, but is that what Dickens would have done? We’ll never know. The only book I’ve started where I knew it was unfinished was The Dark Tower by C S Lewis and I can tell you I was disappointed by it leaving me hanging in mid air.

“You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” So said Lewis. I have to disagree on both counts. A while ago I read my first—and I can pretty much guarantee it will be my only—1000-page novel, The Instructions by Adam Levin and, in my review, I wrote, “no book needs to be 1030 pages in length, I don’t care who wrote it or what it’s about.” I stand by that and I have to say that final chapter dragged. I could have easily stopped short and been completely satisfied. But if I had I wouldn’t have seen his full vision and I might not have been quite so disappointed because I wasn’t that crazy how he chose to end things; unbelievable as it sounds, the ending felt rushed.

Of course it all depends on the book. The only point in reading an Agatha Christie (I’m being facetious here) is to get to the drawing room scene at the end. But then again her books are plotted and once you know who did it and how they were found out you really don’t want any more. I read a thriller many years ago—I think it was a le Carré—and the climax arrives one page before the end of the book; I remember being quite impressed by that at the time. It’s the kind of thing one expects from a good horror film: the monster dies and the film ends a minute later. That’s what we came to see, we’ve seen it and so we can go and queue for fish and chips now.

I look at the books coming out at the moment and I think all of them are too long. I’m a self-confessed lover of the novella even though I’ve never actually written one. I’ve always thought I would but I always seem to have another 10,000 words in me. And I can live with that because four of my five books are all under 60,000 words. The fourth novel clocks in at 90,000 and I consider it a ruddy epic. I can’t believe I managed to write a book that long. In his article ‘Why modern books are all too long’ Robert McCrum thinks he has the answer:

Literary elephantiasis starts across the Atlantic. North America has a lot to answer for. In the "pile 'em high" tradition, US bookshops love to display big fat books in the window. The cut-and-paste technology of word processors must bear some of the blame, but overwriting is part of the zeitgeist. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is highly enjoyable but who's finishing it? The novel is at least 100 pages too long.

He believes, as many others do, that The Great Gatsby is the greatest novel in English in the 20th century; it weighs in at under 60,000 words. He calls it “a miracle of compression” and goes on to point out that between them Waugh, Greene and Orwell all wrote books that average out between sixty- and seventy-thousand words apiece. Stephen King says he has to cut at least 10% on every novel he writes to sharpen it up.

"If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and engagingly said in one, then it's amateur work." — Robert Louis Stevenson

"Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress?" — Samuel Johnson

I have to disagree with him as far as Cervantes goes although maybe not. Once I’d finished the first volume I did dive into the second but why I gave up on it was because the second was just the same as the first; I wanted the same but different. Alien 3That’s why James Cameron’s sequel to Alien is such a damn good film and why its sequel, Alien3, is a better film than people often give it credit for.

Part of the problem is that people set down arbitrary rules for how long a book, especially books of certain genres like science fiction, ought to be. Most publishers—for first time authors—want something between 80,000 to 120,000 words. I just don’t get that. A book is finished when you’ve said what you had to say. Why all the padding? Problem is the padding will likely be evenly spread throughout the book and so you can’t just skip the last fifty pages and be done with it. More’s the pity.

Okay, what am I going to say now? I’ve reached that point in the article where I think I’ve made my point and I’m not sure what else I have to say but I haven’t managed to tidy things up. I don’t have a nice pithy (or even pissy) punch line to leave you with and so I keep typing hoping that something might come, something clever to leave you with. I even let the whole article sit for a day before I started writing the sentence I’m typing just now. I read through from the beginning (as it my habit) hoping all the time that something would jump out at me that would enable me to maybe write another five-hundred words and, perhaps, think of a decent ending but it doesn’t look as if that’s happening and yet I just keep on typing and typing and typing…

Nope. Can’t think of anything. So I’m just going to stop. Wait! No! I’ve just thought of a great quote to leave you with:

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

Dr. Seuss

So that’s you left. And I’ve got the title for my blog.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Frog City Updike


Frog City Updike never would’ve been without Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, the book that showed me just how loose I could get with form. – Arthur Graham, Big Al’s Books and Pals

One of the words I use too often in reviews is ‘interesting’ but I never really make it clear whether a particular word piques my interest or holds it. It’s the same with ‘nice’, which I also overuse; nice can have negative connotations; the last thing your wife wants to hear when she walks in wearing a new outfit is, “You look nice, dear.” Even more confusing I would expect is when something gets referred to as ‘nice and interesting’. Frog City Updike—the place, not the book—sounds like a nice, interesting place. I’m not sure I’d want to live there but if I did I can see myself running across interesting things and saying, “Oh, that’s nice,” or vice versa.

Short story collections are a bugger to review. The problem usually is finding the common thread. Why does the author think that these particular stories, in this particular order, work? The ones I find I enjoy best are books like The Next Stop is Croy and other stories where the stories all revolve around a single family or Ugly to Start With where the stories are all set in a particular town and retain the same narrator. Arthur Graham’s Frog City Updike works because all the stories bar two are set within the borders of the fictional town of Frog City Updike. As for the two exceptions, one is set in Ireland and another in Frog City Updike Heaven. Some have first person points of views, others third; there’s even a couple of letters employing a second person narrative; the protagonists vary but they all are Frog City Updike-ites and that is what binds them together; their idiosyncratic take on life. The closest comparison I can think of is the quirky American TV series Portlandia. Anyway, this collection works.

Astute readers will have noticed in the last paragraph that I mentioned that Frog City Updike was a town. This is not a typo. I’ll let the author explain:

[W]eighing in with just 7,886 yearlong residents, it would be more accurate to call the place Frog Town Updike. But, as is the case with all such misnomers, the fact of the inaccuracy is not as important as the truth of it. Whenever the place was first referred to as Frog City Updike, or whoever first referred to it that way – these questions are purely academic. For those who call it home, Frog City Updike simply is what it is. Frog City Updike is just what the town has always been called, and since the name stuck as well as it did, no one really sees much point in trying to change it on a technicality now.

The Updike connection also requires some explanation:

[T]here has never been any family, business, or public office with the name Updike listed anywhere in the local phone book. One can imagine how hard this has made it to look up the local post office, or anything else for that matter!

Okay it’s not much of an explanation. But it is a fact. However bizarre. There are frogs, just not as many as one might expect to warrant the inclusion of their existence in the name of the place.

To be perfectly honest, there are only about two hundred or so in the entire area, and most if not all of them are concentrated around the small pond at the shady heart of Frog City Updike City Park. Quite rare is it to see a frog anywhere beyond this pond or its immediate environs – at least one that hasn’t been flattened by a car or carried off and pecked apart by a bird somewhere. But the frogs of Frog City Updike – confined as they are to their pond at the centre of Frog City Updike City Park – they don’t much complain about their lot in life.

So that’s Frog City Updike. Having read no Updike I can’t say that the writing style reminded me in any way of John Updike although Wikipedia tells me that he also wrote a great deal about American small towns and probably published far more WSBshort story collections than most winners of the Pulitzer Prize have. The author bio at the back of the book says that Arthur Graham works “in a slipstream, surrealist style that has been compared to that of William S. Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.” but as I’ve managed to get through the last fifty-three years without reading either of them I can’t comment on any similarities to their work either. (Note to self: need to read more American writers.) Having only read the three quotes above, although not in the order in which I presented them, the author I thought about was Richard Brautigan (which shows that I have read at least one American writer) and one particular book came to mind: In Watermelon Sugar. In an old post on Arthur’s blog I was pleased to see that he’d also realised that this was the kind of book “Brautigan might’ve enjoyed if he hadn’t blown his brains out all those years ago.” Which is a very Brautigan-esque way of putting it, don’t you think?

Now having read the above, which, as I’ve said was all that I’d read when I reached that conclusion, you may or may not agree with that assessment, assuming, of course, that you’re familiar with Brautigan’s work, but as I pressed through the collection I only found more evidence to underline that initial determination. Brautigan’s naïve style of writing is not something one comes across very often. Indeed the last book that reminded me of him was called Naïve. Super by the Norwegian author Erlend Loe which I enjoyed immensely.

The majority of the stories in Frog City Updike could be described as flash fiction; many only last for a couple of pages and as the paragraphs are mostly short and the font is on the generous side (I was working from a PDF mind) there is certainly more white space than most short stories contain resulting in proportionately fewer words per page that one might expect. The net effect is that it is a nice book to read. This is not a thing I tend to say about most books of flash fiction where the stories jump all over the shop but since all the stores are set in Frog City Updike or involve Frog City Updike-ites you feel as if you’re getting to know the town a little at a time. It’s an interesting town. Needless to say it’s not a real town. The title came from Arthur’s wife:

Frog City T-ShirtMy wife suggested Frog City Updike as a nonsensical title for the novella I was working on last year. Though completely inappropriate for that particular book, it was far too good a title to just throw away! Frog City Updike basically wrote itself around these three words, which is why it’s dedicated to Jayna, who provided that initial spark.


For Frog City Updike … whenever I felt like working I would imagine this nondescript town, theoretically in rural America somewhere – a place that served as a sort of microcosm for the larger world, along with all of the people, places, and things in it. From there, I would cast about for interesting characters and situations, transporting them to this rather amorphous locale and infusing them with my own observations and experiences. In so doing, I found it easy to incorporate a wide variety of unpublished material I’d been sitting on for a while, stuff that likely never would’ve seen the light of day if I hadn’t taken such an essentially open approach. – The Indie Spotlight

I can see the total sense in this because a number of the stories don’t work especially well on their own but gain strength from being incorporated in a group like this.

A number of the stories in Frog City Updike come from a group whose connection to Frog City Updike is tenuous to say the least. The first, entitled ‘Hitler’s Bad Day’ begins as follows:

Hello. My name is Arthur Graham. If you’re reading my book, Frog City Updike, then you can call me Frog City Updike Arthur Graham.

Incidentally, how are you liking my little book so far? I hope you are liking it well!

If you like this book, then you may like this other thing I wrote – a short story entitled “Hitler’s Bad Day.”

By Arthur Graham

A short man paced aimlessly around the small underground room, stopping here and there to straighten a wall hanging or rearrange the items on a table. Each time he passed the ornamental mirror above the fireplace, which he did with some frequency, he paused for a moment to examine his moustache and frown at it. The barber had cut it too short, he thought.

Hitler was having a bad day.

The others are ‘TV and the Internet’, ‘Nice Description’, ‘And So It Came to Be’ and the longest story in the collection, ‘No One Drinks Tea Anymore’ which, if I’d read any books by Tom Robbins I might say reminded me of Tom Robbins in that the protagonist in the story is a teacup. (Note to self: add Tom Robbins to the list of American authors you need to get round to.) None of the other stories in the book Lochnessmonsterinvolve sentient inanimate objects although to be fair to the teacup she does not remain immobile and indeed makes her big bid for freedom juiced up on nicotine of all things towards the end of the story. There is a talking frog and a chatty Loch Ness Monster in the story which is set in Ireland although he does explain what the Loch Ness Monster isn’t doing in his native Scotland. For me, though, the standout story was the one about the teacup. I suspect its length was the reason. It has time to develop the characters. An extract:

Teacup wasn’t dumb. She was fairly smart as far as inanimate objects went, but her knowledge of current fashion trends was sadly lacking. In any event, she was used to having her suggestions ignored.

What she did know about the world outside the diner was largely limited to what people around her let slip. Other objects were rarely much help at filling in the gaps because each had their own geographic blinders. For example, in the kitchen, Whisk had no idea what a chicken was. He could tell you every minute detail about an individual chicken egg, but for all he knew they grew on vines.

The problem was actually quite simple: Most of them simply lacked any general context in which to place their very specific knowledge. That’s what happens when you spend the majority of your time stuck in a sink, in a drawer, or in a cupboard. These days Teacup was spending more and more of her time in the cupboard.

No one drinks tea anymore, she would often lament.

There is some attempt at continuity and characters from one story do reappear in another, especially Frog City Updike Arthur Graham. Frog City Updike Sheila and Tony appear in ‘The Jean Jacket’, ‘On Your Side’, ‘It Was Just that Kind of Vacation’ (for me the weakest story in the book as it’s set in Ireland and having written a book set in Ireland and also not being Irish—Arthur hails from the north woods of Michigan; I hail from Glasgow city centre—I know just how hard it is to get those telltale details right), ‘A Scene From Frog City Updike Tony’s Deathbed’ and the last story, ‘Heaven’, in which everyone has a cameo and I nearly missed her because her name is spelled ‘Shelia’. (Considering Arthur pays his bills editing medical textbooks for a small publishing company in Salt Lake City, tsk, tsk.)

Some of the stories have a surreal edge to them. In ‘Making Relationships Work’ the unnamed narrator is sitting in Frog City Updike Public Library when he sees a “young hip couple” come in:

I could tell they were young due to their solid, slender physiques, smooth skin, and overall lively demeanour. They were hip obviously because they were dressed in the latest fashions of the time, which at that time consisted of an all-black winter ensemble accentuated by bright pastel accessories. As for how I could tell they were a couple, well, there were two of them present.

But the next time he notices them they’ve mysteriously aged and their relationship also seems to have, well, depreciated. And they smell:

I tried to pretend that I hadn’t been thinking intently about their personal lives, which was easy now that I noticed their combined effluvium of French fry grease, cigarette smoke, and mildewed undergarments.

No explanation is forthcoming but the narrator notices the book the woman is carrying: MAKING RELATIONSHIPS WORK and he proceeds to mull over in his mind what he might learn from this pair. He realises that the experience has taught him valuable lessons:

1) It takes more than the latest styles to make a person hip,
2) it takes more than hipness to make a person young, and
3) it takes more than two persons present to make a couple.

Others stories have a profound simplicity. In ‘Bruised Bananas and Broken Bones’ we learn what has happened to reduce Frog City Updike Dr. Robertson from being a successful and wealthy medical practitioner to having to spend his nights under a Frog City Updike bridge “with nothing but a sleeping bag, a rucksack, and a small wooden crate he’d turned upside down to use as a table.” But rather than being a tale of failure the story ends on a surprising positive note:

It had given the former Mrs. Robertson great pleasure to see her former husband left penniless, but what she didn’t know was how well an old hobo doctor could live in exchange for giving free medical advice and setting the occasional broken bone.

A new young doctor now taken over the practice but he still hadn’t taken down the sign that reads “Frog City Updike Dr. Robertson’s Family Clinic.”

Whenever the young doctor finally takes down his old sign, Dr. Robertson decides, he will reclaim it from the Frog City Updike municipal dump and set it up beneath his bridge.

None of the stories are especially heavy. Not even the one about Hitler. In fact the political correctness of writing stories about someone like Hitler is addressed in a later story:

I am not nor have I ever been a Nazi sympathizer, Hitler lover, or Holocaust denier/apologist. I’ll tell you a few other things that I’m not: 1) Simple-minded to the point where I am unable to conceptualize on multiple levels. After all, it is not hard to image Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tossing a paper cup out the window of a moving vehicle, or Mahatma Gandhi verbally abusing his wife, so why is it so hard to imagine Adolph Hitler doing anything other than incinerating Jews, gypsies, blacks, homosexuals and intellectuals? 2) Ignorant to the point where I equate the mere reference of a word/name with the wholehearted support of everything associated with it, and 3) Sensitive to the point where I allow my ignorance in these basic matters to upset me to such a degree that I feel compelled to write asinine letters to anyone who will read them and possibly respond.

We have a grandmother and granddaughter exchanging letters, there’s a woman who can’t sleep for her husband snoring, an overly-forthright drama coach, a boxer who becomes a legend because of his glass jaw, a group of gypsies who seem to pass around the same kid while they beg for money, there’s some debate about why bunnies don’t lay eggs (personally I’ve never understood what either eggs or rabbits have to do with Easter) and there’s even a story where you can decide what happens next; remember those?

All in all it adds up to a rather charming read. As Arthur puts it himself:

It won’t keep your children or grandchildren nearly as riveted as the average Disney film, but you could probably read it aloud to them without overly censoring the material. It retains a lot of the same quirks that made its predecessor such a mixed bag, but it’s executed with virtually no sex, violence, or dark, demented broodings to speak of. Very whimsical in both structure and tone. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

I have nothing to add.

You can read a lengthy extract from the book here.


The biography on his Facebook page reads as follows:

Arthur_GrahamGraham currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and her cat. He writes his books alone in the dark, usually nude, surrounded by empty bottles and loaded guns. Occasionally, he prefers to work nude while astride a rainbow.

His style is one that willingly loses itself in the false dichotomy between "genre" and "literary" fiction, with much of it cleaving towards satire and surrealism. His work has been called "clever", "tacky", and "even a bit obscene", and one reviewer was kind enough to label it "Burroughs-lite".

His novella Editorial was recently picked up by Bizarro Press, and his short story ‘Zeitgeist’ is set to appear in an upcoming anthology from the same imprint. One day, he hopes to sell enough books to supplement his drinking habit, but not so many that he's forced to claim the income on his taxes.

‘Zeitgeist’ appears in the anthology Tall Tales with Short Cocks and his latest book, Non/Fictions, a “healthy mix of fiction, nonfiction, nonfictional fiction, and fictional nonfiction” is just out.

This review originally appeared in Dactyl Review.

Sunday 3 February 2013

My Mother was an Upright Piano

My Mother Was an Upright Piano

I like short stories’ implicit awareness that life has no neat endings, that it is comprised of many very small moments, all in their own way powerful and important, and that life is messy, it’s unclear, it’s about reading between the lines. – Tania Hershman, in interview

Where does prose end and poetry begin? A couple of hundred years ago that wasn’t such a difficult question to answer: poetry was the stuff that rhymed; everything that wasn’t poetry was prose. I’m not sure I trust a definition like that. It’s a bit like answering the question, “What’s a dog?” with the answer, “Not a cat.” The cover to Tania Hershman’s second collection hedges its bets and simply says it contains, “Fictions by Tania Hershman.” ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a work of fiction but it’s also an epic poem so where does that leave us? If you assume for a moment that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme (which it hasn’t done since the sixteenth century, let’s be honest) then what’s the difference between prose and poetry? Well, up until the nineteenth century poetry was the stuff with the ragged right margin and then some Frenchman decided line breaks weren’t particularly important and the prose poem was born. It struggled a bit to gain popular approval, some big names spoke out against it—TS Eliot for one—and although it looked as though it’s time was done by the late forties since the nineteen eighties it seems to have found its second wind. defines a prose poem as follows:

Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humour straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels."

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

So, is By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart a prose poem or a work of poetic prose? And does it really matter? Are the poetry police going to come along and rap me on the knuckles for using alliteration in a short story or a metaphor or two in one of my novels?

If I were to go with Shalom Freedman’s definition:

The language of poetry is metaphor
And irony and ambiguity
And beauty –

then My Mother Was An Upright Piano is, indeed, a book of poems because Tania lays on her metaphors, ironies, ambiguities and beauties with a trowel and several reviewers before me have been happy to describe the works contained within this slim volume as at least poetic if not actual poetry.

Fizzles-BeckettWhen Beckett published a book of short prose pieces he called them foirades“fizzles” in English which has always reminded me of sparklers although I’m not ignorant of its now-obsolete definition)—but I’d like to propose my own word for what Tania has produced here: novelties. We have the novel, the novella, the novelette, the short story and the relatively new term, flash fiction, which is what most people would settle on when describing these fifty-six pieces, but I like the connotation that these are something new and not just a flash in the pan. In his review on Amazon Garry Powel says some of these stories are, “mini-novels”—he cites ‘Manoeuvres’ and ‘The Lion and the Meteorite Can Never Touch You’—and this just underlines what I’ve just said.

And new things take some getting used to.

The first thing you have to get used to is how to read these pieces. I tried reading them as if they were short stories, skipped from one to the next but nothing stuck. It was like gobbling down a box of chocolates. Or going to a wine tasting and just chucking back the glasses: "Skål! Next!” I was not alone here. Over on his blog, Brian Clegg, notes:

I had to seriously slow down my reading style, which is normally very quick, getting the gist, almost ignoring anything descriptive. I needed to slow down and appreciate the words.

This reminded me of a comment my friend Marion McCready made recently on one of my blogs:

I'm a slow poetry reader, I mull over a poetry collection for months. When people write their top ten poetry collections of 2012 I'm still obsessing over a poetry collection I read last year.

Is it even possible to read poetry quickly? Of course it’s possible—most things are possible—but is there any point to it?

Of course ‘fizzle’ does not mean ‘sparkle’ and ‘novelty’ is not without its negative connotations. The title of the book—taken from a story—is slightly gimmicky (it reminded me of Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales); it has a novelty value and that’s what you want to capitalise on with a title so it was a good choice but having seen the book mentioned here and there for the past several months it’s stopped impressing me. But that’s just a title and a book is more than just a title and some of the coolest books hide behind really naff titles.

I don’t appreciate wine. I just don’t get it. It all tastes the same to me: awful. I listen to these wine experts on the TV going on about and it’s just laughable some of the words they use to describe wine: smoky, nutty, chocolaty. I don’t get any of that but I can appreciate the subtle differences between various performances of pieces of classical music: there’s a world of difference between Sir Adrian Boult’s (to my mind definitive) interpretation of Holst’s The Planets and Karajan’s and even his later version differs from his earlier ones. But you need to have an ear for these things. And the same goes for Tania Herhman’s novelties: they need to be savoured; they need to be reread and read again. A page-turner this book is not unless you include a lot of turning pages back. And that will annoy a lot of people, the kind of people who don’t read an awful lot of poetry.

In broad terms I think the difference between poetry and prose boils down to this: prose states, poetry implies. Again I find myself agreeing with Brian Clegg who writes in his review: “about 90% of the story is implied rather than explicit.” These are stories that you need to think about and I found myself continually revising my assumptions as I read.

The Angle of his Bending

20,000 lead azide detonators could not tear me from you, nor 40,000 caesium-powered rockets, nor 60,000 men with flaming nuclear swords or women with their breasts to tempt me, and he shook his fist into her face as she sat thinking of the space between two chairs which was not enough to keep him from her and the days and days after with no tomorrow to take her away. The rope upon her wrists was tighter now than when he tied it, had some property, she thought, that made it so, and if they had real lives before this all real life was gone. He paced around her now and she tried to see behind him, up and up, but the staircase curved from sight and it was just her in the room with him and rope, and as she saw him bend and stretch she knew the angle a man shudders into with a woman, rope and chairs and all, is never equal to the angles of the opposite sides. And so she stayed silent.

No inverted commas—sometimes she uses them, sometimes not—so I didn’t realise it was a quote. “Flaming … swords” sounds Biblical: a cherub with a flaming sword was stationed at the gates to Eden. It sounds like he’s declaring his love albeit in a rather OTT way. But then why’s he shaking his fist at her? She’s sitting on a chair. Is he sitting on the chair opposite her? “[D]ays and days after with no tomorrow”—why’s “tomorrow” singular? Surely “tommorrows” would read better. Am I editing here or is this important? She’s tied to her chair. Okay so maybe he is crazy, a religious zealot, a terrorist. But then why’s he professing his undying love if they’re all going to die in some imminent holocaust? Perhaps they’re in a bunker and she’s safe from everything just not him. Is that why “all real life was gone”? If there’s a staircase maybe they’re in a basement. It sounds like a spiral staircase. No one has one of them leading to their basement. Not in a normal home. Then again she wondered about the property of the rope. What woman would care about something like that? Maybe she’s a scientist and this is a lab. Always a possibility with one of Tania’s stories as fond of science as she is. (She used to work as a g14science journalist.) But now what’s this about angles? Sounds like geometry: In any right-angled triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the opposite sides. He’s pacing. Is he expecting something? Or psyching himself up for something? Now he’s bending and stretching. An odd time for calisthenics. “[T]he angle a man shudders into with a woman, rope and chairs and all, is never equal to the angles of the opposite sides”—what on earth does that mean? Shudder: verb, (of a person) Tremble convulsively, typically as a result of fear or repugnance. How does one shudder into something? Wait a second. There’re no more words. That’s it. Bugger. Now what? Okay, let’s go back to the start.

Okay, I’m being a little facetious here but pretty much every story—this is one of the shortest ones—is like this. There are Is and hes and shes but mostly we’re never told who they are. We deduce from the context that they’re mothers and sons or wives and husbands or any of a dozen or so different male-female dynamics. There’s the odd sister too. Few have names. Or faces. What does the woman look like in ‘The Angle of his Bending’? Is she old, beautiful, full-figured, the proverbial catch? Does it matter? In her review of the book Michelle Bailat-Jones says these stories "aren’t incomplete excerpts; the reader doesn’t want or need any of these fictions to go on longer or somehow become another form entirely" and she has a point up to a point; Tania deliberately leaves things vague and allows/expects us to fill in the blanks, to finish off the story but isn’t that the author’s job? “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”—Samuel Johnson. Fair comment. But what’s the right ratio? 50:50? 90:10? Tania thinks it should be more like 10:90. In an interview with Rumjhum Biswas she had this to say:

I am a reader who wants to be made to work hard. I love great flash stories that leave 90% to the reader to work out, ones that aren’t necessarily rooted in reality as we know it. I think the very short form lends itself well to this. Great flash fiction is when the story fits the length—it’s not straining to be something longer but compressed to fit into a tiny box. Everything has its ideal length, I believe.

Reading other people’s reviews of this I can see there were others who couldn’t come up with their requisite ninety percent.

Even after many readings, I'm not convinced I've understood some of these pieces. – Shirley Golden

Some (like 'underground') I don't feel I fully understood, but even those still manage to be engaging and to paint a vivid picture of a strange world. – Annemaire Neary

[A]lthough each of Tania Hershman's stories has a point, not all are immediately apparent. She mentions her parents saying they enjoyed all the stories, even those they couldn't understand and I see where they're coming from. – Ani Johnson

‘The Angle of his Bending’ might have been one I struggled with but there were others I did not or at least not as much. The one that jumped out at me was one I’d already read online: ‘Under the Tree’. You can read it over at Electric Velocipede in full. She began the story in 2006 and it took her three years to write; a long time for only 800 words but that’s the thing about brevity, you can’t afford to be sloppy and it’s to her credit that she bided her time and got it right. She talks about the writing process in a post on her blog and here’s my comment:

BedThis story reminded me of the novel Bed where a boy one day refuses to get out of bed and eats and eats until his health is at risk. My problem with the novel is that the author skipped over practical details (like going to the toilet—it’s astounding the number of literary characters who never poop) and as much as I wanted to rise above it a part of my mind kept wondering. I was the same with your story. Tried not to be but couldn’t help myself. That said there was a lot I did like about it and read it over several times. I can see that you’ve weighed every word. A haunting study of the nature of grief. At least that’s my reading of it. I do like the structure very much.

If I was allowed one adjective to describe the stories in this book I’d go with ‘unusual’; chuck in a noun and I’d pick ‘perspective’. So many of these stories could be told as straightforward third person narratives—she said this, he did this, they went there where this and that happened—but even with her third person narratives she manages to twist them ever so slightly. Take, for example, this story which appeared in Metazen back in 2010:

The Family

Although the family is not always available, the family is on hand when it comes to death. The family stands a respectful distance away, swaying slightly as the coffin is lowered, every now and then blowing a nose. Back at the house, the family are convivial, shaking hands, patting backs, handing food around. The family are good like that. In the pandemonium that is mothers and children, fathers and whisky, small dogs and the one that cries a lot under a table, the family takes charge, ushers and whisks, cajoles and sweeps away.

The family is especially on hand for those medium-sized boys with their exploding watches, exploding eggs, exploding matches, whom the family, in formation, scoops up before damage is done so that grieving can continue. And when it is over, the family clears away the necessary before making a quiet exit.

After that, the family may not be available, may be unseen and unheard from for months or perhaps even years. When people ask you a question about the family, answer them vaguely, for the family do not like to be proscribed, assigned to boxes, dates, labels. When they come, they come. And don’t forget your manners.

We all recognise this family. Most of us belong to families like this. What she’s saying here is so bleeding obvious but she’s done what any poet worth his or her salt would do, she’s taken the familiar and made us see it again, afresh. How? Quite simply, firstly, by the use—the unusual use—of an omniscient narrator and secondly, by treating the family as a single unit rather than a composite body made up of mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, grandparents and other relatives once or twice removed. I have a scene in one of my own short stories where the relatives appear after the death of the narrator’s father and I thought I’d done a good job of it till I read this.

When I reviewed Tania’s first collection I mentioned that there was a magic realist undercurrent at play in some of her stories and drew attention to her thoughts on the subject in an interview on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog where she talks at length about the subject. In part she says:

I like to read magical realist stories because they make me think more than a story in which every element is familiar. I am not particularly interested in a story about someone like me, who lives where I live, does what I do. I want to learn something from a story, and one way to draw me in as a reader is to invent something completely new! If you convince me, I will step into that world, I will accept it all, I will be right there with your characters. If you don't convince me, I stop reading.

Some of my favourite writers in this vein are Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago. These writers inspire and influence me by saying that anything is possible. Their work says to me: Don't be constrained by what you have seen, what you have experienced. Go beyond your world, use your imagination, see what might be, what could be.

This is not done simply for entertainment value: the best magical realist stories use the magical aspects to unveil something about our own world, our communities and societies, who we are as human beings.

In this new collection there are a far greater number of stories that one could classify as magic realist or fantastic. Examples are:

The short tree has its hand up, the short tree wants to ask, wants to ask a question. The two taller trees ignore the short tree. They whisper together, the one tree leaning in to the other, giggling a little, flirting, while the short tree, its hand upraised, is crying out now. (from ‘The Short Tree has its Hand Up’)

Life was small. It was tiny even, so tiny it was hard to see it sometimes. Life curled up to make itself even smaller, to fit into the kinds of holes that insects crawl into to get away from bigger insects. Life was sad. Life didn’t want to be an insect. Life was getting backache from the curling up. It wanted to straighten out, stand up tall, shout out to the world. But it had been so long, Life wasn’t sure how to. (from ‘Life Bursts Out’)

I can see through her. She is sitting opposite me and I see her ribs, the blood beating in her heart, the tea as it makes its way down towards her stomach. Yesterday we were sitting here as couples do, cut off from one another by skin, by outward defences. Today, she is as open to me as my own mind. (from ‘Transparent’)

Others are simply quirky:

Einstein sits in the corner, playing guitar. No-one tells him, Albert, go home. Because he’s Einstein. He looks up and grins. (from ‘Einstein Plays Guitar’)

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out. Or that something else will get into the Art. Art contamination, it’s something we worry about a great deal. Some Art, it’s terribly sensitive, you know. It’s fragile, like a baby, or more like a soufflé. The smallest thing can deflate it, like tapping a balloon with a sharp pin. (from ‘Containing Art’)

And some are just plain poetic:

I stand under the street lamp, my flickering self lit up by doubt and lit up by the lamp and by the moon. I wait under that street lamp for you, all the while vibrations inside me filling me with questions. And you, where are you? Untethered, floating away, leaving me, a stranded star, to shimmer and blister on dark street corners alone. I wait for you to rush up to me, but where you should be rushing there is only silence and where your feet should be there is a cat, moon-widened eyes, afraid to cross my path, a witness to my inner ache. (from ‘My Flickering Self’)

When it sings he sings with it, him and the bird. It sings in its metal cage, with its metal wings and small metal beak, and its heart, which is part of his heart, a tiny lump that he removed from his and placed inside the bird’s metal ribcage. (from ‘Tiny Red Heart’)

Where the quirky or the fantastic ends and the poetic begins I couldn’t tell you.

One thing that bothered me a little about the collection as a body of work was that it felt a little jumbled. I had a horrendous time organising my own poetry book and the only way I could do it was to have an overall theme but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. In an interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir she said:

I had over 150 that I'd written … and so—in contrast to my first collection, which contained basically everything I'd written up to that point—I got to pick my favourites, the ones I really love, the Top 56, you could say. That's a really nice and different feeling. I can never put my own stories in order—my fabulous publisher, Richard, at Tangent Books, did it for me. We didn't want any conscious thought of ordering by theme so he tried as much as possible to mix them up—but then you read them and things jump out at you. Like how many times trees appear. And certain images I clearly like to use, that I'd ever seen before!

A Man's Hands Final_thumb[1]This will likely bother others less than me but I didn’t feel that the book had an overall tone unlike, for example, the two collections by Andrew McCallum Crawford. Fifty-six stories is a lot, even fifty-six very short stories. There are a few I would have left out this time. Another reviewer took the view that with so many if there was one you didn’t like you should just jump onto the next one. And there’s nothing wrong with that attitude either.

In her review Ebba Brooks made this observation: “A minor quibble: I spotted four typos in the edition I read. At a cover price of £9.99 for a paperback, I’d expect better. In case there’s a chance of a second print run, Tangent Books editor please take note.” I read the ebook—I downloaded it from Amazon—and my gripe was with the punctuation (commas without spaces after them, for example) and the formatting which was a little sloppy too. Now there’s nothing stopping them uploading a clean copy there.

Larkin was once asked what he’d learned from his study of poetry. His response, slightly butchered by me, is sound advice for anyone interested in flash:

Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study [microfictions]! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.

Flash fiction has never been more popular and anything that stops novices writing awful haiku has got to be a good thing. Like haiku flash fiction looks easy and it’s really easy to write bad flash fiction; you don’t even have a syllable count to worry about. If you’re genuinely interested in learning how to express yourself in a few hundred (or even a few dozen) words then get yourself a copy of this book; it’s as good a textbook as you’re likely to find.

If you’d like to try before you buy there’s plenty of her work online:

From this collection



tania hershman iiTania Hershman lives in Bristol, UK, with her partner and their cat. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her award-winning short stories and flash fiction have been widely published and broadcast. Tania is currently writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University, and is founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal shining the spotlight on short story collections.

Her recent projects involve an interesting shift in direction. She’s submitted an entry to the Wellcome Trust Screenwriting prize (an idea for a biomedicine-inspired feature film), has completed a science-inspired radio play, is writing more actual poetry (with line breaks) and is also working on what she described as “a sort of novella thingy.” A third collection of short stories is also a distinct possibility.

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