Eluding closure, Louise O’Brien

Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories
Elizabeth Smither
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018205

I’ve never been a big fan of the short story. I’ve always found it to be, at once, far too short and far too long. Mired ambivalently in the generically grey area between the highly wrought imagery of the poem and the expansive vision of the novel, short stories often fluctuate between the two, doing neither particularly well.

Faced with the choice between the cryptically unsatisfying and the obviously superficial, I’ve been most infuriated by the former. The omissions that necessarily characterise a brief narrative produce stories that often strike me as simply unfinished and undeveloped. Such abbreviation refuses the neat sense of closure I like so much, demanding a particular set of skills from a hard-working reader who must fill various gaps of plot, character and meaning. What can I learn – let alone like – about a character in just a handful of pages? Why settle for a slice of life, when the entire cake is on offer elsewhere?

2

In Elizabeth Smither’s latest collection, Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories, the refusal of closure and the defeat of rounded completeness, which I’ve always seen as an inherent flaw in the short story form, are celebrated as the dominant theme of the stories themselves. With a neat correspondence between form and meaning, these stories have as their central concern the evasion of finality. The point in and of these stories is for the narrators, characters and plots to escape the prescriptions of others, to elude the limitations of genre, the demands of regulations, to avoid the boundaries imposed by the surety of closure, of the rigid linearity of beginning, middle, end. And for precisely the reasons it has so annoyed me in the past, the short story is the perfect form for the expression of these ideas: the gaps left through omission and abbreviation are the same spaces which enable freedom and possibility. Not knowing these characters, and not knowing what happens to them, is exactly the point: they get quite enough of being told what to do and be. In Smither’s collection, characters explore a range of ways to make and fix meaning of and in their own lives, a struggle which necessarily entails the refusal to let others do that for them.

In “Bonding”, the definitive results of a personality test are the climax to an utterly hideous, vividly depicted, corporate team-bonding weekend, complete with curtains of crayoned paper entitled “Team Charter” and “Vision of Success”. Here, Myers Briggs is the corporate tool of categorisation, “an analysis, a typecasting based on signs so subtle they could no more escape than a fish can a net”. Equally subtle is the narrative refusal to repeat that error of definition: the perspective shifts smoothly between characters, refusing to offer an authoritative viewpoint that determines meaning by saying what’s really going on.

Characters employ various strategies of resistance to frustrate the attempt to define individuals in order to achieve increased productivity. Wanda simply refuses to accept the categories imposed on her, asserting the superiority of her tortured self-analysis, and is assured that she is, “in Myers Brigg’s terms, on the cusp”. Penelope whispers in the back row, while Louella concentrates on her lunch and imagines herself as someone else: a courtier with a carefully arranged face. Isobel resists the insidious slogans of corporate jargon by reframing her experience of the weekend with the lyrics of Tennyson and Shakespeare. Diagnosed and categorised, she longs for “a wild sea or a wild plain and no conclusions ever again”. And thus the story ends, inconclusively.

Zoe’s urge to classify takes the form of astrology in “Fire Snake”, the second story of the collection. The likeness between her system of classification and that of the corporate pop-psychology of “Bonding” is made clearer in Zoe’s choice of career: she writes CVs, a job which also requires her to compartmentalise people, to transform individuals into categories which define them for a larger world. The accuracy of that definition and the systems that produce them are progressively questioned and undermined. Because those who love Zoe don’t recognise themselves in her categories, and even Zoe finds herself limited, constrained and often rather confused by the difficulties of keeping people in boxes: at any moment, she expects the divorce that must result from the mismatch of her parents, an Ox and Dragon.

And the boxes keep getting smaller, the categories less able to accommodate the whole of life and experience. In “White Horse”, Polly attributes the failure of her system of meaning to her own failure to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Neither her superstitious rituals nor her self-help manuals have snared the heart of Johnny: spitting, crossing, talismans, and wishing on a white horse just aren’t helping, despite the “morbid fear of ambiguity” that governs her phrasing, careful to avoid “a grammatical error or a slip in logic”. Johnny, though, is blissfully unaware that he’s supposed to retreat to his cave while women crash like waves at the door, unaware of the rules that frame his relationships. So he goes about doing what comes naturally, free of the rules and outside the regulations. That he does what comes naturally with somebody else, Mitzi, is another indicator that definition and classification – even when self-imposed – are isolating and unsatisfying. It’s the attempt at closure, not Polly’s grammar, which is the failure here.

Likewise, Minnie fails Art School because she doesn’t colour between the rigid lines set out by those who teach and know Art, offering definitions for beauty that are exclusive and narrow. But in this collection success is measured differently. In “Coup de Foudre”, sympathy is not attributed to the critic, the teacher, or the student who follows instructions and dresses in the uniform of the bohemian artist: “a beret or a long loose dragging coat. Better still was an ancient floor-trailing cardigan in a sludge colour.” Rather, it is Minnie, burdened with the genes of a flower painter, who is the heroine of the story. Like all the heroines of this collection, her heroism is defined precisely by her failure or refusal to do what she’s supposed to; she doesn’t fit into any of the neat boxes arrayed before her, and we do not know what she means. So elusive is her character, in fact, that – like the central characters of many of the stories here – she is difficult to visualise clearly as a distinct individual; the vagueness of her character does not allow the reader to define her either.

3

The urge to limit possibility by finalising meaning is manifested in multiple forms in this beautifully produced book, ranging from the dogma of religion to the social niceties that govern the taking of tea, from the strictures of legal documents to the uniformity of popular culture. The use of the concise form of the short story to represent these ideas forces the reader to mimic the discoveries of the characters through the reading process itself: the urge to finalise and define meaning is refused, the impulse to know and control all is defeated. Thus, Smither’s stories reveal the systems behind the apparently coincidental, the patterns we see in a random universe, as well as those we impose on the chaos of experience.

Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories tenderly exposes the ordinary, pervasive fear of the uncontrolled and the unknown; Smither explores our attempts to make the meaningless mean something. Most of all, though, her short stories offer a model which suggests that the comforting attempts she portrays to order the world, to provide closure and determine meaning, can be re-visioned, allowing us to revel in the possibilities offered by that which is left incomplete.

 

Louise O’Brien teaches in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review and Short stories
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