The Man in the Shed
Penguin Books, $37.00,
Fourteen stories spanning nearly two decades are gathered together in this new collection from Lloyd Jones, his first book since Mister Pip. For all their deceptively familiar settings, these are strange and unsettling stories. They deal with barren relationships, imploding families, quiet betrayals, terrible events that unfold in the most banal circumstances – at the beach, in a queue of stalled traffic, in the lick of an ice-cream.
Jones is unbeatable at depicting the comforting blandness of suburban New Zealand, but what he’s really interested in is the dark and sometimes disturbing substratum on which it rests.
“The world has a strange tilt on it these days,” says a character in “What We Normally Do on a Sunday”, and he might well be talking of these stories.
In the blink of an eye, a woman weeding her garden in a quiet Wairarapa town becomes Masha Venyukova of Odessa, procurer of circus acts (“Amateur Nights”). In “Still Lives”, a woman’s irritated voicemail message (“I waited for you by the gate. I can’t wait any longer …. Just where the hell are you, Joe?”) becomes hideous comedy when heard by the men who have found Joe dead in his car, marooned in a traffic jam.
In the title story, a young boy’s life is imperceptibly but profoundly disrupted by the arrival of a mysterious foreigner who takes up residence in the garden shed. Life goes on as usual, but everything is different -– his mother’s ocean swimming, his father’s fishing trips, the ordinariness of his own backyard. Familiar things are charged with new meanings that the boy recognises but cannot explain: “Things had happened but under cross-examination I wouldn’t have known how or what to say they were.”
Transfigurations and seismic shifts are everywhere in the tilted world of these stories. So too are secrets: many of Jones’s characters lead covert or imaginary lives in parallel with their normal existence. The possibility of becoming someone else -– by having an affair, going to Australia, dressing up as a fairytale prince or encountering a luminous Polish stranger in the local park – is a recurrent attraction.
In the surreal “Amateur Nights”, this desire to escape sees a Wairarapa farmer enlist the narrator’s help to enter his wife’s imagined Russia and rescue her from the attentions of her doctor lover, Mikhail. For Judith, Tsarist Russia is “my room at the end of the hall”, a private bolthole. And she castigates the narrator for leading her husband – “one of the most unimaginative men she had ever met” – into this secret dreamscape: “I’ll ask you to keep your imagination to yourself in future. It can be a dangerous thing when you spread it around.”
Like many of Jones’s novels, these stories – while firmly rooted in the recognisable here-and-now of contemporary New Zealand – are prone to wandering at will to other countries and imagined worlds.
For many readers, the resulting fluidity will be exciting; those who like their storytelling more linear and earthbound may be left just plain confused at times. In the compressed, economical framework of a short story, there’s no room for the author to provide the reader with helpful back stories, context, scene-setting. They just grab you by the hand and drag you pell-mell through an unfamiliar landscape populated by unknown individuals; as a reader, you simply have to keep up, collecting whatever clues you can in order to get your bearings.
Some of Jones’s stories-within-stories, and the tendency of his characters to migrate between dreamworlds and “reality”, make the terrain simply too hard to navigate. The essential building blocks of the story – who’s speaking? what happened? when? – somehow get lost in the cryptic telling.
I found this collection impressive, and sometimes exhilarating. There is a rush of narrative possibility in every story, a sense that we might be taken somewhere unexpected and astonishing at any moment. The language is trimmed of all descriptive excess, yet never drab -– wet clothes emerge from the wringer “like bits of ruin”, a woman roller-skating shuts her eyes ”as if trying to find a way back to some partially lost feeling”, a large man in a small car sits “hunched up like a circus bear”. Above all, the ordinary world is made strange in a way that makes us see, and feel, something new.
For all these admirable qualities, though, there is a coldness running through this collection that, after the urgency and heat of Mister Pip, may surprise some readers. Time after time, the stories reveal fissures in relationships and the distances between people. They may be nominally joined in marriages or families or households, but this is largely a world of isolated individuals and private worlds. Sex may be mechanical or an act of revenge or faintly voyeuristic, but seldom is it affectionate (apart from in the wonderful “The Simpsons in Russia”, where the protagonists rediscover their mutual passion on a very odd bus trip).
Ultimately, Jones’s characters inhabit their worlds, both real and imaginary, in solitude. This makes for a chill at the heart of a collection which, while hugely accomplished and sometimes startlingly original, may leave you feeling just a little cold.
Margot Schwass is a Wellington fiction writer and editor.