What if? Susan Pearce

The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories 
Laura Solomon
Proverse Hong Kong
ISBN 9789888167357

Rising to the Surface
Latika Vasil
Steele Roberts
ISBN 9781927242124

Blood and Koka Kola
Christodoulos E G Moisa
One Eyed Press
ISBN 9781483911298

Each short story I love is distinguished by a different, glowing, coherent consciousness. To achieve that, a vital, even chaotic impulse towards life must propel the first writing. Yet the chaos can only be transmuted into that ardent consciousness by a disciplined awareness of language, cadence, characterisation, structure and so on. And the stories’ originating ideas must be pushed far enough to satisfy.

The story ideas in The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories speak of a lively and curious engagement with the world. What if a brain surgeon accidentally removes a bunch of neurons responsible for anger management? What if the baby born to a pioneering male geneticist is taken from him? What if a husband begins an affair with a group of mannequins?

In the collection’s most successful story, “Count Homogenised”, the “what if” is more subtle: a childhood inequality between two sisters, which continues into adulthood. Despite a beginning dominated by backstory, the story becomes pacey and involving, and draws to a satisfyingly uncomfortable conclusion. Character is Solomon’s strength, particularly when she has young women speak to each other or argue.

But many of these stories have the reader asking, “Well, what if?” They mistake lengthy extensions of the opening situation for plot development. Despite realistic dialogue, some good sentences and sections where the narrative lifts off, repetitious digressions and lack of dramatic tension produce a soporific effect.

In “Memory”, an amnesiac details, for nine pages, the obstacles he overcomes as he gradually makes another self. It’s not until his wife arrives that there’s any serious challenge to his new state. The story should begin where it ends, with the arresting lines, “I don’t fit anywhere. I am a non-person, a blank space. I no longer exist.” What might happen then? Other stories finish abruptly with the death of the protagonist or a key character, as if to preclude the need for any development.

The longest piece, “Ladies and Gentlemen”, is a story-cum-memoir narrated by Lucy Solomon, an aspiring writer from New Zealand. Amidst rambling anecdotes about her family, uni life, marriage and corporate career, the story focusses on the critical reception to her writing, which she compares to that given to Emily Perkins’s work. Perkins “always seemed to get away with the publication of her books without being berated. What had I done differently to attract so much flak?”

Since Lucy has asked, here goes. Judging from Perkins’s work, I’m betting she condenses her first efforts; spends an age constructing each sentence, making sure to avoid clichés and overblown metaphors; and revises obsessively. Each story in her award-winning collection, Not Her Real Name, features distinct premises, incidents and characterisations.

When British authors who had befriended Lucy critiqued her writing, it was, she says, as if they were

trying to teach the wayward kid in the ballet school to dance. Plié, plié, turn, that’s it now, smile! … We don’t want no can-cans here. But I like the can-can … I can-can alone, in my room, after dark, cackling to myself, practising, but they wouldn’t let me can-can onstage.

 

Did Lucy only welcome unreserved praise?

Yet those lines, although surrounded and permeated by unnecessary verbiage, are effective. It’s frustrating: there’s promise here, if only (one suspects) Solomon was keener on editing her work.

At their best, the stories in Latika Vasil’s Rising to the Surface are characterised by a restrained, evocative reporting. Often, sentences are thoughtfully composed, and studded with precise detail: “We wander under … cavernous overhead skeletons of flying pterodactyls. The museum is strangely crowded, overrun by several school parties.” She uses colour and light to good effect. The best story, “Birthday”, ends with a striking image of five oranges lying on wet tarmac at night: “neon-bright against the backdrop of the shiny black road, they caught and reflected the light like little planets in a shrinking universe.” In other stories, too, the reader is sometimes enveloped by the setting and atmosphere.

Often, though, several consecutive sentences make the same point, forming loose, prolix prose. And Vasil, like Solomon, frequently uses two or three metaphors where one would do, which only reminds us that the story is being told. There’s plentiful evidence of writing automatically: a character finds something “sidesplittingly funny”, a relationship moves at “breakneck speed”.

In “Birthday”, Vasil shows us that she can make a good story using a rather depressed, static protagonist. And in another of the better ones, “Jelly”, the mother-narrator, somewhat alienated from herself, does suit the story. But Vasil’s first person narrators often spend a lot of time (and paragraphs) thinking. Although they can be opinionated, they’re oddly passive. Often, just-in-time insertions of key background details contribute to the sense that the story is being reported to us well after the event: not a death-stroke for narrative, but requiring more skilful handling than this.

Although Vasil has some strong premises, a significant number of the stories suffer from a surfeit of status quo and a lack of tension. In “A shiver of sunlight”, an aimless and disillusioned office worker describes her day for five full pages before the (fairly predictable) event occurs – her redundancy – that could really get the story going. But it ends there. In the promisingly titled “Surviving earthquakes and other disasters”, a dark, suppressed pain is suggested early on by the speed with which the narrator ushers from her mind any images of a childhood friend made good, and there are moments of strength. In the absence of other tensions, the mysterious past becomes the story’s main hook, but when we discover the backstory in the last paragraphs, it turns out to be pretty anti-climactic.

As English novelist, Geoff Dyer, has written, where there is a paucity of plot, “Other things – structure and tone – must … take over some of the load-bearing work.” That has not happened here.

With one suicide and 13 murders between 24 stories, as well as six deaths (plus a bus-load) by accident or illness, and countless killings and another suicide that occur before the stories’ chronological starting points, Christodoulos Moisa’s collection, Blood and Koka Kola – published by his own press – thoroughly earns the first part of its title.

Many of the pieces work better when read as lively anecdotes. With archetypal characters, stories like “The Church” feel more like fables, but sparse detail lends intensity to the piece, as does a powerful exchange between priest and villagers.

In “The Garden”, Moisa provides a vivid picture of Greek Cypriot life during and immediately before the Turkish occupation. There’s humour when a schoolboy outwits his mates with claims of growing crossbred super-vegetables and, in another story, an understated transformation when a boy realises he may die protecting his mother and sister during the invasion of their village.

Some readers may become dispirited when Moisa passes up opportunities to keep them hooked or chooses not to provide clues to a central mystery. However, at times this seems due to a pleasing faith in the reader’s intelligence, such as in the title story which, until the last section, doesn’t lean heavily on the dramatic connection between the protagonist’s Communist leanings and his guard’s job at New Zealand’s post-war security service – the guards’ room and his colleagues are beautifully realised.

In other stories, among much summary, well-chosen scenes are dramatised to good effect. The voice is fairly deadpan and sometimes lacks intonation, but at its best is concise and descriptive and, as in sections of “The Parrot Man”, “Tapu”, or “The Border”, the cumulative effect of its sentences can resonate.

Moisa needs a better proofreader, an editor who will deal with occasional awkwardnesses of tense or phrasing, and a more discriminating selection process. Some stories rely too heavily on a shock ending, to the point that when a note of disquiet enters “Getting Shafted”, the reader may be able to roughly predict what’s coming. Others – too many – are simply plot or character ideas that have been shallowly developed. Many of the latter occur near the book’s beginning. It would be a pity if readers were put off, because those who persist may find that the collection’s voice, where successful, remains woven through them for a little while afterwards.

 

Susan Pearce is a Wellington writer.

 

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Posted in Literature, Review and Short stories
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