Familiar and strange, Charlotte Graham

Deleted Scenes for Lovers
Tracey Slaughter
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776560585

In almost a decade in journalism, I’ve spent a long time sitting in courtrooms. The people whose lives play out in front of a judge seem at first an easy measure, but after a while you realise you’re looking at one of those Rorschach blots. Concentrate on the prosecutor’s summary of facts and you see one image; hear, later, the slowly unfolding grief that led those involved to this point, and the image you felt so confident of is turned on its head. You realise, after a while, that it’s not the bits written on a police charge sheet that brought everyone here; not really. It’s everything that happened off-screen, sometimes years ago; sometimes generations.

Tracey Slaughter’s new short story collection, deleted scenes for lovers (lower case letters the author’s), reminded me of that same hopeless ache you get in courtrooms. The same satisfaction, too, of following threads back into someone’s life to find what is really at the heart of it, though never fully understanding how a life goes off its axis quite like this. We see Slaughter’s characters in the here and now, staggering, often, under the weight of past griefs and heartbreaks. The deleted scenes are what we glimpse at the edges, the things that brought them to this point.

“People don’t ask for help. That’s the lesson. They don’t believe it’s there to be asked for. What’s coming is loaded in the dark outside”: in “.22”, the official charged with deciding whether or not a man was fit to own a gun is looking back, trying to spot the clues he must have missed. No one in these stories asks for help. They save themselves or don’t. Life goes on, either way. In “go home, stay home”, a woman circulates at a party, refusing to say the word she’d heard in the doctor’s office just that afternoon. We know it’s cancer; she knows it. She just can’t say it. Later, after she’s had sex in the host’s toilet, she allows it to herself: “She feels it move in her mouth the way it’s moved in her body, swallowing, spreading. Eating every other word inside her head.” Slaughter perfectly captures not only the New Zealand resolution to simply not talk about it, but also the inevitable repercussions: the way the things we’ve pushed down start to leak out.

This is a stunning, feral, gut-punch of a book. Part of the reason is that it depicts a real New Zealand, an ignored and untold one. You could turn away from these stories, but that New Zealand would still be there. It’s white, working-class, bogan. The characters aren’t ciphers or allegories about sex or violence; they’re real and unexpected. It’s a New Zealand I was born into and later left, the characters at once familiar and strange. Sometimes, the stories hurt too much to contemplate, but that’s why we ignore them in real life, too.

The book, Slaughter’s second, could only possibly be consumed in little pieces. I dare anyone to tell me they read it in a sitting. The stories, at once spare and rich, feel like they’re being quietly dismantled. Reading them you have the sense of being disarmed by something compelling and then looking down and seeing your shoelaces have been tied together, or that your lungs are not where you left them. I described this feeling to someone, and they said it sounded “A bit much”, to which I thought, well, quite. That’s sort of the point: the human condition is a bit much, really. Whether you want to read hurt like this depends how close to the heart of darkness you want to stray. The payoff, if you’ll do it, is immense.

This is never more potent than in “consent”. Its title speaks to the enforced mental gymnastics endured by many victims of sexual violence. The schoolgirl in the story, scooping ice cream in a shop, consented, she says, to taking the first lick of the ice cream just like the customer asked her to. She was allowed to keep the change (and, as Slaughter points out, keep the change and keep it and keep it; a life changed irrevocably). Later, dressed up for something special, she “consents” to being led by the same customer into a house where there is a group of men waiting for her. Slaughter tells of the repercussions not only through blood and pain, but through the description of “a house you’ll never really find your way out of”. It’s a recurring theme; her characters, often, feel as though they are shuffling through dark hallways, hands outstretched, looking for a way outside.

Her protagonist awakes in the strange house the next morning, hoping for the murmur of her parents talking, a last moment, a wish, that her life is not about to be “the silence that comes next”. After “consent”, I took a long break from the book. Slaughter has said it was inspired by the outcome of the trial of the men accused of raping Louise Nicholas and the way it debased the idea of consent. She has teased out, in a few pages, what years of national conversation has struggled with: an account of the cost, articulated by the one paying it.

Some of the most moving stories are not tragedies, more the joy of a rare and mundane love. The ageing couple in “scenes of a long term nature” are depicted, back and forth in time, through snippets of their marriage, ending with their youthful meeting on a school bus. It is simple. There’s no conceit to it. They grow old together, sort of. Their togetherness takes knocks. There is something beautiful in it, and by the end, I was inexplicably close to tears. It’s not a new trick (we care more about the meeting, by the end, because we know what comes next), but the writing pulled me open.

And the writing is beautiful: Slaughter has a poet’s style that brings intimacy to the reader and the characters, rather than aloofness. Two women share leftovers in the kitchen at a party, and

A thick dusk, ripe and silent as tree roots, trickles towards them over the paddocks. They stop on the lino, in the last block of honey the light leaves, and sway with it, nearing touch. Side by side, the bowls of their breasts almost slope to each other, knock, damp with love.

Slaughter has spoken in interviews of her desire to write poetry that propels forward. The controlled drift of the protagonist in “the turn” as she decides, while driving burnouts in a car, whether to turn off her brother’s life support, is a long, slow, controlled skid of emotion and pain and grief. It’s an astonishing piece of writing. You don’t find out, by the way, what she decides to do. This is sort of a spoiler, but it’s important, because the stories often end that way. You don’t know what the character decides. You don’t need to. They have spent the course of the story trying to firm up their resolve to act, and now they’ve found it. That’s all you need to know. If that sounds a bit clever, well, there are a few things in this book that would be a bit clever if the writing wasn’t excellent.

I felt as though I was supposed to find deleted scenes for lovers a book about sex, because of the lovers in the title. It’s not really, although there’s a lot of sex in it. The very first sentence – “I had sex with the hitchhiker down on the beach, because I knew I couldn’t bear to take him into the caravan” – from the story “note left on a window”, sparked the cancellation of a public reading by Slaughter in Thames. This is ridiculous. The story itself is a wonderful, disturbing meditation on suicide and the failures of family, so it’s Thames’s loss. So the sex is there, raw and grimy and uncomfortable (or at least, it felt that way reading part of the book on a plane while seated next to a child, one arm awkwardly crooked round the page). But these stories are really about what’s been deleted: a willingness to confront what has happened, sometimes hope, sometimes people. It’s the drag of the hidden past being drawn up into the light.

“Every writer knows their own ‘black block’, that dark mass under your chest wall that holds your deep material, the stories you must speak of,” Slaughter said, in a recent interview. “If you don’t listen to that, your stories might stay clean, but the page will, in effect, be empty.” These pages are full. They are full to the point where you finish a story holding your breath and it is still leaking into your eyes and plugging up your nose, dripping down into your chest, and you flip the book shut but you’re on a crowded plane, jet engine loud against the night, and it all still feels so full, like you can’t get rid of it.

There is a lure to this, though, as a reader. I questioned that, about halfway through. Did I want to go on reading? Was it “a bit much”, whatever that is? What’s to stop this from reading like 15 mini A Little Lifes in a row, where you start feeling that pushing on to the ending is a form of self-harm? A few days later, I would feel less full and find myself reading again. The characters drew me back. But then I am the sort of person who sat for years in courtrooms. In some odd way, this is a hopeful book: if Slaughter is writing from the black block in her chest, she is also speaking directly into yours. It is a book of strange people yearning to be understood, for strange people who know how that is.

Charlotte Graham is a journalist and broadcaster who lives in Wellington.

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