Flash!

This week, on Splice, I published a double-take, so to speak, on the flash fiction of Helen McClory. First up, I reviewed McClory’s two collections of short short storiesOn the Edges of Vision and Mayhem & Death:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a short story by Helen McClory so distinctive, but without fail you’ll know it when you find yourself reading one. McClory has been mining her own particular patch of territory for almost five years now, traversing the terrain between fabulism and domestic drama, surveying the stuff of folklore and mythology and weaving it into serious fiction with vivid imagery and poetic flair. Earlier this year, the publication of her second collection of stories, Mayhem & Death, was accompanied by the republication of her first, On the Edges of Vision (2015), and the two collections work in concert to give readers a more expansive sense of McClory’s inventive world: its breadth and contours, its alternately whimsical and sinister atmosphere, and its uncanny rules.

Then, a couple of days later, I spoke to McClory about her aesthetic preferences and her decision to return to flash fiction after having previously published a novel, Flesh of the Peach:

Why keep going back to [flash fiction], then — unjustly under-appreciated as it is — when you know you can do amazing things with forms that attract more respectability, and more readers? What does it give you, creatively, that longer forms don’t?

I’ve never thought about this before: why return to flash? I think that’s because ever since I discovered it as a form, flash has felt right, the right use of my tendency towards hybridisation. There’s something between the dog and the wolf about it: the poetic prose, but not prose poetry, able to shift into direct, more traditionally realistic modes, but then swiftly about-face and become wild again in a moment.

Longer forms don’t have that specific quality. A novel drifts through its moods over years, a big galley ship. A novella is an exercise in staging a set and following the story through to its end. Flash fiction shivers, mutates, blooms in its tiny space. I don’t know what I’m going to write when I set out to do it. I hope that the fluidity and experimental feeling of it is transmitted to the reader, too..

Obsession and Repetition

At Splice, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the poet Katharine Kilalea, whose début novel OK, Mr Field is published this month by Faber:

You’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

Zambra’s Intimacy

Following on from Jason DeYoung’s review of Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, published this week on Splice, I spoke to Zambra’s translator, Megan McDowell, about Zambra’s profile as a critic:

In your introduction [to Not to Read], you also say that by the time Alejandro Zambra “stopped contributing criticism to the Chilean press”, circa 2009, he had “consolidated both a certain renown and a voice, and developed a way of thinking about literature”. His criticism has some noticeable features — unashamed enthusiasm for his subjects, the use of the first-person voice, a focus, above all, on the impressions made by works of literature — but, in your judgment, what is it that makes his “way of thinking about literature” so distinct?

It’s hard to separate his way of thinking about literature from his literature. I think you highlight some key things, but I would focus on the intimacy of his writing. I think both his criticism and his fiction are examinations of received ideas about literature (and received culture in general), in which he searches for his own voice within that context. These critical pieces show Alejandro looking at other writers who have struggled to find, and who have found, their voices, and he clearly learns from them. They don’t tend to be canonical writers, the writers of Literature who have a solid, ‘authorial’ voice (think Vargas Llosa), but rather writers who are engaged and really struggling with questions of how and why to write.

Two Q&As

Following on from Anna MacDonald’s review of Southerly by Jorge Consiglio, published earlier this month at Splice, I spoke to Consiglio’s translator, Cherilyn Elston, about the pleasures and challenges of bringing his work into English:

What challenges did you face as a translator in retaining this quality of the stories, rendering so much of their power only through implication? Or are there features of Consiglio’s style that made it not so great a challenge?

This was one of the features that attracted me to the stories, but it was also a real challenge. The language of the stories is very delicate, yet at the same it expertly builds this tension and underlying violence without resorting to conventional narrative techniques. Gabriela Cabezón Cámera, one of Consiglio’s contemporaries (and also now published in translation by Charco Press) has referred to this as the Consiglian narrative logic, a logic which goes against the tide and challenges the conventional sequential logic of a story. As Consiglio himself says, he constructs his narratives through careful attention to syntax and sound as generators of meaning. Therefore, the sense of each sentence, each paragraph, is constructed via a complex logic related more to imagery or qualities that we would consider poetic or lyrical.

And then, following on from David Hebblethwaite’s review of Chris Power’s Mothers, which went up this week at Splice, I put a few questions to Power about the art of the short story, both in theory and in practice:

I’m very interested in close third [person voice], this voice that is separate from the character, but so close that it never reveals anything that the character himself or herself isn’t aware of; in fact so close that the character’s perception and manner even tints the neutrality of the narrative voice. The calibration of that voice was very important to me when I was writing these stories. Get it right and you’re with the character, but as you say you’ve got some crucial distance there too, which kind of gives you a front-row seat on these moments of psychic disaster. I wouldn’t be so interested in being within Liam’s stream of consciousness in the final scenes of ‘Above the Wedding’, when he’s completely wrecked, but by tracking him at one remove, the writing can reflect a degree of his disorder while still remaining coherent.

I hadn’t thought of the prose style establishing a kind of tragic distance between the characters’ disorder and the writing’s order, but I think it’s an interesting idea. What you say about the limits of self-knowledge, and our knowledge of others, is certainly true; it’s there throughout the book and is something that fascinates and sometimes terrifies me, depending on how robust I’m feeling on a particular day. That’s why Eva’s arc is the reverse of a traditional one. She becomes less known to us as the book goes on, and the individual chapters in her story move from first person to close third to, in the final piece, close third on her husband.

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.