Sympathy and Its Limits

It’s easy to make a very particular, pointed objection to Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’ One of the things I admire about the story, however, is the way in which, rather than shying away from this objection, Carver acknowledges it, seizes it for himself, and thematises it. ‘So Much Water’ depicts the disintegrating marriage of a man named Stuart and his wife Claire. It begins just after Stuart has returned home from a weekend away on a remote fishing trip with a few buddies. On their first night of camping, we learn, he and his friends discovered the corpse of a young woman floating in a river. But rather than immediately filing a report with the police, the men agreed to tie the corpse to a nearby tree, and they only made a move to contact the authorities when they returned to town at the end of the weekend. Now there’s public outrage brewing. Stuart’s name is in the newspapers and he is receiving threatening phone calls at home. His marriage to Claire begins to strain. Claire can’t fathom how he could have so dehumanised the dead girl as to continue casting about for fish as if she wasn’t floating right there in the river.

Yet Stuart is neither the protagonist nor the narrator of the story. Claire is the one who details all these events and more besides, and that’s what lies at the heart of the objection to ‘So Much Water.’ Carver, an upper middle class man, has adopted the voice of a working class woman and attempted to lay bare her inner turmoil. Moreover, he has taken care to alert his readers to the difference in gender between himself and his narrator from the very first line: “My husband eats with a good appetite.” But what could Carver possibly know, authentically, about the consciousness of a woman like Claire? How true to life can Claire’s voice really be, and how condescending must Carver have been for believing that he could faithfully and respectfully channel it? Especially given that Carver decided to conclude the story with the distraught Claire acting on an impulsive hunger for urgent, aggressive sex with the husband she has come to despise, ‘So Much Water’ would seem to be at serious risk of collapsing into the gender divide between its narrator and its author. Is it really just a work of white male fantasy? Is it a facile, failed attempt at domestic realism that misses its mark because Carver knew nothing of the life he sought to depict? Why did he elect to write this story in this woman’s voice? Why not go for the easy option and allow Stuart to speak for himself? Why did he both risk and flirt with this sort of objection to his engagement in such tangled gender politics?

At the heart of this objection is a simple accusation: that Carver’s background, Carver’s being, inevitably forestalls him from being able to sufficiently sympathise with the character he has created in ‘So Much Water.’ Intriguingly, though, the issue of the limits of sympathy, and of real or perceived deficits in one’s ability to sympathise with another person, is precisely what Carver takes as his theme in ‘So Much Water.’ Stuart is able to dismiss the humanity of the dead girl because he is unable to sufficiently sympathise with her, unable to put himself in her place and seriously consider what must have happened to her in order for her to end up as she has done. He is also unable to sympathise with her parents and to wonder how they might hope for their daughter to be treated in the event of her death. But the anonymous callers who abuse Stuart are also unable to sympathise with him. They fail to see why his time away from home might have been so precious to him that he would behave as he behaved; they don’t consider that he is a blue collar worker for whom downtime is hard to come by, for whom reporting the discovery would have destroyed a rare and precious weekend out of town. Claire appears to sense as much, but then she too comes up against the limits of her sympathy as she is better able to sympathise with the dead girl than with her own husband.

In fact, in the story’s most elliptical passage, Claire places herself in the position of the dead girl, moments before she is murdered, without Carver having even signalled a transition into speculation. In a brief scene, Claire announces to her hairdresser that she is preparing to attend the girl’s funeral “tomorrow,” and then, on the morning of the ceremony, she rises from bed to “put on coffee and fix breakfast while [Stuart] shaves.” Finally she leaves a note for her young son so that he can return home from school and know something of her whereabouts, and what follows is a section break before she describes her journey:

I drive through farm country, through fields of oats and sugar beets and past apple orchards, cattle grazing in pastures. Then everything changes, more like shacks than farmhouses and stands of timber instead of orchards. Then mountains, and on the right, far below, I sometimes see the Naches River.

There is nothing in the remainder of that passage to suggest that the “I” of its narrator is in any way distinct from the “I” of the woman who narrates the story as a whole. The only thing that suggests a distinction is the context, and even then it’s ambiguous. Since Claire indicates, in the previous section, that she will travel to the funeral, it’s no surprise for readers to find her driving her car. Only as the passage unfolds does it become clear that this entire section is one long, unbridled act of sympathy, as the narrator has an unnerving encounter with a threatening man, “a crewcut man in a blue workshirt,” who has the air of a potential rapist and murderer.

It’s not enough to say that Carver’s story is simply shot through with deficits of sympathy. Significantly, Carver’s characters engage in certain courses of action — such as when Stuart wakes in the morning and decides to let Claire sleep in longer than usual, or when Claire gives deep consideration to the tone of the word “Love” in a letter she receives from her husband and in the letter she writes her son — which are carried out as confused attempts to compensate for their deficits of sympathy. This is even the case when Claire and Stuart rush into a sex act at the end of the story. Stuart is, in the heat of the moment, attempting to compensate for having angered Claire without knowing it. Claire, offering her body to Stuart without much willingness but also without protest, is attempting to compensate for sympathising more with the dead girl than with her husband, even if the result of their encounter only extends her sympathy with the girl. On the whole, then, while Carver doesn’t quite dismiss the objection to the gender politics of ‘So Much Water So Close to Home,’ he does cast doubts on the act of sympathy in a way that echoes the doubts that underpin the objection. If his readers ask how Carver, of all people, could possibly sympathise with the woman he takes as his narrator, ‘So Much Water’ supersedes that question by instead asking how it’s possible for anyone to truly sympathise with anyone else at all.

Feet, Teeth, Dust

He walked all night, feeling no fatigue, trembling sometimes with the thrill of being free. When it began to grow light he left the road and moved across open country. He saw no human being, though more than once he was startled by buck leaping from cover and racing away into the hills. The dry white grass waved in the wind; the sky was blue; his body was overflowing with vigour. Walking in great loops, he skirted first one farmhouse, then another. The landscape was so empty that it was not hard to believe at times that his was the first foot ever to tread a particular inch of earth or disturb a particular pebble. But every mile or two there was a fence to remind him that he was a trespasser as well as a runaway. Ducking through the fences, he could feel a craftsman’s pleasure in wire spanned so taut that it hummed when it was plucked. Nonetheless, he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.

J.M. Coetzee
Life & Times of Michael K

Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible.

Consider, for instance, this passage from The Natural Order of Things, which describes an encounter between a high school football coach named Kaliher, recently separated from his wife, and his loathsome landlady Mrs. O’Neill. As the owner and manager of a seedy apartment block populated by “the downtrodden, ruined, addicted, and insane,” O’Neill “actively seeks out male renters” so that she can demand sexual intercourse in the event of a shortfall in rent, and Kaliher, as usual, has not been able to pay up. O’Neill, we are told, leans against the entrance to his apartment with “a long pillar of cigarette ash wobbling between her lizard lips” and “shambles” inside, “heavy and compact as a bison,” to claim what she believes she is owed. Other writers might shy away from pursuing the implications of the grotesque terms applied to Mrs. O’Neill, the investiture of both reptilian and hulkingly mammalian properties that seem at first to be contradictory, but Keating doubles down with an outpouring that extends and embellishes them. “No matter how many times [Kaliher] submits to this monthly ritual,” Keating writes,

he is shocked by the vulgarity of Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom talk and the rough manner in which she shoves his face into the swampy valley between her sloping breasts, down to the impressive rolls of fat that have congealed around her navel, across the rugged terrain of her thorny snatch, ever lower, lower, all the while rasping her sinister commands with pitiless glee. … Taking direction like a trained seal [when she orders him to lick her feet], he sweeps his tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, heel to toe, heel to toe [and then, u]sing the advantage of her weight, she pins him to the mattress, parts her legs and slowly envelopes him in her clammy flesh.

Thirty minutes later, the tentacled creature squirts her ink over his abdomen, and the unspeakable ordeal comes to an end.

O’Neill, then, is reptilian and mammalian as well as amphibian (“swampy”) and somehow vegetative (“thorny”) and even oceanic (“clammy” and “tentacled”) and yet Keating still doesn’t stop there. After Mrs. O’Neill belittles Kaliher for prostituting himself once again,

she stands up, pulls the bathrobe around her thick torso, and plunges into a pool of black shadow, Grendel’s mother, glutted on warrior blood, diving into the heaving depths of her sinister fen somewhere in the misty moorlands. Kaliher, marvelling at the terrible strength of this tusked and taloned tarn-hag, wonders if she ever had children of her own, stillborn things sent straight to Limbo.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. Taking its cue from the likes of Winesburg, Ohio, Keating’s début offers less a conventionally linear narrative than an anthology of interwoven stories that drift amongst the depraved denizens of a decaying Midwestern town dominated by the tall Gothic tower of a morally bankrupt Jesuit school. Flocks of grackles and roaming packs of dogs recur throughout the stories, as do particular Jesuit priests, several filthy prostitutes, and a sinister cab driver whose teeth have rotted away into “unsightly gray stumps.” Events recur as well, and in fact are repeated, as successive stories establish chronologies that parallel or intersect with those of earlier stories by depicting action that has already been depicted elsewhere. Throughout it all, Keating fixes his narratorial gaze on the most corrupt, most deviant, most perverted behaviours of the Jesuit school’s staff and students, but he does so in a way that intensifies the immorality to such a cartoonish extent that, by design, it loses its shocking edge.

In one chapter, a man receives a blowjob from his lover while gazing out the window at a block of apartments in which a neighbour’s mischievous dog, Gonzago, sits at his own window and watches the man in the throes of his pleasure. The woman on her knees “slurps, gags, makes funny quacking sounds,” Keating writes, “but just as [the man’s] eyelids start to flutter, he happens to glance out the window and sees the dog imitating him, prancing around on its hind legs like some bizarre animal act at a roadside carnival. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to make mischief, Gonzago begins to howl with maniacal laughter, a single extended note that starts as a banshee’s moan and ends as a deafening siren that oscillates with horrific madhouse harmonics” — and that howl causes the blowjob to climax in a very particular sort of pain. Another dog in another chapter is hit by a car and presumed dead by the driver, a man named Claude, until the owner picks up his injured pet and confronts the runaway assailant. “The thing is still alive,” Claude realises, “its head crushed like a rotten apple, its snout crusted over with blood, its reeking organs and entrails bubbling and foaming from the angry wound on its enormous, heaving belly. Claude stares, can’t help but stare, and when the thing lifts an accusatory paw toward him, he stumbles backward and begins to cough on the fumes spewing from the tailpipe.” There’s also a paedophilic teacher who sleeps with the school’s star quarterback, and a psychopathic student who tortures a priest on his deathbed, and of course there’s the wretched, decrepit Father Loomis himself — a monster “[c]oncealed under a thin sheet like a circus freak behind the curtain of an arched proscenium,” a “gibbering, drooling, cadaverous creature” whose “desiccated flesh [is] pale blue, vaguely aquatic, almost translucent” and who “squirms in a hospital bed and claws at the air with nails so jagged and yellow that they seem capable of infecting anyone foolish enough to get too close.”

In The Captive Condition, Keating takes as his narrator a prominent character from The Natural Order of Things but displaces him and distances him from the location of the earlier novel. Edmund Campion moves away from the Jesuit school to start afresh on the campus of Wakefield College in the small town of Normandy Falls. The institution noticeably shares a name with the protagonist of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and, at Wakefield, Campion finds himself in a Midwestern dump concealing the sort of ancestral horrors and beset by the sort of dark arts practitioners to be found in Hawthorne’s more gothic stories and in those of his successors. Featuring ghosts, mutants, monsters, rumours of werewolves, live burials, children conceived for ritual purposes, creepy twins, and plenty more surreptitious sexual deviance, debauchery, and depravity, The Captive Condition hybridises Blue Velvet and the Cthulhu mythos and sets it all on the stage of a college campus. That this is a novel about monsters is no mistake and no metaphorical way of speaking of its treatment of more worldly things. In one scene, for instance, Campion stumbles upon a concealed, shadowy cavern in which “a row of storage shelves” rises “from floor to ceiling” and holds “hundreds of glass jars, some the size of growlers, their contents sealed tight with zinc canning lids” like “a squirming horde of mutant djinns desperate to explode from their magic lamps.” These “mutant djinns” are “small, fetal, fish-eyed things,” Keating writes,

bloated masses of flesh incubating outside their mother’s womb, insensate creatures neither terrestrial nor aquatic caught in the collective grip of a curious dream, their eyes twitching, their forked and tufted tails swaying in a cloudy fluid that glowed goblin green. … I understood now that Normandy Falls contained a secret, a colossal creeping sentient madness hibernating beneath the fulgurite-pitted earth. For the better part of a century, the hereditary horrors of the Wakefield clan had been anticipating the arrival of a weary traveller who would set them free so they might lurk among the roadless reaches of swamp and forest and swim once again in the river. Because given enough time something always manages to escape from the laboratory and foul the water.

That’s not the first time readers encounter such creatures. We have already been introduced, memorably, to a woman who creates metallic representations of similarly fishlike beings, “cruelly shaped things that may have washed up in the fecal mire and interstitial wastes along the river, web-footed, membranous monsters of inconceivable ugliness… [that] floated freely and without consequence in the smoky air [and] gonged weirdly and gave off a gangrenous and chlorotic glare.” Nor is it the last time that such precise and vivid language is marshalled in order to evoke a scene of such unremitting horror. Later, for instance, a crowded restaurant consumed by fire becomes “an immense sacrificial pyre, a brazier of people bursting into flames, their faces peeling like curled sheets of bark from beechwood trees after a powerful windstorm,” and as everyone’s hair catches alight, all of them start insensibly running into each other except for one old woman who, we are told, “tore a blazing white wig from her head and hurled it to the floor, where it burned like a hairball coughed up by a hacking dragon.” And the grotesquerie of Keating’s characters extends beyond mere physical description in a way that taints their actions in the descriptive language applied to them. Writing of Xavier D’Avignon, a small-town chef with pretensions of becoming a master of fine dining, Keating notes that “[w]hen it came to the preparation and presentation of haute cuisine… [he] felt an intellectual, spiritual, and even sexual empowerment that far surpassed anything he’d ever experienced, and he often boasted that his perfectly executed recipes were not only manna from heaven but also potent aphrodisiacs raining down from the sky like Cupid’s arrows.” Later, when this same man is looked upon by another who suspects that the chef is cuckolding him, the second man sees him as a “proud and swaggering ‘stunt cock’ who night after night climbed on top of his wife and” — in a turn of phrase equal parts apt and absurd — “emptied himself into her like rancid bouillabaisse from an overturned creamer.”

It’s easy to oversell a writer with a claim that his or her work is “not for the faint of heart.” It’s easy to all but openly dare a reader to pick up the work if for no other reason than to prove that he or she is not ruled by overly delicate sensibilities. In Keating’s case, though, the phrase is apt because a number of readers are likely to find the work off-putting for any number of reasons. One reason is simply that Mrs. O’Neill’s melodramatic grotesquerie is typical of Keating’s world, far from an exception to the rule. More significantly, though, his narratives are unresolved and inconsequential even when they’re not outright recursive and cyclical, and his style is marked by a tendency towards excess in almost every sentence, particularly in his intensifiers and the caricatured quality of the imagery with which he forges similes and metaphors. If his work is not for the faint of heart, then, that is only partly because his world is distinctly unappealing, utterly without any humanist concerns for the people living in it, and more so because readers who are interested only in the ways of his world are unlikely to see an appeal in the words he deploys to construct it. His absurd diction and loopy syntax not only obstruct our sympathy for those who suffer in his world and refuse to redeem those who perpetuate suffering, but they in fact gloss the world in a such way as to take sympathy and redemption entirely out of the question — to place them utterly beside the point. To achieve an effect such as that is both the challenge and the privilege of world-building in prose, and it is a testament to his prose, above all, that Keating is able to pull it off.

Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a beautiful novel for a number of reasons, although as I read it I often found myself wondering how much of its lustre would be lost on readers unfamiliar with Gilead. Unlike readers of Home, its immediate predecessor in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, readers of Lila will find much to appreciate even if they are not familiar with the other two titles. In part this is the case because Home replays many of the events already depicted by the narrator of Gilead, albeit from the perspective of a different character and therefore in a way that imbues them with new meanings, while Lila covers events that occur many years before the action of Gilead and that have been, until now, almost entirely unexplored. If a novel that requires its readers to possess knowledge of another novel thereby places a burden on their shoulders, Lila arguably leaves its readers at greater liberty than Home, and yet, while reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that liberty comes with its own sort of price.

In what sense, then, could a full appreciation of Lila be said to depend on a familiarity with Gilead if their narratives do not overlap or meaningfully conjoin? Towards the end of the novel, Lila, hitchhiking, is picked up by a woman driving home to visit her ailing mother, and when the woman suggests that it must be nerve-wracking for Lila to so completely have placed her life in another person’s hands, Lila replies by stating, simply, that she “don’t much care what happens” to her. “Then,” we are told, “she could feel in the dark that for a minute the woman was wondering about her, about to ask her a question, then thinking better of it. Lila thought, Maybe she suspects I’m the kind of woman who might keep a knife in her garter. Might sleep in her clothes.” As it turns out, though, the woman is listening to a sound outside, a sound that she fears might signal that the car risks breaking down. She’s more concerned about whether she’ll be able to make it to her destination than she is about Lila’s story.

This passage isn’t particularly significant in itself, but it’s broadly symptomatic of Robinson’s approach to conveying Lila’s approach to the ways in which she sees other people approaching her. The third-person omniscient narrator of Lila hews close to Lila’s perspective on events. Thoughts are reported without any qualms, and free indirect discourse prevails throughout. But Lila has been crippled by a lifelong poverty that has rendered her continually ashamed of herself and suspicious of the motives of others, and as a result her thoughts tend towards attempts at second-guessing the thoughts of the people around her. In fact, as Lila silently observes other people, Robinson’s free indirect discourse reveals that Lila’s thoughts frequently take the form of a secondary free indirect discourse, a reading of the thoughts of others conveyed in a prose style that makes seemingly factual assertions of speculative insights.

Essentially, Robinson uses free indirect discourse to construct and convey the experiential impressions of a very particular consciousness: the consciousness of a woman who is largely certain of what she thinks other people think of her, even though the very act of trying to think the thoughts of others makes her very susceptible to error and a misapprehension of social affairs. And by publishing this novel after having published Gilead, Robinson uses the space between the two novels, which is one of the key formal properties of any novelistic series, to suggest the extent of Lila’s susceptibility to error without ever making a statement of it.

Gilead takes the form of the first-person reflections and pseudo-memoirs of Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames. The form of that novel grants the reader more or less direct access to Ames’ thoughts and encourages an affinity for the sensibility they reveal. When Ames shows up in Lila, however, and involves Lila in events that occur well before their marriage develops a solid foundation, what appears on the page are Robinson’s reports of Lila’s thoughts of Ames’ possible thoughts of Lila. What doesn’t appear on the page are any statements, direct or otherwise, that hint at how misguided Lila’s thoughts may be, but as the reader of Gilead crosses the gap between that novel and Lila, he or she can’t help but import onto Lila an awareness of the way that Ames so carefully regulates his thoughts of other people. Just by virtue of occupying its position in the structure of a novelistic series, albeit in a way that has nothing to do with the causal connections between events in a serialised narrative, Lila weaves a shadow-voice, the voice of Ames, into the voice of the narrator who makes disclosures of Lila. The effect of this is that entire sentences in Lila acquire a double significance as Ames responds to the suppositions that Lila makes of him, although these responses do not appear on the page but only enter the novel through the serial structure it shares with its predecessor — gilding the free indirect style, as it were. But then, of course, only the reader of Gilead can hear the murmurs of Ames’ shadow-voice when reading Lila, so that even if the more recent novel is entirely comprehensible on its own, the experience of reading it as a standalone text is also, perhaps, not quite so deep or rich as it might otherwise be.

Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?”

Take a look at the opening words, narrated by the headstrong Darl Bundren as he stalks the outskirts of his family’s property in the company of his hapless half-brother Jewel:

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cotton-house can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.

The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cotton-house in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cotton-house at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.

The novel begins with one person’s attempt to navigate his way across unsteady terrain by tracing his position relative to both the fixed points in an absolute system of reference (“straight as a plumb-line,” “between the green rows,” “in the centre,” “turns and circles,” “four soft right angles,” “on across the field again”) and other, unfixed features including Jewel, who is moving at equal pace with Darl but remains “fifteen feet” behind him. The opening passage also includes an attempt on the part of Darl to take the measure of the world from the perspective of a person distinct from himself: it’s not simply the case that Jewel’s straw hat rises “a full head above” Darl, but that, conspicuously, “anyone watching [them] from the cotton-house” would see it rise so high above him. In other words, the novel begins with an attempt to fix in place a mutable experience by aligning it with a complex of values, some of which are environmental while others are interpersonal. And what is the remainder of As I Lay Dying if not a long succession of further attempts, on the part of various characters, to do the very same thing? The values are delineated chapter by chapter, as the narratorial perspective jumps from one character to another, and the experience aligned to them is the life of Addie Bundren.

Whatever the gripes and distresses of any one character at any one moment, they all issue from each character’s efforts to find, in the face of Addie’s death, a way of being in the world that allows their actions to be somehow commensurate to the loss of the Bundren matriarch. Each character in As I Lay Dying is confronted with this question: “What is, or was, the value of the life of Addie Bundren?” Each character fumbles towards an answer to that question, with reference to his or her own particular complex of values. Those values determine the ways in which each character attempts to pay respect to Addie: by showing scrupulous precision in the building of her coffin, by dwelling on memories of the mortality of a fish in order to apprehend the finality of her death, by keeping one’s promise to a dying woman no matter what the cost in blood and treasure. But of course, because every character’s values are distinct from those of every other character, each character, while assessing the value of Addie’s life, is required also to compromise on his or her assessments and adjust the means of measurement in response to the behaviour of others. The conflict that besets the Bundren family therefore comes not just from the clash of personalities, or the clash of individuals enmeshed in certain circumstances, but from profound disagreements about the most proper way to determine what the life of the matriarch was finally worth and then to decide how to proceed in her absence.

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it?

You might take the realist’s approach to that question and have your protagonist make an issue of the horror, the repulsion, and not least the indignity of being served a plateful of hair. You might take the fabulist’s approach, having your protagonist consume it delicately and delightedly and without further comment from anyone else in a world in which it is widely known that a plateful of hair makes an exquisite meal. Or you might take the approach of Amelia Gray, which basically involves splitting the difference between those two possibilities. “Do try something,” the inwardly horrified but outwardly courteous protagonist says to her partner in ‘Dinner,’ the opening story in Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird. Implicitly inviting the gentleman to try the hair before she tries it herself, she manages simultaneously to register her disgust at the unusual meal she has been served and to show the social graces so crucial to the success of the date. Unfortunately, though, the gentleman, Dave, declines the woman’s seemingly generous offer:

Dave shook his head. He was still smiling, but his gaze had dropped to her lips, meaning either that he wanted to kiss her — she had read about this technique in magazines — or that he wanted her to take a healthy chunk of hair with her fork and choke it down with a swallow of red wine, forcing the clogged mass down her throat like an obstruction through the pipes of a bathtub.

What exactly does Dave want her to do? How exactly is she supposed to behave in the scenario she faces? The answer to such a question doesn’t really matter. The sheer mystery undergirding the question itself, a mystery unresolved and in fact spun out into an extended period of irresolution, is what makes ‘Dinner’ a typical Amelia Gray short story. It’s a question that similarly plagues the incredulous narrator of ‘Babies’ when she wakes one morning “to discover I had given birth overnight,” as well as dogging the perturbed and exhausted townsfolk of ‘Vultures,’ who struggle to make accommodations for the violent and predatory carrion birds that have taken up residence in their streets. And it’s there, too, in ‘Fish,’ which focuses on the awkward social standing of two men, Dale and Howard, who have decided to marry inanimate objects and who expect the people around them to view their marriages as not only legitimate but also unremarkable. “When anyone asked Dale if he had dated actual women before making the decision to marry a paring knife,” Gray writes, “he would look at that person with such incredulity that the stranger would feel as if they had been rude to inquire,” while Howard, who is a little more accommodating, admits that even though “a bag of frozen tilapia was different in many ways from a woman… in many ways it was the same.” Time and again in Gray’s short stories, characters either encounter or give rise to some monumental absurdity, some rupture in the logical ways of the world, and yet, while they do not follow the fabulist’s route and treat the absurd as anything but, they also don’t quite follow the realists in making an issue of it. They are realists in most respects but for their reticence to permit themselves an authentic reaction to absurdity, their insistence on facing the absurd with composure and decorum.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Gray’s body of work, one might assume that she churns out the sort of hip, disaffected, droll, vaguely snarky and often precious stories that tend to populate venues like McSweeney’s and Vice, both of which have published her. In fact, though, she doesn’t do this at all. Throughout Museum of the Weird as well as her first story collection, AM/PM, and her ingenious novel Threats, Gray has carved out a space all her own — concocting a tone all her own and steadily perfecting her recipe — and the trajectory she has followed in the course of doing this has reached a sort of apotheosis in her latest collection, Gutshot. More so than ever before, there’s something unsettling and beguiling to the cumulative effect of watching one character after another acknowledge absurdity in a way that is both laconic and stoic, and yet it’s less off-putting than hypnotically engaging. The result of the whole is an experience of uncanniness without the sense of spooky disquiet: a little like what you might get from watching a simulacrum of human interactions created by extraterrestrials, or from watching primates at play in a zoo and recognising some ancestral kinship in their more human mannerisms.

The opening story of Gutshot, for example, focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman perfectly suited to one another until, halfway through a sentence, they begin to lose their memories of their life together. Rather than asking what might be happening to their memories, despite their awareness of a profound loss, they simply ask questions of the world around them, questions intended to help them find their way back to themselves, so that the simple act of asking becomes the new common denominator of their life together. ‘The Lark’ is a similarly bizarre yet heartfelt story focusing on a man who cannot speak more than a few words without vomiting into a bucket, but it is less about his suffering than about the chance encounter that brings him true love in spite of his condition. ‘The Labyrinth’ offers a sketch of a father who succeeds in replacing the children’s maze at his daughter’s birthday party with the mythical structure patrolled by the Minotaur, but it is less about the motives that lead him to do that, or the means by which he does it, than about the pride he feels for having done it and his yearning to share his pride with other parents. And in ‘Date Night,’ whose setup has echoes of ‘Dinner,’ a couple are out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the man excuses himself from the table and the woman, left alone, accidentally begins to disassemble her body. She “scratches her forearm a little too hard and a slice of skin peels up with her fingernail,” and with this she sparks a craze of deliberate, artful bodily decomposition that spreads to her fellow diners:

A woman screams until someone slips a dessert spoon under a muscle in her neck and flings her larynx to the floor, at which point the woman grasps both breasts, rips them from her body, and applies them to her throat. … Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.

Those words, together with the title of the collection, suggest a preoccupation with viscera that extends throughout Gutshot and gives it a vividness and a force that make it altogether more powerful than AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. So too does the general compression of the stories, with only the true rarities running to more than three pages in length, and so does a modification of tempo that generates a creeping insidiousness, a slow burn rather than a sudden shock, which the short and punchy title otherwise conceals. Entry for entry, story for story, Gutshot is more focused than Gray’s previous collections, more confident and reportorial in its style, more dedicated to perfecting the qualities of the typical Gray short story, and more powerful in its protracted explorations of bemusing responses to outlandish events. It is also, on the whole, the work of an author more secure in her aims and more assured of her own abilities, particularly as she manages to achieve her preferred effects through a number of structurally experimental stories. ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover’ is exactly what it sounds like, a woman’s list of strategies for carving up, cooking, and consuming her partner, one body part at a time while he is still alive, implicitly to achieve a more thorough, more sensual appreciation of his corporeality. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ begins as an earnest essay on the titular subject before it takes an abrupt self-reflexive turn and points out the absurdity of swans, the absurdity of love, the absurdity of looking for compatibility between the two, and the absurdity of continuing any discussion of it. In the title story, a dying man who repeatedly laments that he has been “gutshot” is visited by Jesus, who attempts to comfort him in his final moments by calling to his attention to assorted elements of his surroundings that become imbued with a poetic elegance simply by virtue of context, and, in ‘Viscera,’ Gray pieces together a visceral description of the material history of the page on which the story is printed, rendering the page itself an object of both disgust and wonder.

It would be easy for a writer working with this sort of subject matter to submit to temptation and allow her work to slip into one of the tones favoured by other writers mining similar territory. It would be easy for a writer of Gray’s calibre to mimic the self-deprecating irony of Dave Eggers, the overweening whimsy of Karen Russell, or the increasingly contrived yuk-yuks of George Saunders. That Gray doesn’t submit to temptation is impressive enough, but more impressive is that she has charted a fresh, distinct, and sharply defined alternative path across such well-trodden terrain. Her tone — if that’s even the right word for the quality of her stories that makes them identifiably hers — comes from the sense that she is simultaneously looking askance at her awkward characters and yet looking at them in a resolutely non-judgmental way. While this tone suffuses all of the stories in Gutshot, each one advances an ever-so-slight variation on it and allows Gray to replace the irony and whimsy and yuk-yuks she has rejected with something altogether rarer, less prefabricated, and more potent.

Halfway Between That and the Other Thing

Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?

Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges.

I wish I could have shared the appreciations of both prize-giving bodies, The Guardian and Goldsmiths, but I was disappointed to find the novel with so firm a footing in each camp that it struggled to do justice to the virtues of either one. It establishes a set of broad narrative and aesthetic premises that would allow for detailed, nuanced, and complex explorations of grief as a subject in its own right and of the structural and symbolic possibilities for articulating an experience of grief, yet it doesn’t do much more than skim the surface of these premises. Often, in fact, it reads like an outline for a better novel than the one it is, a series of notes assembling a reservoir of narrative and aesthetic potential which, if exploited, would have filled many hundreds of pages — but it doesn’t dive into the depths of its potential, and it doesn’t even really consider the notion that there are any depths to what is depicted in its pages and the ways in which the depiction has been constructed. The experimentalism of the novel somehow obstructs its own access to a detailed meditation on the nature of grief, and yet, without some way of protracting the experiences of its grieving characters, the narrative doesn’t have sufficient length or scope to allow its aesthetic idiosyncrasies to develop into more than what they seem to be on first appearance. In the end, although there’s a lot to like about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the parts of the novel are more intriguing than the whole, since the whole doesn’t allow its parts to interact and to produce effects more manifold and stimulating than those they generate as parts. It’s a sadly wasted opportunity to do something very special — it’s a novel that could have integrated two typically antithetical ways of approaching fiction, but that settles instead for simply and fleetingly introducing them to one another.