A Review of “The Holy Door and Other Stories” by Frank O’Connor

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

During my “Pre-Degree” days in college (that’s grades XI and XII in these days, folks) we had something called a “non-detailed” text in English. It was either a novel or a story collection which we were supposed to study and provide book reports (maybe that’s where my love of reviewing started). It was in such a collection that I met Frank O’Connor, through his beautiful story My Oedipus Complex – and I loved it.

However in those days interests were varied and there were much more exciting stuff out there; so I forgot all about him until a few days back, this title caught my eye at a garage sale. I immediately picked it up. It did not contain that beautiful story, alas – but it more than made up for it through ten excellent stories, each one better than the other so I’d be hard put to choose a favourite.

O’Connor writes with a disarming candour and a dry wit which stops just short of full blown sarcasm; he is too sympathetic towards his characters for that. However, he can’t help but note their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities – and that of mankind in general – so that he cannot ever take them seriously (or himself, for that matter). The result is an extremely readable set of stories which analyse profound philosophical conundrums as though they were the subject of the idle talk in an Irish pub.

The three themes that run through Irish literature, I’ve found, are: the breakdown of homes (due to absent or wastrel fathers), the abject poverty of most of the populace and a puritanical Catholicism, shot through with constant guilt of sin and the exceeding urge to commit it. This is evident in the title story about two girls, Polly Donegan and Nora Lawlor, and Charlie Cashman who falls for Nora but when snubbed by her, marries Polly. Their union is less than ideal, however, as Polly is not inclined to enjoy sex: that, coupled with the fact that she does not conceive and Charlie’s increasing need to prove himself as a man leads to an illicit liaison, scandal, and the untimely death of his wife. To compound matters, there is his mother who hates him and actively wishes that he dies intestate so that the shop he inherited from his father will go to his brother’s children after death. It has all the trappings for a dark and brooding tale – but in O’Connor’s hands it becomes so lighthearted that I actually chuckled in a couple of places! Evidently, the world is a comedy to those who think.

But not all stories in this collection are so pleasant, mind you. Four of the stories are written from a child’s point of view (something which O’Connor does very well, as evidenced in My Oedipus Complex) and all of them are pretty dark: especially Christmas Morning which details the sudden loss of childhood and Babes in the Wood which shows us the utter despair of abandonment. Of course, to balance the scale, there are comic gems like News for the Church and The House that Johnny Built.

I conclude the review with two samples, one tragic and one comic, to show the power of O’Connor’s prose.

From Christmas Morning:

I understood it all, and it was almost more than I could bear; that there was no Santa Claus, as the Dohertys said, only Mother trying to scrape together a few coppers from the housekeeping; that Father was mean and common and a drunkard, and she had been relying on me to raise her out of the misery of the life she was leading. And I knew that the look in her eyes was the fear that, like my father, I should turn out to be mean and common and a drunkard.

From The House that Johnny Built:

…He had a red face, an apoplectic face which looked like a plum pudding you’d squeezed up and down till it bulged sideways, so that the features were all flattened and spread out and the two eyes narrowed into slits. As if that was not enough he looked at you from undr the peak of his cap as though you were the headlights of a car, his right eye cocked, his left screwed up, till his whole face wrinkled as a roasted apple.

Can’t you just see the guy as if he was standing in front of you?

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Life Etched in Spare Lines – A Review of “Dear Life” by Alice Munro

alice-munroYou know, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Alice Munro so fascinating. Her writing is without frills – she does not use flowery language or dazzling metaphors. Her stories can be read by any schoolkid without referring a dictionary. Ms. Munro does not write about extraordinary events; her characters are middle class men and women of Canada, going about their humdrum lives. It is Ernest Hemingway plus Jane Austen.

The first story in this collection sort of had me saying: “Is this the Nobel Prize winner? Oh come on!” but something in that bland narrative pulled me in, enticing me to try one more – then one more – then… well, you know. It was like a box of chocolates when you promise to stop after the next, and soon the box is empty.

The power of Alice Munro is not in what she says – but what she leaves unsaid: and that is quite a lot. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps, and I think most readers would do it in their own particular way, moulding the story to his or her own fashion. In most stories, the narrator is a child in the first person; a child who grows up as the story progresses. As we all know children see more of life and interpret it less. There is a disconcerting truthfulness to their viewpoints which makes adults uncomfortable. And when the child grows up and understands what she has experienced before she put on her adult glasses, this dichotomy of vision provides the tension which keeps the story on a knife’s edge.

The unwritten story was what had me returning again and again to this collection.

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The “child’s-eye-view” is most effectively used in the stories “Gravel” and “Voices”. In the first, a broken-up marriage is described in the voice of a child too young to form clear memories of events but has vivid recollections of things. When the story suddenly escalates to tragedy without warning, the kid suddenly grows up; and we realise that we have been hearing this child-woman all along – because in a sense, she has been trapped at the point of her tragedy. Her vision is crystal clear until the actual event, but the moment the adult takes over, analysis starts and we are now dealing with conjectures instead of concrete certainties.

In the second, the situation is more prosaic. In a country dance, the narrator and her mother meet a prostitute. The child is entranced by the elegant lady but the mum is understandably outraged. Sent upstairs to get her coat so that she and her mum can leave, the girl meets a girl called Peggy, who is visibly upset and crying, and her two suitors on the stairs. Peggy is part of the prostitute’s entourage and the men are quite obviously trying to pacify her. They are talking to her as the child-narrator had never heard a woman talked to before.

For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s. I know now that some of the Air Force men stationed at Port Albert early in the war had come out from England, and were training there to fight the Germans. So I wonder if it was the accent of some part of Britain that I was finding so mild and entrancing. It was certainly true that I had never in my life heard a man speak in that way, treating a woman as if she was so fine and valued a creature that whatever it was, whatever unkindness had come near her, was somehow a breach of law, a sin.

It is obvious to us adults who read the story that Peggy has been somehow slighted by the “respectable” ladies at the dance – the child sees only the consideration she obtains from men, something that is forever withheld from her.

Nameless child narrators (who seem alter egos of the novelist herself) are central to the stories “Haven”, “The Eye”and “Night” also; and other stories such as “Leaving Maverly”, “Pride”and “Dear Life” also deal in part with childhood. In fact, most of these stories involve the shifting of human relations as people grow up, and they seem to wander all over the place without coming to a point. Many contain snippets of information that are seemingly irrelevant to what the author is trying to convey but then, as Ms. Munro’s narrator says in “Dear Life”

…And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I am writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.

Life, unlike a story, is never neatly rounded off. Life leaves a lot of its story on unwritten pages – like Ms. Munro.

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dear-lifeThe characters in this author’s fictional universe are often jarringly disconnected from one another. In “Train”, the protagonist (unusually, a male) is on the run from a relationship: but not for the reason one thinks, as becomes shockingly clear at the denouement: in “Amundsen”, a relationship develops and unfurls with frightening speed. The characters seem to take it all in their stride, especially when narrated in Ms. Munro’s extremely spare prose. Sometimes, this alienation results in unlikely alliances too, as in “Corrie” and “Pride”. Many a time, core plot elements are hidden or only fleetingly mentioned. In the hands of a less skilled author, it would have been a disaster; here, it is what gives the stories their pith.

Because at the centre of it all, there lies hope. As Neal, a character in “Gravel”, says:

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”

 

Yes, indeed.

A Review of “Dangerous Laughter” by Steven Millhauser

CoverDangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser is a difficult book to rate. It is a collection of short stories, but one has stretch the definition of “story” by quite a lot to call some of them by that name. Many are what can be called “sketches” – of an idea, of a person or of a situation. All of them are idea driven: the characters are placed there just to serve as vehicles for the ideas (in this aspect, and with respect to the weirdness of the tales, Millhauser resembles Lord Dunsany to a great extent).

These stories are weird – seriously. The author does not want to present us with a set of believable characters and describe a situation in which they develop; rather, he throws us an idea which is taken to its logical extreme by the characters involved. This method, while it provides some startling reading experiences, pales after a time and begins to feel seriously gimmicky.

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Millhauser has structured the book in four parts: the first one, a prologue of sorts, containing one story and the remaining three four stories each. Each of these three sections have a certain thematic unity, and encourages the reader to explore various aspects of the same meta-theme.

Free-Wallpapers-and-Screensavers-for-Computer-Tom-and-JerryThe first section is an “Opening Cartoon”, the familiar Tom & Jerry animated short I used to love before each MGM movie as a kid. The story, titled “Cat and Mouse”, gives a blow-by-blow description the endless rivalry between Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse. The language is simple, and one can visualise the scene with each sentence. However, as the tale progresses, both the mouse and the cat begin to introspect and bring their existential angst on to their Sisyphus-like antagonistic existence. This is a fantastic story, and pulled me into the book.

The second section, “Vanishing Acts”, is about human beings and their existence in the temporal world. In a sense, this is also an existential analysis. There is a vanished girl, who slowly fades from the communal memory but comes to haunt the memory of the narrator, even though he is not sure he knows her; the asexual relationship between a boy and a girl in a totally darkened room, relying only the verbal and the tactile; dangerous infectious laughter which kills off its addicts; and a person who gets increasingly alienated from the physical world through the perceived insufficiency of language.

miniatureThe third section (“Impossible Architectures”) is about the relation of man to the structures he builds up. They contain the unbelievably large (a climate-controlled dome covering the whole of the United States of America, an engineering analysis of an alternate Tower of Babel), the impossibly small (miniatures so small as to be totally invisible) and the totally meaningless (a town which is a carbon copy of the one inhabited by the protagonists).

The last section, which is titled “Heretical Histories”, gives us four tales of impossible historical happenings in what must be a time stream totally different from our own. The first story in this section about a historical society which is obsessed with preserving history down to the last detail, because the past is the only thing that really “exists” – the present is ephemeral and the future, nonexistent. Of the remaining three stories, one talks about a weird fashion fad where the dress grows in opacity and size and ultimately ends up concealing the woman totally and taking on a life of its own; one is about a painter who apparently discovers a way to incorporate time and motion into his creations; and the last one is about an alternate Edison, one of whose assistants invents a machine which can simulate the sense of touch.

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This book made me think a lot about my experiences as a human being – about time, objects, experiences and emotions. Lacking sympathetic characters, one is immediately drawn to the idea behind the tale. The stories are very readable and enjoyable as a sort of brain exercise. However, they felt repetitive after a while.

An enjoyable read, if you are a person who reads with the intellect.

A Halloween Offering

Jack-o'-Lantern_2003-10-31

Jack-o’-Lantern: picture by Toby Ord from Wikipedia

Halloween is the quintessential European celebration (now, North American too by extension). Christians in India and the East do not celebrate it – maybe because the origin is from pagan roots. But during my childhood, when the most popular writer was Enid Blyton, almost all children with reading habits were familiar with Halloween. And as a lover of the creepy, I was sad that we did not have it in India and that I could not go trick-or-treating.

Halloween, celebrated today (October 31) in many parts of the world, occurs as the year is slowly dying, autumn fading into winter. It is an in-between time, sort of like what twilight is for the day. The nights are getting longer; the days shorter: the earth is folding in on itself under a white blanket. No wonder primitive man shivered with fear at the thought of the denizens of the twilight world stalking the lonely copses – but I believed that, coupled with dread there was a secret delight. For it is no secret that mankind loves to frighten itself: the lure of delicious nightmare is what sells horror stories.

Stories around the campfire are also another Halloween tradition that must have come into existence during those days when primitive humans huddled around the magic entity that saved them from very real dangers. The stories must have helped them keep their mind off the real denizens of the night who prowled, crawled and lay in wait in search of prey. It would have been natural that the stories talked of fears which could be easily externalised and could be rounded off at the end (though not necessarily neatly). I think the horror story was born around the campfire.

So, as a tribute to the season, let me share three tales which epitomise for me the creeping horror that does not leave you once the story is finished. They will haunt you, and want you to return to the story again and again – even though you are afraid to. It’s the equivalent of a frightening picture in a book which the child wants to avoid, but helplessly keeps on peeking back at.

This here is my virtual campfire. Gather around, friends, and let us begin.

Casting the Runes by M. R. James

Montague Rhodes James is a past master at the art of writing a horror story that is peculiarly English. His language is akin to reportage: there is no build-up of atmosphere, and the ghosts are actually matter-of-fact, and so is the way they attack. Sounds pretty dull when it is described that way – but it’s anything but. And James’ in-depth knowledge of cathedral history allows him to situate the horrors squarely in the English countryside: in the woods, the dales, the churches and the sepulchres. “Ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night” come to you not in isolated Transylvanian graveyards on lonely, stormy nights – but they visit your drawing room during teatime.

Bewickthief_big“Casting the Runes” is a story which is built on the premise of the evil magic spell. Runes are letters from a Germanic writing system, in existence before Latin came into force, rumoured to possess magical powers. Runes are cast upon a person (by getting him to accept a spell written in the runic alphabet) either to gain their affection or eliminate them. The scholar Edward Dunning invites the latter fate when he angers Karswell, a man of dubious reputation, by rejecting a paper written by him.

In true James style, the story starts off with three letters, written by the secretary of an unnamed association rejecting Karswell’s paper: by the third letter, we know that Karswell is angry, and wants to locate the person responsible. The secretary does not reveal the name, and he does well to do so, because Karswell is not a nice man at all. In evidence, the story of the “treat” he gave to schoolchildren by showing them some magic lantern slides is quoted by one of the secretary’s friends. Karswell, angry with the kids for trespassing on his property, had decided to frighten them out of their wits in lieu of entertainment – and the slideshow, as it progressed, became a genuine horrorfest.

Well the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerised into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered and what it must have meant to the children doesn’t bear thinking of.

This incident is mentioned as a part of the conversation during a casual lunch between friends; in the same casual manner, we come to know that John Harrington, a reviewer who trashed one of Karswell’s books on witchcraft, met a freak accidental death by falling off a tree – which he had apparently been chased up, though no dogs or other animals were seen. Thus in a couple of pages, the stage is set, and the reader sees the doom building up for Dunning, should Karswell ever come to know that he was the person who rejected his paper – which he finds out, of course. The remaining part of the story is Dunning’s ordeal, which grows more and more gruelling as the tale moves towards its climax.

The passage quoted above is illustrative of James’ technique. The horror is stated matter-of-factly; however, it grows like the “horrible hopping creature in white” which slowly comes more and more into view… yet never fully. We know that Karswell has set a demon after Dunning – the sequence of activities is clear to the reader while the protagonist is clueless, a sure recipe for Hitchcockian suspense.

I cannot describe further without spoilers – so go ahead and read it. The story is not covered by copyright, I think – anyway, it’s available on the web.

How Love Came to Professor Guildea by Robert Hichens

how-love-came-to-professor-guildea-dodo-press-The second Halloween offering, though as frightening as the first, is totally different in theme and presentation. Here, atmosphere is everything: that, and the curious nature of the boogeyman. For it is love which scares the hell out of us in this story – the cloying, mindless, drooling love of an idiot.

Father Murchison, the naïve pastor with love in his heart for the whole of humanity and Professor Frederic Guildea, the ultimate sceptic with probably no human qualities at all, are the most intimate of friends. One day, Father Murchison makes the statement that the people who don’t want something is usually given a surfeit; and Guildea replies that then he should be smothered with affection, because he simply hates it.

And he gets precisely that – a presence which enters the house, which loves Guildea mindlessly.

It is the professor’s objectivity which provides the story with its strength. He is not impressionable – but he is too much of a man of science to dismiss the evidence of his senses: and he trusts his mental faculties too much to believe that he might be going mad. He objectively experiments, and succeeds in proving the evidence of his incorporeal visitor (at least to Murchison) through the imitative capabilities of his parrot.

…Pulling itself up by the bars it climbed again upon its perch, sidled to the left side of the cage, and began apparently to watch something with profound interest. It bowed its head oddly, paused for a moment, then bowed its head again. Father Murchison found himself conceiving — from this elaborate movement of the head — a distinct idea of a personality. The bird’s proceedings suggested extreme sentimentality combined with that sort of weak determination which is often the most persistent. Such weak determination is a very common attribute of persons who are partially idiotic. Father Murchison was moved to think of these poor creatures who will often, so strangely and unreasonably, attach themselves with persistence to those who love them least…

…The parrot paused, listened, opened his beak, and again said something in the same dove-like, amorous voice, full of sickly suggestion and yet hard, even dangerous, in its intonation. A loathsome voice, the Father thought it. But this time, although he heard the voice more distinctly than before, he could not make up his mind whether it was like a woman’s voice or a man’s — or perhaps a child’s. It seemed to be a human voice, and yet oddly sexless. In order to resolve his doubt he withdrew into the darkness of the curtains, ceased to watch Napoleon and simply listened with keen attention, striving to forget that he was listening to a bird, and to imagine that he was overhearing a human being in conversation. After two or three minutes’ silence the voice spoke again, and at some length, apparently repeating several times an affectionate series of ejaculations with a cooing emphasis that was unutterably mawkish and offensive. The sickliness of the voice, its falling intonations and its strange indelicacy, combined with a die-away softness and meretricious refinement, made the Father’s flesh creep. Yet he could not distinguish any words, nor could he decide on the voice’s sex or age. One thing alone he was certain of as he stood still in the darkness — that such a sound could only proceed from something peculiarly loathsome, could only express a personality unendurably abominable to him, if not to everybody. The voice presently failed, in a sort of husky gasp, and there was a prolonged silence.

Here is love, removed from its lofty perch, and divorced of sex even. A love which distinguishes itself only by its voracity, by its need to totally engulf the loved object. A love which is more frightening than hate ever can be. A love which will ultimately destroy.

This is one of those stories where the horror really begins once you finish the story. A worthy read, to be enjoyed again and again.

The Janissaries of Emilion by Basil Copper

Time and space are distorted in dreams. Sometimes they are compressed – we spend a whole lifetime in a matter of few seconds, or traverse half the world. In other instances, they get stretched; we keep on running but stay in the same place – especially if there is a monster coming after you. The frightening thing is that the monster is always on the verge of catching you – but never does so and put you out of your misery. But thankfully, we wake up.

What if we didn’t? Or we woke up, and returned to the same dream?

This is the premise of this truly weird story by Basil Copper. Farlow, a scientist, is having a weird dream: he is struggling out of the sea on to the beach, somewhere in the orient. Far away, he can see the glittering minarets of a beautiful city – this is Emilion, where he knows his lady love lives. However, as he proceeds towards it, he notices a something like a dust cloud in the distance, between him and his destination. And this scares the hell out of him… even though, in his waking life he does not know what it is.

The dream proceeds in increments: each night adds a bit more. Initially the dreams come infrequently, then the frequency increases, until he is having them every night. And in each dream, the dust cloud gets bigger (so does the sense of dread) – and the wind keeps on whispering in his ear: “The janissaries of Emilion!”

Battle_of_Vienna.SultanMurads_with_janissariesOf the three stories I have selected, this is the most suspenseful. Copper has paced the story beautifully – the reader will be turning the pages in a frenzy, but the tale reveals its secrets in a phased manner (including the origin of the dust cloud) and the end, when it comes, is a real shocker.

This one anticipates A Nightmare on Elm Street by a decade – and is much more terrifying.

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So there you are – my Halloween offering. If you are a horror fan and have not read these stories (almost impossible… but still…), rectify the lacuna immediately! Close the curtain, turn down the lights, and get started. I wish you, like Hitchcock, a bad evening and an even worse night.

A Review of “The Lottery and Other Stories” by Shirley Jackson

Very rarely does one find a short story collection where all stories are above average. Kudos to Ms. Jackson for producing a collection where all are excellent, and some really outstanding. I wonder whether it is possible to fall in love with a lady who passed away when one was scarcely two years old? If so, I’m in love with Shirley.

The title story needs no introduction: in fact, this is the one which first led me to Shirley Jackson (and The Haunting of Hill House, which so far I’ve not been able to read). It must be one of the most discussed stories in American literature, and one of the most devastating.

It can be called a horror story, in the true “shocker” tradition of E C Comics stories – the last panel hits you like a sledgehammer. But it’s much more than that. In its apparently nonsensical setting and unrealistic storyline, a great historical truth is encapsulated: once you are past the shock of the first reading, if you read it once again, you will get it.

Also, I loved the way the story was crafted. The horrible ending is foreshadowed very early – but you won’t get it until you have gone past the final revelation. Then, many of the apparently innocent actions and statements by the characters suddenly take on sinister meanings. And the banality of the whole thing – the casual attitude of the people to finish a task and get back to their lives – is the most chilling aspect of the story.A true classic.

However, The Lottery is an exception in this collection – none of the other stories are actual shockers, though the suggestion of violence in some of them is really disturbing. In The Renegade, various methods to “cure” a dog of her chicken-killing tendencies are discussed, some of them right out of a medieval torturer’s manual. In The Witch, a casual story told to a boy by a stranger takes an ugly turn. Always, the humdrum suddenly metamorphoses into the bizarre – never quite letting go of strong undercurrent of black humour.

Shirley never lets us forget that behind the mask of civilisation, the caveman is still very much present – even though the mask is removed fully only in The Lottery. However, it leads to a permanent undercurrent of tension which would be unbearable had it also not been so humorous. People are always at loggerheads, arms akimbo, ready to draw and shoot – though they never actually do. We can see this tension among social situations most palpably in Trial by Combat, Afternoon in Linen, Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes and The Intoxicated, and also in stories where the antagonism is not so evident. In some stories, this results in the total emotional domination of one human being by another, leading to virtual slavery (Like Mother Used to Make, Men with Their Big Shoes). Perhaps not surprisingly, children in Ms. Jackson’s fictional universe take it in their stride.

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In Kerala, we have a movement called “Pennezhuthu” (Woman-writing). It is coined by feminists to indicate the deconstructed language they use to subvert traditional masculine bias in literature. I have never been able to understand what they mean by this, but it cannot be denied that talented women bring a certain individual touch to language, themes and narrative. Shirley’s female protagonists, lost in the labyrinthine city jungles, are a case in point.

In Pillar of Salt, New York becomes a virtual trap for a country woman who is reduced to a wreck who cannot cross the street by the end of the tale. In Flower Garden, the younger Mrs. Winning of Vermont Manor House becomes a prisoner of her own snobbish values. In Elizabeth, a lonely woman stuck in a stagnating business dreams of a demon lover in a sunlit garden and waits for him. In the The Tooth, a woman in the grip of a bad tooth has a dreamlike bus trip with a mysterious stranger.

But it is in The Daemon Lover that this mysterious male, a representation of the female animus perhaps, is taken to its logical extreme. A woman on the search for her lover who has stood her up on her wedding morning, runs him to earth in an apartment where he is apparently holed up. However, all her efforts to smoke him out are vain.

She knew there was someone inside the other apartment, because she was sure she could hear low voices and sometimes laughter. She came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work, in the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door.

It is not coincidence that all these elusive men are named Jim Harris. James Harris is the daemon lover of Scottish ballad, the Devil himself in the guise of a man who comes to seduce a carpenter’s wife and ultimately lures her to her death in a burning ship: the ballad is quoted as epilogue to this collection. However, it seems that Jackson’s heroines go to their devils willingly – like the cow-maid who sees death as Lord Krishna in Sugathakumari’s famous Malayalam poem, Abhisarika (“The Wanton”).  Maybe this was a form of liebestod they craved unknowingly all their lives.

BAL25133 Storm in the North Sea, with Smack & Barque by Andrews, George Henry (1816-98) Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK English, out of copyright

A Review of “Among the Missing” by Dan Chaon

indexIn 2006, there was a film in Malayalam which became a cult film of sorts. It was called Thanmathra (“Molecule”), and depicted a man’s frightening descent into Alzheimer’s. But what gave the story its poignancy was the bond between the protagonist and his son: the single-minded effort on the part of the former to make the latter an officer of the Indian Administrative Service. Incidentally, the movie also focussed on the relationship between the protagonist and his father.

Speaking on the movie, the director said that he chose the name of the film to represent Indian society. Even if each family was nuclear (an atom, in fact), it was joined to a multitude of other families – each son was a father, each mother a daughter, each son a father in his turn… and so on and so forth. In India, the joint family never died, but formed a loosely structured molecule.

This metaphor stuck in my mind, and I was immediately reminded of it the moment I read the stories in this collection. Because Dan Chaon is writing about a molecule that is fast coming unstuck.

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If I were asked to pick a theme running through all the stories in this collection, I would say ‘family’. Here are fathers, sons, mothers, daughters and siblings, all loving and hating, bonding and drifting apart. I am not familiar with American society, but from the laments I have heard from friends and relatives settled abroad about ‘deteriorating’ relationships, I conclude that the strong familial fidelity that is the norm in India is conspicuous by its absence. This in itself is not a bad thing: it gives a lot of freedom to individuals, and does prevent parental notions of control which can become claustrophobic. But it does remove the safety net below the tenuous thing we call ‘security’.

This is illustrated in the story Falling Backwards. This tale, told from back to front, traces the life of an alienated woman at her current lonely stage in life to her childhood moments of companionship with her father. It ends with the telling metaphor of her father and herself falling backwards willingly from a construction scaffolding, knowing that the net will catch them.

Chaon flirts with horror (he confesses himself a horror fan), but there is nothing supernatural in these stories. What we see are glimpses of the darkness just below the surface. In a way, it is more frightening than ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night: because it is the darkness of the mind that is made visible. In I Demand to Know Where You Are Taking Me, one of the darkest stories in the collection, a macaw becomes the mouthpiece of a convicted rapist for his sister-in-law, who has a love-hate relationship with him. In Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By, a shameful childhood secret keeps on haunting a man, who is not allowed to grow up because his silence might have cost his friend his life. In both these stories, the conclusion is left tantalisingly uncertain.

The fluidity of time (as explored in Falling Backwards) as well as the fiendish face behind the smiling visage are hinted at in Big Me, which could be a frightening tale of a psychotic murderer or an innocent child’s fantasy, depending on how we look at it.

In the title story Among the Missing, there is a telling image of a family which apparently committed suicide en masse by driving into a lake. This story serves as a template, I feel, for all things Dan Chaon is trying to articulate.

Looking at their photograph, you couldn’t help imagining them all in that car, under the water. I saw it as a scene in a Bergman film—a kind of dreamy blur around the edges, the water a certain undersea color, like a reflection through green glass. Their bodies would be lifted a bit, floating a few centimeters above the upholstery, bobbing a little with the currents but held fast by the seat belts. Silver minnows would flit past the pale hands that still gripped the steering wheel, and hide in the seaweed of the little girl’s long, drifting hair; a plastic ball might be floating near the ceiling. Their eyes would be wide, and their mouths slightly open; their skin would be pale and shimmery as the inside of a clamshell; but there would be no real expression on their faces. They would just stare, perhaps with faint surprise.

This image stayed with me, long after I closed the book.

——————————————-

The short story is an entirely different proposition from the novel, even though both are forms of narrative. The novel is usually a relatively long and leisurely read, and the reader has a long affair with it: there is time for character development, philosophical discourses, interior monologue… whereas the short story wins purely on how effective it is in conveying its theme with the most economy of words. If the novel is a marriage, the short story is a whirlwind affair conducted over a weekend.

The best short stories are those that hit you with the force of a sledge hammer – which the stories in this collection do.

Well worth reading, if darkness does not bother you. If more sunny literature is your cup of tea, better leave it alone.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Great Short Stories I)

I have been thinking for a long time that I should put up reviews of short stories which have really impressed me. This is one of a series, hopefully to continue periodically.

I do not remember when I first read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin – might have been during my college years, or a few years later – but I remember the shock I got. The story was part of a fantasy collection. Until then, I was not very much cognizant with Ms. LeGuin’s work: I was more of a fan of hard science fiction on the lines of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But this story literally took my breath away, all the more since I had not expected something of this calibre in a compilation of fantasy stories.

However, the full depth of the themes discussed did not strike me until I read Aatujeevitham (“Goat Life”), an award-winning Malayalam novel by the author Benyamin. Suddenly I realised what Ursula K. LeGuin was saying – and I also realised that I was not one of “those who walk away”: it was easier said than done. The shame has been with me ever since.

Well, on with the story.

***

Omelas is an idyllic city. The time and place are not mentioned; the author gives us freedom to imagine the when and the where:

…Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.

However, the author is at pains to ensure that this is not your standard fairy tale paradise. For there is no king, there is no slavery or servitude: they also got on without “the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb”. The people were also not simple, the kind found in fantasy tales – “no dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians”. Ms. LeGuin says that these were people as complex as us, with one significant difference: they were eternally joyful. It was not the bliss of naiveté and ignorance; it was true unadulterated happiness of a “mature, intelligent and passionate people whose lives were not wretched”. For according to the author, we have lost the ability to appreciate the beauty of happiness:

…The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.

The people of Omelas may have laws; they may have science and technology; they may have drugs and liquor. Ursula K. LeGuin is not sure, and she does not care, because happiness is the only thing she concentrates on – happiness without guilt.

The story starts with the description of the Festival of Summer, an extremely joyous occasion in this city of happiness. All the people are marching towards the Green Fields at the north of the city, where a horse race is to take place. Even the horses are participating voluntarily, as the author is at pains to inform us that they are wearing halters without bits, and that “they were vastly excited, the horse being the only animal who has adopted our ceremonies as his own”. Soon everybody reaches the fields and the festival starts.

Most of the procession have reached the Green Fields by now. A marvellous smell of cooking goes forth from the red and blue tents of the provisioners. The faces of small children are amiably sticky; in the benign grey beard of a man a couple of crumbs of rich pastry are entangled. The youths and girls have mounted their horses and are beginning to group around the starting line of the course. An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute. People pause to listen, and they smile, but they do not speak to him, for he never ceases playing and never sees them, his dark eyes wholly rapt in the sweet, thin magic of the tune.

He finishes, and slowly lowers his hands holding the wooden flute.

As if that little private silence were the signal, all at once a trumpet sounds from the pavilion near the starting line: imperious, melancholy, piercing. The horses rear on their slender legs, and some of them neigh in answer. Sober-faced, the young riders stroke the horses’ necks and soothe them, whispering, “Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope….” They begin to form in rank along the starting line. The crowds along the racecourse are like a field of grass and flowers in the wind. The Festival of Summer has begun.

By this time, we are lulled into the peaceful mood of the story, almost falling asleep under the gentle sun of the sylvan landscape, listening to the soothing music. However, there is a slight unease: all of this seems too good to be true – and when is the story going to come? This is when Ms. LeGuin uses something akin to a jump cut in a movie (“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing”), to take us to a basement or cellar under one of the beautiful public buildings. In that place, there is a dank and congested tool room which is always kept locked. In this windowless and airless room,

…a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes–the child has no understanding of time or interval–sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

This is such a shock that one cannot blame the reader if he or she almost drops the book out of fear and disgust. The author pulls no punches in her narrative: here the prose is as cruel and stark as it was soft and saccharine in the first half of the story. And this abrupt shift is apt, for it is the child’s misery that pays for the happiness of Omelas. The people of the city seems to have made a pact with the powers that be (who or what they are is not specifically mentioned) to exchange the abject misery of one individual for the eternal happiness of the multitude.

Everyone in the city knows this. It is explained to them during their coming of age. Many of them come to see the child; most of them are outraged and disgusted, but they accept it as a fact of life. Even if they want to release the child, they could not do it, for that would destroy the happiness of the city forever – and to “throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed”. So they rant and rave, but they accept. They even philosophise that the child, even if freed, would not be really happy since it has been imprisoned for so long as to forget what the outside world felt like. They feel compassion, and it is this compassion which enable them to appreciate the beauty of their architecture and the profundity of their science; also, it enables them to be gentle with children because “[t]hey know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer “.

It is here that the author makes her final startling shift in the narrative. After saying that this information of the misery of one child has made Omelas more credible to the reader, she goes on to describe something, which in her opinion, is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveller must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

These are the people who give the title to the story; and even though their story is tantalisingly only a stub, the reader is left feeling that this last paragraph is the whole essence of the tale.

 

***

The idea of the story revolves around the concept of the “scapegoat” – the person or animal given up in sacrifice to an omnipotent deity so that the wellbeing of the multitude is ensured (also adapted to devastating effect in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery). However, Ursula K. LeGuin gives credit to a quote from the 19th Century philosopher William James for the idea behind the story. In his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, James wrote that “if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the faroff edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?” In other words, we would almost all of us walk away from Omelas.

I also believed this until I read Aatujeevitham, a novel based on the true story of a young man forced to live like a goat on goat farm in Saudi Arabia. He is given only wet bread to eat and water to drink; he has to live in the open during the blazing summer day as well as the freezing winter night. Dreaming of “Gulf Gold”, he gets only years of misery. Thankfully he escapes. Many less fortunate don’t.

Reading this novel, I realised suddenly that Najeeb, the young man in this novel, was the abused child in Ms. LeGuin’s story – and I am one of those who do not walk away from Omelas.

Expanding this to our world as a whole, the story becomes a chilling indictment of modern society as a whole – about the compromises humanity as a whole makes for the happiness of the majority. One needs only to look at the five-star restaurants bordering the slums in Mumbai or to contrast the stark, drought-ridden landscape of Africa with the glittering cityscape of New York. We know this, yet we sweep it under the carpet in our minds, taking the fatalistic attitude that some things can never be changed. The following words of the author sound ominously familiar:

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.

Have we all not, at least once in a while, used these justifications in our mind?


***

Yet there have been those who tried to set the child free: to change Omelas for a better society, albeit with the happiness content reduced. However, their efforts have mostly resulted in the creation of another version of the same. The identity of the abused child changes, but not the principle. There will still be the room, the child and the torture.

We need those who have the courage to walk away to that unknown country which may not exist at all. For there they may find happiness that does not need music and dance, or festivals. That Omelas resides inside oneself. Maybe they can come back and guide others into the same country.

Because then we may find happiness which does not require an abused child.