There were teeth problems

In an early short story by Jon McGregor, “The First Punch” (2003), a jealous husband rolls his jacket into a pillow to place underneath the head of a suspected rival he is beating up. He has already brought his target to vomiting point through savage punching, headbutting and kicking. After pillowing his victim’s head, he launches in again, stamping on the prone man’s chest three times with a force that takes the latter’s breath away. The violence leaves the reader reeling, too, all the more so because it alternates with intervals when the aggressor smiles, speaks, smokes a cigarette, adjusts the pillow. It is a staggering sequence, but one that Tom Conaghan, interviewing McGregor for Reverse Engineeringinvites the author to revisit with a critical eye, asking whether the device of the pillow might now seem “slightly stilted”.

McGregor does not refute the criticism, which is surprising, given how effective the pillow is as a sinister prop; But one of the strongest impressions gained from this interview is how open McGregor is to being challenged on his artistic choices – and not just here, by Conaghan, but also, as he explains, by fellow authors such as Chris Power, who features in this volume too. A dialogue among practitioners is what Conaghan – himself an author of short stories, with an editorial background in literary publishing – is aiming for, as he selects seven stories by seven writers (all reprinted in Reverse Engineering), then questions each about their specific choices and their general approach to a short narrative. The result is a collection of hugely illuminating conversations, packed with insights into everything from inspiration and the drafting process to setting, character, theme, ideology and the handling of voice, point of view, structure and style. As the inaugural print publication from Scratch Books, founded by Conaghan with a view to celebrating short fiction, Reverse Engineering gets the mission off to a splendid start.

If Sheila Armstrong, Alexander MacLeod and Saba Sams were invited to scrutinize their new volumes of stories in a similar way, they would no doubt, like Conaghan’s interviewees, give themselves “good marks” here and identify things they would do differently there. They might also be struck by the persistent thematic focus on violence in their work. Again and again, these three new collections return to images of aggression, injury and suffering, as well as damage, decay, disease and death. Writing in different contexts and at different points in their careers – MacLeod is an established Canadian author and teacher living in Nova Scotia; Armstrong and Sams are relatively new voices from Ireland and England, respectively – the three share a brilliantly unsettling, if occasionally relentless, preoccupation with harm and hurt.

Two of the stories – Armstrong’s title tale in How to Gut a Fish and MacLeod’s final one in Animal Person, “The Closing Date” – revolve around murder. The act itself is directly recounted only in Armstrong’s narrative, when a fisherman who has been smuggling contraband, presumably drugs, is struck on the head with a metal bar by one of the masked men who have boarded his vessel. The narrative mode in this story is the second person, which has its usual distancing effect, here compounded by the fact that the physical impact is not dwelt on; Rather, Armstrong directs the reader’s attention to parallels between the injured fisherman and the mackerel. We see him killing and gutting earlier in the story: “your mouth opens and closes with the shape of words even as you begin to spill out on the decking.” In his story, MacLeod goes further along the path of indirection, placing the act of murder off stage, on the other side of a motel-room wall, in the form of three thuds, the significance of which is only understood by the first- person narrator at a later date; But the structure of “The Closing Date” works on the reader’s nervous apprehension, systematically foreshadowing violent crime while delaying the revelation of what has actually occurred, and using a decoy episode featuring the narrator’s pregnant wife and sweet young daughter to ratchet up the tension.

Unnerving as these two tales are, Armstrong’s “Red Market” is far more shocking. Narrated in a deceptively matter-of-fact style, interlaced with dark humour, the story begins as stallholders are setting up a Christmas market selling the usual fare – silk scarves, jewellery, furniture and kitchen utensils – alongside curiosities including a wooden statue of Freddie Mercury and an antique diving suit. On the fourth page, the mood changes with the arrival of a transit van driven by a man in a Santa costume and carrying live human cargo. Armstrong’s treatment of subsequent events is so deliberately flattened that it takes time to realize what is going on:

The young girl’s elbows are bound together behind her back … The men carry her to the podium under Marci’s direction, and the girl is placed belly-down in the centre, in between the diving helmet and the roasting trays.

The exact nature and full horror of the girl’s fate emerge only gradually, and Armstrong’s unsensational handling of her subject matter adds to this story’s unforgettable moral and political power.

Other stories in Armstrong’s and MacLeod’s collections use animals as vessels of emotional displacement, making readers uncomfortably conscious of all living creatures’ susceptibility to pain. MacLeod’s opening tale, “Lagomorph”, presents us with a first-person male narrator who overidentifies with the family rabbit and recalls in grisly detail an earlier time when he and his wife, from whom he is now separated, cared for this pet when it was suffering from ingrowing teeth. Along with its unnervingly rendered veterinary realism, the story seems to operate on a metaphorical level, the rabbit’s condition prefiguring the harm that the couple inflict on themselves and one another as their relationship deteriorates.

There were teeth problems, she said. Severely overgrown teeth, looping inside Gunther’s head, cutting him every time he tried to chew … For an entire week, we fed Gunther with a plastic syringe. In our food processor, we blended up this disgusting kale smoothie with the medication mixed into it. Then I wrapped the rabbit’s squirming body in a towel and held him against my chest, squeezing all four of his legs into me. His hair came out, sometimes in thick clumps, sometimes in a translucent fuzz that floated through the room and, for sure, penetrated deep into my own body.

In “Mantis”, the most formally experimental tale in Armstrong’s collection, zoomorphism serves a similar purpose, creating a disconcerting parallel between the mentally unstable male narrator’s sudden acts of violence and a praying mantis’s whip-crack strikes.

Sams’s debut collection is less consistent than the other two, but it contains several original and memorable stories, not least a surprising, subversive fable about a butcher’s daughter (“Tinderloin”) and a brief, skilfully constructed and moving story about abortion (“The Bread”). Foregrounding experiences that shape young people’s lives – involving sometimes family, friendships, body image anxiety, sex, drink, drugs and financial hardship – Sams’s fictions often navigate familiar territory in unexpected ways, reinforcing stereotypes and sometimes inverting them. She has a knack for creating unflinching female narrators and characters, above all Blue in “Blue4eva”, who calls out, catalyzes, empowers, heals and harmonizes those around her with boldness and bravery.

While some of the tales end bleakly, several are indeterminate in mood, with the characters’ responses to their circumstances leaving room for positive or negative interpretation: there is the child running into the woods to escape the clutches of social workers; the two laughing girls launching themselves from a trapeze platform. Against the odds laid down by her narrative arcs, Sams’s final lines frequently resonate with affirmation and optimism, as when a storm-felled tree flashes its upturned roots, “gorgeous and brazen in the new sun”, or a mother smiles through her tears and reaches a hand out to her daughter: “Come, she says. Catch the last of the sun”.

Alison Kelly is the author of a critical study of Lorrie Moore’s fiction. She is an independent researcher and teacher living in Oxford

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post There were teeth problems appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment