Ah, November. Or is it ‘Argh, November’? The jury is still out, I suspect, waiting with baited breath until after the US election results – when as usual, I will spend a night cowering in front of a TV t find out what I could have just as easily learned by going to bed and listening to the morning news bulletin. Ah, but it’s the narrative, the tension…
While I wait (or maybe that should be we wait – you now, me and those pesky inner voice), good things arrive, like London buses, in a sudden huddle. The award-winning folk behind Holdfast magazine secured their crowdfunding, and Anthology #2 is now at the printers. I might not have been prophetic enough enough to see it coming, but I will very shortly be a published writer of sci-fi. (Or perhaps of a story in the clothes of the genre that’s really about future-scepticism and eternalities? Buy a copy and decide.)
Another story, Bro, has just appeared at the US site, Chelsea Station Magazine (and a dark little adventure it is too – even the dog has a bad morning), and I’ll be reading an extract from it tonight in Hackey at the excellent There Goes The Neighbourhood literary salon. And a third is currently shortlisted for a competition and the wait – another wait! – is on for the results.
Elsewhere in this fractured gig-economy life, I’ve delivered a lecture to University students on the role of copy-readers in helping writers produce their strongest possible fiction, and a new jazz band is in the offing. The idea struck a chord. G13m9/6, if I’m not much mistaken.
Haslett’s collection of short stories is something I’ve been very late to the party on. A National Book Award and Pulitzer finalist, it’s been lurking in my ‘To Read’ pile for about a year, so maybe the praise I’ll heap on it will come as a belated reward. The emotional and psychological gloom that pervades these tales does not hide the skilful craft of their telling: these are rich tales of mostly good people who have been granted the wrong end of life’s stick. There is a common theme of mental difficulty, but written to explore the world through different lenses rather than to exploit individual suffering for writerly colour. “The Beginning of Grief” is a complex tale of masochism as a route to emotional opening that lingers long after reading, but the winner here for me is “Devotion”: there are shades of Les Enfants Terrible in its exploration of a brother and sister whose lives are inexorably entwined, but the nature of their protective but suffocating hold over each other unfolds as delicately as their tight-lipped Middle England setting. As with so many of these stories, the reader sense of where the real power lies shifts surprisingly as the pages turn.
I subsequently read his most recent novel, Imagine Me Gone, which I admit I initially found a less satisfying read. The condensed tautness of the short stories is necessarily sacrificed in a novel that follows a family cast across several decades, and coming to it after the collection it feels looser and less eventful in comparison – despite the nature of the events it does contain. By allowing each member of the family (except the father, who takes his own life early in proceedings) a narrative voice, Haslett provides the reader with a multi-faceted, compassionate and non-judgemental view of the impact of mental illness on a family, although some narrators – especially the mother, Margaret – felt to be drawn in rather more detail and clarity than others.(Or perhaps because her maternal devotion in the face of her husband’s suicide and her son Michael’s struggle with mental illness make her a more attractive persona than her other children?) Despite its LGBT sub-plot (the other son is gay, and we see his slow coming out as he grows up), this reminded me in many ways of the later novels in Maupin’s Tales of the City series, where a ‘logical family’ collectively support those among them that have their particular struggles to endure: family is family, however it is composed. And there is also much more humour here that a brief review or reaction can suggest, much of it in the letters and forms that Michael writes in their manic, hyper-detailed surrealism and their fierce cleverness.
Small-town life seems, in LGBT+ fiction at least, to be a new locus for ‘outsider’ writing. As tolerance and acceptance become more widespread in urban settings, smaller towns are slower to change and double lives or feelings of disconnection linger on. (As Matthew Griffin’s Hide showed more brutally, closet doors still stay mostly locked in the provinces.) Set mostly in a small West Virginian town that has finally lost its railway link with the wider world, these are stories of dreams – and characters – struggling to reach the light. If the opening story, Appalachian Swan Song, gives us the final train’s departure in almost romantic prose while a town ceremony unfolds in old-fashioned glory, it’s a tale of loss and one that strongly gives us a sense of the place where the other stories will unfold. The best here, for me, were Pauly’s Girl (in which an ageing women – a fag-hag, essentially – inherits the flower-store of her life long friend and realises as she attempts to move on from the loss that long-held ambitions can be poisoned chalices once they are finally in our hands), and the title story (an exploration of a small-town adolescence.torn between hesitation and yearning left deftly in the mid-air that it’s title suggests). If Tom Petty were a gay man from Appalachia and wrote short stories, this collection would be his ‘American Boy’, full of people inexorably linked to a particular place but who “couldn’t help thinkin’ that there/Was a little more to life/Somewhere else.”