Monday, 5 October 2015

现实 | Short but sweet

Posted by: Ryan O'Riordan

The author Cormac McCarthy is well known for his use of concision. He only ever uses (according to himself) 'short declarative sentences', and has an aversion to excess punctuation and words that is unlike almost any other author I’ve encountered.

His books read a bit like this. It can become jarring. You get used to it though. Eventually.

His prose is often as sparse as the deserts of the American South-West he preoccupies himself with, and is strangely beautiful in exactly the same way. It was once described as 'part Gothic, part future modern, part Shakespeare'. He manages to do more with a sentence than some authors can with entire paragraphs, for example in The Road, where he manages to construct a thoughtful portrayal of the father-son relationship out of the most simple sentences. 'He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke'.

Given his talent for economy in writing, perhaps it’s a shame he seems to have missed out on his true calling as a writer of short stories. In a 2007 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said: 'I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing'.

However, I feel that short stories definitely have a place in literature. Most of us will probably admit to not reading as much as we probably should do, and what better antidote to this than a collection of short stories? The best ones can be just as engaging as novels, with their brevity lending them an almost breathless quality that allows you to devour them one after another, like when you’re left alone with a box of Celebrations.

The best of the short story collections I have read is undoubtedly Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. A series of re-interpretations of the fairy-tales we all grew up with, The Bloody Chamber is worth reading for Carter’s take on children’s stories if nothing else. Stories that have likely become familiar spark back into life in Carter’s hands, and become almost unrecognisable when compared to the original. In one of these stories, The Company of Wolves, we descend into a bleak winter, where 'one beast and only one howls in the woods at midnight'. The wolf is 'carnivore incarnate' and is always to be feared. Such is Carter’s talent for absorbing the reader, you forget you’re essentially reading Little Red Riding Hood.

Having said this, the real value of The Bloody Chamber is to be found in Carter’s writing. Writing these short stories permits her a richness of language that would be perhaps too intense for a full novel. Her writing captures, as The Times put it, the 'elusive power of the original tales' due to her incredibly evocative and considered prose. The best example of Carter’s skill in The Bloody Chamber comes in The Lady of the House of Love, where she manages to make us feel sympathy for a vampire, one of fiction’s favourite killing machines. Rather than an irredeemable monster, Carter presents us with 'the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden', a girl who is forced to conform to her predatory nature despite the disgust it brings her.

Overall though, what The Bloody Chamber displays best of all is not Angela Carter’s skill as a writer, considerable though it is. Instead, it can serve as a fantastic demonstration of the value of short stories, ones that are as powerful, as gripping, as polished as longer works. All of us will have said that we don’t have time to read. The Bloody Chamber shows the solution to that problem, short stories that, as Helen Simpson said, can be 'multifaceted glittering diamonds'.

Ryan's listening to: 'Tibetan Pop Stars' by Hop Along

Read my previous post here.

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