|Peer Review by James Yang|
Oddly enough, there was a new review of A Man Melting published a week ago in Kapi-Mana News (about 20 months since the book came out). I can only guess that the timing has something to do with my upcoming appearance at Wellington Writers and Readers Week this weekend.
And unlike the last review I stumbled across in a regional Fairfax paper, this one is mostly complimentary. (It’s hard to avoid the qualifier when a review uses the 5-star system: a fully complimentary review would not leave 1.5 stars on the table…)
The review plays up the zaniness (‘Frivolity rules in the Cliff Universe’), and glosses over the more realistic and sombre stories in the first half of the collection. But with 400 words, a reviewer is often forced to choose their pigeon-hole and stick to it (this isn’t the snarky comment of a reviewee, but the early disenchantment of a reviewer showing through).
One comment, however, baffles me.
Towards the end of the review, Kylie Klein-Nixon says, “It's hard to lose yourself as a reader in first person narrative, and so many of Cliff's stories here are in that voice. But Cliff's deft use of language and clever thematic threads - elements from earlier stories pop up in those that follow - will pull you into the stories, and his oddly charming characters will keep you there.”
It's hard to lose yourself as a reader in first person narrative?
Is it? Really? The use of the second person (‘lose yourself’ rather that ‘lose myself’) suggests this is a common phenomenon. Having read one hundred short stories and counting as a judge for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, one observation I have made is that a well deployed first person narrator is more likely to pull me in as a reader than a third person narrator. It’s something to do with the limited time a short story has with the reader and the way a voice can covey multiple pieces of information simultaneously (what’s happening, the narrator’s opinion about what’s happening, the education/background of the narrator etc etc). This is not to say one narrative perspective is better than the other, or more likely to win you short story competitions or fame and fortune (the perspective choice must fit the story being told), but a story in the first person comes closest to those most tantalising forms: the confessional, the personal reminiscence and good old office gossip.
Perhaps the question is: do we read short stories to lose ourselves? Or, to revise my use of pronouns, do I read short stories to lose myself? I don’t think I do.
This is perhaps where the form diverges from the novel. Rather than being immersive, the short story holds up a facet of a life or a set of lives, and asks the reader to fill out the tetrahedron their own experience (guided in subtle ways by the author's carefully deployed hints). In most short stories, the reader is not meant to lose themselves because there’s too much work expected of them. Time’s too short to become immersed, to soak, to be passive. This explains why some readers don’t take to short stories, and why writing them is always a tightrope walk between entertainment and enlightenment.
So it seemed a strange comment to make with reference to short fiction: that it’s hard to lose yourself as a reader (does one expect to?) in first person narratives (aren’t they the easiest to believe and buy in to if skilfully enacted?).
The Finkler Question
My most recent audiobook has been Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. If my listening of late seems to have been Booker-centric (Finkler won in 2010) it’s more to do with the smaller range of audiobooks on offer from my local library than paper books, and the fact that doing well in the Booker means a) an audiobook version is likely and b) Wellington City Libraries will probably stock it.
I remember reading about Jacobson and Finkler after his Booker win, and came away with the impression that the book was supposed to be humourous. Sadly, I did not find it so. It had that fraught, hyper-analytical, myopic feel of a lot of quote-unquote Jewish TV comedies from the US, but the book was missing that crucial note of levity. It felt like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which I was asked to take Larry David seriously (and do the same with his conversations about Israel and Palestine with the cast of comers and goers that frequent his house). Jacobsen feels more like a neutered Philip Roth than a bookish Jerry Seinfield (lest we forget that Roth is frequently funny himself).
So I have moved on to Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints, which I was delighted to find as an audiobook, having enjoyed her short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It last year.
Midway through 2011 I stopped applying for residencies because, even if I got accepted for one (a big if) I wasn’t in a position to take it up, what with the wedding, the honeymoon, the house-hunting and the timeline for the completion of THE NOVEL.
But now that I’m nearer to finishing THE NOVEL, I’ve started to look at where to next. A two or three month residency somewhere new and stimulating sounds like a good way to write a swathe of short stories to complete what would be my second collection (or, depending on the timing, to dive into a new novel).
So last week I went through and updated my literary CV for the first time in twelve months and spruiked myself in a cover letter. Such activities are always carried out with a mixture of discomfort and pride (‘Gee, look at all those things I did when I thought I wasn’t doing anything except posting photos of birds on my blog’).
The steady growth in bullet points beneath the headings “published work” and “other writing credentials” is thanks to a lot of good fortune, some very nice people, and me never saying no to anything. Occasionally, over the past twelve months I’ve felt like being a Yes Man has slowed my progress on THE NOVEL. Amd it almost certainly did. But in the great wash-up, I’m glad I took every detour. The time for saying ‘No’ will come. Until then, I’m open for