‘I See You, Bianca’ by Maeve Brennan

Maeve Brennan’s ‘The Bohemians’ contains my favourite lines of hers: “They were a fine battered pair, marked for life by their ravenous hopes. They both had the glittering, exploring eyes of people who have never learned to control their dreams.” If it’s possible to be compassionately vicious, that assessment is. She was good at people with lives like chicken coops, which just about kept the fox out but very efficiently penned everything else in. But the story I like most is ‘I See You, Bianca’. It’s about Nicholas, and his two-room New York apartment, a “floor through” with a window at each end. Nicholas and his room, and his ailanthus, “New York’s hardship tree”, and his cat Bianca. Brennan’s focus seems to be wholly on the room, and the way Nicholas lives in it, and what he wants from it and from his city. There’s no narrative, just Brennan’s subjectivity, restless, aware, souped-up, into every shadow of the apartment, interrogating someone else’s expectations; but quite soon you recognise that Nicholas’s way of life is doomed. Brennan describes the room like this: “Sometimes it seems to be the anteroom to many other rooms, and sometimes it seems to be the extension of many other rooms. It is like a telescope and at the same time it is like what you see through a telescope.” This is a careful description of her own work, which is both what’s seen and the means of seeing it. All fictions should be instruments like this. Here, she encourages us to use the instrument to look out at Fourth Avenue in the rain, “with the cheerful interest of one who contemplates a puzzle he did not create and is not going to be called on to solve.” Because a view “is where we are not. Where we are is never a view.”

Can this piece, with its nonfictional structure and cleverly abrupt ending, actually be described as fiction? It’s perilously close to being one of her Long Winded Lady pieces for the New Yorker. I’m not sure I care. Though it appears to be more an assessment than a narrative, the tension is appalling, it mounts and mounts. And then there’s a massive resettlement of perception and intention concentrated across the last page or two. That’s enough for me. An event occurs, is recorded and is encouraged to roll over the reader in an unpredicted fashion, leaving no way out. You’re forced up against an understanding about the central character, but you aren’t sure what it is.

First published in The New Yorker, June 11th 1966. Collected in The Rose Garden, Counterpoint, 2001

‘Fatherhood: Three’ by David Means

David Means won’t let up on an idea; by examining it so exhaustively, he just compresses it further and further into its own space. This is not a bug, obviously, it’s a feature. If you like it you’ll like this compendium of three very short, apparently autofictional stories, the first of which, ‘The Problematic Father’, begins: “The problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the man I was before I became the man I am now. The man I am now is a result of his presence in my life…” and continues to exhaustively explore this problem of rolling identity–or characterisation–in exactly the same terms, for about a thousand words. It’s completely serious or there’s a wry humour to it, or you would like to throw it across the room, depending on your mood as you read. The second component, ‘The Sad Sack’, shows a man looking from a train window at another man canoeing a river, and is very readable and funny–even though it seems a shade long at five hundred-odd words. And the third component, ‘(Another) Story I’d Like to Write’ combines two images so subtly and powerfully that you’d never know it was (or wasn’t) fiction. What they add up to is what they add up to. In another writer, you might want to call these stories fragments, or sketches, or “squibs”; but they so clearly aren’t. Sometimes the dogged, apparently pellucid sincerity of Means’ work reminds you of David Constantine. At the same time it suggests, interestingly, that Constantine’s viewpoint is a little more distant–a little more patrician–than you might first assume.

First published in The Oxford American, Issue 82, Fall 2013 and available online here. Collected in Instructions for a Funeral, Faber & Faber, 2019

‘Spiderweb’ by Mariana Enriquez, translated by Megan McDowell

“I think political violence leaves scars, like a national PTSD,” Mariana Enriquez, said in an interview with Literary Hubin 2017. And, later in the same piece: “In general, I don’t think you can take the power back, not completely, but you can break the silence.” This Argentinian sensibility permeates the landscapes of Things We Lost in the Fire, via imagery that might in other hands seem both wilful and empty. I read the title story on a train journey, in tandem with Gore Capitalism, Sayak Valencia’s analysis of the “Endriago” subjectivity. The two texts seemed to complete one another quite naturally, threatening to unmask the single violent landscape that founds both. I might choose any of these stories as my favourite Enriquez. But let’s say–speaking of taking back the power–that it’s ‘Spiderweb’, and quote from it her description of a peacock’s tail: “the feathers with their eyes, beautiful but disturbing. Many eyes arrayed above the animal, which walks so heavily”. It’s “a beautiful animal,” she says, “but one that always seems tired.” These stories seem to be exactly that animal. Things We Lost in the Fire is translated by Megan McDowell.

First published in The New Yorker, December 19 & 26, 2016. Collected in Things We Lost in the Fire, London; New York: Hogarth, 2017

‘Arse on Earth’ by Tim Etchells

I have the Pulp Books edition of Tim Etchells’ endlessly grainy, deeply sly, rebarbative, criminally under-published collection Endland Stories, with the blurry grayscale photos & the typeface that mimics a cheap printer from ten years earlier. It’s held up well although the paper’s looking forlorn after being cured so many years in flats, cellars & self storage units etc etc. Etchells’ fiction is less experimental than out on its own somewhere looking at things on your behalf, often from a viewpoint of psychically-damaged faux naif. My personal favourite is a story whose name I never remember but which is no more or less than a two or three thousand-word list of the nicknames of a vast motorcycle gang composed perhaps of everyone in Endland, or maybe even on this planet. Sadly, that one doesn’t seem to be in here, so I am going out on a limb for ‘Arse On Earth’, the weird but compassionate odyssey about a goddess–or perhaps less a goddess than a headstrong Aeon–and aren’t they all–who descends to Earth with the intention to solve this problem: WHY IS MODERN LIFE RUBBISH? and ends up in Derby, where a cull of street pigeons is in progress.

But you could pick any of these stories and it would be the finest as far as you were concerned. Endland Stories is best summed up from its own introduction—

Bear in mind it is not a book for idiots or time wasters but many of them are wrote about in it. For the rest–concerning the bad language, bad luck and low habits of the persons described–I make no apologies and, like the poets say, “welcome to Endland”©, all dates are approximate.

–and is about to come back into print from And Other Stories. Look out for it.

In Endland Stories, Pulp Books, 1999

‘They’ by Rudyard Kipling

It’s sentimental, self-pitying and twee. It’s the very definition of self-indulgence. It’s beautifully bound in a Macmillan edition of 1905, printed only on one side of each page and with lush but utterly awful illustrations by FH Townsend. It arrives accompanied by all the problematics you would expect with Kipling: but somehow delivers anyway. It must be his perfectly constructed ghost story, ‘They’.

“One view called me to another,” it begins; “one hilltop to its fellow, half across the county…” Kipling never learned to drive, but here casts himself as the lone free motorist who finds he has run himself “clean out of my known marks” and is lost on the Downs until he finds an “ancient house of lichened and weather-worn stone, with mullioned windows and roofs of rose-red tile”. It seems quiet, but then a child appears at an upper window. A woman in a big gardening hat sets her foot “slowly on the time-hollowed stone steps” and greets him softly across the turf. It’s a heritage outing contemporary readers can fully share.

“I never dreamed–” exclaims our narrator. But he did. He did dream. And this is all he ever dreamed, really: the great shining powerful motor car, the perfect little valleys and bridges, the rose-red tiles, the house where “hollowed” and “hallowed” have the same meaning, this perfect blind graceful woman, the little vanished children who gather round him. ‘They’ is the ultimate Sunday drive, the kinship reconnection with the ghosts of the fiction of England.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August 1904. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, Macmillan, 1904, and as an illustrated volume, 1905. Widely available. Read it online here.