Alice Munro says that every short story is at least two short stories.
We’re back in Scotland, where I wrote much of this. Galloway’s stories are brutally funny: like Saunders’, they also trust the reader to work stuff out. “This was what happened: you thought you had problems till you found a whole new set in whatever ward they put you in.” (from ‘and drugs and rock and roll’)
In ‘jellyfish’, a divorced mother treats her son to a trip to the seaside the day before he’s due to start school. Being the parent of a four year-old can be funny and boring and full of love, and Galloway gives us all of that. It is also scary. His whole world rested on a terrifying level of trust that shocked and moved her in equal measure. And when they find jellyfish stranded on the beach, a story about a mother worried about how her son will cope without her gradually becomes – at one and the same time – a story about how a mother will cope without her son:
soft, transparent animals, open as wounds, lying where the tide settled them to simply wait.
jellyfish’ was commissioned for Headshook, ed. Stuart Kelly, Hachette, Scotland, and included in jellyfish, first published in 2015 by Freight Books, Glasgow. Republished with additional stories by Granta Books, 2019
A used tampon at the bottom of a toilet, slowly seeping its blood like a miniature Rothko, can be a beautiful little sight. In Janice Galloway’s story however, a sanitary towel is jammed in a girl’s mouth to stop the flow of blood from her recently removed tooth. This is body gothic, corporeal horror: “the gum parting with a sound like uprooting potatoes”; “the roots were huge, matt like suede… Hard to accept her body had grown this thing.” As “the unstoppable redness” pools in her mouth she seeks out the white sanctuary of a school music rehearsal room and the clean sound of Mozart. But the door can’t be locked, nor the blood staunched.
From Blood, Vintage, 1991, and also The Picador Book of the New Gothic, Picador, 1991
Galloway’s novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing was the single most important book that I ever read. It was the novel that made me want to be a writer, and it was the novel that showed me the possibilities of the form beyond the rather staid 19th Century French stuff we were made to read in class. Les Rougon-Macquart and La Comédie Humaine, which I may appreciate now more than I ever did then, seemed outdated, indicative of a reality that was no longer. Galloway’s broken text and wild mix of literary (and non-literary) genres felt more real to me than anything I had ever read.
I immediately set out to read everything she’d written, and found a copy of her short story collection ‘Blood’ at the WH Smith’s on the Rue du Rivoli. Except, rather than finding it on the ‘literature’ shelf between Gaddis and Gass, the book was on a shelf labelled ‘women’s fiction’. Having spent years reading horror and only gradually making my way into the macho lit that was popular at the end of the 90s (your American Psychos and Fight Clubs) I was confused by the fact that the author I found more emotionally devastating than anything I’d read, was relegated to stand beside pulpy romance novels.
The story I remember most vividly is this short piece, written as a play, like the other “scenes from the life” that are scattered across the collection. Here, a (single) father named Sammy feels that he needs to make sure that his son, Wee Sammy, can stand up for himself, as he is about to start school. He makes the son sit on a mantelpiece, and tells him to jump off, that the father will catch him, and keeps telling him “would I let you fall?”, “don’t be feart, this is your da talking to you”. But of course, when the boy jumps, Sammy steps aside, letting the boy hurt himself.
“Let that be a lesson to you son: trust nae cunt,” is the story’s final line.
But what really stays with you is the detail that comes just before that: the father choking back a sob.
Included in Blood, Secker and Warburg, 1991
When I was studying for my A Levels (1994-6), Channel 4 broadcast a three-part series on three contemporary Scottish writers: James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Janice Galloway. I recorded the late-night program and watched it the following day. I knew who Welsh was, Trainspotting had not long since been published, but it was the other two writers who were to have the bigger impact on me.
It’s the setting that stood out to me in ‘Love in a Changing Environment’; the couple in the story move into a flat above a bakery. Their relationship plays out to the smell of crumpets, cobs and Danish pastries. That is until the bakers leave and the butcher moves in.