Saturday 4 December 2010

"The Method" by Tom Vowler

Sometimes I read more as a budding writer than a reader, seeing (or imagining) the churning mechanisms - Chekhov's guns and nails hanging from every wall. My writerly reaction to this book might have been because

  • The author and I try for the same outlets - he's winner of Salt's Scott competition (which I entered); there are stories from Brand, Riptide, etc (which I've never been in, though I've tried).
  • I use the same rather scientific analogies that he uses, and I often write about raids on the past.
  • Though I empathize with the downbeat mood, it's hard for me to continually empathize with the relentlessly embittered characters
  • Once I realised that hints of terror in an initial paragraph were never in anticipation of a visit to the dentist or being dragged by mum around clothes shops but were more likely to involve murder, I was less immersed in guessing the ending.

PoV is 1st or 3rd person. Both male or female voices are represented, usually aged 25-40 and street-wise, WASP, in a generic England during the noughties. A few non-linear forms keep readers on their toes. The language is lively and entertaining. The mood is sustained using a catalog of woes. Halfway through the book (after stories about death of parents, child abduction, wife-swapping, visiting an ex) I tried to guess what further common themes would be used (a partner leaving with a same-sex lover; upstanding parents embarrassed by relatives; waiting for results of (partner's?) medical tests; how to cope with a young daughter's pregnancy and unsuitable boyfriend; pretending that you've not lost your job; a relationship crisis on a family holiday). In the end there were none of those, though we had an e-mail epistolary piece.

In the title story an author lives out his draft character's life. A nice idea, well executed. The 2nd piece, "Seeing Anyone", stays just about on the approved side of the contrived/controlled border. A man's visiting his re-partnered ex. Here are the images and turning points that struck me as I read

  • p.11 It starts with "The day stretched out before him like some vast desert he didn't want to cross"
  • p.12 The long initial build-up of tension continues after he's arrived, then suddenly she says "She's in the garden, under the tree". Who? Ah, their dying dog - apparently the reason for the couple communicating after a gap of months. What does it symbolise - their love hanging on for dear life? (the woman says "I have to decide when enough's enough for her, really. Not be selfish about it") Or the child they never had? (the bitch's stomach - ironically? - is bloated) Or her image of him?
  • p.12 We learn that her current partner's away on a golf weekend. Aha.
  • p.13 "'I didn't know whether to tell you [about the dog]. I thought about it for days'. A warm breeze weaved between them carrying a small flower from the cherry blossom in the far corner. It caught in the strands of her hair". More objects fill the gap left by their silence about their feelings for each other
  • p.13 "He remembered looking hard at her that day, trying to see if all her love for him had left, like a distant star that's seen but is no longer there". Neat though not original
  • p.14 "the Doppler effect of love, where sound and language differ so much depending on whether it's arriving or departing". Neat. New to me.
  • p.14 At the start we're told that he'd bought some photographs. Now they appear - "She took the envelope and started to look through photographs of the first four years of the dog's life. 'I don't remember any of these'". There's ambivalence in her eyes, then she recovers. He offers to copy any that she wants.
  • p.15 "The homemade soup was like visiting his childhood home" - his memories are being pushed further back, looking for roots to re-grow from.
  • p.16 "He pictured himself in an upstairs window, watching as she tended the garden" - his imagination is building a new life based around domesticity
  • p.16 "They didn't wave. He looked at her in the mirror watching to see if his brake lights came on". Up to now, the story's all from his PoV, so how are we to interpret this final phrase of the story? Apart from a timely glance and prolonged goodbye hug (both of which are given alternative explanations in the story), the only come-on is the timing of the weekend, but that's accounted for by the dog having only days to live. One imagines the dog might be taken to the vet on Monday.

In "Busy. Come. Wait" a son meets his sister at the house where they grew up. Despite the initial hints I was doubting at first whether their father was dead. He was though. She blames her unfaithful mother for their unhappy childhood and her unhappy life. He doesn't tell her that their father was no angel either.

"They may not mean to but they do" intersplices narratives from 2 eras. Dating turns to the real thing. Then there's a plot turn that's not new, but it caught me by surprize in the context - he finds a soul-mate, she wants to find her natural parents, and there's a clash. The story does a lot in a short space.

"Staring at the Sun" is nearly in real-time, the protagonist waiting 10 minutes in a pub for a blind-date to appear. His previous partner had died of lung cancer. He runs through various metaphors of time and grief. "My father would have understood. 'Just look at the stars,' he once told me. I'd opened the telescope that was a badly-kept secret one birthday. 'That's looking back in time.'". It ends with "I observe the moment as if from above, for the first time glimpsing a time ahead of this one. I once read that if you forced yourself to stare at the sun for eight seconds, you'd go blind. I stand, wave to the woman and smile"

Welcomingly McEwanesque is "The Last Supper" where the death of a child leads to the parents' suicide pact, dying by starvation. But before they board themselves in they cook themselves a final meal. "Hare's Running" concerns skullduggery in betting shops, "Breathe" is only a page - macabre. "Offline" is set in the future, satire coming thick and fast - "As he lay dying in the transition ward". "One Story" is about writers block where a drunk, separated writer chats to his idealistic son - 'The icecaps safe tonight, then, Jack?' I ask.
'Can't stop. Got to be somewhere.'
'Let me guess: knitting bongos outside some landfill?'
'I see you're drunk for a change.'
'When you've lived with your mother a few more years, you'll see it's a perfectly desirable state. Care to join me for one?'

Several of the pieces involve private/secret missions to re-live, commemorate (or avenge for) a significant event. Retribution can easily go as far as murder. The indirection of these stories' first paragraphs (mysteries about the age, gender, status, motivation, etc of main character) could have been extended to generate tension, but issues are usually resolved on the first page. As an example of how info-dumps are avoided, take "Homecoming" which begins with

Shop façades offered different wares but it was the buildings themselves, the roads and trees, that resonated so profusely with a childhood echoing through the decades. And the bridge, of course. He'd crossed it that day, just ahead of the others - breathless, still convinced that some game had gone wrong.

It's a teasing start. We know that the character is decades from childhood, that he probably hasn't been to his hometown for years, that something momentous (and bad?) had happened. In paragraph 2 we learn that the event erased his previous childhood. By paragraph 3 we're pretty sure that he's alone. In paragraph 4 we're told that he's called Michael. After the initial inevitable bridge a gate leads towards the place; a gap in a hedge leads him further. Paragraph 8 mentions that he's been in "a unit" for a few years. In paragraph 10 there's

Didn't cells constantly die, being replaced by new ones? Aren't we, literally speaking, recycled every couple of years or so? And without a soul, wasn't it the case that he was no more connected to the boy he was that day than to the ground he now stood on? Only history linked him. Just a narrative, that's all.

The location helps him recall the event, even some new details as he traces his steps. By the end of the story we know with forensic precision what happened.

"The Arrival" and "Team Building" were the only disappointments, though by the time I'd reached "The Little Man" I'd met enough bitter murderers. That, I suppose, is my main criticism - en masse the stories dilute each other. In "Reload" the main character says "I wonder if I'll be regarded a serial killer and how they decide. I think it's something to do with the gap between the first and the last" (the gap's about a 100 pages in this book). I've tried writing about happy people (most successfully I think in an unpublished piece called "Good Losers"). Life's not a bowl of cherries, but well, you have to try. The author/narrator/language/reality constellation remains pretty stable too.

Diction tottered in places - "parochial denizens" (p.88) and "aired reluctance" (p.143) for example seem misplaced. I noticed 2 typos: "ringing water from a sponge" (p.106 - or is that deliberate?) and "she call my a" (p.136).

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