A short story collection with a chill in its bones
Saturday 19 January 2013
Readers familiar with John Burnside's poetry, novels or memoirs will be well aware of the unique mythology that he has been assiduously, slyly and persistently building across his creative work. Burnside's is a world of secrets, disappearances and silences, of cautious redemptions, misunderstood epiphanies and surreptitious joy, where what we think of as reality is always fraying into the surreal, the insane and that which is beyond our understanding. As such, Something Like Happy, his first collection of short stories since Burning Elvis, puts the reader into familiarly unfamiliar territory, but in an unsettling way. For those unacquainted with his sublimely terrifying oeuvre, this is the place to start.
A short story collection, ideally, should have a sense of internal cohesion without its contents becoming variations on a theme, and a sense of the unexpected without the stories becoming a display of separate virtuosities. Burnside negotiates a sure‑footed path through these different traps. Some stories suggest that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies; others are resolutely in the here and now. There is a clutch of stories about older women and the way they feverishly control their desires. Others have a more obvious connection: late in "Lost Someone", the reader realises that they already know how the story will end, since it is a different perspective on the events narrated in "Godwit". Some of the connections are so subtle as to be like an itch.
"Slut's Hair" is almost archetypal Burnside. A woman, in a Dundee tenement, is stuck in a relationship where her husband's aggressive interrogations about her happiness are a form of torture. When she reveals she has toothache, and they can't afford a dentist, he resorts to whisky and a pair of electrician's pliers (a typically sharp-eyed detail). He then goes off to the pub, leaving her alone: the classic miserabilist Scottish short story would end there. But in Burnside's version, it segues into her finding a creature – "at first she thought it looked like a tiny, malnourished cat, only it was blue and too small even for a kitten; then, as her eyes adjusted, she saw that it was a fox, or something like a fox, with that keen clever face a fox has in children's books". Just as her husband returns home drunk, she realises it has escaped her grasp – if it ever was there – leaving behind what some call dust bunnies and what is sometimes called in Scotland slut's hair. The very next story – a far more "realistic" affair – uses the phrase "slut's hair" in describing the contents of a schoolboy's desk. That hazy, horrid uncertainty of connections makes the individual stories chime and resonate with each other in a re‑readable way.
There are lots of readers in Burnside's stories, but only two named authors stand out. In "Perfect and Private Things", the university lecturer specialises in Weldon Kees, a poet whose life story is a miniature of Burnside's obsession with strange disappearances. "The Deer-Larder" features an aging, ill narrator who receives emails seemingly unintended for him, from a man writing a biography of Maupassant. The narrator – both more clever and more stupid than the reader – thinks it an elaborate online game around Maupassant's "The Horla", his correspondent's attempt to do a Lovecraftian "Weird Tale". The truth is far more eerie.
Violence simmers under the surface of every story, breaking out in the kind of stark detail that becomes unforgettable (in "Roccolo" there is the puncturing of a bird's eye with a needle, in "A Winter's Tale" the narrator's illness is put in perspective with him giving a lift to a young man wearing make-up and fishnets with a gash in his leg). Almost all the stories have a wintry setting or a nip in the air or a chill in the bone.
As mentioned, one story is even called "A Winter's Tale", and the whole brings to mind the Shakespeare scene that gives that play its title: the child, Mamillius, tells his mother "a sad tale's best for winter", and she asks him to "do your best / to fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it". He whispers a story the audience never hears. Burnside is powerful at it, and yet the reader feels the whole time that they too might have missed the whispered real story, and that they are just eavesdroppers on an unmentionable tragedy elsewhere.