Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Copies of The Manet Girl, a book of short stories by Charles Boyle, arrived yesterday.* The last book under my own name was twelve years ago (The Age of Cardboard and String, 2001). In the meantime there has been 24 for 3 under the name Jennie Walker and Recessional and Days and Nights in W12 under the name Jack Robinson. I prefer those names.

Jennie and Jack released me from being me, who as far as writing (poems) was concerned had got stuck in certain routines, mannerisms, that I didn’t know how to, hadn’t the ability to, get out of. I was type-cast, and beginning to bore myself (and therefore, surely, the reader too). And now, in in a book with my own name on it, I worry that I’m reverting to type. In part this may have to with the form: the default mode of the short story – at least in the Anglo-American-Irish-perhaps-Russian-too tradition, which I feel to be almost my genetic inheritance – is Exquisite Doom. I mean, finely written and judged but life seen essentially as a vale of tears, in which little epiphanies of happiness or alternative possibility briefly flicker. Larkin has something of this in poetry; it’s there in many films too, good ones, photographed and paced and acted so beautifully, so persuasively, that you swallow the over-arching vale-of-tears view of life as the only one on offer.†

It is seductive. It chimes with perhaps most people’s experience of life. Religions collude (us miserable sinners). Statistically, politically, the world is a hell-hole. But there’s a part in me that, to the vale-of-tears view, doesn’t want to assent, and that’s the part I want to get into the writing. Not, obviously, in a cute happy-ending way; but not settling too easily for doominess. I don’t think I’ve done that in the stories, or not enough. (Though there are sentences, passages, that were worth the writing and I hope worth the reading. You decide.) But I’m a newcomer to the form, and I’m learning the ropes.

* After I’d seen the first copies in a bookshop, where the bookseller placed copies in front of me and suggested I sign. We looked at each other. I have never understood, I said, why anyone would want to buy or own a book with the biro-scribble of someone they’d never met defacing the title page. He nodded. The books went back on the shelf.

† Last week I watched, for the second time, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, a fine film with a deeply depressing ending. The plotting near the end was suspect, maybe manipulative. It didn’t have to end that way. In my head it has a different ending. There are both films and books that I should maybe stop watching/reading 20 minutes/pages before the end.

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