Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bite-sized slices of life...

There is talk that the long-neglected short story is enjoying something of a renaissance locally, and the publication of four collections in recent months seems to bear this out.

The collections reviewed here offer a varied, rich reflection of the different forms that the modern story seems to take. These range from flash fiction in 100 Papers by Liesl Jobson, to dream parables of Allan Kolski Horwitz's Out of the Wreckage; from realistic scenes in Zoe Wicomb’s The One that Got Away, to elements of the fantastic in the many lesbian stories in Jane Bennett’s Porcupine.

Jobson’s chosen form in 100 Papers is that of flash or micro fiction, in which is a story sketched in a few short paragraphs, and/or a few pages. Much of Jobson’s flash fiction takes its inspiration from the domestic. These are stories that explore the plight of the “weekend Mommy”, such as the excellent Pickle which brings to life the difficulties of being such a mommy.

Another excellent piece is The Jailer, which details the death of a marriage. Jobson’s prose is witty, polished, clever. She has an unusual way with words: “My head is an over-ripe apple, my neck is the stalk, twisting, round, round, round. It snaps. I grab a knife. As I raise it, I see it pumping over and over into his carotid artery. Instead I stab the pile of dinner dishes I was about to carry to the sink.”

Wicomb, too, explores the world of the domestic, of relationships teetering, failing, somehow surviving the turbulence of life and personalities. This is her long-awaited second collection of stories, a sort of companion volume to You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. Now lecturing in Scotland, the influence of that move is echoed in Wicomb’s stories, which range geographically from the Cape Flats to the northern cities.

In these stories Wicomb gives voice to the Cape Coloureds, exploring cross cultural relationships, and the intersection of cultures. Examples are to be found in the excellent story which opens the collection, Boy in a Jute-Sack Hood and the simply titled N2. In Boy, Glaswegian academic Grant Fotheringay strikes up a relationship with his gardener’s son, Samuel. A relationship in which, unusually, the balance of power lies with the boy. In N2 a white couple are returning from a wedding, arguing, when their car breaks down. When Themba, hiding in the bushes, offers to help, they are, predictably, terrified of being robbed or hurt. But Themba is not out to hurt them. The story turns on Themba’s actions and reactions.

Meanwhile, in Friends and Goffells the long-standing friendship between Dot and Julie is stretched to breaking point by the addition into the twosome of Julie’s Scottish husband Alistair.

While Wicomb’s stories are firmly realistic, Bennett’s fiction in her debut volume Porcupine, soars and dips into the realm of the fantastic, before swooping back into reality. Set largely in Cape Town, these are stories in which a painted sky becomes a catalyst for a murder, or a woman logs on to the ’Net to find a spell so that her lover will return. This last takes place in the quirky story, Thought Control, in which the narrator J needs a spell, because “the reason was simple. She wanted to talk to someone and the someone did not want to talk to her. In such a situation, options are limited.” The story ranges across time, and geography, moving from New York on September 11 2001 to Cape Town today, eventually alighting on the someone sitting on an amber couch.

Poverty is the centre piece of Contracts, in which Julia, who gives money to the wheel-chair bound beggar woman Lottie, finds the lines between unwritten contracts blurred and distorted. And in Virtual Reality the action veers between a woman who conducts an imaginary relationship with Madiba through the television screen and a prosecutor, fighting to put a rapist behind bars.

Lastly, Kolski Horwitz’s short stories explore another imaginary world, that of Abel, a dream figure passing through lands, time and fantasies. Interspersed among the stories of Abel are more conventional, realistic short stories which unpack the disturbances of marriages and lives blown to pieces by a single thought.

In the excellent Determined Love, a slim story of just three pages, Horwitz shines a light on so many marriages in which people are tethered together by habit. In the almost surreal The Tap Plant two boys decide to go on a hike for seven days with provisions for only one day. They will rely on their wits to survive this trial. Adultery and the consequences of abstinence are the subject of She Whom I Love, while the shocking Gerard, told through the eyes of a young boy, shows how lives are changed in an instant.

(Published in The Star Tonight, October 2008)

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