‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley – The Rise of Tessa Hadley

 

‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’ by Tessa Hadley   (2017) – 225 pages

My transformation is now complete. I am now a total Tessa Hadley fan.

It has not always been this way.  A dozen or so years ago when I was swayed by some positive reviews, I read her first novel ‘Accidents in the Home’.  While reading this novel, I felt there was just too much description of inanimate objects such as household furnishings and clothing and gardens, etc.  Sure, I felt that some of this minute detailing of items was necessary and well done, but for the most part I found it insufferably mundane.  My reasoning at the time was that I read fiction in order to study and appreciate interactions among people, not to find out about common household appliances.   I’m afraid I did not rate ‘Accidents in the Home’ very highly.

A few years later as the positive reviews of Tessa Hadley’s fiction kept mounting, I tried again with her book of stories ‘Sunstroke’ but unfortunately with the same result.  I still couldn’t get past the fact that Hadley seemed to devote so much of her writing to things rather than people.   Perhaps her writing was too subtle for me at the time.

‘The Past’ which came out in 2015 is the novel that caused an abrupt shift in my attitude toward the fiction of Tessa Hadley.  I finally figured out that Tessa Hadley was not just describing objects, but she was also developing her characters’ relationship to these objects. I suppose this all has to do with the literary device known as the “objective correlative” in which objects are used in a story or poem to evoke or convey emotion.  Hadley understands that how we relate to the things around us is a critical part of the make-up of our character.  In this story of a family reunion, ‘The Past’ contains these lush outdoors scenes in which the natural details of the old family home are blended with the interactions of the human characters.  I was tremendously moved by ‘The Past’ and consider it one of my very favorite novels of 2016.

So now I return to Tessa Hadley and her book of stories ‘Bad Dreams’.  Tessa Hadley is one of those rare writers who appears to be equally adept and comfortable with the short story as well as the novel.  These stories are moving little gems that combine the characters as well as their physical objects.  In ‘Silk Brocade’ two young women starting out in the dress designing business plan a wedding dress for a poor girl who is marrying a rich man.  In ‘Under the Sign of the Moon’ a sixtyish woman traveling by train from London to Liverpool meets a younger man across the aisle.  The story takes an outrageous twist and contains such perfect lines as this:

 “This conversation took place on the surface, while their real lives were hidden underground beneath it, crouching, listening out, mutely attentive.”

Hadley is also one of the few writers who can write stories in a contemporary setting and can still be subtle and outrageous at the same time.

So my opinion of the fiction of Tessa Hadley has transformed, and maybe even the way I view fiction has also changed.

 

Grade:   A

 

‘All Grown Up’ by Jami Attenberg – A Single Woman’s Unruly Days

‘All Grown Up’ by Jami Attenberg   (2017) – 197 pages

If novels are slices of life, and I do believe they are, then the slice of life depicted in ‘All Grown Up’ is that of a single thirty-nine year old heterosexual woman living in New York City today. Her name is Andrea.  She was born in New York City, left town to go to art school, but moved back again.  Now she has a well-paying job in advertising, where the meetings are “intensely dull, soul-deadening”.  Andrea has a view of the Empire State Building from her apartment window which she draws each morning to keep up with her interest in art.

She dates men she meets through the Internet with the usual chaotic results.  After one drunken encounter, Andrea says, “This is not a date, this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”

When a book by a woman is published about being single, everyone she knows including her mother tries to push it on Andrea, but she has no interest in reading about the plight of a single woman because “There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know.”

In ‘All Grown Up’, Andrea asks such timely questions as “What if I don’t want to hold your baby?”, “Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?”, and “Why does everybody keep asking me why I’m not married?”

With her ironic and dry perspective on things, Andrea projects a lot of humor.  However there is also sadness.  Her one year old niece has a severe birth defect and could die at any moment.  Because we do not really get to know the baby’s parents, the baby’s plight is not as poignant as it otherwise might have been.

Andrea can be difficult and selfish; she is by no means perfect, maybe more like a real woman. I give points to ‘All Grown Up’ for its amusing sincerity, but I did not feel that it transcended the daily here-and-now of this one person. Perhaps if there were another major character that could have interacted with Andrea as equals, not just someone for her to bounce her quips off of, the novel would have been more effective.  As it is, none of the other characters besides Andrea is developed beyond the sketchy. The novel could have used more dialogue so we might have gotten to really know the others rather than only as comic foils for Andrea.

 

Grade :   B

 

‘Fen’ by Daisy Johnson – The Mating Season

 

‘Fen’, stories by Daisy Johnson   (2017) – 192 pages

It is all quite amazing, really.  In every town, city, and rural area throughout the world, the young people of a certain age get together, procreate, and start raising families.  However, the process is sometimes quite messy.   In many of the places especially in the West there are bars like the Fox and Hound where the young people congregate thus helping this mating process along.   But these bars can also make the whole operation even messier.

As its name implies, the stories in ‘Fen’ take place in the Fens region of eastern England which was formerly marshland, but they could have taken place anywhere.  These stories about the mating habits of young humans are crude but honest.  Daisy Johnson is not only a primitive; she is a primitive who is fixated on sex which makes her stories fascinating.  She writes from the point of view of the female.  These stories give you a strong sense of the true oddness of human mating.

“We cared only for what they (men) wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.”

The writing of Daisy Johnson reminded me of that of another great primitive of English literature, Barbara Comyns.  Both of these writers have a seemingly unsophisticated view of what is going on around them, but that simple mindset allows both of them to see things as they truly are.  However Johnson gets more down and dirty than Comyns.

“There is nothing much about him you can see which would do this to you.  Affection, you tell your housemates, is a sort of sickness.  They roll their eyes and tell you they can hear you at night.

That’s not affection, you say.  That’s sex.” 

These stories in ‘Fen’ go beyond simple realism into the supernatural.  In one story three woman roommates lure men to their home, kill them, and then eat them.   In another story a girl transforms herself into an eel.  In another story a dead brother returns home in the form of a fox.

The title ‘Fen’ also reminded me of an excellent novel about this region that I have read, ‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift, not that these two books have much in common otherwise.

One of the stories in ‘Fen’ is called “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know”, and if you can handle that title, you probably will like this collection.

 

Grade:   A

 

Some Less Well-Known Fiction Authors Who Wrote Some Mighty Fine Fiction

 

In order to qualify for this list, an author must be one I haven’t heard much about recently and who had at least two works of fiction I found amazing.

 

Maria Thomas – United States writer Maria Thomas went to Ethiopia as a young woman volunteering for the Peace Corps in 1971 and remained in Africa for fifteen years.  She captured the beauty and harshness and mystery of Africa in her fiction.  She was killed at age 47 along with her husband in a plane crash in 1989 while inspecting an Ethiopian refugee camp.  Two works by Maria Thomas that I can strongly recommend are the story collection ‘Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage’ and the novel ‘Antonia Saw the Oryx First’.

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor – The English writer Elizabeth Taylor had to be the most underrated writer in the world, although the world may finally be catching up with her since two of her novels have been made into movies during the last twelve years (‘Angel and ‘Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont’).   It must be difficult building your own career when there is someone much more famous with the same name. I still have problems googling the author Elizabeth Taylor. She wrote twelve novels, and I have read them all.  She also wrote four short story collections, and I have read them all.  The stories are excellent, but I will highlight two of her novels,  ‘In a Summer Season’ and ‘The Soul of Kindness’.  Perhaps another reason Elizabeth Taylor is under-appreciated was because she made it all seem so easy.

 

Alberto Moravia – For Italian fiction, Alberto Moravia was the Elena Ferrante of his time at least in my estimation.  Everything he wrote is well worth reading, but two that I particularly liked are ‘The Fancy Dress Party’ which got him into trouble with Mussolini and ‘Contempt’ which is a short novel that highlights Moravia’s psychological intensity.  I have read nearly a dozen works and hope to read more.

 

 

 

Michel Tournier – The French writer Michel Tournier reworked classic stories in an odd and magical fashion.  In ‘Friday’ he took on the Robinson Crusoe story.  In ‘The Four Wise Men’ he retells the story of the biblical wise men.  Another favorite of mine is ‘The Ogre’.  Here is another fiction writer whose every work is well worth reading, but what makes him particularly valuable is his strange originality.  However his work is also easy to follow.  Tournier died in 2016.

 

 

Angela Huth – Here is another English fiction writer whom I discovered that the world still has not caught on to yet although many have appreciated the televised series ‘The Land Girls’.  I discovered Huth through her excellent short stories, but I will recommend here two of her novels I have read, ‘Easy Silence’ and ‘Invitation to the Married Life’ as well as ‘Land Girls’.  She can make her characters quite empathetic even while exposing their flaws.

 

 

 

Jorge Amado – It is easy to overlook Brazilian writer Jorge Amado among all the other fine South American writers, but I can’t think of any writer I enjoyed reading more than Amado.  He made the colorful life and people in Brazil come alive for me in his novels.  Two of his novels I will recommend here are ‘Gabriela, Clove, and Cinnamon’ and ‘Home is the Sailor’, but all of his work is quite reliable.

“I am like my characters – sometimes even the female ones.” – Jorge Amado

 

Perhaps I will have another list of less known favorite writers later.

 

‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch – Even Worse Than a Dystopia

 

‘The Book of Joan’ by Lidia Yuknavitch   (2017) – 267 pages

 

To call ‘The Book of Joan’ a dystopia is an understatement. Here is a dystopia to end all dystopias.

The question arises.  Why do we need to read a fictional dystopia when we’ve got the real Donald Trump?  Perhaps we just want to find a society, a world, that is even worse off than our own.

The dictionary definition for a dystopia is:

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

In ‘The Book of Joan’, Earth has suffered a devastating geocatastrophe, and the elite have deserted earth for a space station, CIEL, above the Earth.  Now they are intent on destroying whatever life remains on earth.  Joan, a modern-day Joan of Arc, and her sidekick Leone are heroically fighting the elite in order to preserve the little life on earth that remains.

“My god, what kind of brutal abomination dismisses the suffering of the majority of the world’s population as worth sustaining a tiny number of pin-headed elites?“

There are other hints that here we are in the Age of Trump.

“We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.  Our existence makes my eyes hurt. People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen.”

In the novel scarification is the new art.  People tell their stories by burning the skin on their bodies.  Their sex organs have become useless and dysfunctional.

“Men are among the loneliest creatures.  They lose their mothers and cannot carry children, and have nothing to comfort themselves with but their vestigial cockular appendages.  This is perhaps the reason they move ever warward when they are not moving fuckward.  Now that the penis is defunct, a curling up little insect, well, who can blame them for their behaviors?” 

‘The Book of Joan’ is a gruesome fever dream of a novel.  It maintains a constant fierce pitch of desolation. There are no quiet or calm or happy interludes.  It is all devastating upheaval after disastrous disturbance. To me the novel lacks a baseline of normalcy to contrast with all the strange events that occur. The prose is inflamed, chaotic, hectic, and overwrought.    Peaceful quiet lulls in the furious action would have made the bad times seem even more horrendous, more effective.

Maybe younger readers don’t need peaceful respites.  After all we are living in the Trump Era of total chaos.

 

Grade :   B-

 

‘The Dinner Party’ by Joshua Ferris – Some Awful Guys

 

‘The Dinner Party’, stories by Joshua Ferris (2017) – 246 pages

What ideally happens when I read a short story collection is that when I complete a story I am looking forward to reading the next story even when I am not reading.  That is exactly what happened to me while reading ‘The Dinner Party’.

In the first story, ‘The Dinner Party’, a guy who thinks he is so witty and sharp and clever gets his severe come-uppance so that by the end of the story both the guy and the reader is left speechless.  It took me a couple times reading this first story to tune in to Ferris’s often raucous style, but after I did I ate these stories up.

These stories are modern, mostly urban, and high energy to the point they are almost manic.  It is good to see such a talented writer tackle what it means to be alive today. Ferris not only gets the speech of these modern guys and gals down, he also gets their thought patterns, their ways of approaching things.

In the final acknowledgements, Ferris has a special word to say about the men in his stories:

“Finally a special thanks to two women, my agent, Julie Barer, and my wife, Eliza Kennedy, who never make the mistake of confusing the author for his (awful, male) characters, who in turn embolden the author to make these characters more male and awful still.” 

Yes, the men in these stories are often pretty awful.  My favorite story here is probably ‘More Abandon (or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope?)’ which is about a guy who stays late at his office after everybody else has left.  He starts visiting his fellow workers’ offices to see how they are decorated.  One woman’s office is decorated in a cute pig motif, and another woman has her office decorated as a memorial to her dead daughter.  The guy gets the brilliant idea of switching the decorations in the two offices.  He realizes he will get fired the next morning, but he can’t help himself.

Besides the comedy, and there is a lot of comedy here, these stories can get poignant and emotional.   I found the following lines from the story ‘The Breeze’ about the essential differences within a married couple both insightful and moving.

“There was an essential difference between them – what he might have called her restlessness, what she might have called his complacency – which had not surfaced before they were married, or if it had, only as a hint of things to come, hidden again as soon as it peeked out.  When they argued now, as a married couple, it was often over this essential difference.” 

Frequently in a story collection an author will put their best foot forward in the first story, and then the stories get gradually or suddenly weaker.  In ‘The Dinner Party’ the stories are all first rate with no drop off whatsoever.

 

Grade :    A

 

‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin – How is the World Treating You, Clytemnestra?

 

‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin   (2017) – 275 pages

When you are reviewing a novel based on the ancient Greek myths and legends, I suppose you needn’t worry about writing spoilers since the Greeks wrote the spoilers almost 2500 years ago.  In the case of ‘House of Names’  the shape of the narrative was taken from those three ancient Greek master playwrights  Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  It is a novel about that famous Spartan family from the house of Atreus consisting of warrior king Agamemnon, his wife queen Clytemnestra, and their three children Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes.

The first thing I do when I read a novel based on Greek myth is to consult Wikipedia in order to refresh myself on the original story.  For ‘House of Names’, I will relate the early part of the story which many of you will be familiar with anyway, but will not tell of any later events which constitute the last two-thirds of the novel.

Agamemnon would like to take his warriors along with his fleet of boats from Sparta to Troy to help his brother Menelaus capture back his unfaithful wife Helen who has run off to Troy with Paris.  However the fleet is stuck in Aulis due to an absence of wind.  A priest tells Agamemnon that the winds would be favorable if only he would sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods.  Agamemnon tricks his wife Clytemnestra to bring Iphigenia to Aulis by saying that he has arranged for the daughter to marry Achilles there.   Iphigenia is instead murdered, Clytemnestra is enraged, but the winds do change and Agamemnon is off to Troy with his fleet.  After ten years the Spartans led by Agamemnon are victorious in the Trojan War, and  Agamemnon returns home with his new young Trojan mistress Cassandra in tow.   By this time the enraged Clytemnestra has remarried to this slimy shady guy Aegisthus and they rule Sparta together.

I have always been impressed with this Greek story of which Clytemnestra is at the center.  What makes it so powerful for me is that it is not just a story with Evil solely on one side and Good on the other side.  The character of Clytemnestra is morally ambiguous and deep, not at all clear-cut.  We feel her righteous anger when she is tricked into bringing her daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to be sacrificed.  We are totally on her side at that point.  However when in her rage she takes up with new hubby Aegisthus and together they rule Sparta, we are less impressed with her.  Later she becomes outright villainous.

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David, 1819

Even today in most of the stories written, the cards are still stacked with Good entirely on one side and Evil on the other.  But we know from our own experience that things are usually more unclear and confused.  The ancient Greek playwrights, especially Aeschylus, realized this pervasive inconclusiveness, and they gave the myths a depth that is missing from so many stories.  It was not until Shakespeare that someone later achieved the depth of these ancient Greek playwrights.

This is the background of the story.  However most of ‘House of Names’ is instead taken up with the story of the other two children, Electra and Orestes, after all these events have occurred.

It would be difficult for a writer to mess up this exciting plot.  I did think that Toibin’s own later story of Orestes in the wilderness dragged a little in comparison.  As always Toibin’s prose is smooth and serviceable and does not draw attention to itself which can at times be persuasive but can also be sleep inducing.

I did feel that Toibin, in telling the later story of Orestes, casts him as entirely heroic which is too simplistic compared to the stories of the ancient Greek playwrights.  The Greek playwrights would have emphasized that the sacrificial murder of his sister would also have had a deleterious effect on Orestes.   Actions have consequences.

The last three novels Colm Toibin has written have been ‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Testament of Mary’, and now ‘House of Names’.  It is difficult to imagine two novels as different as ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘House of Names’.

Overall ‘House of Names’ is a meaningful retelling of these ancient Greek myths.

 

Grade:   B+   

 

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