It is relatively unusual for an emerging author to make their breakthrough with a book of short stories, but the thematic unity of Chris Power’s debut collection gives it a sense of wholeness almost on a par with a novel. The writing in Mothers is meditative and controlled: the average sentence rarely exceeds one and a half lines, and there isn’t a superfluous word in sight. In ‘Summer 1976’, the narrator reminisces about her childhood on a housing estate and the time she got the neighbour’s kid into trouble by telling a lie about him. It’s a detail at the periphery of the action that holds our attention, a cherished visual memory of her mother dancing at a party: ‘Who was she really, this woman? She was my mum, of course, but that was only one part, and I want to know all the parts.’ When she came clean about her lie, the narrator wept: ‘I was crying for her, and because of where she was.’
In ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’, a father ponders the sadistic nature of children’s games, noting that his daughters’ role plays ‘revolve around exclusion and repeated demonstrations of the arbitrary’. Looking back on his own childhood, he recalls that his mother tried in vain to get him to appreciate plant life during family holidays (‘The world was fine, but it wasn’t much beside a book’) and remembers being felt up by a paedophile in a games arcade. When the protagonist in ‘The Haväng Dolmen’ gets spooked at a burial site from the Stone Age, prompting him to remember his cruel mistreatment at the hands of some French children during a seaside sojourn, a feeling of déjà vu creeps in. That story ends with him closing his eyes and enjoying the silence; earlier, in ‘Innsbruck’, a would-be suicide feels a pang of envy when she sees a group of tourists taking in the sea breeze. Power deals in small epiphanies, amounting to nothing more or less than a quiet humility before the vastness of time and the soothing permanence of the natural world. Whether that sense of halcyon stillness is its own reward, however, is open to question. The prose, neatly crafted and precise, never overreaches itself; but neither does it soar.
The tales collected in Emily Fridlund’s Catapult engage with similar themes – the viciousness of children, the unreliability of memories through time – in an altogether more stylised way. In the title story, the narrator and her boyfriend, a maths geek obsessed with time travel, amuse themselves by firing a Lego man from a catapult. (‘His face was just three dots – eye, eye and mouth – and I remember thinking, What more, what more does anyone need?’) The story hinges on a disturbing flashback to the narrator’s abuse of some younger friends who were in her thrall: she made them hang upside down from branches, pretending to be bats and vampires, for hours.
Fridlund, whose debut novel, The History of Wolves, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, does a nice line in sparring partners. In ‘One You Run from, the Other You Fight’, a girl is disgusted by her boyfriend’s easy manner with a dog, and taunts him: ‘You like wiping pee, Sage? … Later, you can stroke my brow and wipe my ass, if you want, like the doggy.’ The brooding timbre is offset by bathetic one-liners: in ‘Gimme Shelter’, a tree crashes into a house during a storm; the protagonist’s brother, Saul, observes that ‘it looked like an endangered animal, something you’re not supposed to be able to see in your lifetime, huge and very, very tired.’ The next paragraph begins: ‘Saul was a bookish teenager, the sort with very few friends.’
The story ends with the protagonist, who has been reflecting on her relationship with her mother, feeling ‘a sentimental protectiveness … for the past, which was so pitiful and distant’. Fridlund’s narration is occasionally a little overwrought in its opacity and lyricism, but her ambitiously complex prose style – blending macabre menace, cool cynicism and wistful melancholia – makes for a stimulating read.
In the ongoing culture wars around identity politics and the #MeToo campaign, the American novelist Lionel Shriver has emerged as one of the more trenchant voices of the conservative rearguard action, taking obstinate issue with 21st-century progressive activism. Some of the stories collected in Property give decidedly unsubtle expression to these concerns. ‘Domestic Terrorism’ tells of an ADHD-afflicted 31-year-old man who lives with his parents and won’t move out. Liam, who ‘preferred solitary pursuits, of a maximally purposeless variety’, is an exhaustive caricature of baby-boomer prejudices about coddled millennials: he has an overindulgent father, a gender-non-conforming sister and a strident black girlfriend. The story reaches a nadir when Liam is likened to Syrian refugees: ‘this brand of extortion – I have thrown myself on your mercy; if you don’t take care of me, I will make you look like a monster – depended on physical presence.’
These anxieties – Liam’s inertia is described as ‘smug, self-satisfied, and static’ by the third-person narrator – speak to something deep in American culture: in a society built on striving and aspiration, lassitude is a pathology. This theme is reprised in ‘The Standing Chandelier’, which is about a love triangle involving a man, his fiancée and his long-standing tennis partner, Jillian. A childless singleton and art-world dabbler, Jillian has not done much with her life, and for this she is pummelled, first by the narrator – who remarks that she ‘pursued purposelessness as a purpose in itself’ – and then by the fiancée: ‘Like, if she came from humble roots, having no ambition … would seem like having low self-esteem. But because her father’s a surgeon, being a big nobody is supposedly brave or something … Whereas the truth is that Jillian won’t play the game because she doesn’t want to lose.’ The contrast with Power and Fridlund is striking: in their stories the ordinary sadness of directionless lives is rendered with warmth and dignity; here it is the butt of moralistic condescension.
When she is not being pious, Shriver is still tedious. ‘The Self-Seeding Sycamore’, a sweet story about a lonely widow who forms an unlikely friendship with a surly neighbour, is ruined by artless overwriting: the narrator explains that the neighbour, Burt Cuss, has ‘an ugly name, like a one-two punch’ – which doesn’t need pointing out; a simile likening her attempts to tame her garden to asymmetrical warfare is cruelly dragged out over two paragraphs; the reference to ‘her futile Sisyphean extermination’ of seedlings is typical of the adjectival overload that riddles her writing. Shriver’s syntax is turgid with unwieldy sub-clauses and parenthetical asides, and her storytelling style is over-explicatory and ultimately abrasive.