The poet, novelist and short-story writer Julia Darling was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and died in 2005, aged forty-eight. Her posthumous story collection, Pearl, bears witness to her experience of illness: it’s pockmarked with characters in hospitals or grappling with ill health. ‘Three Stages of Heat’ describes a recuperative visit to a sauna. ‘How to Wait’ is a guide to navigating the social awkwardness of the waiting room (‘Enclose yourself in an atmosphere of quietness. You want to be seen before them’). In ‘The Treatment’, Noreen is ‘very cheerful, and always sashays into the room elegantly, throwing her scarf over her shoulder and holding her chin up high’; the patients exchange stories and normalise their illnesses, recalling a time before interminable ward visits. In its observations, Pearl is fiction that resembles documentary.
The stories are consistently brief, at times nearly fragmentary. Stylistically they are simple, as though Darling is primarily engaged in character studies; little attention is paid to the demands of plot. Some stories feel underdeveloped, ideas rather than the finished article. But throughout, Darling’s eye for detail holds the reader’s attention. In ‘The Window Cleaner’, an immigrant works on a tall block of 1960s flats in the city. The story is an exercise in inhabiting his viewpoint: ‘Today I have seen a huge naked man cutting his toenails with a tiny pair of silver scissors, and a crazed Alsatian pacing like a wolf.’ In ‘The Debatable Lands’, Rona visits the titular border region to escape her routine and come to terms with an unwelcome diagnosis: ‘I sit by the fire and read medical literature. It makes me uneasy. It’s written in a language I can’t even say aloud. I cry again, then I laugh. It’s not fair. Nothing is fair. I think the worst thoughts I can possibly think.’
There’s something almost artless about Darling’s stories, but by eschewing ornamentation and narrative complexity she seems to reach all the more directly the messy terrain of being alive.
At the end of 2017, the New Yorker published Kristen Roupenian’s short story ‘Cat Person’. Margot, a student, goes on a series of dates with Robert, a man in his thirties. Roupenian outlines their courtship, with the lunge and retreat of text-messaging, ‘not only jokes but little updates about their days. They started saying good morning and good night, and when she asked him a question and he didn’t respond right away she felt a jab of anxious yearning.’ On one date, Margot consents to sex, only to change her mind: ‘She tried to bludgeon her resistance into submission … she began to have trouble breathing and to feel that she really might not be able to go through with it after all.’ ‘Cat Person’ went viral online, in part because of how it resonated with women, but also due to the tired chorus of ‘not all men’ that issued from those with whom the story had struck a nerve. In its sustained focus on the fluctuations of a mind desperate both to please and to express itself, the story deserved the attention it received.
Unfortunately, You Know You Want This, Roupenian’s debut collection, doesn’t live up to the hype generated by ‘Cat Person’, easily the strongest story here. Like that story, the collection explores obsession, desire and unhealthy relationships. In ‘Bad Boy’, a couple realise their temporary house guest can hear them having sex. A troubling game of dominance plays out, ending in the couple encouraging their submissive guest into acts of increasing violence and self-destruction. Meanwhile, in ‘Scarred’, a woman discovers a book of spells and summons her perfect man, only to use him for further rituals. Despite such enticing premises, the stories don’t develop into more than the sum of their parts and the psyches of Roupenian’s protagonists remain inaccessible.
‘The Good Guy’, a story about Ted and his series of failed relationships, illustrates both the frustrations and the occasional delights of the collection. It’s overblown, overlong even, and never delivers on its shock opening: ‘the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife.’ Roupenian never satisfyingly delves into this violent kink, despite documenting Ted’s teenage years and early objects of affection in extensive detail. But she is good at writing about young people, at one point smartly capturing the dissonance between teenage desire and the inability to make it known. Ted’s crush, Anna, remarks offhandedly, ‘It really means a lot to me.’
I would die for you, Ted thought.
‘No problemo,’ Ted said.
When a moment like this lands, it’s a reminder of missed opportunities elsewhere.
Brazilian author Samanta Schweblin’s collection Mouthful of Birds covers some of the same thematic ground as Roupenian’s, including the macabre. Schweblin is also fond of using shock tactics to attract the reader’s attention, yet her command of her material is scintillating. ‘Headlights’ begins, ‘When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her.’ She joins a host of women who have stopped on the motorway for a toilet break, only to discover their partners have left without them: ‘In the flat darkness of the countryside, there is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in.’ No detail is misplaced, down to the choice of name. As the story is skilfully developed, it seems that Felicity may have had a lucky escape.
Among the subjects Schweblin explores is that of the earth and what lurks beneath us. In ‘The Digger’, a man on holiday in a remote part of the country finds another man outside his home, digging a hole, without explanation. In ‘Underground’, at a motorway diner, a story is told of how children excavated a strange mound in a mining town, creating another seemingly meaningless hole in the ground. The children went missing; when the parents rushed to the excavation site, they discovered the pit had been filled in. A sense of unknowability lingers over these stories, producing a shiver of fright as well as a curious sense of dislocation.
The other striking motif is that of art. The protagonist of ‘Heads Against Concrete’ produces paintings of heads smashed into the ground that are hailed as masterworks. But he only creates the paintings as a method of avoiding enacting the violence himself; his frustration and alienation are first suppressed and then transformed into ‘art’. In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, which rounds off the collection, Benavides has killed his wife and stuffed her body into a suitcase. He takes it to his therapist, in shock at what he has done, but his therapist’s reaction is surprising: ‘He looks at the suitcase for a moment, then at Benavides, as if he can’t understand how Benavides has been able to do such a thing for himself. “You are a genius. And to think that I underestimated you.”’ As the hapless murderer clamours to have his crime acknowledged, the therapist summons a curator to get the ‘artwork’ put on display to the public, complete with a grand unveiling. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that Schweblin is fascinated by the gulf between creator and audience. Her stories explore the grotesque and the horrifying, though they might be labelled beautiful, skilful creations, or even pieces of art.