Epigraphs are wonderful things. For her second collection of stories, the American author Elizabeth Tallent has looked to Edna O’Brien: ‘They chopped the wood, they lit the stove, they kept busy; there is always something to do in a house.’ It is true, of course; and indeed there is always something to do in the bourgeois marriage for the writer who tools along at the rate of one thoroughly explored emotion per paragraph. Thoroughness can be so terribly tiring.
These stories are set in England, and in the rural USA. Each stands up separately, but three strands run through the collection; characters appear, then reappear at a different juncture in their lives, so that we have the neat satisfactions of the short story form, and the weightier, more sustained insights of the novel. They are so good – so perceptive and sensitive – that it is difficult to say why they make one uneasy. If you are writing fiction, it is an option to misunderstand your character; to write about them in humble bewilderment, and invite the reader to make some contribution. Elizabeth Tallent has chosen to understand her characters very well, and to leave few gaps in their self-knowledge; she sets them in a richly visual, detailed landscape of her own design. To say that an author has completeness of vision is to offer a great compliment, but completeness has its dangers. Okay, says the reader, if you’re so happy playing by yourself, I’m taking my brain home.
Tallent has a sidling, crab-like technique, but she knows exactly where she is going. Her stories begin with a landscape, and into this intrudes, typically, an animal or bird. Then comes a human character: but not necessarily the central character. A delicate narrative spiral takes our attention elsewhere. She is economical, but unhurried; she puts her people into situations where they can practice the kind of close observation at which she excels. In ‘No One’s A Mystery’ an eighteen year old girl is in a pickup truck with her married lover, cruising the dirt roads of Wyoming between fields of wheat. Her lover’s wife comes driving by; she finds herself pushed to the floor of the truck, and has a little space to contemplate what she sees.
‘I studied his boots. The elk heads stitched into the leather were bearded with frayed thread, the toes were scuffed, and there was a compact wedge of muddy manure between the heel and the sole – the same boots he’d been wearing for the two years I’d known him.’
It is at these moments of arrested activity that the present freezes, and the future takes sudden shape. This is a strength of Elizabeth Tallent’s writing; she can pinpoint for us the moment, the very second, when the balance of a relationship alters, or when a trust is betrayed.
There is a lot of betrayal around. Marital breakup looms large; children are the mute witnesses for whom no one can find enough time. In ‘Black Holes’, five year old Fanny is the focus of the narrative. Fanny’s father Will has married again, and there is a new baby, so the family needs to move to a bigger house. On Saturday mornings, Will takes Fanny along with him while he does small jobs about the new place; in a mistaken attempt to involve her, he refers to it as ‘Fanny’s house.’ The little girl misunderstands; for weeks she lives in mental anguish, believing that she is to be sent to live alone. By the time the error is retrieved, a sweet-natured and confiding child has altered.
‘“Fanny?” he says. “It must have been so lonely for you.” Fanny stares at the cat. “Forget it,’’ she says. “Just forget it, Dad.”’
These are self-absorbed people; even the children have an emotional self-sufficiency. They guard their separateness jealously, even – and especially – from the people who in conventional terms they are ‘closest’ to. They move from partner to partner with no gaps in between, never go sexually begging; loneliness is not their problem, on the face of it, but they are isolated all the same.
Some of the American stories are impeccably constructed and strikingly vivid; the London stories seem more fragmentary, their characters slightly out of focus. Tallent treats the English as a newly-discovered and unpleasant anthropological curiosity. Several recent books have made it plain that the national character still holds surprises for some Americans; yet it’s not as if there’s, as the policemen say, ‘nothing known’. Elizabeth Tallent convicts the English of having pale complexions and of being polite with a ‘glazed expression’; they also have the wrong kind of kitchen floors.
Sometimes she even tries them in their absence. Kyra and Charlie, a New York publisher, have rented a flat whilst Charlie is ‘on loan’ to Bedford Square; the owners of the ‘chilly Edwardian rooms’ are fussy snobs, as we can tell by their possessions and their cats. Tallent knows them thoroughly, once again; and this returns us to the original point. If writers don’t ration their effects, readers will ration their interest. These are, for me, over-written. A little less of everything would have meant a great deal more.