Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"And no real fate" – reading in the interval

A sportswriter on the radio said that the lack of football in covid lockdown has disrupted the rhythm of the lives of those who follow the sport. The word stuck in my mind. Does rhythm differ from routine? When a routine is broken, there is an interval of confusion and anxiety, and yet, when extended to this length, I realised when crossing a deserted main road, also peace.

It's like being at a standstill on a train somewhere in the countryside. Initially impatient to see the landscape moving sideways again, we begin to examine the fields, the hedgerows, the trees, the grazing sheep, cows and horses – perhaps spotting some hares, a bird of prey, or a church spire behind the trees – and sense another way of living in the rhythm of nature and foregone traditions. And then the train starts moving again.

In the interval of lockdown, I read whatever presented itself: a collection of Stifter's stories, books on Heidegger by Peter Trawny and Richard Polt, some novels: Gert Hofmann's Our Conquest, Dag Solstad's Shyness and Dignity, Patrick Modiano's Dora Bruder, Peter Handke's A Moment of True Feeling and, for the first time since 1998, WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, each of which could be written about in relation to the interval, but then, breaking the run of northern Europeans, I read a collection of stories by Sam Pink, a writer from the American indie scene of which I have no knowledge and, had I read the blurb describing Pink as "a keen observer of the culture of minimum-wage jobs", I would have avoided.

The first story is simple enough, told by someone directing traffic around a minor accident, which soon becomes unnecessary.

I stood in the street for a second.
Not participating anymore, but still there.
And the traffic moved on its own again.
Glass on the street reflected colors from headlights and stoplights.
The road dark blue beneath.
If I had an ‘off’ switch, it’d be then that I’d use it.
No, I’d probably have already used it a thousand times.

The narrator then shares a meal with a homeless guy and walks off with a goodbye. At first it seemed like the usual stuff: a voice appearing out of nowhere for no apparent reason to give a brief account of the relation between a troubled inner life and outer world (which, incidentally, A Moment of True Feeling pursues at length), similar perhaps to the relation of being in a train carriage passing through a landscape. It is quietly moving and blessedly free of the precious and fussy use of language that has infected American short fiction, but nagged at me as short stories usually do because it doesn't answer the question I asked many years ago at the beginning of in an essay on Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy: why is this person writing this?

The question remains unanswered in almost all contemporary short fiction, most of which is narrated in the first person without any explanation of why the person is writing or, if it is presented as stream-of-consciousness, why we suddenly have access to this mind. The next story The Dishwasher is told in the third person and describes how a restaurant worker maintains sanity with playfully ambiguous loathing directed at the customers and by bantering with his colleagues, but that doesn't discharge the issue. Fiction might collapse if the question's feather-like touch is felt. What set Sam Pink's stories apart for me enough to continue reading is that each narrative sentence not only straightforward but has its own paragraph, thereby loosening the density of descriptive prose by inserting pauses where narrative purpose might accrue. In the third story Yop, the narrator meets two youngsters sitting amidst dumpsters and cardboard boxes where his homeless friend usually sleeps. (I didn't know until reading this that a tallboy is not only a chest of drawers but also a large can of beer.)

‘Hey, I’m Samantha,’ said the girl. ‘Here, du.’
She reached into her backpack and gave me a tallboy.
She laughed like teh-ha.
I sat down on an overturned bucket and opened the tallboy.
The other kid said something to himself.
He was drawing on blank postal service stickers, talking to himself.
He talked like someone was pinching his cheeks in on either side.
We sat there drinking.

At first the style risks the impression of smug control disguised as simplicity, but as the format doesn't change across the collection, it takes on an unexpected character, with each sentence and little expressions like teh-ha part of a rhythmic rattle of a train over tracks. The story is propelled by rhythm rather than events. This is especially effective in Blue Victoria, perhaps the highlight of the collection. It is narrated by someone remembering a time when he shared a flat with Robby and Chris, and Victoria, the latter's girlfriend with a missing front tooth, who was often there to hang out when they weren't at work: eating and drinking, smoking joints, playing ball, generally messing around, such as with a block of stone they find in the abandoned yard next to the apartment.

The bashing stone.
I grabbed the bashing stone and handed it to Victoria.
She struggled, lifting the stone.
‘Juhhhhhhhhhhhrop the stuhhhhyoan,’ I yelled.
Robby raised the tongs and, without turning, replied, ‘Juhhhhhrop, nnnnntha, styoannnnnnnn.’
Victoria dropped the bashing stone on the spray paint bottle, which exploded rust-colored grease, voonk.
We laughed.
We busted the rest of the cans then split one of her cigarettes.
‘Oh I brought this for you,’ she said.
She lifted her sweatshirt, uncovering a fanny pack.
She unzipped the fanny pack and took out a book.
It was a book of poems she wanted me to read.
Rainer Maria Rilke.
We’d been talking about books a lot.
She was trying to go back to school and I was writing a book.
‘Cool, thank you,’ I said, looking at it. ‘First pie, and now this.’
She’d brought us pie from her bakery too.
‘Yeah, I figured you’d like it,’ she said, still looking at the book.
She laughed and looked down.
And for a moment I was convinced her front tooth was lost somewhere in the lot.
And that we could find it and put it back in her mouth if she wanted.
In the empty lot.
Scent of smoke in the air.
Sox game on the radio.
And no real fate.

Most of the details might be as random, trivial, and without apparent meaning as in the other stories, but the final three words appear five times across the story, suggesting a common significance. I was moved by my struggle to understand what they could mean; what no real fate could mean. Later in the story we come to understand and Rilke's name becomes less random, as it invokes the Nirgends ohne nicht – the nowhere without no – that I discussed in my last post before lockdown. So the switch from a German philosopher and northern European novelists to these stories may not have been as distinct as I thought.

The narrator looks back on life with Roddy, Chris and Victoria and recognises a time without reflection, which we might recognise as Heidegger's Dasein: a time of rhythm before life breaks, before the 'yop yop yop' of Samantha's burps as the beer repeats on her, before the train comes to a standstill, when the street becomes silent, before Victoria's real fate, and when, perhaps, I wondered, the question of the meaning of Being, otherwise so obscure and so readily obscured, arises.

For a change, and because of Blue Victoria in particular, I am able to give my trust to these stories even though they appear apparently out of nowhere, because the content is itself lost and alone, waiting for company. With each pause between each line – a paragraph break after all – each action described and each physical item noted becomes isolated, glowing in specificity and reserve, creating a unique rhythm, similar to what James Wood recognised in WG Sebald's real-world stories and uncaptioned photographs: that "facts are indecipherable and therefore tragic". Their unusually circumscribed context, potentially instantly forgettable, makes their presence all the more memorable. The rhythmic form is key and not so much the insights into a "culture of minimum-wage jobs". Searching for the means to hold on is a universal experience after all. There is something similar in reading these stories and perhaps to reading fiction in general to what Peter Handke explored in the poem I wrote about three years ago: the feeling of duration, "the most fleeting of all feelings" that is "not worth talking about / but worth holding onto through writing". That is, its significance and meaning is not so much in the time it describes, which passes so quickly and has no real fate, but in its repetition in the rhythms of writing; the eternal interval.


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