How The Light Gets In by Clare Fisher

Influx Press, June 2018, 179 pp

Influx Press, June 2018, 179 pp

“Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light.” This is the premise for Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In, a collection of short stories that, with a few exceptions, are only one or two pages in length. Whether this is to be called flash fiction, or “very short stories” as the back cover blurbs it, is a question of preference. What’s certain is that these flickers of narrative present a promising new author, who writes in a humane, yet insightful, way about our everyday life. “Learning to live with cracks – both my own and other peoples’ – will win me no prizes. But I don’t care. I’ve been doing it for years now and it feels like life,” says the narrator in the first story. This refreshingly positive ethos is carried through the collection, but the life-affirming tone does not eliminate acuteness: these are also sharp portrayals of 21st-century urban existence.

Fisher is a careful observer of people, jumping into the shoes of numerous different protagonists as required by numerous different stories: there’s a schoolboy looking for validation via questionable choices; a tourist guide at Victoria Station observing tired, nocturnal travelers; a man who promises his partner to clean up the apartment as soon as he’s finished writing his Magnum Opus, while the truth is that he’s just uploading photos onto Facebook; a 35-year-old woman has been in a relationship for most of her adult life, but doesn’t believe she’s ever really loved anybody. These are just a few random examples. Interspersed with these individual stories are some recurring features, such as the 5-part “dark places to watch out for,” where Fisher shows her comic side by listing such “places,” sprinkled across the book:

The desire to laugh in what everyone agrees is a Very Important Meeting and which, the more you remind yourself How Important This Is, only grows to a cough that even thoughts of massacres and holocausts and the death of your family and the nuclear apocalypse cannot suppress.

On the sentence level, Fisher excels at denouements. She has a penchant for writing long final sentences, which twist and turn in order to delay the revelation at the very end, like at the end of “this city’s roaring edge:”

Some nights, as I am rushing towards the cardboardy comfort of my Ikea bed, I see you; you are still here, still at the roaring edge, the second to last person I will see today, and I smile at the gap in the railings to the left of your head, knowing that your question is no question, that you know something I, in my salad-munching hyperactivity, may well never learn: how to be still.

The care with which Fisher arranges her words and sentences shows that she writes with the sensitivity of a poet, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her write in verse someday. Although How The Light Gets In might not leave the longest aftertaste – largely due to the sort of in-the-moment observations of everyday life that more likely amuse than change one’s life – it is, as said, a fine collection of stories in a refreshing format. I’m eager to see what she comes up with next.

The Tree of the Toraja by Philippe Claudel (tr. Euan Cameron)

MacLehose Press, July 2018, 158 pp

MacLehose Press, July 2018, 158 pp

Philippe Claudel takes the Toraja custom of interning the bodies of very young children into the trunks of trees as an overarching symbol for his novel The Tree of the Toraja, published originally in French as L’arbre du pays Toraja in 2016, now beautifully translated into English by Euan Cameron. This is the process of the burial, as explained by the narrator in his  always delicate, poetic language: 

A cavity is carved out of the trunk of the tree. The little corpse wrapped in a shroud is placed inside. The opening of the sylvan tomb is filled in with a weave of branches and cloths. Gradually, over the course of the years, the wood of the tree grows over it, retaining the child’s body within its own large body, beneath its newly healed bark. Then, very slowly, in harmony with the patient rhythm of the tree’s growth, begins the journey that will see it rise up towards the heaven.

Claudel, or the unnamed narrator of this likely very autobiographical novel, encountered the tradition during his travels in Indonesia in 2012. When he returns home in France, a message from his best friend Eugène is waiting for him on the answering machine, telling him he’s got a nasty cancer. This sets the story, as well as the tone, for The Tree of the Toraja, an extremely pensive meditation on death by the narrator, who is an acclaimed film director, scriptwriter, as well as novelist. Into these 150 pages or so, Claudel packs his professional as well as private life, including his ex-wife Florence and their stillborn child, whose physical non-existence she refuses to acknowledge:

Like the Toraja tree, she continued over the years to have her child grow within her innermost being. Her woman’s body was filled with the presence of the little dead corpse which she never really buried but which she welcomed into her home, into her inner dwelling and into her life, moulding her according to her different ages, having her blossom into a giggling little child, then into an eternal and idealised young girl, and who took up so much room that Florence never, either with me or with Luc, her new husband, tried to have another child afterwards.

As the above passage implies, Claudel writes in long, lush, meandering sentences. There is deliberately little narrative pull as we listen to his tender, melancholy ruminations on various aspects of life, which usually revolve around, or end up, in death. It is not surprising to see that the narrator recounts scenes from Proust, as the two clearly share a penchant for minute explorations of consciousness. “I’ve always had a tendency to listen to myself too much. Perhaps I need to keep my distance from myself,” he notes at one point, not without signs of emerging depression.

Despite his various love affairs, it is Eugène and their close, homosocial relationship which holds the center for the narrator and the whole book. The two of them had worked together in the film business for years, during which they had formed a close bond. Eugène’s demise is tragic for the narrator, and The Tree of the Toraja is partially an attempt to continue a discussion with his much-missed friend: “I have taken on this book as though I was hoping to continue a conversation that has been interrupted, as though trying to weave a flimsy, invisible trap capable of capturing voices and lost moments,” he remarks, mirroring the Toraja tradition:

Today, it seems to be that, thanks to this free-flowing narrative, its layout and its development, not only am I obliging Eugène to remain near me, I am also keeping him on a sort of life-support machine, in a coma that is not exactly death, but at the same time I am able to resume work on my house. […] Eugène is here, in the pages, in the lines, or between them.

Their relationship suggests that the narrator has never quite reached a similar bond with the women in his life, with whom, one could argue, the narrator acts somewhat egoistically. There’s a tinge of the dudebro tradition in his dealings with Elena, a much younger love interest, their situation characteristic of the Philip Roth generation of writers: an older male author, who not unsurprisingly reads only other male authors (Milan Kundera is the most significant name in this novel), having sexual relations with a young woman. This aspect – which often triggers the feminist in me – aside, The Tree of the Toraja is first and foremost a beautiful novel, a grower that reveals its many sides after reading. The way that the eponymous tradition is woven into the narrative indicates the sort of mastery of storytelling that often only an established author is capable of. Coincidentally, it is very similar to the Uruguayan novelist Daniel Mella’s Older Brother, which has just been published as well. Both are autobiographical, short novels, clad in green covers, which deal with death, and, most surprisingly, share a character who is struck by lightning.

Older Brother by Daniel Mella (tr. Megan McDowell)

Charco Press, September 2018, 148 pp

Charco Press, September 2018, 148 pp

Older Brother, Daniel Mella’s fourth novel, although the first translated into English, follows the aftermath of a tragic event in 2014, when the narrator’s younger brother, a lifeguard, is struck by lightning. His death, and the resulting grief, sets forth a process of coping and recovery for Dani, the autobiographical protagonist, whose thoughts and memories we follow through this slim but powerful volume written by one of Uruguay’s most important writers today.

One key to the novel is in the title: this is a book largely about the older brother, Dani, not about the dead younger brother, Alejandro. Older Brother is mainly an autobiographical meditation on loss and grief, a personal catharsis for an author whose previous works of fiction, too, suggest a strong connection to the author’s life. Keeping in mind that this may be based firmly in real life, Mella’s text is touchingly honest, laying bare the fears and sins of a thirty-something man. An addiction to violent internet porn as well as egoistical tendencies are all reported openly on the page, making it harder to make moral judgements of Dani’s character, as tempting as it is. He might, for instance, take advantage of his friends for artistic purposes, as in the following excerpt, where Dani hurries off the telephone call with his mother in order to write, inspired by a tragedy in a friend’s family – Sandra’s son has died, and Dani has recounted it to his mother:

‘How terrible,’ [mother] says, but she doesn’t depress me. It’s good for me to feel her sadness, and how at the same time she’s happy I’ve called. She lets me hear her for a good while. I only perceive the sound of her voice, and I don’t remember what else she said to me, except that I should calm down and support my friend. But what I actually do is drive home unhurriedly, feeling the novel taking shape in my head. […] While I’m writing the book, I’m going to feel dirty, as if Sandra had left my body coated in grime, a muck that will inform my novel. I won’t feel that she’s far away from me. In fact, as I take advantage of her tragedy for my book, I’m going to feel her presence so close by that I’ll be forced to take refuge in the most pitiless corners of my soul.

In such ways, Older Brother asks question about the role of real life in fiction, blending together fiction and reality on many levels. It is a work of our time, considering the success of other autobiographical writers of late, such as Karl Ove Knausgård, whose sixth and final volume of My Struggle sees the light of day in English around the same time with Older Brother. The reader is never sure what is real and what is not, but that is not the point. More important is the thematic exploration of death, grief, and life, big themes that Mella touches quite well upon in this short novel:

Then, when I start to reflect on what I’d like to be done with my body [after death], I’ll realise that it really doesn’t matter to me at all. Burial, cremation. None of it makes the slightest difference to me. It’s all managed by bureaucrats in suits and ties, just like births are managed by bureaucrats in latex. But what will shock me most is the fact that this baby [Paco, the unborn son], who is life itself, is going to be born bearing his own death. That this unborn creature is someday going to die. That this baby will come into the world as a marked being and will have the right, the obligation, to die his own death, which is his and no one else’s.

What turns out, for me, to be the most exciting feature of the novel has less to do with themes and more with form: Older Brother is written in a curious mixture of tenses. Just as reality and fiction intertwine here, so does past, present, and future. It is not always clear to me which of these events have actually even happened, although some of them are evidently only hypothetical (a common feature of postmodern fiction), as pointed out by Dani. “I’m going to tell Alejandro my fantasy. Together, we’re going to imagine that…” begins one long, vividly detailed memory, only to be renounced by the next paragraph: “But the reality is that…” This is something that Dani / Mella is conscious of doing when writing fiction, as he reminisces on writing his debut novel decades ago (notice, again, that he chooses to use the future tense):

I’ll buy a notebook with Goofy on the cover, and I’ll set about writing down everything I do from one second to the next. I’m going to write at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the bathroom. I’ll bring my notebook everywhere, terrified that a single thought might escape me. Half the things I write down won’t have happened, they’ll be pure invention, and soon my life will jumble together with the story of a kid my age who lives in a house like mine, teaches English to pay for his drugs and writes all day to occupy his hands with something less solitary than hanging himself from a beam.

Narrating the past with the future tense brings a certain vivacity to the events, despite occasional confusion that I experienced. An alert reader is rewarded by a deep, thoughtful rumination on life that is Older Brother, a perfect read during the gloomier moments of the impending autumn. It is also an extremely important work to be translated into English: it’s not as if we’ve ever got to read too many Uruguayan novelists, and for this addition we can only thank Charco Press for their consistent work in bringing fresh voices to the English-speaking literary scene. Megan McDowell, whose translations of Alejandro Zambra I have had the pleasure to enjoy, has done a wonderful job in conjuring Mella’s visions in lucid prose – despite the challenges Mella has set with his slightly experimental form.