Monday, 17 June 2013

Tininess and unease: the miniature in short stories for adults

Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, up to no good

I loved stories about tiny things when I was growing up – The Borrowers, anything involving fairies, and mice behaving like tiny people in the Brambly Hedge books, or in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. I always thought of miniature people as being the subject of stories for children, The History of Tom Thumb and The Borrowers being classic examples, but I have recently read two short stories very definitely aimed at adult readers that use tiny people to chilling effect. One of these, available free online here in the New England Review, is ‘No Others Before Me’ by Maria Hummel. The second is ‘The End of the Line’ by Aimee Bender, which appears in her collection Willful Creatures, a book full of shocking, unnerving and fantastical tales that changed my understanding of what short stories can do.

Both of these stories are disturbing, Bender’s deeply so. It begins, “The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company,” a simple statement reminiscent of the opening of a children’s story. The little man is in a cage, with a tiny sofa and a television. The first sign of trouble is when his owner adds antihistamine to the cage’s water-drip to make the little man drowsy. From then on his abuse of his ‘pet’ escalates, and he subjects him to all kinds of tortures, putting him in the fridge and in the toaster, physically and later sexually abusing him. When the little man is finally broken, expecting death, the owner relents and agrees to send him back to his family.

In Hummel’s ‘No Others Before Me’ a normal woman’s pregnancy produces an entire village of tiny people: “Laura’s labor was long and difficult, not because it was hard to squeeze the villagers out, but because several of them tried to climb back in.” Told from the point of view of Laura’s husband, an uncomprehending and reluctant father to the villagers, we see him struggling to support his wife in her desire to be a good mother. There is humour as well as unease at first – the first ultrasound scan where they see first a bulldozer, and then the whole village in his wife’s belly; the image of the tiny adult villagers drinking milk from Laura’s breasts. But when things go wrong the result is sickening, for both the narrator and the reader.

In both these tales I felt that the sense of horror was created by the knowledge of the sheer power of the human and the perfect vulnerability of the miniature person. We are aware that there is absolutely nothing the tiny people can do if the human decides to assert their power. They made me think about situations in the real world where one party is disempowered and the awful things that happen sometimes in those situations.

After reading these stories I also read a chapter on the miniature in Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space. Discussing miniature people, and in particular Tom Thumb, he says, “tininess is the habitat of greatness,” and points out the extraordinary powers of Tom Thumb, able to control a plough from inside a horse’s ear – “this tiny creature, exerting influence upon the large one”. This did not fit with my memory of Hummel’s and Bender’s stories, but when I reread them, I found that in the end, this is exactly what happens in both. When the human releases the tortured tiny man in ‘The End of the Line’, he is desperate to be accepted by the community of tiny people: ““I don’t want to harm you!” he said out loud. “I just want to be part of your society.”” The tiny people are hiding, and one of them, a girl whose hat the human has found and balanced ridiculously on top of his head, “could not understand the size of the pity that kept unbuckling in her heart.” The human is rendered pathetic and ridiculous, and the tiny people exert their power by refusing to let him in.

In ‘No Others Before Me,’ likewise, it is the villagers whose actions profoundly affect both the human parents, and despite the sense of potential threat – as the story opens the villagers have been packed into a glass jar and left on the work top – at the end the narrator is overcome with emotion when he responds to their fear and finally feels paternal love.

I’ve found it intriguing that, along with these stories, those I have found for adults that involve the miniature almost always invoke unease, or a sense of the uncanny; Claire Massey also has a few examples, including 'Stone Sea', and 'Growing Cities', and when I tried to write one myself the result was not quite so dark as the ones discussed here, but was certainly a bit creepy. I am on the lookout now for contemporary stories for adults in which tiny people appear but do not disturb in this way. Is this even possible in adult fiction without it feeling cute, or childish?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

George Saunders on writing short stories

Tenth of December?

In 2013 George Saunders appeared in Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. This is very good news for the short story – a sign that the form’s  “ebb-tide” has surely become a “flood-tide”, as one of the Frank O’Connor Award judges put it – and has made Saunders into something of a totem amongst short story writers.

I saw him in conversation with the writer Jon McGregor at Southbank, London last week. He was generous and funny as he discussed his writing methods, inspiration and how his writing has changed, spending some time picking apart in detail how he wrote the first story in Tenth of December, ‘Victory Lap’.

This story had started out as an attempt to shake off his reputation as a dark writer; Saunders admires Chekov, who he suggested can make a story out of anything, with no need for darkness, or drama, just humanity. So, he began by trying to get into the head of a fifteen year old girl who believes people are good and life is fun, and waited to see where the story would go. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens in ‘Victory Lap’ but suffice to say that even with a relatively happy ending it does not avoid darkness by any means. Saunders described the various realisations he had throughout the writing of it about what he had to do – adding narrative voices, finally seeing how it must end – not having started with any such plans. He quoted Einstein, saying “no worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception,” and if a story has its own life, then its solution ought to surprise the writer. You can get to the solution, but you must let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

Threaded throughout the discussion were other tips drawn from his own writing process and his teaching at Syracuse University. When working on a story, he said, you should “honour your own discontent”. This particularly struck a chord with me, struggling as I often do to balance positive feedback with my own misgivings about a piece of work, or negative feedback with my sense that a story does what I want it to. Keep changing tiny details, he suggested, repeat, even giving scores out of ten to each bit. Imagine someone asking, “Tell it to me simply,” to get at what the story is really about. Cut out bits where you are just being clever. When you do this, he said, “the velocity goes up, the intimacy with the reader goes up.” There’s nothing that’s the wrong thing to do, as long as it brings the reader in a bit more.

I was relieved to hear that he tends to have four or five stories on the go at any one time, and when he sits down to write, decides to work on whichever is going to be the most fun that day. I also do this, and sometimes worry that it’s a way of avoiding committing to a story...

When I asked whether he enjoyed ambiguity in short stories – something I love – he said he thinks that is what a short story is, and that “fiction can’t answer the question but can formulate it correctly.” This is an intriguing way to think about short stories, and one that appeals to me as a reader who does not like to have too many questions answered in fiction. Next time somebody asks me, of a story, “but what does it mean? What actually happened?” I will quote George Saunders.