Category Archives: Short Stories Collections

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance – Matthew Kneale

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Matthew Kneale’s Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance seems oddly named until you realize it was published in 2005. The book is a collection of stories focused on male protagonists who seem either clueless or hopeless when it comes to functioning in the wider world or redeeming an uneventful life.

The stories are accomplished—they deliver all the necessary elements of a good short story and do so in convincing and coherent prose. Some have a little twist at the end, although nothing so heavy-handed as an O’Henry. But it was impossible to care about any of Kneale’s people. They seemed like losers to me and a few were rather thick as well.

The clod who takes his family to China and dares to depart from an organized tour, trying to pronounce a tonal language in a train station rather than point to the Chinese characters, ends up in the middle of nowhere because he is so exceedingly arrogant and tone-deaf. Duh. A suicide bomber loses his nerve and then loses his nerve again. And so? Brits who buy a run-down Italian villa and leave the renovations to return to England are shocked—shocked!—to discover their idyllic domicile has been fitted out with Ikea cabinets, etc. Could not care less about them, but I did feel bad about the formerly charming old house.

Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the short story form. I once wrote one—just one–that got the most encouraging hand-written rejection from The Paris Review. I still have that slip of paper somewhere. Perhaps I will revisit the idea of writing short stories someday. But I don’t really gravitate towards reading them and, when I do, the bleak modern experiences are depressing most of the time. Don’t really need any help there. I’d rather read stories about people, no matter how fanciful, who I might root for or be entertained by. Would not object to characters who might leave me nonplussed. But these Brits, in the midst of their “abundance,” were someone else’s cup of tea.

Find an abandoned stash of cocaine and start selling it to pad your miserable failed-law-career bank account? Jerk. Stick your novel in a drawer and follow your wealthy older lover around like a puppy because she prefers you that way? Wimp. Get drunk because you have no prospects and move all the garden gnomes in town to one central location with your mates? No wonder you have no prospects. The only character I liked was an irascible old grandfather who didn’t give a crap what people thought of him and didn’t mind being slightly outrageous. That dude had some imagination. The rest of them? Not so much.  

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance   Matthew Kneale |  Doubleday   2005

The Matisse Stories – A.S. Byatt

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Matisse is as good a conduit for a story as any, and better than most. In The Matisse Stories, A.S. Byatt brings her prodigious eye for the telling detail and her finely tuned ear for nuance to three tales about ordinary people at moments of transformation. The transformation is deep change but not necessarily welcome, beneficent or divine. Each, however, takes place in the dusty, messy detritus of the quotidian and the very ordinariness of the characters and their settings makes what happens believable.

In Medusa’s Ankles, a middle-aged woman in a long term relationship with a hip hair salon is drawn to the Matisse poster over the coat rack – and drawn into the untidy personal life of the salon owner who cuts her hair. The shifting décor of the salon mirrors the banal disintegration of the status quo with its rosy, comforting hues frozen in time. Events spiral into ugly, trendy color schemes, a recognition that the clock keeps ticking in the background and that superficial relationships generally signal superficial, selfish people. Medusa of the serpentine hair is heading toward a mean pair of kankles as she explodes in rage and wrecks the vision around her. But the aftermath of unleashing all that emotion is that she is finally seen. And perhaps learns to see what was in front of her all along.

Art Work is a more vibrant piece, as colorful as full-blown Matisse with his color box wide open. Just as a painting may be more, or less, than it seems, a domestic scene is bound to be hiding roiling ambition, envy, competition, life hungry for more, brighter, bigger beneath its tranquil surface. The madman in the attic is just a pedestrian artist who hides behind his limited vision and churns out failed piece after failed piece while his wife supports the family. She is a design editor juggling kids, household and the help with a demanding job and a longing to return to the art making of her youth. The help is a wacky Mrs. Brown who is far more vivid than her name, scavenging cast-offs from which she makes clashing, crazy outfits, half-knitted, half-assembled. A visit from a gallery owner is the catalyst that spills a paint box over this daily sameness, upending all delusions and suppositions and washing events in vermillion, chartreuse, magenta, teal. The canvas is ripped, mended and re-imagined and a new picture emerges. Maybe a better one but always with the pentimento of choices and consequences lurking underneath.

The Chinese Lobster is as exquisitely rendered as a brush painting. The live seafood slowly dying in the waterless tank, the delectable Chinese food, the fastidious professors, passions and pasts cloaked by respectable facades that are as real as what they screen from view, all captured in words. Byatt is brilliant at that. But depressing, too.

I devoured Possession, her best selling Booker Prize-winning novel about poetry, romance, mystery and the living pulse of Victorian language. I appreciated Still Life and The Virgin in the Garden but was less taken with the experience of living in those books. I attributed that to something superficial and shallow in my nature – a well-educated scholar, a superior intelligence would be just as thrilled with less “commercial” books, I thought. Nevertheless, I don’t enjoy escape into drabness and the wisdom of accepting limitations.

The Chinese Lobster tackles the fate of a troubled college art student, hanging in the balance over lunch as two university teachers review her obsession with and rejection of Matisse. What we see is an unappealing, possibly mentally-ill student, and the motivations and limitations of two adult characters, each articulate, thoughtful and desperate to keep their own demons under wraps. As they circle around the crisis of the student and weave logic over their hidden terrors and affronted sensibilities, they come to accept that they will choose survival over the grand gesture. Matisse, going blind and training himself to paint the depths of blackness, possessed the rare genius to make accommodation into art. No one in this story attempts to fill the tank with water. It would be hopeless – where would seawater come from, how would a creature too far gone to save survive, why upset the practical logic of a modest restaurant in which lobsters exist to be eaten, not painted or set free or even admired?   

  The Matisse Stories    A.S. Byatt | Vintage Books  1996

Good Bones and Simple Murders — Margaret Atwood

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Good Bones and Simple Murders is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s—umm—short bits? Mini-stories? Musings on our twisted society? Whatever it is, it’s amusing, witty, brilliant as the author and, incidentally, illustrated by her, as if you weren’t already impressed with the poetry, fiction and journalism Atwood turns out, seemingly on cue.

The bits hit on many of Atwood’s themes and spare none of the comfortable clichés of literature or life. “The Female Body” explores the fragile imperfect thing a body is, a light-up see-through anatomical model, the culturally determined accessories required for the social display of the female body and, finally, that queen of accessories, the doll herself—giant boobs, teeny waist, pointy little feet, long legs, no cellulite, and bouncy vinyl hair, probably blond. What a small girl can do to a Barbie doll is a sadistic and very satisfying thing. Read all about it.

“Poppies” is a creative writing exercise–she calls it “variations”–that uses the lines from “In Flanders Fields” to inspire a series of anti-war texts. But that oversimplifies. Atwood describes history, aftermath, toy soldiers, male violence, fearful women and an arsenal’s worth of topics that circle around her point before they explode—with those words from the poem italicized in case you failed to catch the clever trick.

“Gertrude Talks Back” gives the queen some centerstage that Shakespeare never scripted. She would have called Hamlet ‘George,” thinks he ought to get himself laid and find a real girlfriend, not the bordeline Ophelia, puts the Prince of Denmark straight about sex, booze and his frigid, abstemious father. Atwood’s Gertrude is drying her nails, not wringing her hands, not the least bit angsty, entirely unapologetic. The angst he must have gotten from his father.   

In “There Was Once,” Atwood deconstructs a fairy tale with some combination of political correctness and obsessive editing until the story becomes untellable. In the title story, she deconstructs bones—the lacy bones of the old, the high cheekbones of the young and a cemetery full of good and bad bones mixed with some thoughts about calcium and mortality. In “Hardball,” she creates a horrible post-apocalyptic world where the rich live on the top deck with access to pink strawberries and pale yellow carrots. Severe shortage of real estate for agriculture, human habitation and corpse disposal but pretty good protein when a baby is born and someone is selected for the meat grinder. Is it recycling or a demented form of composting? We may soon find out.

Good Bones is very entertaining and very brainy and both fun and not-so-funny at the same time. I read it on the subway en route to a client meeting downtown. I read it on the way home, subway again. I changed trains twice going down and once coming back. It’s a good book to read on the subway. Oh, and the illustrations aren’t bad—probably better than you could do.

Good Bones and Simple Murders   Margaret Atwood   Doubleday  1994