Posted to the old TTA Press website on the 5th of June 2007:-
BLACKBIRD HOUSE by ALICE HOFFMAN
Vintage paperback, 225pp, £6.99
HAUNTED by CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Jonathan Cape hardback, 407pp, £12.99
It’s a widely acknowledged truism that mainstream publishers are not interested in short story collections because they don’t sell. You can however, if you are a canny writer of modern fables, slip one past the marketing gurus by pretending that it’s really a novel.
Take Alice Hoffman’s latest work, Blackbird House, as an example. The reader with an ingrained resistance to the short form can happily delude his or herself that these stories are, actually, chapters in a novel, the central character of which is that eponymous house. There are then, twelve ‘chapters’ spanning over two hundred years in the life of a house, telling the stories of all the people who have lived there, giving us their hopes and fears, secrets and ambitions, showing how the ghosts of the past still inhabit the present, a theme that recurs in Hoffman’s work, and along the way she sketches a rough history of the changing face of America itself.
‘The Edge of the World’ concerns the Hadley family, who built the house at the time of the American War of Independence, only for the father and both sons to go missing in a great storm, sending the wife mad with grief, and forever after the house is haunted by a spirit in the form of the blackbird kept as a pet by her youngest son. A beautiful tale, with the feel of a fairy story about it, the same sense of magic and the happy ever after, ‘The Witch of Truro’ tells of a young woman, bereft of family, who finds solace of sorts with the local blacksmith who lives in the old Hadley place. Skip forward to the Civil War years and the keenly felt ‘Insulting the Angels’, in which a young man is willing to risk everything to put a roof over the head of the woman he loves, but it is her who must make a sacrifice rather than compromise his innocence. ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ offers further proof, if needed, of Hoffman’s range, injecting a note of droll humour in its depiction of the rivalry between two sisters, one beautiful but dull, and the other plain but clever, both with their hearts set on snaring the same man, a scientist who has come to investigate stories of a sea serpent. ‘The Conjuror’s Handbook’ complements the foregoing perfectly, but is told with greater seriousness and a harsher tone, as the victor’s grandson marries a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps, the two women forced to make friends for the sake of the man, a wonderful story of female wiles and the power of the human spirit to cope with adversity. A young man is stripped of his innocence when he becomes an accessory to the murder of a bullying husband in the grimly compelling story ‘The Wedding of Snow and Ice’, with the wife’s status as victim reinforced by the way in which the whole town simply ignores her plight. The last story, sorry I mean chapter, in the book, ‘Wish You Were Here’, brings the story full circle when a young woman with a terminal illness inherits the house from her parents and decides to move in, making friends with a young boy and her own peace with the world.
It’s a fitting end to a beautiful collection of short pieces, each of which stands alone but together form much more than the sum of their parts, with themes returned to and Hoffman cleverly giving them a different slant, so that the rivalry of women in love is reflected in a mother’s adulation of her offspring, the plight of a concentration camp victim mirrored in that of a woman alienated by a small town air of propriety. The end result is then, not so much story collection or novel, but a fantastically wrought collage of incidents and events all of which, varied as they are, demonstrate that the important things – love, grief, friendship, family – have a universality that spans time and space to speak to us all.
Haunted comes with the tag line ‘A Novel of Short Stories’ and an opening quote from Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke, Invisible Monsters) is a man with a reputation for having his finger on the cultural zeitgeist and with Haunted he repackages Boccaccio’s Decameron for the reality TV generation and those for whom Warhol’s fifteen minute jibe is not so much ironic aside as mission statement.
There are three main strands to the book. In the overarching structure we get the story of seventeen wannabe writers who answer an ad to leave their lives behind for three months and enter an artist’s retreat, only to find themselves imprisoned in an old and rundown theatre by the nefarious Mr Whittier and his cohort Mrs Clark. What soon becomes obvious is that writing is only a secondary consideration, and what these people really want is celebrity status, to which end their imprisonment seems like ideal movie of the week material, and so they work individually to make their situation even more fraught, allocating roles as Villain, Love Interest etc, and imagining who will play them in the film of their story, all of which is told in the second person plural. Intercut with this are poems about the individual characters that are designed to illuminate their past lives in some revealing way. They each have names that reflect their defining characteristic, such as Chef Assassin, Miss America and the Matchmaker. And finally we get the stories, fictions that touch on both the hopes and fears of the characters who ostensibly tell them, as well as highlighting aspects of modern culture.
‘Guts’ by Saint Gut-Free is a gory piece about a young man’s masturbatory practices in a swimming pool resulting in his intestines getting sucked out through his anus. ‘Foot Work’ by Mother Nature satirises holistic and complementary medicine in the tale of a foot masseur whose techniques lead her first into high class prostitution and then assassination. ‘Green Room’ by Miss America looks at the cutthroat competition dogging the world of the infomercial, while in ‘Slumming’ by Lady Baglady the rich find relief from the tedium of their lives by adopting poverty as the latest fashion accessory, only to have it all go disastrously wrong. ‘Swan Song’ by the Earl of Slander celebrates the career of a totally amoral journalist, one prepared to do absolutely anything for a front page story. In “Ambition” by the Duke of Vandals an avant garde artist gets the recognition he craves by volunteering to murder targets selected by a consortium of dealers and collectors, while ‘Post-Production’ by Mrs Clark has a young couple getting drawn into the adult industry and making their own sex tapes, only to be undone by the way in which reality falls short of the ideal.
‘Punch Drunk’ by the Reverend Godless concerns a plot to save the world by crashing planes into religious sites all over the globe, while in ‘Product Placement’ by Chef Assassin a serial killer tries to blackmail the makers of the knives he uses on his victims. ‘Speaking Bitterness’ by Comrade Snarky is a glorious conte cruel in which the members of a feminist group brutalise a young woman who seeks to join them, her only crime being so feminine they believe she has to be a male. ‘Crippled’ by Agent Tattletale shows how a fraudulent insurance claimant takes up the job of exposing others like himself. ‘Something’s Got to Give’ by Countess Foresight taps in to our love of conspiracy theory and celebrity, with the story of a woman who learns the secret behind the death of Marilyn Monroe, while ‘Evil Spirits’ by Miss Sneezy has a young girl, imprisoned because she suffers from a deadly and highly contagious disease, granted a chance at love with a boy suffering from a similar condition. Finally in ‘Obsolete’ by Mr Whittier, the ostensible villain of the piece, it’s discovered that heaven exists on the planet Venus and mass suicide is promoted to ensure everybody goes there with no chance of coming back.
Twenty-three stories in all, including some by Whittier and his cohort Mrs Clark, that speak of their own motives in setting up this sting (like all the best tempters, Whittier does no more than allow his victims enough rope with which to hang themselves). Each one a tiny gem of the storyteller’s art, clever and entertaining, their combination of gore, barbed satire and social comment sure to provide something for even the most demanding of readers to sink their teeth into, with the only false note struck by a brittleness in the telling, a reminder that while clever these tales are ultimately a product of their times and perhaps every bit as superficial as the very things they mock so well. Recommended.