Featured Novella: Beside The Sea

by Dan Powell 

The singular focus ofbeside-the-sea-by-veronique-olmi the novella makes it an ideal form for intense and claustrophobic narratives. Such stories risk becoming endurance tests for the reader if extended into the bulk of the novel but sit well within the shorter form. However uncomfortable the subject matter of a novella, however oppressive the mood, the reader can follow challenging characters and explore difficult issues in the comparative safety of their shorter word count. Véronique Olmi’s tragic tale of a single-mother adrift in her depression is one such novella.

Beside the Sea is narrated by a nameless mother who, in the middle of the night, takes her two boys, Stan and Kevin, on ‘holiday’ to a rain swept coastal town besieged by a cold grey sea. The story follows her desperate, often pathetic attempts to spend the last of her money giving the boys a fun seaside visit. It is only late in the novella that we realise the real reason she has brought them too this place, yet the positivity of the novella’s title is crushed under the weight of the mother’s perspective right from the austere and taut first sentence: ‘We took the bus, the last of the evening, so no one would see us.’

Throughout the novella the narrator is anxious to avoid being noticed by others. ‘Everyone is waiting for you put a foot wrong, for you to fall,’she says, tortured by her perception of the judgemental eyes that surround her. Her response is to ‘act like I knew what I was doing. What matters is to look like you know,’ but it would be clear from her actions, even if we did not have the further insight into her thoughts that the narrative voice provides, that she is unravelling. At first we think perhaps her view of the world as uniformly hostile, fuelled by her depression and failing to take her pills, is in error. Early in the novella the reader does not feel included when she says ‘We’re all walking on the edge of a precipice.’

We watch her actions with the same wary eye as her eldest boy, Stan, who gives her ‘suspicious looks like when I just sit in the kitchen and he watches me, thinking I don’t know he’s there.’ We soon learn that it is Stan who cares for the younger Kevin when their mother sleeps away Sundays or is unable to get either of the boys ready for school. It is Stan who quickly becomes the recipient of the reader’s sympathy as we discover the many ways he parents his little brother and the narrator’s description of Stan as hostile and suspicious only serves to further fuel the reader’s doubting of the mother’s ability to judge the motives of those around her. It is clear, to the reader at least, that Stan is simply looking out for his mother as best as a ten year old can.

Once the trio leave the bleak, cramped quarters of their hotel room and venture out, first to a rainswept beach and steel grey sea, and then to a cafe where a spiteful owner and drunken clientele belittle not only the narrator but Stan as he counts out piles of pennies to pay for their drinks, we start to realise that the mother’s wariness of the world is justified. When the landlord scatters the boy’s carefully counted coins across the table and floor we are suddenly more prepared to accept the narrator’s view. Suddenly she has our sympathy. As they move to the fair and the boys finally grasp a moment of pleasure on the dodgems it seems things might just be about to improve, but instead of witnessing that childish moment of joy, the narrator is swept into the spiralling mental turmoil of her thoughts and is only dimly aware of the boys returning for more money before disappearing back into the bustle of the fair. At the end of the evening, the money all spent and five year old Kevin sick from too many treats, it is Stan who must bring his mother back to the world, shouting at her to take them back through the perpetual drenching rain to the hotel and the novella’s crushing climax. Too late we become horribly aware of the why she has brought the boys here.

Beside the Sea is a layered and precise narrative. The warning signs for what happens are there to be seen, right from the beginning, though they might be missed first time around, just as the signs can be missed in such tragedies when they take place in the real world. The closing moments leave the reader wishing that the narrator had been lying when she said ‘it’s not true that I’m paralysed by my anxieties.’ In truth, she is all too able to act upon them, with tragic consequences. Beside the Sea is an uncomfortable, disturbing and important work that challenges readers’ sympathies. Midway through the novella the narrator says ‘unhappiness is not a pretty sight.’ Beside the Sea certainly does not make for easy reading, is claustrophobic and at times ugly, but, as one reviewer pointed out, ‘It should be read.’ If real art has the capacity to make us nervous, then I can think of no greater novella than this one.

 

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared across the internet, on mobile devices, and in print, most notably in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Featured Novella: Black Water

by Elizabeth BainesBlack-water-joyce-carol-oates

For me, the thing that characterises a novella and distinguishes it from a novel is not so much length as unity (though the two are of course connected, since unity is more easily achieved at shorter length). Black Water is a supreme example of unity of form in the novella and one I love and have returned to several times.

It’s a fictional analogue of the well-known incident of July 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy, driving from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, accidentally drove his car off a bridge into a tidal marsh creek, an accident from which the (married) 37-year-old Senator escaped but in which his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old political campaign worker, died. Subsequent investigations failed to explain certain aspects of the incident, in particular the fact that having left the scene of the accident, Kennedy did not report it for nine hours, and the whole matter remained shrouded in a mystery that blighted Kennedy’s political career.

It is into these uncertainties, and the power structures, both political and sexual, giving rise to them, that Oates dips her sharp and fluent pen, examining them through the posited viewpoint inevitably missing from official investigations and accounts, that of the injured drowning woman, her psychology and felt experience in the hours as the car slowly fills up with water.

The book begins when the accident has already happened, when Kopechni’s fictional counterpart, 26-year-old ‘Kelly’ Kelleher, is already alone and trapped in the sinking car, the unnamed senator already having swum free:

The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.

Am I going to die? – like this?

Structurally this scenario, the process of her drowning, is the primary unifying narrative. As Kelly struggles to free herself in a decreasing air bubble, hoping against hope that the senator will swim back down to save her, the thoughts that scramble through her desperate mind tell us the rest of the story: the party at which the charismatic and powerful senator picked Kelly out for special attention, her intelligence and political commitment that drew him, along with her physical attractiveness, her personal and sexual history that made her vulnerable to his advances and too tentative not to meet his request to bring him drinks for the drive when he was already drunk, or to dare to say he was driving too fast. You could say that the structure of the novel is circular, that the drowning is the central point around which everything else laps, like the water around the car, and laps repeatedly, returning each time with a new depth, a new insight bestowed by the increasing desperation of the situation as no one comes to rescue Kelly. Increasingly fragmented, her memories yet paradoxically create increasing connections. The drowning, you could say, is both structurally and thematically a singularity in the astronomical sense, through which a whole putative universe of narrative is accessed.

There’s a particular frisson in reading this book as an exploration of or intervention in the uncertainties of the real-life scandal (and the fact that we are generally familiar with the scandal must have to some extent dictated a structure grounded in hindsight) but you don’t have to know that background to appreciate the book. The book is chiefly psychological: it’s not merely an examination of power politics; its unity of form creates an expression of their psychological and emotional ramifications, and is thus, to my mind, extremely affecting.

 

Featured Novella: Goodbye, Columbus

by Robert GrahamGoodbye cover

Three years after graduating, Neil Klugman begins an affair with Brenda Patimkin, Ivy League student and Jewish princess, whose father is the prosperous owner of Patimkin Kitchen & Bathroom Sinks.  It’s a summer affair set in the late 50s in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. Neil, super-smart and bookish, is intimidated by the sporty men who surround Brenda: Luther Ferrari, an ex- who played at state level “in at least two sports”, her father and Ron, her lunk of a brother.

The story is a romance, but also a comedy.  As well as the country club world Brenda belongs to, Roth satirises his own background.  His aunt speaks in the entertaining Jewish-American syntax familiar not only from the rest of his work, but also more recently from Seinfeld and Woody Allen films: when Neil tells his aunt Brenda’s last name is Patimkin, she says, “Patimkin I don’t know.  You’re going to call her you don’t know her?’ However, it’s the bittersweet romance that gives Goodbye, Columbus its emotional heft.

In a slightly otherworldly scene in the pool at her parents’ club, after dark, with no one else around, Neil and Brenda play an odd game.  She closes her eyes and waits at the side of the pool while he goes in, swims awhile, comes out again and surprises her.  They take turns at this and what’s at sake is the topic of their conversation: the question of whether or not he loves her, and whether or not her parents will come to approve of him.  It’s a strikingly off-kilter scene, an elegant exercise in emotional tone.  Brenda has effectively grilled him about his prospects; it’s clear that her parents have been suggesting to her that he has no initiative (he lives with his aunt and uncle) and no prospects (he works in a library).  She asks him if he loves her, and the implication is that if he does, all her parents’ reservations will count for nothing.  But he says he doesn’t and the game is played, a strange contest of wills.  As the story develops, these two conflicting forces – her family’s disapproval and her uncertainty about committing to him – come to be channelled through his attempts to persuade her to get a diaphragm.  And this central conflict is subtly complicated by their ambivalence about each other, which runs beneath the surface of the narrative.

The title refers to a record Ron plays to Neil, an LP students of his university – Ohio State, in, presumably, Columbus – are given when they graduate, which contains an unidentified spoken word track with the refrain, And so, goodbye, Columbus, goodbye.  One of the achievements of this fine novella is the way that the resonant motifs of both the diaphragm and the recording symbolise the tensions between the lovers – which decide the outcome.

Goodbye, Columbus is funny, succinct and satisfyingly satirical.  Roth writes great scenes with terrific dialogue: Neil joisting with his aunt; arguing with Brenda; being grilled by Mrs Patimkin; listening to Ron enthuse about Mantovani (“I like semi-classical a lot”). I was in my teens when I first read this book, and it was part of growing list of American novels I fell for back then. At an unconscious level, I think I realised that Neil Klugman’s mindset was that of the protagonists of Updike’s story ‘A & P’, of Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, Trout Fishing in America and The Catcher in the Rye.  The first contemporary American fiction I read had colourful, vibrant, idiomatic language, and was full of warmth, life and humour.  Contemporary English writing, by comparison – the novels of, for instance, Amis,père et fils, of Greene and McEwan – was bleak, downtrodden and self-hating.  The world of American fiction wasn’t grey and dank; it was fun, feisty and drenched in golden light.  These novels set down on the page the essence of the films and music I loved.  I still loveGoodbye, Columbus.  It’s an affecting, funny novel – and it’s short, which is why it’s here.

Robert Graham’s new short story collection, When You Were A Mod, I was A Rocker, is published by Like This Press.

Featured Novella: The Love of a Good Woman

by Ailsa Cox220px-TheLoveOfAGoodWoman

‘The Love of a Good Woman’ is the long story that opens Alice Munro’s collection of the same name. At over seventy pages it is, by my reckoning, a novella, It opens with a collection of instruments from the local museum – the tools of an old-fashioned optometrist, the gift of an anonymous donor. Munro goes on to describes these implements in forensic detail, and this story will in fact turn out to be a murder mystery, but one which is never solved. In fact we can never be certain that there really has been a murder, although there have been deaths, natural and unnatural; and the finger has been pointed at a suspect.

Much of the publicity surrounding Alice Munro since her Nobel laureateship has suggested a nostalgic kind of undemanding realism in her work, set mostly in semi-rural South Western Ontario. If that has put you off reading her, try this one, which is Munro at her most gothic. It also shows her careful sleight of hand, which makes you want to go back to the start when you finish the story, and rethink what happened. There is a nurse in this story – never trust a nurse in Munro – in charge of a dying woman, whose soon-to-be-widower, Rupert Quinn, is remote, taciturn and erotically charged. As the nurse, Enid, takes charge of the children as well as tending the sick wife, we might read him as Mr Rochester to Enid’s Jane Eyre. That surname, Quinn, also makes me think of Peter Quint in Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw; there’s something unsettling about surnames beginning with Q.

Enid’s narrative begins some way into the novella. The ophthalmological instruments belonged to a D.M. Willens, who drowned in the river; their description is followed by the discovery of his body by a group of local boys, whose characters are brought to life in some detail. You may  be under the impression that this is their story, just as the uniformed viewer of the first half hour of Psycho might assume the film is going to be about the stolen money. In fact the novella is constructed as a series of digressions. Seemingly inconsequential anecdotes are interwoven with shocking episodes of grotesque violence. The links between the instruments, the body, Enid and the Quinns gradually emerge, like Willens’ body, submerged below the surface.

The novella ends quietly, with Enid and Rupert in a rowing boat, back on the river, where Enid gets her man by striking an implicit bargain. Tidying a physical space – clearing the  house, labelling, ordering and keeping tidy – acts as a metaphor for mental re-adjustment. Enid has come to learn that we can suppress unpalatable truths, making them untrue; and that only children really believe their  wrongdoings will always be punished:

Through her silence, her collaboration in a silence, what benefits could bloom. For         others and for herself. […] This was how to keep the world habitable.

 

 

Ailsa Cox is author of The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland). Her other books include Alice Munro http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alice-Munro-Writers-Their-Work/dp/0746309929She also edits the journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice Short Fiction in Theory and Practice – Intellect Ltd.

https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/english/staff/dr-ailsa-cox/

Featured Novella: The Mermaids

 by David Rose51zjPW85I3L

The choice of a ‘novella’ immediately raises questions of definition: what constitutes a novella as distinct from a novel? Brevity is crucial but technique is also involved: discipline, the use of implication; the novella is closer to the short story than to the novel.

But length is the one quantifiable criterion, and as the usual example given is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is around 100 pages in the Penguin Modern Classics edition, let’s take that as the outer limit.

I admire that very much and almost made it my choice, but it seemed a little obvious. I have chosen instead a novella by an author with a direct link to Conrad, and specifically Heart of Darkness. The author is Robert Edric, whose best novel, for me – The Book of the Heathen – incorporates verbatim extracts from the Conrad, largely undetected by all but the sharpest of reviewers.

The novella is The Mermaids (PS Publishing 2007).

The premise is very simple: a group of girls, gathering shellfish in the early morning, enter a sea cave and see three mermaids. They are clear, and agreed, on what they have seen, refusing all invitations to embellish the story from adults anxious to demonstrate its origin in fairy tales. Yet the eldest, fifteen year old Sarah Carr – the protagonist of the novella – knows instinctively that their story won’t be believed, even as she knows the temptation to tell it will be too strong for the others.

It’s too strong for her too, but she chooses an outsider to tell it to, a photographer and possibly free-lance journalist, who has found in her appearance another story, one he was looking for and which he pursues by photographing her in artful poses.

But we are told all this quite late in the novella. It begins instead with four people in a room: the local magistrate, the local minister, Sarah, and her father. The room is an improvised and unofficial courtroom; the magistrate intent on demonstrating the untruth of the girls’ story, the real ‘truth’ of the matter.

It’s not, however, about the conflict of story v. truth, but about the ownership of stories, and the conflict of ownership. Because there are other narratives, other stories at work here: narratives of community, of history, of place, even of weather.

We learn of a much earlier story of the sighting of mermaids, published as a book and now part of local lore. We learn of the devastation of the community in a past storm by damburst and tide, and the constant unspoken unease of a community at the sea’s edge, making its living from that sea. It’s a fishing town; fishing is the community narrative.

But the hotel owners try to tell a different story, of the healthy benefits of sea air to holidaymakers. Unfortunately, that narrative conflicts with the community narrative’s reality – the stench of the catch and the smoking of the fish. The girls’ story gets caught up in this conflict: there’s a council meeting later in the novella in which an Ibsenesque, acrimonious debate breaks out over the effects to the tourist trade of publicising the story.

The magistrate, then, wants ownership of the girls’ story, it’s neutralization on behalf of the community, in protection of the community from those very outsiders who would give it credence.

Where do we stand as readers? The narrative is objective, yet belief in their story is, to me, part of the necessary suspension of disbelief. If we reject the story as superstition, we do so on the basis of a rationalist assumption which is logically unfounded and therefore equally superstitious. And we too would be taking sides in the debate.

There are, then, profound implications in this novella. And it is all – and more – conveyed in less than eighty pages. How does Edric manage it?

By concision, precision, and the deftest narrative touch of a master.

The Mermaids is now available as an e-book only from

http://www.pspublishing.co.uk

Featured Novella: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

by Alison Moorejekyll-and-hyde

‘My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring.’

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a story we all feel we know but, perhaps because of its familiarity, might not actually have read. This 25,000-word classic seems to me essential reading for anyone interested in novellas. Written in a frenzy in less than a week, including the alleged burning of the first draft, Jekyll and Hyde is full of intrigue and energy; it has a powerful narrative pull.

We are introduced to the story of Dr Henry Jekyll by his close friend Mr Utterson, who is bewildered by the doctor’s strange relationship with the rarely seen but increasingly notorious Mr Hyde. ‘“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why.”’ Utterson observes that the unpleasant and violent Mr Hyde comes and goes from Jekyll’s home by the back way and seems to have an alarming hold over the doctor, who had previously been cheerful and sociable but now ‘friendship and peace of mind and the whole tenor of his life were wrecked’. Hyde is suspected of blackmailing Jekyll, of forcing him to commit forgery (their handwriting being alike, ‘only differently sloped’), of intending to harm him, and indeed, Hyde does becomes increasingly dominant and a threat to Jekyll’s life. When Utterson and Jekyll’s frightened butler force their way into the laboratory into which the doctor has locked himself (‘“Sir,” said the butler, turning to a sort of mottled pallor, “that thing was not my master…”’), the full and dreadful story is finally revealed.

This 1886 novella can be read as science fiction (‘“you, who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine… behold!”’), as psychological allegory (‘the horror of my other self’), as gothic mystery (‘“If he be Mr Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr Seek.”’). However we see it, it’s a thrilling and satisfying read.

Featured Novella: Small Holdings

 by David Gaffney062442-FC222

It’s something in-between. Something half-right and half-wrong. Like you stopped a third of the way through and said fuck it, that’ll do. Got off at Edge Lane. But novellas have an appeal and charm of their own; some of the best-known stories of all time began in that 30,000-words-or-fewer package and Nicola Barker’s Small Holdings, which I am going to talk about here, is a great example of the form. It’s the sort of story that sits inside the short-short-novel or novella format perfectly, never appearing desperate to brim over, nor blobbing about like a fat, out-of-condition short story who needs to learn how to walk past Greggs.

From its very start, Small Holdings lets you know that although the book is short, this is not going to be a pared down, skeletal template with no time for fun with language, dazzling descriptions, or detours down the darker alleys of the characters’ inner worlds.

Here’s how Barker introduces Doug:

‘Well Doug, Doug was a boiled egg, hard-boiled with a bluish pallour – white turned blue – a pale yellow yolk (his heart not soft either), and he was extremely entrenched, obscenely contained and mystifyingly, ridiculously, maybe even deceptively proud of himself.’

Elmore Leonard’s editor would have crushed that sentence to dust with his bare hands.

Small Holdings is a lovely, dark and funny tale about a handful of misfits who, in a warped big-society-gone-feral world, decide they can take over the local  municipal park and manage it themselves. The park itself is a ragbag of unloved flowerbeds, rusty play equipment, weed-choked ponds and burnt-out museums they love so much that they’d rather destroy it than see it spoiled.

And that seems to be what the book is about.

It took me about three or four hours to read Small Holdings and that’s the beauty of the novella. It can be read in one sitting (if you define one sitting as four hours, and you don’t have piles) swallowing the whole thing down in one big gulp, making it easier to relate each part to the other and form pattern from the themes. So why write a novella? People who don’t like novels say they are too much of a commitment. People who don’t like short stories say that they hate the way that they just love you and leave you. You are thrust into the short story world and expected to get to know its people, its landscape, its ways, then you are just as quickly yanked out of it again. And the stories are always the usual Chekov/Joyce/Carver type of domestic dioramas that you realise in the end have been coated in a thick treacle of meaning that you had been eating without even noticing until you bit into the bullet-hard epiphany at the end. The people who think like this, these people who don’t like the short story, the novel readers, they want be immersed. They want to be placed inside a multi-dimensional world and made to live there, like in a theme park. They want to be able to leave the world and come back at any time and find things the same as they left them, their place in that universe assured. Novels are a month backpacking in Vietnam and a short story is a day out on the tram to Bury market.

So is the novella the way to satisfy both types of reader? A fulfilling mini-break for two in Workington?

I think that if the short-story-shaggers and the novel-adorers all read Nicola Barkers Small Holdings, it wouldn’t disappoint either camp. Possibly slightly longer than the perfect 30,000 words, it nevertheless has all the qualities of classic much-loved novellas like The Great Gatsby and A Girl Of Slender Means. The plot is in some ways a warning for those who feel that our public amenities can be run by a bunch of scruffy voluntary sector do-gooders who use lentils as money, think that Lord of the Rings is the best book in the world, hate American drama, smoke a lot of dope and like things to be made of wood whenever possible.

But Barker makes us love these unemployable outsider-artists who haven’t a clue.

She does it with her lovely descriptions;

‘His eyes were watery, wandering tadpoles in the jelly of his face.’

She does it with rhythm and repetition;

‘Was she a figment? A fragment? An ugly spectre? An invasive sprite sylph? A sprite?’ proving that there is room even in the cramped bedsit of the novella for these flighty rushes of words.

She does it with an ear for brutal and startling dialogue which smacks you in the face with its immediacy and honesty;

‘Make me wait any longer and I’ll fuck you up the arse with my stump.’

For people who desire the full penetration of a proper novel experience, it can seem like a quick dry-hump on your auntie’s sofa, and indeed there are limitations – there isn’t time for lots of flash-aways, back-stories and sub-plots. It can feel like a bungalow of a format which is able to spread out to the sides but never go up or down.

Myself, I am a little suspicious of its name.

Novella.

Like some faux-fur confection concocted by search engine optimisers on an away day in a Travel Lodge. All leatherette eye-patches and gold-effect teeth, it is a product that uses the thing that it imitates to describe itself, while it so obviously contains none of those properties.  In the same way that Chicken Tonight does not have any chicken in it, novellas have no novels inside them tied-up, waiting to be released.

But are they all muscle and no brain?

In Small Holdings, Barker can be poetic as well as practical; it’s not just about turning the story round on a sixpence.

At one point she imagines the city sitting on top of the countryside, compacting the earth and, ‘the city’s breath flowing out of its rotting mouth, warm with fumes and dark and stinking.’

And she breaks every one of the rules printed on the placemats at Arvon, such as no adverbs, no telling and above all, no writing!  In Barker’s novella characters are allowed to walk around in broad daylight, ‘declaring tartly,’ and saying things ‘saucily’ with no regard for the composition laws set by our great creative writing institutions. Barker doesn’t care. Great similes too, at one point saying that the character’s leg stump is, ‘like the erect docked tail of a pointer.’

So novellas are good. And this one is good. And you should write one too. But the one thing you should not do is write a novella because you believe we are in a world of reducing attention spans, thinking this while Netflix tells you that you have twelve seconds until the fifteenth episode of season six of Throning Bad begins.

Chicken tonight is just a sauce. But sometimes all we want to do is lick out the pan when the meat has gone.