Tag Archives: playwright

DVD Review: Rabbit Hole


Nicole Kidman’s performances can simultaneously win her further legions of adoring fans and additional ranks of grumbling haters. She is wonderful to some, whiny to others, miserable to endure for many and majestic for millions. But it’s generally accepted, even by her diehard supporters, that she seemed to peak in the early years of the 21st century. Her last genuinely astounding performance in a really good film was some time ago. Stars like her that hit a critical rut have a way to clamber out though; after amassing enough power in mainstream blockbusters they can produce their own projects, perfectly tailored to their talents.

This is what Kidman does with Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. The character of grieving mother Becca is perfect for her, resembling past roles in Birth and The Others, and providing a bearable outlet for her notoriously divisive bouts of cold and complaining emotion. Even though this is the sort of portrayal we’ve come to expect from Australia’s most successful export to Hollywood, the raw subject matter somehow suits her trademark moody and restrained introspection. You couldn’t call this a bad performance; in fact you feel like you have to say it’s a good one.

In contrast to Kidman’s recent record, co-star Aaron Eckhart is someone on the up and he doesn’t do that progress any harm here. Howie is Becca’s nice, normal husband, doing his best in an impossible situation. In the opening act of Rabbit Hole Kidman’s character is being as irritating as we know she can be from some of her previous roles. Watching this with a friend she moaned that she didn’t like Kidman usually and that she was typically “wet” again in Rabbit Hole. As I’ve said though, you do sympathise with her behaviour because of the grief, even if you might find the efforts of Howie more appealing.

The acting in Rabbit Hole is hard to criticise, with the two leads ultimately convincing, even as we lurch from one dreary standoff to another, with the odd shouting match in between. The supporting cast are good too, with Dianne West as Becca’s mother doing a great job of articulating experienced grief, sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) authentically rebellious, Sandra Oh as a rounded fellow mourner at a support group and newcomer Miles Teller as the awkward young driver unlucky enough to bear the burden of responsibility and blame on his well meaning, naive shoulders.

Even the script is mostly hard to fault. The quality of the source material shines through, with the truth and wit of the dialogue rising above that of most films. Conversations about the most difficult of subjects are realistic and feel as though they are ripped from real everyday lives. The film is refreshing for approaching grief from an underused and understated angle; eight months on from the drama of the death, this is the story of the shift from the constant tears to keeping appearances of normality. Lindsay-Abaire is fond of metaphor, with mixed success. Some symbols, like that of grief changing in weight until it’s like a “brick in your pocket”, are poignant and moving. However the entire film is a metaphor and crucially this is the one that is less evidently a success.

 Rabbit Hole slowly unravels with not much happening and Becca literally getting on with the housework; reflecting the emptiness left behind after loss. The film as a whole is a grim trudge through nothingness. This may be an accurate picture of the reality of grief, a painful journey back to normality, with no big and sudden revelation to make things better, but it’s a story that doesn’t translate engagingly from stage to screen. There are glimpses here of why the play must have been so powerful and well received. It’s easy to see why Kidman saw in this the chance for her critical rebirth. But without the intimacy of theatre and very little happening in the plot, this is one of those films that leaves you exhausted and aching from concentrating on being respectful to the subject matter.

Sophie Ivan, reviewing Rabbit Hole for Film4, sums up the film perfectly: “Rabbit Hole is a film that’s easier to commend than it is to like”. No one will want to say anything bad against Rabbit Hole; but very few people will enjoy it.

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Black Shorts for the Edinburgh Fringe – Play Submission 2: The Debate


The Debate

Two men sit across from one another at a small table. They both have coffees. A’s is untouched, B regularly sips from his.

A: How would you do it?
B: Pills probably.
A: Yeah?
B: Yeah.
A: I can definitely see the appeal of pills.
B: I mean in a way it could be awful…
A: (interrupting) But they’re always to hand.
B: Yeah exactly.
A: I know what you mean though don’t want it to go wrong.
B: No.
A: Looks really amateurish if it does.
B: Yeah you wouldn’t want all the questions, the officials, the procedures etc.
A: Absolute nightmare.
B: Yeah right, worse than things were already.
A: Mmm.
B: Actually like you say pills are a bit dodgy and low key. I always imagined I’d go out with a big bang, something spectacular like.
A: How do you mean?
B: Well I’ve often pictured it, you know sketched it in daydreams.
A: Go on.
B: There are these cliffs at the coast near where I live. You can drive right to the edge almost to park your car.
A: Yeah. Are we talking Beachy Head-esque?
B: Not really. Isn’t like I have a loved one to jump hand in hand with.
A: Nah me neither.
B: Yeah.
A: So?
B: So?
A: What would you do?
B: Well I’d still take a good load of pills. Then I’d tape the locks down inside my car, in case some survival instinct kicks in if I land up in the water.
A: Mmm.
B: Then depending on where I manage to park, either drive off the edge or just let the handbrake off. Ideally I should accelerate I suppose for added impact and in case some good natured passerby attempts to stop me. But then I’m not sure what the pills would have done to me by then…
A: It’s certainly dramatic.
B: Yeah and a reasonable fail safe.
A: What about people below?
B: Yeah there is that. I guess I could do it at a time of night when there’d be no one about, have a quick check first.
A: And definitely nothing could stop the car?
B: Nah. There’s a rope at the most between you and a rocky fall.
A: There’s still a chance you could end up trapped and awaiting rescue with horrific injuries and no escape.
B:  I don’t think anything’s full proof though.
A: No I guess not, certainly not 100%.
B: And the pills would hopefully take me beyond rescue.
A: Yeah.
B: And like you say, it’s dramatic. I don’t see the point unless it’s more thrilling than the monotony of life.
A: Of course there’s a point, escaping that day after day pain.
B: How would you rather do it?
A: I’d rather a gun. Classic roof of the mouth. But fat chance of getting hold of one.
B: I wouldn’t know how to go about that.
A: Yeah exactly.
B: I’d be scared of just mutilating my face too. Isn’t like I know how to use a weapon properly.
A: Oh it’s pretty easy I think.
B: You reckon?
A: From what I’ve researched I think I could do it. Over in a flash.
B: Oh right…
(A lengthy pause)
A: Do you think that we all discover the same truth? Or something similar?
B: Sorry?
A: I mean, do you think that no matter what the personal reasons, everyone that decides to do it uncovers some sort of universal fact? Like a kind of enlightenment. That it’s all pointless.
B: Umm…I guess it’s possible. Certainly they must all reach roughly the same conclusion about the world.
A: They?
(Another long pause)
A: Has something always defined your life?
B: That’s quite a vague question.
A: I don’t know how to express what I mean.
B: That’s alright. The most worthwhile things are difficult to articulate.
A: Yeah I agree.
B: So give it a try.
A: Well for me…well I guess that truth I was talking about is for me that everyone has a particular conflict that defines them. For me it’s always been a conflict between a desire to make a mark, make a difference, leave some sort of permanent bettering legacy behind and an overwhelming fear of being alone. I don’t think everyone’s conflict is the same, but I think everyone has one. And I think that those of us who decide to escape that conflict have seen the one truth there is.
B: Which is?
A: Life is an insurmountable challenge. You can’t reconcile that conflict, you must choose between one or the other.
B: Which did you choose?
A: What do you mean?
B: Did you choose to make a mark or to avoid loneliness?
A: I chose nothingness.
B: Because you couldn’t succeed in either?
A: I think so yeah. It’s better than the panic.
(A pause)
B: Don’t you have friends?
A: Of course, technically.
B: What do you mean “technically”?
A: Well they are acquaintances. I disagree with that old saying that you can choose your friends but not your family. I was always just lumped together with people; my “friends” were as determined as my relatives.
B: Well determinism is a whole different debate.
A: Is it? Most things are connected, probably underpinned by that.
B: To an extent. But I’ve had the illness I told you about all my life, and it didn’t stop me achieving certain things. I was limited but not beaten by it.
A: Mmm.  
(Another pause)
A: Thank you for agreeing to meet me.
B: It’s no problem, I find it interesting.
A: Interesting?
B: Yeah people won’t discuss this sort of thing openly, sometime it’s more difficult with people you know.
A: Yeah. Why do you think that is?
B: I’m not sure, too uncomfortable I suppose. People let their guard down online.
A: I know what you mean. But normally it’s…it’s just…
B: Sexual?
A: Yeah.
B: Yeah you delve through a lot of scum for something resembling conversation. It’s not really a good place to search for it.
A: But it’s the only place.
B: Exactly.
A: What about a date?
(B nearly chokes on his coffee)
B: What?
A: Would you rather do it at a particular time of year?
B: Oh! Well I don’t know…I guess it’s more about when you feel you’ve had enough.
A: Yeah.
B: Do you have a favourite date for it then?
A: The 6th of September.
B: That’s soon.
A: I know.
(Short pause)
B: How come?
A: What?
B: Why then?
A: It used to be the date we’d usually go back to school.
B: Were you unhappy at school?
A: Not especially.
B: Ok.
A: I don’t really know why. I don’t tend to get things done unless they have to be, by a certain date.
B: Yeah I get that. It’s impossible to motivate myself sometimes.
A: Yeah same.
B: And I completely understand what you mean about life being this whole, this unconquerable and insurmountable thing. There are so many things I want to do but the reality is I won’t even manage half of them. Even books I want to read, they just sit there on this imaginary checklist. It’s not just about time…
A: Yeah you want to do it but it’s like you don’t have the energy reserves.
B: Yeah or not even energy, just the will to do it sometimes.
A: Perhaps it’s because you understand the futility of it all underneath.
B: Maybe…maybe yeah…(checks his watch) Blimey I better be going I guess!
A: Oh right ok…Somewhere you need to be?
B: Yes meeting with a student.
A: Ah.
B: This was really interesting as I said. I talk about ideas in my work all the time but this sort of blunt; stripped down conversation…it’s intellectually refreshing!
A: Intellectually?
B: These things are usually off limits I suppose, for “civilized” conversation, but they’re facts of life like anything else.
A: Intellectual facts right?
B: I’d love to meet again. Are you free at the same time on the 10th? I have to say I’d never have thought a meeting with someone from online could be so rewarding. You tend to think it’s all just superficial, all fake on there.
A: That’s after the 6th.
(A pause)
B: Wait…you’re not…you’re not actually serious about…about all this?
A: (hesitates) Course not… (forced laugh) Course not, course not, God no!
B: You’re alright then?
A: I’m alright?
B: Ok for the 10th? Here again?
A: Yes, yeah why not.
B: (standing to leave. Puts some cash on the table) My shout!
A: Right.
B: (walking away to exit, calls back) Till the 10th then!
A: Yeah.

Black Shorts for the Edinburgh Fringe – Play submission 1: The Mannequin in Black Shorts


In the past month I submitted 3 scripts for plays and sketches to a theatre company that were looking to showcase new writers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. Against all of my expectations, one of my submissions, a sketch, was accepted and shall fingers crossed, be performed. My work will feature in the Laughing Horse, free fringe programme.

Nearer the time I shall probably shamelessly publicise the event all over Mrtsblog. If anyone reading this lives nearby or was planning to visit the excellent festival, as I was anyway, I would love it if you could check out my work! But as I say, details can wait. In the meantime I will look forward to all the brilliant acts and possibilities of the festival, from comedy to drama, and touring the city with itself, with its fascinating history. I am tremendously excited about the opportunity of having my own work realised on the best of stages and platforms. I have read about famous faces in comedy and culture, from Michael McIntyre to Stephen Fry, who learnt their craft dabbling in the cuthroat thrills of the Fringe. I cannot wait.

To further wet my own appetite, and hopefully tug a little at yours, I thought I would post the two submissions that weren’t successful here. The theme was Black Shorts and a short script with minimal props was required. My first submission, The Mannequin in Black Shorts, literally features a pair of Black Shorts, whereas the other two were merely dark and snappy in tone. Clearly, as they were unsuccesful submissions, these ideas are riddled with faults that I am the first to recognise. I am still learning, constructive criticism is welcomed.

Anyway here we are then. A taste of my play/script/sketch writing skills, that I hope to develop considerably in the future after such an honour and opportunity:

The Mannequin in Black Shorts

1

Two men sit across from each other on chairs. One (C) holds a pen and paper but rarely uses them. The other (Adam) occasionally sips from a glass of water and avoids eye contact now and then to fiddle with it. There is a prolonged silence before anyone says anything.

Adam: See I knew she was from London cos she rode on the right.
C: Sorry? What?
Adam: I knew she was from London because she stood on the right hand side.
C: So we’re on escalators now? Am I right? What’s your tenuous link to escalators Adam?
Adam: Do you have to call me that?
C: It is your name.
Adam: My emotions are up and down, escalators ferry people up and down. How’s that for a link?
C: What makes you so certain she was from London? Anyone could choose to stand on the right.
Adam: Anyone could choose to yeah. But she didn’t choose to, it was habit.
C: How do you know?
Adam: We went up like three or four of the things and every time she’s straight there on the right, gliding like a pro. And I know.
C: She could have been…
Adam: The way she dressed was very urban, no…metropolitan, too. She wasn’t from some rural backwater, she’s used to hustle, bustle, rushing and pushing and cruising on auto pilot through crowds and up and down incidental features of the landscape like escalators.
C: She could have been anyone.
Adam: She wasn’t.
C: Why?
Adam: Why what?
C: Why wasn’t she just anyone? Why does she have to be from London?
Adam: Because I know what I saw.
C: You have no evidence again. People from London could just as easily stand on the left couldn’t they? In fact if you were so used to standing on the right you might just stand on the left for no reason; just because you could. She could have been breaking a habit, couldn’t she? Admit that’s a possibility.
Adam: It would be a possibility if I was wrong.
C: Which you might be.
Adam: I’m not.
C: Well I do it.
Adam: Sorry? Are we here to discuss what you do?
C: I stand on the left just to mix things up. I get tired of standing on the right on the Tube.
Adam: You just proved my point.
C: Enlighten me.
Adam: You don’t live in London.
C: I don’t. But I don’t see why someone who goes there very regularly can’t have a strong habit or inclination to follow or break a routine.
Adam: If you lived there you’d just do it naturally. Like this girl. Without a second thought. BAM. “I’ll stand on the right”. No she doesn’t even think about it, it just happens.
C: Why is it so hard for you to accept that you might be wrong? Where do you get this unfounded certainty from?
Adam: I’m not wrong.
C: But can’t you at least admit that you could be?
Adam: You just don’t understand second nature.
C: mm…
Adam: See! You think too much.
C: Don’t you pay me to think?
Adam: I pay you to talk.
C: Does it matter what I say?
Adam: No.

2

Adam gets up and wanders out of sight, returning with a fresh glass of water. C makes a point of loudly tearing the paper he’s been using for notes, starting on a new piece.

C: (lets out a big sigh) I think we’ve strayed off the point somewhat. Why don’t you keep telling me about the dream?
Adam: What dream?
C: The recurring one.
Adam: I already told you.
C: Hardly. I think you’re avoiding the subject. What are you afraid of?
Adam: Why do you ask so many questions?
C: Why do you like answering mine with your own?
Adam: How about answering mine and I’ll consider answering yours?
C: How do you expect me to do my job if I don’t ask you things?
Adam: You have no job. And by only asking questions you don’t do any work, you’re just trying to get me to help myself. Classic shrink. If I could do that I wouldn’t be sitting here.
C: I don’t need to work if I don’t have a job. You’ve told me before I’m not your shrink.
Adam: You’re not.
C: So what exactly are we doing here Adam?
Adam: Don’t call me that!
C: I’ll call you what I like Adam, especially if you’re not my employer. If I’m not your therapist, your psychologist, your counsellor, what am I?
(a pause)
Adam: It’s a nightmare.
(a longer pause, Adam looks away and C reflects)
C: Ah, so are we willing to admit you were avoiding the subject now?
Adam: Shut up.
C: Fine. That won’t get us anywhere though.
Adam: You don’t need to “get anywhere”. It’s my dream.
(Adam is visibly angry. C adopts a comforting tone, as if addressing a child)
C: Quite right. It’s your dream Adam, your problem. But would you like me to help?
Adam: Of course I want your fucking help.
C: Then perhaps I best not shut up just yet.
Adam: (heavy with sarcasm) Perhaps not.

3

Adam downs his glass of water and stares into the empty glass. C watches and waits. There’s silence for a time.

C: Are you ready to talk about the dream again yet?
Adam: Nightmare.
C: So you say.
Adam: What’s that supposed to mean?
C: It didn’t sound so horrific.
Adam: Why do you have to be so fucking aggressive?
C: And you’re not? I’m not aggressive.
Adam: Cruel then, you’re cruel.
C: I’m not cruel Adam. This wouldn’t do you any good if I wasn’t frank. That’s all I’m trying to do; be honest with you. So. Can you tell me about the recurring dream again? How often does it happen?
Adam: I get the nightmare every night, sometimes more than once a night these days.
C: And what happens?
(Adam grunts and says nothing for some time)
C: What happens in the nightmare Adam?
Adam: I told you. I wake up in my bed and for some reason I go to the mirror. I look at myself and I’m looking at this waxwork model, like this shop dummy thing…
C: A mannequin.
Adam: … with no real face or anything original about it. I try to move away from the mirror but I can’t. I’m just this lifeless figurine.
C: Do you remember what the mannequin was wearing? Last time you wouldn’t say what it was wearing? Are you naked as the mannequin Adam?
(Adam laughs derisively with a snort)
Adam: No. You’d have liked that wouldn’t you?
C: Go on.
Adam: I’m wearing black shorts, like the type I’d wear to football practice when I was younger.
(A pause)
C: Do you have any memories of that football practice? Do you regret giving up football?
Adam: No the shorts were…They…
(His voice breaks and he seems unable to go on)
C: Yes?
Adam: The shorts were stained.
C: Stained?
Adam: You heard me.
C: Marked with mud? Stained from playing football maybe?
Adam: No not that sort of stain.
C: Then what sort of stain?
Adam: I…
C: Blood?
Adam: (quietly) No
C: Sorry?
Adam: I said no. Not blood.
C: Are you sure? There’s no need to lie Adam.
Adam: Not blood ok?
C: Do you know what sort of stain it was?
Adam: Of course I do! It was my dream.
C: Well you clearly don’t know everything about it.
Adam: Just…
C: Would you rather not say what sort of stain it was?
Adam: I think…
C: You think…?
Adam: I…
C: You…?
Adam: I think YOU SHOULD LET ME TALK! I don’t want to talk about it.
C: But you said…?
Adam: I don’t want to say what type of stain, ok?
C: That’s fine.
Adam: Would you like a biscuit?

4

Adam disappears for a while. C puts his pen and paper on the floor. He taps his hand against the side of the chair while he waits. Adam returns.

Adam: There weren’t any.
C: Don’t worry.
(A pause)
Adam: Do you think Doctor Who is for kids?
C: Adam…
Adam: Answer the question.
C: Yes. Yes I do.
Adam: Was that a loaded question?
C: I wouldn’t say so no.
Adam: What is a loaded question?
C: Adam…
Adam: Surely all questions are loaded? To an extent.
C: Perhaps they are. I think you have a point there.
Adam: Why is Doctor Who just for kids?
C: I didn’t say it was just for kids.
Adam: Just answer the question.
C: Cos you pay me to talk right?
(Adam says nothing. There’s a pause.)
C: I think we’re all kids. I like Doctor Who.
Adam: Why do you like it?
C: It can be anything. It’s original and creative escapism. And it’s about running from loneliness. Anyone can relate to that.
Adam: Can they? And who says it’s about that? Isn’t that a bit heavy for kids?
C: I say it’s about that. It isn’t about that for everyone. It’s my interpretation.
Adam: I think it’s childish.
C: Well not everything can be everyone’s cup of tea.
Adam: What does that even mean? You talk rubbish.
C: You chose this tangent. I’d rather talk about your dream.
Adam: Well I feel like ranting about the flaws of British television.
C: Adam stop this.
Adam: Stop what? Why don’t you sell me the merits of Doctor Who? You’re not even trying!
C: You should like him. He’s clever and he’s a bit like all the detectives you like.
Adam: I do not like detectives. I glean what I can for my own observational skills.
C: “Glean” is a very good word Adam.
Adam: Don’t patronise me.
C: You’re a walking dictionary.
Adam: Shut up.
(C leans forward exasperated)
C: Well listen to yourself! What are you even doing with your life? How old are you!?

5

The lights abruptly go down. When they slowly return Adam is no longer on stage. At the centre and towards the rear C stands next to a Mannequin in Black Shorts. At the front and to the left a security guard sits on a chair. At the front to the right a woman with a shopping bag hovers about as if browsing clothes on a rail. C’s appearance is the same as before but somehow scruffier and dishevelled.

C:  (pacing around in frustration) I said listen to yourself Adam!
(A pause)
C: I’m sorry Adam but it’s your name. For Christ’s sake grow a pair.
(Another, lengthier, pause)
C: No, no, Adam you listen! (C turns and walks up to the Mannequin. He takes some deep breaths to calm himself before seemingly addressing it directly) Tell me about the dream. No buts or excuses this time.
(There’s a substantial spell of silence. The security guard stifles a burp and then coughs. The shopper bends down as if to feel the quality of material or inspect a price tag. She gets a text message on her phone. C tries to make eye contact with the Mannequin, occasionally looking away and nodding or shaking his head now and then.)
C: Well…I’ve never heard such self-involved, deluded bullshit…
(A brief pause)
C: Ha! It might be just my interpretation, but I can assure you that yours is further from the truth. You are not some tortured or fallen genius Adam. That dream is either a meaningless fart of activity from your brain or a yelp from your sub-conscious.
(Pause)
C: It means that maybe you know somewhere inside that thick head of yours that your personality is a lifeless empty shell you’re constantly trying to fill. And none of this endless madness is doing you any good.
(Brief pause)
C: (with a raised voice) Oh please! (shouting now) Last week you were insisting you were the heir to Hercule bloody Poirot!
(The browsing shopper glances round in C’s direction. As does the security guard who groans and starts to make a call on his phone.)
C: Sorry Adam but someone has to be honest with you…I’m you’re what!?…Friends don’t have an hourly rate…
(Security guard is up and walking towards C)
Guard: (in a thick masculine accent) Not you again. C’mon pal away from here…
C: You may feel you’re someone else here Adam, but I’m not going to call you anything besides your name…Are you paying by cheque this week? As usual?
Guard: (laying a hand on C’s shoulder) Listen, shut it Sigmund. People are tryin’ to shop.
C: (straining to talk to Mannequin) If that’s how you feel we needn’t meet again…(screaming at top of his voice as Guard begins to pull him away. Shopper glances anxiously repeatedly towards C and hurries off stage.)… BUT YOU MUST PAY ACCORDING TO OUR ARRANGEMENT!
(The Guard slowly guides C off stage, grappling now and then to keep him from the Mannequin. C begins to make indecipherable, animalistic noises)
Guard: Oi! Put a sock in it will ya, ya bloody loony!

They exit the stage.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

The best of today’s opinion in The Guardian: plus some music


A number of articles have caught my eye today, the best of which an exploration of the pitfalls of adaptations by Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. Principally she focuses on a foolhardy forthcoming adaptation of Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby, which is to star Leonardo DiCaprio and be directed by Baz Luhrman, who seems to only churn out turkeys of late (eg the dismal Australia). I found the article to be brilliantly insightful as well as accesible, as I have not yet read The Great Gatsby but Churchwell explains the nature of the book and how any film will inevitably fail to capture its crucial essence so well, without ever patronising. I find the whole business of transforming pieces between genres of immense creative interest, and enjoyed playing with the craft during my English A-Level. There are certainly many reasons for adapting great works if they are adapted well, but Churchwell makes a vital point that some qualities simply cannot be transferred and filmmakers and playwrights would often do better to acknowledge this fact. Her well expressed and insightful musings on Gatsby’s theme of possibility over actuality and the idea that a film adaptation is trying to realise the dream and therefore destroys it, seem particuarly spot-on. I am encouraged to read the novel and discover what the fuss is about, especially before I view the planned film.

The title of her piece is also a clever play on Dawkins’ The God Delusion, perhaps simply inspired by the Gs.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/15/great-gatsby-delusion

Also on The Guardian website is an articulate expression of the grievances of students following the Coalition’s recent announcement of planned education cuts. Lizzie Dearden, a student at York, highlights far more clearly and simply than I the devastating impact the cuts and raised fees will have and are having on young people, and how these impacts contradict the progressive message of economic recovery continually broadcast by the government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/liberal-democrats-betrayed-students

A final piece from The Guardian‘s opinion section is an interesting piece by their prolific commentator Polly Toynbee, investigating the government’s announcement of the development of a “happiness” index. Now even from my basic knowledge of philosophy and ethics and limited life experience, I can confidently state that happiness cannot be measured and in any case attempting to is nothing new; just look at the long history of Utilitarianism. However it does seem obvious as well that the concerns of voters are not purely economic and the development of a country and its world standing cannot simply be categorized through GDP alone. So like Polly in this article I applaud the attempts to broaden data, under whatever dubious banner (“well being” certainly stirs understandable derision), whilst also joining Polly in being clear that Cameron’s Conservatives take no credit for the changes, at a time when inequality is increasing and therefore well being declining.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/16/unhappiness-david-cameron-wellbeing

And to finish off, a link to a brilliant band. Their recordings simply do not compare to seeing their electrifying live performances, but nevertheless wonderful lyrics and uplfiting melodies can be found. Seek them out for the real experience but I give you Tankus the Henge:

http://tankusthehenge.bandcamp.com/album/tankus-the-henge