Women with Men by Richard Ford

The three lengthy short stories in this collection have all the hallmarks of Ford’s early brilliance as well as his middle period introspective anxiety. His writing is never less than compelling, at times thought provoking, and at others unsettling. He has a remarkable ability to turn a story on a dime, either through external events or through misplaced introspection. Yet these shifts never seem extraordinary once they have occurred. The reader just accepts them, possibly even saying to themselves, “that’s what I was expecting all along.” And then another shift takes you off in a different direction.

“Jealous” is set in Montana and feels like an extension of the stories in Ford’s first collection, Rock Springs. The bleak landscape, lives lived on the edge—the edge of despair, alcoholism, and violence—family disruption, and the transition to manhood. It’s all there. Here the narrator, a boy of 17, is a touchstone for the other characters—his father, his aunt, his absent mother. Both a means to highlight their stories and their sadness, and to reflect that back onto the vast emptiness of the prairie.

Depending on the Ford you prefer, “The Womanizer” may appeal more. Here is the Ford of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. In this case, the protagonist is a man in Paris for a few days. He is intelligent, in his way. He is worldly, unafraid to partake of opportunities that arise before him. And he is introspective. Incessantly. Argumentatively. And without any clear grip on reality. It is an enthralling effect. A bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And unsettling as well, since introspection is more typically associated (from Socrates to Descartes) with rational thought and behaviour. Here, not so much.

The final story in the collection, “Occidentals”, feels transitional. Again we are in Paris. Again we have the hyper-introspective male protagonist. Again we are on the cusp of something, some kind of transition perhaps heralded by the couple’s hotel being located on the border of a cemetery. And Paris, or at least Ford’s imagined American Paris fully mediated by his character’s encounters with it through literature (the protagonist is a novelist who recently had been a literature professor), is significant. Perhaps Paris plays the role that Canada played in Ford’s Montana stories—a far-off imaginary space (even if you are a tourist in it) where much is possible.

These stories will, I think, captivate any reader interested in how Richard Ford handles the longer short story form. Recommended.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena and Lila have been friends since they were children together in the slums of Naples. The novel opens with a framing prologue with the two women in their sixties, but the focus here is on their lives from the ages of six to seventeen. They are bound to each other, at times inseparable, at times at the furthest remove. Each takes the other as a kind of superego, a spur to acts and endeavours that will take them out of their families, their claustrophobic neighbourhood, their lives, in fact, and onward to something they know not what. Their horizons are stultifyingly limited initially, but together, at least, they are able to lift themselves up in order to see beyond. However, this is post-war Italy, and what is beyond the horizon is not always so attractive.

The relationship between Elena and Lila is the brilliant centre of this story, but swirling around that intimate friendship—one in which both girls at different points refer to the other pointedly and justifiably as “my brilliant friend”—are a huge cast of characters, economic and political tensions, passion and consequence. Initially that host is limited to immediate family or the families of others who live in the same building. Only gradually does that circle expand. Elena is a diligent student, but Lila is, without seeming to even try, utterly brilliant. Unlike her friend, Lila can already read and write before she gets to school. She taught herself. Lila’s autodidacticism becomes a recurring motif. We see Lila read through the circulating library, and teach herself Latin and Greek. There seems no limit to what Lila might be capable of. No limit other than the imaginative capacity to think herself outside of her own situation. Perhaps. Fortunately Lila’s development spurs Elena on to renewed efforts of her own, though within the school environment. And so each enables the other to flourish.

Elena’s development, thanks to the encouragement of teachers, takes her, in school, beyond anything her parents might have hoped for her. Her friend, however, needs to be more inventive. And she is. Lila is an alchemist of old, transmuting base metals into gold. Or in this case, working within the elements and forces of her local environment to create dramatic new possibilities. Seeing her way through. By the end, however, it is unclear which girl has succeeded.

You will find yourself rooting for both Lila and Elena even as you fear for them. And the dramatic conclusion to My Brilliant Friend will have you waiting impatiently, as I now am, to get your hands on the second volume of this trilogy. Highly recommended.

Exodus by Lars Iyer

W. and Lars are back for the third and final instalment of Lars Iyer’s besotted double-act. After Spurious and Dogma, Exodus follows the put upon philosophers on a conference tour of Britain. W. has retained his post at Plymouth University by means of a technicality, though he has been relegated to teaching Sports Science students Badminton Ethics. The much abused Lars persists in his damp, underground flat in Newcastle (though thankfully the rats are gone) but he has just as little hope of surviving the desecration of Humanities faculties, and most regrettably Philosophy departments, across the country. All that’s left to them now is despair. Despair and Plymouth Gin.

W. and Lars meander across the country and across the (continental) philosophical landscape. W. is ever nostalgic for his postgraduate days at Essex University, though he appears to be the last hanger-on from those days still in academic employment. Will his early experience of life in the wilds of Canada(!) sustain him in the thoughtless wilderness of modern Britain? Is thinking even possible anymore? Or are they all now on the long march from Egypt heading toward a Canaan that W. and Lars will never be able to enter? If so, it is a curious exodus that leads to London and Edinburgh and Oxford and Dundee only to bring them back to Plymouth and one long, last drunken dark night of the soul and dreams of Plymouth Sound glinting like utopia.

It’s over. It’s been a desperate journey across the three novels, full of philosophical musings, sly observations on the state of tertiary education in Britain, exultation of the generative properties of Plymouth Gin, and endless abuse by W. of his erstwhile companion, his Boswell, his inspiration and exasperation, and ultimately his one true friend.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Astonishingly assured writing of characters so hesitant and fragile that your heart breaks for them. This is George Saunders at his best. With stories so lean that each individual word is vitally important. And even the nuance is nuanced.

Every story in this collection deserves mention as both typical of Saunders’ earlier style, and adventurously striking new ground. With “Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco” we see the satirical Saunders’ alternate future, complete with chemically induced mood, emotion and diction. These are at once lighter than some of his previous satires but perhaps (or because of that) even more cutting. A Saunders protagonist may hope for, even expect, at least within in his own mind, the world to bend itself to his needs and goals, but will find himself almost invariably brought back to reality, or lower, when the world insists on its own integrity.

Saunders is a master of the exorbitant monologue, here represented by “Exhortation” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, or the sad sack “Al Roosten”. But perhaps even more impressive are the stories which function as dualistic monologues—not dialogues, to be sure, but rather alternating monologues. Both the opening, shockingly surprising, story, “Victory Lap”, and the concluding title story, “Tenth of December”, take this form. The latter must surely stand as one of the finest, saddest, and bravest short stories I have ever encountered. With characters so vulnerable, so susceptible to destruction by themselves and others, only Saunders’ love for them can sustain them, even help them succeed beyond their own imaginings.

The writing is so swift and spare that a story almost sweeps past you. So take the opportunity to read it again and you will find that you will want to read it yet again, even. Highly recommended.

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

Mesmerizing. Like Cormac McCarthy on estrogen. Emily Schultz tells a gripping, even haunting, tale in The Blondes, that is subtle, sophisticated, sensitive, quirkily observant, and horrific.

Hazel Hayes is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications Studies spending a term in New York City to pursue her research and, in effect, to avoid her thesis supervisor, Karl Mann, with whom she has inadvisably had an affair. Absence, from Karl and from her other friends in Toronto, does nothing to alleviate her mixed feelings or help her focus on her thesis. And the fact that she has just learned that she is pregnant doesn’t help matters. Her life, her whole world, is a mess. But that’s nothing compared to the mess that is about to ensue when a pandemic of rabies-like madness begins to strike blondes and those whose hair colour has been made blonde through dyeing. From an initial attack that Hazel witnesses in the New York subway to outbreaks at JFK and further afield (the Nordic countries are severely at risk), Hazel must negotiate her way through this field of mayhem in order to get back to Toronto.

That makes it sound like a horror story, but it’s really a meditation on representations of women in culture and advertising, a commentary on systemic sexism, a reflection on a woman’s control over her own body (exacerbated by Hazel’s uncertainty over whether she wants to carry her foetus to term), a searching examination of varieties of grief, and yes, of course, also a bit of a horror story. (Interestingly, “blond/blonde” is one of the few adjectives in written English to retain its masculine and feminine grammatical genders.)

The writing is measured, thoughtful, well paced, and crisp. It was a pleasure to read and think about and I would gladly read anything else Emily Schultz chooses to write. Recommended.