Monday 16 November 2009

'tell me about the kings'

You Are Not A Stranger Here
by Adam Haslett

A short article in the Guardian drew my attention to Adam Haslett, his first novel Union Pacific apparently wowing many at the Frankfurt Book Fair (and snapped up by Atlantic Books in the UK). A quick search located this stunning review of his short story collection by none other than Just William's Luck favourite John Burnside. It really is a stunning review and all the prompting I needed to read a collection which had apparently been lauded, earning nominations for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, but passed me by completely. The stories are incredibly varied but a unifying theme might be people who are disconnected from life in some way, finding a moment of connection that alters their, and our, perception. It would be fair I think to say that the prevalence of mental unstability and violence means that the overall tone is dark but the opening story, Notes To My Biographer begins with a paragraph containing humour and a character that leaps off the page.

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of fleash. Bereaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.

Franklin Caldwell Singer gets the collection off to a cracking start, the epitome of unreliable narration, puffed up with his own importance, his delusions slowly stripped away during a visit to his estranged son. What he would think of as invention and eccentricity has clearly had a devastating effect on his family, now scattered to the winds, and Haslett judges perfectly the pace at which to turn humour into pathos, retaining throughout one of those utterly irresistable narrative voices. It shares many of its strengths with a famous story by Cheever called Reunion (a title Haslett uses himself later in the book) which you can hear being read by Richard Ford in a New Yorker podcast here.

In a complete change of gear Haslett matches the gifts of another master of the short form, Chekhov, with The Good Doctor. A young rural doctor is thinking of leaving his practice, after the National Health Service Corps scheme which placed him there with the promise of repaying his medical school loans has its funding cut, leaving him shouldering the debt. When he makes a routine visit to a patient who has suffered depression for many years and subsisted on a constant prescription of sedatives his faith in the talking cure will be put to the test. He is a man crippled by his compassion, well-meaning to that level attained by Simon of Cyrene, and as he learnt from Mrs Buckholdt the shocking story behind her present state I literally found myself exclaiming out loud. The skill comes in the clarity, unencumbered by emotion or melodrama, which adds to rather than taking away from the impact. The woman who is cast as patient, victim and burden is in fact strong, intelligent and independent. She sees the doctor for exactly who he is , knowing that the help he can offer isn't the help she needs.

In The Beginnings of Grief (which you can read online here) we meet a boy struggling to deal with his mother's suicide. By provoking the class bully he is able to find some kind of comfort in pain and violence. At the same time as these encounters, which also mark some kind of sexual awakening, we see him constructing in woodwork class a wooden chest which resembles a child's coffin, its symbolism clear as he heads towards the story's cathartic ending. It's barely over 4000 words long but has the kind of power that makes it feel more substantial.

I have simply mentioned the first three stories there, I could have picked any in this collection which contains no filler. In fact I'd be happy to tell you about them all but I'll give a final mention to the final story, The Volunteer, because it epitomises so much of what struck me in this book. An awkward teenager makes volunteer visits to an elderly woman, visits which have given her hope. As the story evolves and we follow the boy's stumbling progress towards losing his virginity we also witness the unravelling of Elizabeth's fragile mental state and are hit in the solar plexus by a revelation from her past. How a story manages to be gentle and brutal at the same time I have no idea but it is a trick he accomplishes several times. In his review Burnside wished we could apply 'the clear lens of hindsight' to sort the real thing from all the PR hype. As that Guardian piece illustrates Haslett is far from free of hype seven years after these stories were published but the act of reading them goes some way to blowing that aside and leaving it for you to decide whether he's the real deal.

For those who suspect he might be and who suffer from impatience you can read the opening of his forthcoming novel Union Atlantic here.


Trevor 16 November 2009 at 15:46  

I read this one a few years ago and thought it was remarkable. Now your review makes me eager for a revisit!

William Rycroft 17 November 2009 at 08:30  

Great! I'd be interested to hear how you find it second time around. I read in an interview that he spent some time deciding what order to put the stories in, knowing definitely which he wanted first and last and then shuffling the others. It made it sound like a band trying to get the order of tracks right on an album so I wonder if all that thought pays off.

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