Cowboy Genes by Wes Lee (Grist Books/Valley Press, UK, 2014), 64 pp., no price; The Glove Box and Other Stories by Vivienne Plumb (Spineless Wonders, 2014), 150 pp., $30
While Cowboy Genes is Wes Lee’s first collection of short fiction, she is no stranger to the genre, being the 2010 recipient of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Literary Award, as well as the author of widely published short stories. Technically a chapbook rather than a collection, Cowboy Genes contains its title story along with four others. Lee is an accomplished wordsmith with an ear for recuperating cliché. The title story narrates the tale of a woman suffering after an unspecified mistake during an unidentified operation. To assist in her healing process she turns to reading westerns. ‘I found the clichés comforting’, the narrator explains. ‘The stories didn’t demand too much and they had a heart.’ Deconstructive reader that I am, I found myself tempted to apply a version of this explanation to Cowboy Genes overall.
‘Diseases from Space’, the second story in the collection, chronicles clipped episodes of mental instability from a narrator’s unwell mother and brother, David. About David, a character who checks in and out of mental institutions, the narrator reveals, ‘There had always been darkness in him.’ During the course of the story, flitting and quirky glimpses into the backstory of the narrator and David show us snapshots of ‘that terrible brimming sadness underneath’. Like all of the stories in Cowboy Genes, ‘Diseases from Space’ seems aware of the lingering threat of cliché; and although it doesn’t shy away from repeating some of the expected lines, such as ‘David, my little heart can’t take it’, it sometimes provides the literary rationales for its own language, as in the line which directly follows this one: ‘It’s the kind of raw, black acerbic thing they say to each other in those institution stories.’ The apparent presumption is that an admission like this exempts Lee’s narrative from being classified among the stories she critiques.
The style of Cowboy Genes might be described as trimmed to a buzz-cut, laconic, evocative of lyricism without actually going all the way there. Self-conscious and cool. As I read, I had the overriding feeling that I was in the hands of an author who attempted to employ a hip awareness as an antidote to seeming too committed to her material. Of course, what I was looking for as a reader was precisely that: an author who was committed to her material. It’s just this sort of commitment which develops readerly trust by risking sentimentality.
In the collection’s final story, ‘Crash Test Dummies’, what seem like comments on this authorial habit of emotional aversion bubble to the surface in a few different places. In a conversation about the inevitable clichés of safari, for example, a hairdresser describes for Victor, the main character, ‘a photo of Japanese businessmen … lined up on the back of a Land Rover wearing SARS masks’. Victor’s response –‘It was a weird image, he filed it away, maybe he could use it in his work’ – comes across as a kind of inadvertent comment on the potential reasons an author might pepper her work with the peculiar and zany, as if such images were an end in themselves. Perhaps the most revealing metafictional moment occurs later in ‘Crash Test Dummies’, where Victor gripes about the ultra-hipness of his flatmate, Gregg: ‘… everyone had to be cool. Even his moonlighting job making the moon globes was seen as cool – an ironic, knowing wink to the souvenir trade.’ Victor’s complaint here echoes my own about Cowboy Genes overall. Though Lee is blessed with an ear for innovative prose and material abundant in emotional depth and genuine human anguish, she seems to avoid going beyond the passing comment or the eye-candy image. Emotion is largely unexplored and we’re kept on the stylised surface of language.
While I resisted its passing sound-bite wisdom – ‘“We don’t really change,” Eva says. “We just get big and then small again and then we’re gone”’ – one story that did stand out to me as making an emotional commitment was ‘Sunspots’. In this, three sisters try to carry on with their eccentric lives after one of them is diagnosed with what the back cover tells us is ‘terminal cancer’. The action is fast and the images tight, bright and often moving, as in the final scene of the story, where the narrator, arriving with flowers for her dying sister, ends up fighting with her. ‘I fight until the sky turns dark’, Lee writes. ‘I fight until I’m allowed into the white light of the bedroom. Until she smooths out the beaten flowers and puts them in a vase.’
Vivienne Plumb’s latest collection of short fiction, The Glove Box and Other Stories, is a precisely crafted collection of work that establishes the author’s commitment to honest and sustained emotional exploration from its first page. The careful attention to detail in the opening paragraph of the title story signals immediately that we’re in the hands of an author whose generosity of observation extends even to the smallest matters:
If I’m walking and see a button I will pick it up. They seem to me friendly, useful things. Buttons aren’t cheap anymore. I don’t mind where it’s come from – I’ll pick it up. I don’t know if a man would ever stoop to pick up a lost button. I’ve seen men pick up nails and screws, but not buttons.
What do we know about the narrator from this passage? We know that she is observant, not only about buttons, but about behaviour of men and women. We know that she is prone to spin stories out of nothing – the friendliness of the button, the passing consideration of its origin. We know, too, that she is practical, attuned to considerations of cost and domestic usefulness. That’s quite a bit to glean from a short paragraph, but in the hands of Plumb, this is the sort of treasure even a few lines can yield.
In a quiet, meditative and gradually accumulating series of memories organised around photographs, ‘The Glove Box’ narrates the story of most of the narrator’s life, centring on the schizophrenia of her mother and the death of her sister, Caro, from leukemia. The narrative voice that opens the piece continues unabated throughout, and there’s something in its honesty, observation and practical bent that deepens readerly trust, casting aside any qualms we might have about the familiarity of the organising trope of photographs. Writing of the sister who worked at the Ministry of Economic Development before her illness forced her to quit, the narrator tells us,
Sometimes I met her in the foyer and we would eat lunch together. I still don’t really know what work she did there, although I find myself desiring to know even more now than when she was alive. I do not wish to forget. I want to be able to remember everything about her. I do not want anything to remain invisible, veiled. I wish to be able to understand everything, to understand why she isn’t here and why she, too, was taken from me.
What drives ‘The Glove Box’ as well as most of the other stories in Plumb’s collection, is a sense of emotional doggedness, a persistence that suggests that everything matters. I believe this is how fiction behaves at its finest, instilling in us the hope that in spite of the worst life levels at us – calamity, entropy, death – it all counts, even a tin of old buttons.
‘Efharisto’, a story set during a mother and son’s holiday in Crete, captures this same sense of living as an exercise of great consequence. The cottage in which the mother and her son stay on Crete is the central setting for ‘Efharisto’ and Plumb’s description of the ‘one small bedroom upstairs’ where her son slept grounds us in the physical space of the cottage. But it is her insight about the little things, such as the brochure for the cottage, which conveys the emotional environment of the story: ‘I kept a copy of the brochure that had advertised the cottage we stayed in. At the time, I had thought we might come back. Later on, I knew that would never happen, and then I threw it away.’ Although this passing comment communicates to us the likely outcome of the son’s bout of illness in ‘Efharisto’, the story unfolds with suspense and manages to swerve in an unexpected direction during its final scenes.
The common thread of The Glove Box and Other Stories is women hitchhiking, and one story in the collection, ‘Floorplan’, featuring a woman whose doctoral work centres on women hitchhiking, functions as a metafictional linchpin for the book. As it happens, The Glove Box was written as part of a creative PhD, and ‘Floorplan’ seems intended as a comment on the circumstances of the collections’ creation. In this story, we are introduced to Jane whose research, rendered in what reads like laboured academic jargon, explores the ways in which ‘hitchhiking and other representations of the female body in public spaces, such as bushwalking, swimming, and walking and running for fitness, are instances of women establishing a reterritorialisation of public areas, a corporeal cartographic reinscription.’
This kind of prose is good for a laugh and, luckily, Plumb doesn’t try to employ it to any other purpose in ‘Floorplans’. Even so, the mention of a project on women hitchhiking underscores a common thread of the collection that might go better left unspoken. While a tight focus around a common theme is arguably useful for a creative thesis – interestingly, the jury remains out on the design most suited to the creative PhD – the consistency seems forced in The Glove Box. What moved me most in this collection was not the repetition of hitchhiking, but the authorial curiosity and emotional striving of so many of these stories. In fact, as I came towards the end of the collection, I began to dread the obligatory detour into hitchhiking that I knew each story would have to take in order to navigate the binding logic of the collection’s central trope.
The Glove Box and Other Stories is a moving and important collection of short fiction as well as a tribute to the publishing possibilities small presses enable. Now that the larger presses have more or less banished the short story, Plumb’s latest collection demonstrates the urgent cultural need for small presses to give the form the space it needs to flourish. At its best, a short story can open the possibilities of language, drive us through a breathless and precise plot, and transport us into the vowel-ridden depths of the human heart like nothing else. When we encounter a master of the form, as I think we do in Plumb’s The Glove Box, we are reassured about the poignancy of language and the durability of those urgent little narratives that so closely resemble the shape of our everyday lives.
THOM CONROY is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. His work has appeared in various journals in the US and New Zealand, including Landfall, Sport, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Kenyon Review. His fiction has been recognised by Best American Short Stories 2012 and has won a number of other awards, including the Katherine Ann Porter Prize in Fiction. His historical novel The Naturalist was published in 2014.