Deleted Scenes for Lovers by Tracey Slaughter (Victoria University Press, 2016), 227 pp., $30
Mainly these contemporary tales include lovely, believable, startling, even sometimes disturbing, streams of consciousness, which intersect with and illuminate well-realised imagery and action.
This curious, lively book provoked in me effervescent, warped and fractured notions which I carried around for some time. Author Tracey Slaughter may create ripples and waves in many other readers’ pools of thought as well. Her book sure grabbed my attention. Characters’ lives are intimately depicted through registration of thoughts and sensations in an often jolting way. This saw me question some formatting of the text, at first. But soon I gathered fine reasons for this approach.
Life’s not all surface. We exist among endless, if modulated, internal chatter, our minds at work ceaselessly while also realising sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. We go about our daily mundane tasks, but within we are recalling dreams and using imagination too. Our individual interpretations shape life, and sometimes bend it out of shape. Slaughter’s stories show this. Small ruins appear, everyday mishaps occur, wreckage accumulates and so her characters grow to understand they are flawed, and some don’t care that they’ve proved imperfect.
Characters look outwards and inwards at the same time, forming a dialogue between their personal inner lives and the worlds they inhabit and react to with their senses. Possibly the over-riding theme is that making the best of what you experience allows you clearer access to the essential core of living, to authentic feeling. Ordinary life is celebrated in extraordinary ways. In Slaughter’s stories, no-one aims to be a fairy princess or mighty warrior in another dimension, but many appear to understand the glorious vitality of life’s potential. In these gloomy strange islands at the edge of everything and the beginning of nowhere, belonging and experience matter. A lack of self doubt seems to surface quite often: these characters act, often forcefully.
Also, Slaughter doesn’t stand back cynically or judge. This writer exalts her characters without stereotyping them. Her people are created, I would say, from careful observation, but she also has a powerful imagination; she conveys what it feels like for an individual to sense a customer’s eyes on their body (in the story ‘Consent’), or how someone realises that new-fangled technology gives them personal power (as in ‘Local Sluts in Your Area’). A camera which a girl holds allows her to gain some control in an out-of-kilter home. This writer convincingly shows what the character thinks while someone clumsily takes advantage. The girl perceives what this strange man believes, and notes him criticising her freckles and using other forms of belittlement and control. Dissociation appears, a kind of floating ‘like a movie’ sensation, well described, chilling, and also presented as banal, or everyday. Abuse does, sadly, become accepted when it happens often enough. She shows how abusers build a world with only their wants inside, shutting out anyone who dares offer alternatives. But Slaughter shows this carefully: she’s not didactic. An uncertainty is often present, meaning we can’t always predict outcomes, as in a game. There’s realism along with Slaughter’s assuredness, and it feels like some words may be played with, or sorted and disregarded, even argued with – and that’s okay.
So this is an exciting read, with quite some intellectual rigour being applied. You, too, could twist away into fanciful thinking, is the teasing implication, while reading Deleted Scenes for Lovers. For a first short story collection, then, this is a remarkably assured book.
In ‘How To Leave Your Family’, after driving and shopping, there’s a park, with children playing. The delightful, precious glory of these small beings in your care – you not only produced them but love them – is expertly shown:
… waists and kneebones orbiting bar after bar, their hair spilled, their small teeth radiant.
Rock everything about them inside you. Think you could live in this echo of their delight, tasting it all in negative. Think you could just …
And then the mother wearies, but feels permitted to relax while her offspring play. Next, when a man appears and begins a conversation with a hidden agenda. The contrast is subtle but sudden, also insidious. Slaughter weaves together different moods and overlaps some of them; she plays with light and shade, and places something in between, and also omits what you fill in for yourself.
Her language beguiles and delights. All of a piece too for each story, although occasionally distracting in some stories with crowded syntax to start with, and over-full, confusing paragraphs at times, which did bother me until I grew accustomed to these stylistic quirks. That is, I wished for clearer sentences, and better paragraphs, until around a third of the way through. But by then I could see the naturalistic style worked absolutely fine, in fact giving the stories strong narrative voices and a strong sense of place. Of course, a writer may make a reader uncomfortable too; this quality of writing is adventurous, challenging, not all about passive entertainment. Why shouldn’t I feel uneasy, taken so close to these characters who are at first strangers to me?
Opened at random, every page holds something I’d love to have written, and could draw myself into. From ‘Scenes of a Long-Term Nature’: ‘They will have children. The skin of her belly will swell and split into a mesh of silver ripples, a heel from inside loosening the net. He will remember the evening she sits, no longer agreeing to the seams of her clothing, and the kick of his son will lift the globe …’ Imagery includes surreal visions as well, as when this homely scene transforms to encompass schools of fish. On page 36, someone states it’s easy to type ‘gun’ instead of ‘him’, because they’re the same pattern on the keyboard and next to each other. On page 134, the New Testament inside a drawer breathes. Does the holy book live even unread? Or it lives every day for these characters? Or should we entertain both those ideas?
When a man’s belly hair is likened to dead flies outside the door, and he asserts that Jesus condones what he’s suggesting with a jokey phrase about the Son of God, a reader gets it: the mood’s risky and also funny. Such fresh magic permeates every paragraph. Simply buying an ice-cream later on, spot the hyper-real vivid freckles on the shop-keeper’s arms. Closeness and keen observation, a sense of living inside the plot. This or that truly happened: some flash of a sight, those smells – she encourages us to listen, taste, believe it. There’s such a powerful sense of the felt world, so much tangible, proven, as if you too could live this, have these experiences.
Consciousness at its best after all is as blessed and crazy as any good story, isn’t it? Writing like this could affirm our right to fully enjoy who we are and what we experience. Slaughter thus encourages respect for others. Throughout this collection, each story offers a distinctive voice, and sometimes the format changes accordingly. One tale is presented like a numbered list of scenes, another mainly in rather short sections with gaps. Definite variation gives each story its own identity, and whatever the change it always adds to the tone and meaning of the work. Numbering in ‘How to Leave Your Family’ makes alarming aspects appear planned or wished for: we gather the woman considering the idea doesn’t have to keep going, or could step into another plan. This increases tension, and brings out characters’ determination. The last open-ended line also shocks, but indicates perhaps that even if she stays, she’s gone. Double meanings and expanded implications appear constantly.
I puzzled over the book’s title, Deleted Scenes for Lovers, which is also a story title, and decided the stories often showed characters’ inner or secret worlds in many ways. I suppose lovers could subconsciously delete those scenarios or not know about them at times, for various reasons. At any rate, the title resonates. Slaughter has created an excellent collection, one with heart and vivaciousness. I look forward to more.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER is an Auckland-based novelist, poet and non-fiction writer, and teaches creative writing.