The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories, by Laura Solomon (Proverse Hong Kong, 2012), 200 pp., USD 22.00.
Realism is the meat and two veg of New Zealand fiction: thick, chunky and nourishing. In our country, we have dozens of realisms: mimetic realism, critical realism, social realism, socialist realism … well, maybe not socialist realism, but we certainly do capitalist realism.
How about magic realism? That’s a murkier case. Wryly defined by Gene Wolfe as ‘fantasy written by people who speak Spanish’, magic realism lurks near the boundary between realistic and fantastic literature, looking for ways to tunnel through, now on this side, now on that, an exotic and elusive particle. It’s not real realism, really, is it? It’s not the sort of thing on which the canon of New Zealand literature is built. It’s not the sort of thing we write.
Except that Laura Solomon does.
Attempting to improve on Gene Wolfe feels like lèse-majesté, but I’m going to try. I think magic realism can be distinguished from the broader stream of fantasy because the typical premise of a magic realist story is that an event that is not rationalised takes place in a story which is otherwise set in the world of realist fiction. In contrast, in most fantastic literature, the world of the story is itself non-realist.
I’m going to stick with my definition of magic realism because it serves as a guide to many of the stories in The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories. In the opening story, the titular sea monster offers the twelve-year-old narrator the opportunity of a glamorous life underwater, but (as in many fairy stories) there is a price. Parts of Deborah’s body start to freeze up, and there may be more to it than Bell’s Palsy. Melanie loses her twin sister and starts seeing angels. Sisters argue over who should play the role of the milk-drinking vampire Count Homogenised until the Count himself lends a hand. Mike, a promising boyfriend, turns out to have a problematic relationship with the full moon.
There is a general movement in the book from the lives of girls to the lives of women, and sometimes men. The girls have twins, or at least sisters and close relatives who function much like twins. The narrator is often the quiet, awkward one, whereas the other girl in the story is the more popular — or at least the more social — member of the pair. The women are often trapped in unsatisfactory relationships, unsatisfactory jobs, unsatisfactory countries. In one way or another, they want out: in the case of the adults, they frequently want out of the rat race and into the opportunity to express their creativity. Along comes an opportunity for escape: often, but not always, a non-realistic opportunity. Do they grasp the opportunity? What are the consequences of doing so? What are the consequences of rejecting the opportunity? This is the territory many of the stories traverse.
If you are thinking, what with these references to magic and fantasy, that the language and tone of the stories will belong to the heightened and elevated realms of high fantasy, put the thought away. The tone of these stories is wry, often downbeat. Every time expectations are raised, Laura Solomon has an eye for the pithy phrase that will bring them back down to earth. From ‘Count Homogenised’:
She’s remembering how much fun it was to be the sinister cackling Count …. I’m remembering being smacked on the bum with a piece of wood.
Many of Laura Solomon’s protagonists have more to contend with than feelings of dissatisfaction and a longing to get out of the rat race and express their creativity. Illness, often serious, is an ever-present threat. Mr Clifford, a mild-mannered man, is diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour after a month of crushing headaches. Suddenly, he isn’t mild-mannered any more. Mr Thomlinson goes blind overnight. Mr … well, he can no longer remember, because he wakes up under a bridge with no memory of his former life. In these stories, the illness plays the role that magic plays in a number of the other stories: it shakes things up, it makes people react, it forces new (and mostly unwelcome) perspectives.
As in any collection, some stories are stronger than others. Maybe I’m a drama queen, but I spent the whole of ‘Desert Life’, wherein the heroine chucks in her job as a London lawyer and moves to the edge of the Mojave Desert to write a science fiction novel, waiting for something bad to happen. Nothing does: everything goes great: she meets a lovely man, has lovely kids, and meets with a satisfying level of literary success. (Or maybe — disturbing thought — it’s the level of literary success that is the non-realistic element in the story?)
But that’s the only story out of the 22 that didn’t work for me. All of the others have a good deal to recommend them, and the best stories are memorable, moving and funny, their realistic and non-realistic elements intermeshing beautifully.
My favourite story in the collection is ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. The protagonist is an author, which is true of fewer stories here than you might expect, and as this story opens, she has just received some very good news. The story begins:
The day after my novel Richard Returnswas short-listed for the Orange Prize, Aunty Ingrid came round to help me with the garden.
‘Get out from behind that bloody computer,’ she said. ‘Get out and get some fresh air ….’
She shoved a pair of clippers into my hand.
The story is an extended exercise in bathos in which the narrator’s family, boss, friends and acquaintances show an epic — and convincing — lack of interest in either the narrator’s literary ambitions or her literary success. Should the narrator eventually receive the ultimate accolade, a Nobel Prize for Literature, one imagines a relative standing up in the audience and saying ‘That’s all very well, but her mantelpiece is covered in dust!’ Anyone who has ploughed a lonely creative furrow in the face of the world’s scorn, or worse, indifference, will find much to relate to in this story.
To sum up: the characteristic concerns and predicaments of Laura Solomon’s characters in The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories are not at all atypical of the concerns that sensitive, artistic types have had in our literature from at least Kathrine Mansfield’s day to our own. The difference lies in the means that, in many of these stories, Laura Solomon uses to bring the protagonist sharply up against her or his predicament. In a magic realist story, unusual events don’t need elaborate setting up, or a carefully rationalised scientific explanation: they just happen. That’s a great gift to any writer with a limited number of words to work with, because it lets the story dispense with the two veg and get to the meat, to the heart of the matter. The best thing about The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories is that, in story after story, Laura Solomon gets right to the point.
TIM JONES is a Wellington-based fiction writer, poet, and editor. His books include Transported: Short Stories (Vintage, 2008).
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