Infidelities, by Kirsty Gunn (Faber & Faber, 2014), 208 pp., $35
Nobody buys short stories anyway,’ he’d said earlier. ‘No one thinks there’s enough going on.’ Helen muses on what Richard told her. She tells him soon after: ‘It was always me behind the whole thing. The collection, the idea of those stories I’d written. It was always me, inside them, I was involved. Like the one I was just telling you about, with the woman and her husband, the one that’s called Infidelity … That one. – Infidelities, p. vii
Helen, a writer, sits in a bar discussing short-story writing with her friend Richard before going home to her husband and children. Later in the collection Infidelities, another Helen and a Richard appear in ‘Infidelity’, the final story, but in that tale they are different people, married this time, and Helen is writing about an encounter with another man …
The stories in Infidelities by Kirsty Gunn are connected by the unifying traits of their female protagonists: each white, middle-class, often a wife and mother, and usually feeling ‘trapped’ and/or highly self-aware. The interconnectedness is also aided by the alluringly pseudonymous and recurrent use of protagonists named ‘Helen’ or ‘Elisabeth’, which invites the question: where does one story begin and another one end? And are these women various aspects of the same life?
The self-reflexive opening pages send a cunning message to any detractors of this literary form. They also make a light-hearted comment on Gunn’s own investment in her art. The reflexivity here also works as a sample of how the short-story form sometimes progresses, with a lot of information given quite quickly. On the whole, it is a clever metafictional introduction to a sophisticated collection of stories; stories that are grouped in small clusters under one of three headings: Going Out, Staying Out, Never Coming Home.
At a Melbourne Writer’s Festival event in 2013, Kirsty Gunn spoke on ‘form and style’ in fiction; she told her audience that she doesn’t usually know what her stories are about until she gets writing. It’s the form she needs to get sorted out first, she said. And years earlier at the Thistle Inn in Wellington, while Gunn read from her book The Boy and the Sea (2006), I noticed a distinct musicality in the narration. I can’t remember the detail of what happens in that book, but I can remember how it ‘felt’ and ‘sounded’, and that the author said the same thing; that she doesn’t know, until she begins.
Gunn is clearly influenced by the formal and melodic qualities of music and the way music demands a response. This is perhaps most evident in her award-winning novel The Big Music (2012). Novelist and theorist Gabriel Josipovici called this ‘the book of the decade’ and likened Gunn to Faulkner (see Gunn’s webpage). In The Big Music, the form was ‘given’ by the multi-layered traditional Scottish music associated with the Highland bagpipes, the Piobaireachd, which became the organising principle in Gunn’s book.
It is the ‘form’ that holds the characters in place and, in the case of Infidelities, allows the women to ‘wander’ between stories, becoming subsumed by their namesake and each protagonist, without losing their own story.
Gunn’s ‘woman’ is always alienated or spot-lit inside her own head: torn variously between love of family and a desperate desire to retrieve her ‘old self’ or invent a new self; or between knowing and not knowing herself; or what has happened. And no great chasm of cultural narrative opens up in the space between each story, because the theme and the cultural similarities between each protagonist tie the stories together in a continuum, as a Cubist painting shows a subject from many perspectives.
Joseph Conrad said that studying anything closely enough becomes a meditation, and similarly, in Virginia Woolf, ‘the lived moment’ stands in for eternity; both one second and timelessness might in fact be different ways of viewing the same thing. It is the selected sequence of fully lived (or studied) moments that makes the depth of one’s life. And, as a day in Woolf can ‘stand-in’ for a lifetime, so too Kirsty Gunn reflects this sentiment:
She could write herself saying that to him, that word, and the way every second of their meeting was like every second articulating itself within the vast spread of time, and her imprisoned within each one. – Helen, ‘Infidelity, pp. 196–97
The potentially complex notion of self-expansion and ‘becoming’ is beautifully portrayed in Infidelities in its various expressions of the mystical, magical qualities of particular selected moments, and the flow-over into the lives of others. This deployment of the elucidating moment within and outside the traditional boundaries of linear time is truly captivating.
The story ‘Infidelity’ reads, in part, as ‘life imitating art imitating life’. Gunn self-reflexively drops the literary names Grace Paley, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers and Sam Shephard into this story about a moment of overwhelming, even suffocating and terrifying, vitality. Helen attends a writing class and muses on the binary of desire in creating ‘new’ work, while wanting to write a ‘faithful’ account of her life. The aforementioned writers are examples given to the protagonist, but they are also clearly writers who have influenced Gunn to varying extents, and her handling of intertwined threads and agendas here is seamless.
‘Essential details’ only should make it into the work, says Helen’s teacher on p. 178, and on p. 207: ‘Write every detail down and you’ll see. How nothing … becomes everything.’ But Helen wonders how she can make the felt and the imagined ‘real’ in that way for possibly her whole family to see, and decides it is too much of a reveal and a risk, and so she bins her story. And I am left wondering, will her husband Richard find the story in the bin? This possibility isn’t explicitly pointed to, but what woman wouldn’t tear up or burn something she felt to be potentially threatening to her marriage? But isn’t it also true that the subconscious leaves breadcrumb trails (the binned story) to reveal its truer desires, our own ‘essential details’?
In ‘A Story She Might Tell Herself’ the catalytic event is the arrival in town of a small saffron-robed Tibetan monk. This has a revelatory effect on the Helen of this story, a weary wife to Bobby and a mother, for whom everything changes at the arrival of the monk. The ‘exotic’ contrast of the unusual little man against Helen’s life in the small Oxfordshire village is great, or at least enervating for this Helen who feels trapped and uninspired in and by the world of her domestic life. The fullness of her dissatisfaction is revealed with the monk’s arrival. He becomes a symbol of another life or way, as if a piece of elsewhere has been inserted across time and space to reach her, becoming key to the retrieval of her lost self.
Gunn reveals the conflict between a mother’s love, such as Helen’s obvious affection for her children, and the panic of having missed out or potentially missing out, which are the feelings the monk’s presence provokes. Helen’s hazy though repressed desire – spiritual, sexual; past, present, and future – goes out to the monk, making him an holistic emanation of all things ‘other’ and desired. The irony of the monk being Buddhist, and therefore ‘anti-desire’, is strong, as is the sense of futility and entrapment in Helen’s life. This is a story about the ‘deep deep despair’ (p. 14) that ravages ordinary people despite their apparent coping.
Out of the blue, there is a story with a different tone and timbre to the others. ‘Tangi’ is about a child’s point of view, and a Māori woman in a relationship with a white woman. The infidelity here is uniquely corporate, cultural and historical, while also deeply personal. It deals with the infidelity of having been denied the truth. ‘Tangi’ is deeply embedded in New Zealand in a manner that no other story in this collection is.
Also quirky in their inclusion are The Highland Stories, a suite of four interconnected tales: ‘The Father’, ‘The Rock’, ‘Dirtybed’ and ‘Ghost’. These tell a story, from a unique perspective each time, from within one family. These stories didn’t grab me as much as the others, nor did they seem to fit as well in the collection, but I will re-read them in case there’s something I have missed – that’s what good writing does, it pulls you back in.
There is some pertinent ‘small nation’ typecasting in Infidelities, especially in the stories I identify as ‘Scottish’ or ‘New Zealand’. Gunn reveals significant psycho-geographical similarities between these nations – both known for (among other things) beautiful, cold, mountainous landscapes, and a certain dourness, unfussiness and determination. There are also great differences, primarily in terms of landscape. These qualities are illuminated and affectionately explored in this book, as they have been in Gunn’s previous fiction. A couple of the stories in Infidelities are set in England, which makes up a certain cultural triangle between Scotland, its wary neighbor, and New Zealand, its wary colonial off-shoot.
Gunn has personal knowledge of the vast geographical divide between her original home, New Zealand, and her current home, Scotland, and the predicament and privilege of dual affiliations. She explores the psychological depths of this psycho-geographical divide as a way of studying the themes of otherness, escape, unrequited desire and also, simply, the grass being greener elsewhere.
For example, in ‘Memorial’, the statue of Robert Burns appears as if magically, and rather incongruously in the New Zealand bush; later, the same statue appears in Scotland ‘on the grey hill in the Borders’ (p. 157). The contrast of place, and its perceived effect on ‘the sculpture’, is written to illuminate the contrast in protagonist Elisabeth’s comfort in each place and at each time; one a cold reality, and one a projection of desire dug out of the archives of memory.
The natural environment in Infidelities whispers to each female character, telling them who they truly are or might become. In ‘Elegy’, ‘the flowers had all come home to roost in the magnolia trees along the Euston Road’ (p. 27). How apt a portrait of magnolia flowers! This Elisabeth is unwell: she has recently had surgery and her condition is terminal. She’s going back to a flat she owns in England with her partner, who has stayed behind on the Scottish island where they have been living together. ‘It was unlikely she was going to see Edward again’, she says resignedly (p. 34). She is leaving Edward for death – so to speak. This story is a tragedy – here is a woman for whom the process of dying has illuminated what really matters in life – but it swerves close to becoming a redemption story in so far as Elisabeth has reached a place of resignation; then it swerves away from that because the resignation is shrouded in a vague though smothering fear and the weight of important things not done.
It is as though we have caught these clever stories on the downswing, as if the peak in drama occurred before the writing began, and we enter each one near its end or between dramatic acts. This is beautifully exemplified in ‘Elegy’, in which the downtime, reflective time, the aftershock, and the moments of decision, indecision or post-decision, are all pertinent and relatable subject matter.
The close, singular narration in each story creates a privileged intimacy with the reader. Each story has a monocular point of view that borders fittingly on the claustrophobic because of an absence of much background or contextual detail other than what must be illuminated for its key symbolic relationship with the protagonist.
And I am keenly reminded again of Virginia Woolf in the way Gunn often incorporates gentle yet sharply astute interior-monologue observations about people and remembered exchanges in place of dialogue. The meta-aspect of any recalled dialogue allows for more space and play; the narrator or Point of View character can make a post-mortem judgment on, or selectively present ‘unreliably’, what happened and what was said and how. In Woolf and in Modernism in general, the ‘recalled’ and the notion of unreliability in the recalled are blended into the author’s constructed ‘reality’ – that of the novel at hand – and in so far as Gunn has Modernist persuasions, she amply and succinctly establishes the ‘world of her stories’ – one that beautifully expresses paradoxical female experience: supportive but smothering relationships; white middle-class female entrapment; moments of liberty, regret, resignation, unrequited desire; the anthropomorphic character of land and place.
In Infidelities the theme of infidelity is explored from many perspectives in these tightly focused and exceptionally well-crafted stories. Gunn makes the conflict inside her female archetypes meaningful, relatable and vitally important.
TASHA HAINES is a Wellington-based writer with a background in fine arts and an MFA from Elam at the University of Auckland. She is currently working on her PhD (Deakin University, Melbourne) in the literary modernisms continuum.