Saturday, January 13, 2007

Richard Yates – ‘Collected Stories’

Yesterday on a long train journey with S., after a game of Scrabble which I found tedious and she won by a mile, I was listening to my Walkman and got up to retrieve the train times from my coat pocket, wanting to see exactly how delayed we were. I had my phone in my hand, having earlier sent a text to Dad (who was picking us up) saying we were going to be late, to which he’d just replied. Upon sitting down again, she said, ‘Do you want to use my phone? It’s pre-paid.’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a bit abruptly.
‘Is it because you want to use yours?’
I put the left earphone back in, wanting to get back to my music. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. I don’t know about her, but certainly for me, the scene continued: involuntarily, I imagined it escalating: ‘Actually, I wasn’t going to phone anyone. I wasn’t even going to text anyone – I just received a text, and you misread the situation. You thought I’d got my phone from my coat, because your phone’s in your coat, because you’re a girl and don’t have pockets. And OK, if I was going to phone someone it would be useful to do it for free, but I mean texts, what do they cost? 10p? The hassle involved in explaining to the person I may or may not be about to text that this isn’t my phone, not that I’ve run out of credit or anything, but S. has free texts to use up so don’t go replying to this number on a regular basis, just in the next few minutes, if you want, not that I’m telling you what to do, makes it not worth while. Why do you always have to complicate things?’

I’m ashamed to admit that this is how my mind works on occasion. In dramatising this little scene to myself, I also played out S.’s probable reaction, in less detail. Something along the lines of, ‘Are you serious? I’m complicating things? I was trying to be helpful! That’s it, I never want to see you again.’ Then it struck me how similar all this was to the final story in the Richard Yates book, ‘A Convalescent Ego’. In it, a husband takes offense when his overworked wife says in response to a lame offer of help: ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so, Bill. You just – rest, or whatever it is you’re doing.’ This leads to:
Bill settled back on the couch and picked up the magazine again, but the rankling memory of her words made it impossible to read. ‘Rest, or whatever it is you’re doing.’ And what did she expect him to be doing, two weeks out of the hospital? He was on doctor’s orders to rest, wasn’t he? Angrily he shut the magazine and flipped it toward the coffee table. (p. 461)
Then he breaks one of the new cups his wife bought that they couldn’t really afford with him not earning, and he works himself up more and more in defence of his supposedly slighted masculinity. Was that at the back of my own irritation with S.? I’m the man. I may not earn very much but at least would you allow me to pay for my own text messages?

In his introduction to this volume, Richard Russo writes:
Dream big and we’re expected to fail. [...] Dream small, Yates seems to suggest, and we’re expected to succeed. As a result, failure ensures not just disappointment, but humiliation, anguish, and, most dangerous of all, the impulse to dream smaller next time, thereby risking even greater failure. The characters we meet in Yates’s stories are often already the victims of diminished expectation. (pp. xi-xii)
It is true that Yates’ characters frequently suffer bad luck, or find themselves in humiliating circumstances, but I found Russo’s comment tough to square with the vivid stories themselves. They seem so true to life that, almost by definition, they offer hope, if only via an understanding of failure. It is also true on a few occasions that the author appears to revel in the misfortunes he describes. In ‘The Canal’, for instance, one of several WWII stories, the protagonist (Lew Miller) would seem to have enough on his plate running in the dark with his company, under fire, carrying a spool of wire which digs into his hand. Whenever they are fired upon, the whole company throw themselves on the sodden ground, carrying on when the coast is clear. Miller can only find his way by following the man directly in front of him, Shane. This is as far as he can see. When the height of this man changes and Miller realises it’s no longer Shane that he’s following, he realises that he’s lost the wire squad and is suddenly out of place, useless. Yates is interested not so much in the hard conditions of warfare as in the fact that it’s possible to make a fool of yourself even in life threatening circumstances. The screw is turned even tighter by the framing of the story: Miller has been reminded of the incident by a hale and hearty fellow former combatant at a party years later, who wants to compare heroic deeds. In front of their wives. It’s as excruciating as any episode of Extras.

Another war story, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones’, is peculiar in that it is told in first person narration, without the narrator appearing at all. It deals with the training of a platoon (not sure I’ve got the army terminology right here, but – a group of ten, fifteen men) firstly by a proud disciplinarian, Sergeant Reece, then by Ruby, a ‘Good Joe’ who lets them run riot. It is extremely good on group dynamics, and I suppose this is the reason for the narrator’s absence. Groups of this size have leaders, losers, and people in between – the narrator falling, one presumes, into the latter category. He is one of the crowd, he bulks it out, but he doesn’t upset it or alter its course in any way. In other stories about groups, Yates nails the primary classroom (‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’), and the TB ward (‘No Pain Whatsoever’, ‘Out with the Old’, ‘A Clinical Romance’). There are also stories about childhood (‘Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired’, ‘A Glutton for Punishment’), his writing career (‘Builders’) and often sour romances (‘Liars in Love’, ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’). Autobiographical elements give themselves away by appearing in multiple stories (the sculptor mother, the TB, getting the sack through an inability to write stock exchange prose), but if they didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to detect the join, so good is the behavioural detail. If Gertrude Stein likes to slop words every which way, covering all angles at once and forcing the reader to average out just what it is she’s getting at, Yates brings off detailed miniatures, which are a world weary pleasure to unpack.

A few more prize quotations:
Girls. Would they always drive you crazy? Would their smiles of rejection always drop you into despair and their smiles of welcome lead only into new, worse, more terrible ways of breaking your heart? Were you expected to listen forever to one of them bragging about how paper-thin her womb was, or to another saying, 'We can only stay a little while?' Oh, dear Christ, how in the whole of a lifetime can anybody understand girls? (From 'A Natural Girl')
Finally Blaine turned back. 'All I'm saying,' he began, with the elaborate patience of a man who has pulled himself together, 'is the very simple fact that some persons are endowed with an ability to handle themselves well, and that we call this ability talent, and that it need have nothing whatever to do with accumulated knowledge, and that a vast majority of persons lack this ability. Now, is that clear? (From 'Thieves')
From the same story:
It seemed almost that he couldn't stop, that the talking was a kind of convulsion, a bloodless haemorrhage.

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