A woman deals with a mysterious affliction. A couple invite new friends over for dinner. A young man faces his own guilt after a terrible event. A woman and her new lover visit a terminally ill former lover.
In each of these very different stories there is a confrontation. A truth is revealed, but often the truth is a terrible, strange and unwelcome thing.
Dom Amerena’s ‘Terminal’ and Kate Elkington’s ‘Old light’ explore the fundamental un-knowability of those closest to us. Some people are open books and some people are walled off, but most exist in that ambiguous realm where we may know only something in between. To enter into a romantic relationship with someone is to juggle small tragedies and blessings. Love exists in a heightened space, the space of madness and poetry and beating blood. It exists in the chemical signal and neuron-flash space of the mind. Yet, human relationships are not merely acts of thought or feeling – they’re intensely outward in their expression. Thought must be translated into action, into speech. It must be, because we can’t yet read minds. No wonder, then, that some things can be lost in translation. No wonder, also, that we sometimes keep certain things to ourselves.
But not everything can be buried. In Imogen McCluskey’s ‘Blue’, the narrator, an unnamed woman whose famous husband’s career as a painter takes them to Paris, deals with layers of denial, wilful ignorance, disappointment, and anguish. We read of interaction between them, between her struggles to come to terms with her disappointing marriage, her disconnection from the world, and her homesickness. Her symptoms are literal, but her search for a cure exists in the realm of metaphor and abstraction because some things cannot be confronted head-on: they’re too real, too overwhelming.
In Camille Renaud’s ‘Past experience’, we are faced with the spectre and presence of male violence and the different forms it can take. The narrator, Michael, introduces us to his old boss, Karen, whom he considers a comical and absurd character. He makes fun of her body, the mannerisms, the way she speaks. They all joke around; even the female employees at the store join in (a fact Michael points out almost defensively). There is a vicious undercurrent here, one he does not realise (or pretends to not realise), until his co-worker, Jones, who takes their joking around as an invitation to ‘try something with her’, suggests a terrible proposition. This story takes on a more sinister tone as it explores overt expressions of male violence, one that not only raises uncomfortable questions, but also uncomfortable truths.
One of the great strengths of prose fiction is that it allows us to look at an intractable, unpalatable, or otherwise uncomfortable issue through a prism of abstraction without all of the immediate rawness of poetry or the camp spectacle of film. In this sense, fiction is perhaps the ultimate form of thought experiment. What brings these stories together is the fact they each ask the same questions in very different ways. What do we know of ourselves? What do we know of others? They’re about the way we deal with our inability to truly know others and our intense discomfort with the imperfect nature of human interaction. They remind us that everyone’s got skin in the game. Everyone has someone to lose, and sometimes that someone may be ourselves.
Read the stories in 218.5: Autumn fiction: