John Burnside’s short stories combine his skills as a poet and his novelist’s narrative instinct to dazzling effect, says Hannah McGill
Something Like Happy, by John Burnside
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
It’s bit hyperbolic to call him unique – there’s Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage and Blake Morrison, plus other respected names like Joe Dunthorne, Owen Sheers, Jackie Kay and Nick Laird. On the whole, though, it’s interesting how little crossover there seems to be between big league prose writers and top-level poets.
Perhaps it’s just that most people specialise by instinct, or that successful novelists tend to make more money being successful novelists than in taking time out to publish slim volumes. Perhaps poetry’s a little too exposing and mockable for those who have made their names in prose. But certainly one feels with Burnside that his commitment to both media informs his work in both directions; and you wonder what other writers of similar calibre might achieve if freed up to cross the tracks.
Writing here in the oddly unfashionable short story mode (it’s time more big publishers noticed and pushed the relevance of short fiction to the hectic internet age), Burnside brings a poet’s linguistic precision and emotional acuity to his neat little tales.
However, these are not mere flights of fluency; we are very evidently in the hands of a storyteller. Burnside has an eye for the dark ironies, the devastating reversals and the bleak secrets at play in unsung lives, and an ear for the nuances of communication. He’s also disarmingly good on joy (notoriously harder to tackle convincingly than angst), whether the headrush of sexual infatuation, or the intense sensual impact of a perfectly prepared ice cream sundae.
The aforementioned dessert takes centre stage in the showpiece story, Peach Melba – a stunner that takes in youthful social awkwardness, adult regret, the sudden shifts of fate and the mystery of one’s personal implication therein, the magic and confusion wrought by immigration and cultural mingling, and the content of Mrs Beeton’s Book Of Cookery And Household Management. Burnside draws from far and wide in his material, but he’s targeted in his referentiality, and that relates to his Method-actor-like ability to climb right inside characters of differing levels of self-awareness and eloquence. In this story, as throughout the collection, he’s at one with his protagonist: knows precisely how that person feels and responds. Not for him the sort of writing that lends every character the writer’s own self-important voice.
Certainly there are resonances that offer the tantalising possibility that certain voices issue from the same or related sources (several male speakers share a weakness for brunettes with very blue eyes), but the world created within each tale is strikingly distinct from the rest. And Burnside isn’t unaware, either, of the sometimes risky power inherent in spinning stories out of experiences.
Another gem, The Deer Larder, has a solitary, ailing screenwriter beset by strange, eloquent messages from an unknown hand. There’s a salty whiff of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea in this evocation of ineffable spiritual interconnection; an imagination that inexplicably connects to unexplained forces; and a would-be loner’s inadvertent involvement in a crime that can’t be, but seems to be, somehow aimed at him.
The inner war between the impulse and need to connect with others and the drive for separation and self-determination is a key trauma and driver for most artists. Burnside engages with it in all of these stories, both through the characters who are themselves artists, and the ones who very much aren’t. Magic language isn’t just for the professionally eloquent here. A girl in a “cream coloured dress, all full of holes like crochet” is “looking pretty intense, to tell you the truth” in the heart-punching Lost Someone. In Godwit, our narrator discusses nicknames: “My name was Jamie and still is. Wee Jamie, sometimes, and sometimes Mad Jamie, because I’ve got some mental problems, but it’s not like I ever had a proper nickname.”
Burnside handles blunt colloquialisms like they’re poetry, and poetry like it’s effortless. In the title story, kids escape a muggy summer in the local swimming hole, “not really swimming so much as hanging there, suspended in the rumour of coolness that rose from the depths below… it was cold and quick, a near-animal force moving and turning in the water.”
Well, the coolness of this collection isn’t a rumour. I’m positing it as a near-provable fact. Cool as in relevant, smart, jaunty, sexy, I mean. It’s warm too – as warm as that sweaty summer that Burnside describes, with fiery emotions pulsing under the most throwaway exchanges, and the charge of passion enlivening even the saddest experiences. Something Like Happy is a well-chosen title. A lot of these stories are painful to read – Slut’s Hair, for one, almost unbearably so – but the writer’s deep, bloody engagement with the stuff of life can’t fail to leave the reader enlivened, and keen to feel more. «