On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.

 

First published by The White Review.

Confession: this isn’t my first novel

They say everyone’s first novel is a veiled autobiography, so how did I come to write a novel about a window cleaner who finds himself hanging off Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard?

Well, this isn’t technically my first time. In 2010, I read back through my recently completed first novel about a (handsome) young man called Alex who moves to London and gets depressed because it’s the recession. In a sort of weird homage to Greek tragedy, he also inadvertently has sex with his estranged twin sister. It was a masterclass in fiction, you see, because I don’t have a sister.

Imagine how disappointed I was when I read it back. It was not only tooth-achingly pretentious (each chapter was based on one of Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms), but the plot ended about two fifths of the way through the book. Characters would sit on benches for whole scenes, thinking about how nothing was happening. The Irish critic Vivien Mercier once said that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was a play ‘in which nothing happens, twice,’ and I guess I was trying to beat old Sam’s record.

After a month’s slump, I realised that I had learned two very important things. First, my book was so unremittingly bad that I didn’t have many mistakes left to make. Second, I now knew I was capable of completing a novel in the gaps around a full time job. I realised, to my horror, that what I had really done was pave the way to write a first novel.

I tried to stop myself. I met up with friends. I took up jogging. I even bought a bonsai tree. It was tiny and almost impossible to cultivate without killing – it didn’t cry when I did something wrong, it just quietly shed leaves. But as I stood there, pruning cautiously with kitchen scissors, I could feel my mind, plotting something new.

So I set myself some ground rules. If I was going to write a novel, it had to work first and foremost as a good yarn, a fireside story. It was only allowed to be as sad as it was funny. It should give a voice to some characters that felt genuinely unique. It also had to deal with proper problems like grief and morality, not fake problems like being a graduate with ennui.

A character began to take shape. I knew he wasn’t a detective, a lawyer, a doctor or a writer. His outline was… Portly. He had glasses. He was holding a squeegee. I’d never read a novel about a window cleaner before. It felt novel. I named him Günter Glass.

I realised I knew what Günter’s family was like. His brother was deaf, although that made people assume that he was nice, which he wasn’t. His father drank too much because Günter’s mother wasn’t around anymore. His girlfriend claimed to be clairvoyant, but could only see five seconds into the future; his landlord was an hermitic philosopher who ate only fish; his boss was proud to call himself a fascist.

By giving my characters their own lives and concerns, I forced myself to open up about issues that we can all relate to. Through Günter, I started to ask what it means to be human beyond the everyday: to grow up, to love, to die. Günter doesn’t get everything right, of course, but I’m proud of him. He has a good heart, he knows how to laugh – and if there’s one thing window cleaners have in spades, it’s perspective.

First posted on the Waterstones blog