The Search for a Moment

John Burnside, Something Like Happy

Jonathan Cape, 244pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780224097031

reviewed by Alan Bowden

What is the substance and value of daily life? How is that value related to the construction of a narrative that in both preceding and following the present moment provides a structure that can generate meaning and experience? How active a hand should one take in constructing one’s own narrative, in consciously generating meaning in the objects, events, and interactions of daily life? One strand in the burgeoning field of everyday aesthetics maintains that the value of everyday life comes from its place in a structure of repetition and ritual that can approach the artistic, although it need not. The problem with this position is not its falsity but that it emphasises narrative at the expense of the present.

In The Art of the Novel (1960) Milan Kundera laments the transience of the experience of the present moment and the challenge of its representation,

‘There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact. In the course of a single second, our senses of sight, of hearing, of smell, register (knowingly or not) a swarm of events and a parade of sensations and ideas passes through our head. Each instant represents a little universe, irrevocably forgotten in the next instant.’

If one were to seek a single guiding thought behind Forward and TS Eliot Prize-winning poet John Burnside’s second collection of short stories it is this: that only in the present moment does something approaching contentment or beauty have a substance beyond the ideal. That moment may be conditioned, repeated, and ritualised, but the risks of obsession, of narrativising, of generalisation about either events or persons are great; not only because of the looming risk of co-opting others, but because that narrative, that life, can be overturned at any moment by death, loss, or mere inattention.

The 13 stories in Something Like Happy each deal with the way that the past conditions the present either through memory or ineluctable illness and death. Violence, pain, solitude, and loss colour every one. In the strong title story a young woman in the nameless Scottish town in which most of the collection is set recalls ‘the day Stan McKechnie almost killed his brother’ over a borrowed sweatshirt:

‘Everybody knew the McKechnies, and most people knew they were a bad lot, but I knew them mainly because my sister Marie was going out with the worst of them.’

At the heart of the story are the twin mysteries of a pool and Stan’s brother Arthur.

‘now and again I would go out to the old swimming hole, the place everybody called the Twenty-Two, and spend half an hour or so in the water, not really swimming so much as hanging there, suspended in the rumour of coolness that rose from the depths below…There was a current that flowed through the hole – a current that nobody could quite explain, some underground run or spring deep in the earth – and it was cold and quick, a near-animal force moving and turning in the water. I had always felt that, how something alive seemed to brush against my skin, coming up out of the depths to pull at my legs or encircle my feet.’

Arthur, ‘who seemed put together from a kit, all angles and mess’ with his ‘tight, secretive kind of smile’ resembles the pool, his brother all exterior, all sweatshirt and affront. The pool becomes a cipher for the opacity of the mind, for solitude, and a quiet significance. A significance assumed by toast as the story closes with what Georges Perec called the ‘infraordinary’: the oft overlooked minutiae of the everyday.

In ‘Slut’s Hair’ the collection narrows to the sadness of a flat and an abusive alcoholic husband with delusions of dentistry. ‘She always felt strange when she said his name. It was like repeating a lie.’ Alone and bleeding, Janice hears a scratch and an ambiguous collection of dust, hair, and kitchen detritus resembles, for a moment, a life. ‘Yet now, as it sat snug in her hand, safe and hidden and warm, it was melting away, dwindling between her fingers to the merest clutch of hair and dust – and she knew that she’d have to get it out of the flat before it disappeared altogether.’ As the mouse dissolves, Janice remains.

A resolution is a false thing and Burnside clearly resists them; although it can seem as if these stories really ended long ago. In ‘Peach Melba’ and ‘Sunburn’ the texture of each characters’ life was more or less determined years ago. The former begins ‘I have forgotten most of my life so far.’ That life, though more or less happy, has been overshadowed by a single childhood weekend, a weekend of disappointment and one heavenly peach Melba delivered by the angelic Mrs Della Casa, before her apron flutters uselessly to the ground: ‘what I am searching for is not a perfect peach Melba, not a copy of Escoffier’s original recipe, but the repetition of a moment.’ His reflection on this moment focuses one theme of Burnside’s collection,

‘Why does one moment have so much power? Nothing that seems significant, no well-remembered, landmarked victory or loss makes the soul what it is; rather, it is the passing moment, the thing half-seen that sets the pattern – the key of life, you could almost say – the home key, yes, from which the piece might stray for a while, but to which it must always return.’

In Burnside that moment is often preceded by an intensification of experience, interaction, and narrative: a taking into itself of the constituents of an experience and its environment. A fleeting consonance which reminds one of the best of Petr Král’s essays in Working Knowledge (Pushkin Press, 2005). There is absolutely no guarantee that these moments are remembered or transformational, but like Král’s Burnside’s prose renders them beautiful. In ‘The Cold Outside’ – a story which in many ways resembles George Saunders’ ‘Tenth of December’ – a mysterious meeting in a truck cab leads a terminally ill man to a moment of gentle reflection at the door of his cottage.

Whereas in ‘Peach Melba’ the search for a moment is harmless, in ‘Roccolo’ the attempt to resurrect a moment leads to cruelty, childish stubbornness, and fear. Thirty-four years old, ‘Eloise Sereni liked to drink in the afternoon.’ She waits, every year, for the boy with whom to recreate her story, of pins and birds eyes, of traps and cruel spaces.

‘Eloise remembered how happy it had made her, as a child, to stand with Guido in the roccolo, how she had loved the moment when they came back and found the little stone room full of birds, gathered in a single dark mass in the ancient nets – not a mass of random, lost creatures, but one great body, disconsolate and strangely beautiful, grieving for the sky.’

Beneath her days lies a great void, one she attempts to fill with a sick desire to resurrect a past moment. After reading ‘Roccolo’ one realises then that part of the abuse of ‘Slut’s Hair’ is the forcing of another to be a part of one’s narrative, of trapping them, either by giving them responsibility for a troubled relationship, or by involving them in a ritual of which they have no understanding. This thread also runs through ‘Perfect and Private Things’, a story of failed marriage and private ritual.

‘Fifteen years of being married to Simon had made her dangerous, too hungry to be left alone for too long with anything that could all too easily, in a certain slant of light, begin to look like prey. All that longing had to be contained; all that desire had to be ritualised.’

Thus, every year, Amanda Bax sends an unwitting male student a bunch of roses, creating a repository for her desire and frustration, a new well of meaning. She quotes Weldon Kees,

‘These perfect and private things, walling us in,
have imperfect and public endings –
And the world, like a beast
impatient and quick,
Waits only for those who are dead.’

An imperfect and public ending follows in the excellent ‘Godwit’ the opening sentence of which conveys wonderfully a haunted past and diminished present: ‘Back in the old days, before Fat Stan went to prison, we used to go out on the Sands every afternoon, to watch the seabirds and hunt for godwit.’ Jamie and Fat Stan’s days out on the treacherous and fog-haunted Sands come to an abrupt end, one man lost in the whiteness, another half-wishing he could be, but the world of drugs and blades waits impatient and quick beyond the tideline.

‘Of course, that godwit in the picture looked clearer and more graceful than the one we’d seen on the Sands, but then things always do look better in books, all in their true colours, like they would be if the world was perfect and, anyway, you could still see that they were identical, when you made allowances for real life.’

Burnside acknowledges the representation and intensification of life in literature; or, if not in literature, then simply in narrative, story-telling, and ritual. The danger, Burnside seems to suggest, is that in the representation of life or the attempt to re-present, to re-experience what has past, we simply lie to ourselves and others, perhaps fatally. Where his poetic impulse emerges, apart from in the very fine writing, is in the intuition he shares with everyday aesthetics, Král, and Perec that the present moment and its objects are worth valorising, despite everything. The moments which flash with contentment are always present. It is those who are fatally ill and whose present is intensified by its brevity who are allowed a moment of calm.

‘I never think about the future now. A time comes when the only meaningful work is to forget about the future altogether and return to the one thing that’s always there: the present, the incalculable.’

One reaches the end of Something Like Happy and realises that Burnside has encompassed the whole of life in 13 stories. Stories which fix, if not their meanings, then their moments: waiting to be returned to, pored over, and to shape present experience once again. The collection is not flawless. ‘The Bell-ringer’ strikes one as predictable given its place in this volume; and sometimes we must ask, are invited to ask, whether a moment can possibly suffice. Burnside’s achievement in the best of these stories is to overcome, if only for a paragraph, for one breath-holding sentence, the resistance of that moment and to call that happiness; the swarm of events settling for a moment, neither excusing nor lamenting the nets in which we are caught, but thankful that the sky sits above at all.
Alan Bowden is a Philosophy PhD researcher at Durham University. He reviews fiction at the Words of Mercury blog.