||May 4, 2013
This is a collection of thematically-interlinked short stories.
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How do you make sense out of life? Some say that it doesn't and you shouldn't bother. Instead most of us try to impose a sense of sense on it. We dream up reasons, justifications or excuses to give our lives meaning. In this collection of short stories we meet twenty people who have nothing in common apart this need to make sense out of their lives. We have a murderer, a gambler, an adoptee, a stand-up comic, a teacher; we have men, women, parents and children, all doing their best to answer the self-same questions and where their five senses fall short they have to rely on their other senses: their sense of humour, of justice, of right and wrong, of decency...
When I called on her the first time-unannounced, I have to admit, and without any clear intentions-I can't say I was received too well, nor was the potted plant I proffered. I have never known a sniff communicate such disdain. Well, as I said, what do I know about plants? It was clear she was unused to entertaining and had to go rummaging for the good china. At least I'd enough gumption not to take cut flowers. That would've put the kibosh on things there and then I'm quite sure.
Nature's a funny thing. Theologians prattle on about God working in mysterious ways but naturalists could say pretty much the same. Vivienne's tried to educate me but to be honest I let her talk-it's nice to see her get excited about something-and I nod and make the appropriate noises when I sense the need to; she'll never teach me because I don't really understand Nature in any of its guises, particularly human nature. My wife is a flower, a late bloomer to be sure; she has a flower's beauty and its fragility; she does not do well in public places-you can see her visibly wilt as the day goes on. No one knows what she's like when we're together. She calls me Sunshine and I call her Petal; they're not purely pet names. We never sat down and discussed what to call each other but we knew when it was right. It still feels right.
Tommy Watkins annoyed her today and not for the first time. He's not a stupid boy so she tells me. I suspect she's something of a soft spot for the lad although she'd vehemently deny having a favourite He sounds like the kind of child who delights in tormenting helpless creatures be they amphibians, insects, minor siblings or weary schoolteachers. The topic under discussion was English grammar, not a favourite of the class or of any class I can think of. Even when I was a youngster-when more attention was paid to these things-I remember being embarrassed in front of my whole class after being commanded to perform certain unspeakable acts of conjugation. My wife has similar memories. Perhaps that's why this is the only subject where an element of empathy's crept into her teaching. Tommy, however, has yet to develop his perceptive skills and read empathy as weakness and went for the jugular.
"But, Miss! What about nothing?"
"What about nothing?"
"What is it?"
"What do you mean, boy?"
"Is nothing a noun or what?"
"Of course it's a noun, an indefinite pronoun to be precise."
"But, Miss…" (God! I can just hear myself as a kid whine like that). "Miss! You said a noun was the name of a thing."
"So it is."
"But nothing isn't anything so how can it be a noun if a noun's a thing? It doesn't make sense."
Touché. Well done, Tommy.
She's out in the conservatory right now-it's where she goes-clipping away for all she's worth and all that other stuff she does to keep herself sane. I'll take her a wee sherry in a bit, when the time's right.
Jim Murdoch's collection of short stories in Making Sense is his best work yet. Twenty stories that encompass a wide range of personalities, lifestyles, and ages provide perspectives on everything from gambling to intrigues to fetishes. There are also a variety of "voices" as some are written in dialect that require you to read the story aloud in order to sound out the character. Several of the characters struck a chord with me, reminding me of people I knew, and I bet you will find the same in these pages.
There are some great lines in these stories that hooked my attention. In 'Coping,' the opening line is: "If there's one thing that annoys me about my mother, it's this: She watches life with the sound turned off." How can I resist? With those of us who have living mothers, we immediately begin thinking about our own. The story entails a discovered intrigue and the mother learns to live with the news, not say a word, and move on through hearing only what she wants to hear. Most of us know such people and it's a story you might be familiar with yourself.
Another story, about a woman discovering her man is into men, has a sense of humor to it which I appreciate: "A week later I barged though the back door laden with half-a-dozen shopping bags and with my purse gripped firmly between my teeth to find him in flagrante delicto in the hall with the bloke from 4G but what the heck? I guess they couldn't make it to the bed in time. We'd done it in the hall before. It wasn't exactly our place but I quite liked doing it there..." Honestly this made me laugh with the "not exactly our place" and the rest of the story is light considering the heaviness of the situation. Life goes on, is what I take away from the story.
I only revealed a couple of the stories to you, there are some funny and wonderful surprises in the pages of this collection
The first time I saw her if you'd said to me within six weeks she would've given up her forty-year-old virginity to me across her creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon — accompanied by a recording of the BBC Philharmonic performing the final movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Proms on Radio 3 — I might've been shocked, but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the prospect. It would've taken quite quite a stretch of the imagination but then I guess that's why I've always found wedding rings a strange source of fascination. Why? Because that's a sign to everyone they've done it — with a man — probably more than once, possibly the previous evening and yet you see them all over the place — these most-ordinary women — on the bus or the train, clattering away on typewriters or trying to control hoards of unruly schoolchildren and you can't tell — but you know. When I met Vivienne I couldn't imagine her with anyone. The only wedding ring she possessed dangled on a chain between her breasts and they were well covered up. The thought simply never crossed my mind. It was a pleasant surprise to find she still possessed a fine cleavage indeed . Afterwards — to be frank it didn't take too long — we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull, she burst out laughing. You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I looked back at her hanging out of her dress — I'll never forget the look on her face and I can only imagine the look on mine — and I was off too. I'm sure the rapturous applause of the Albert Hall's audience helped. I think that was when we fell in love (our coup de foudre), if you really wanted to pin things down to a moment in time, as if any one moment in time's all that important.
(A taster from 'Jewelweed')
The opening story of this collection is a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative from an obsessive-compulsive character on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But there are several stories here which are narrated in the form of a monologue. 'Poise' introduces us to a middle-aged woman who is entranced by another woman she only sees at the bus-stop or on the bus; they have never met, though they did once exchange a few words. Our narrator is poised for that one day when they will become friends. It didn't happen today, but it might happen tomorrow. In 'Funny Strange' we meet a man who was once a professional comedian, but who, after a long sojourn with alcohol, is longing to bring some humour back into his life.
There are a couple of stories here which I couldn't read. From time to time Murdoch throws into the mix a short narrative in what I assume is Glaswegian dialect. I did try with each of them but made no headway whatsoever. Unfortunately, the glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book discovered a pit of indolence in me.
But in the main these stories present us with a character and a problem or a dilemma, together with an often rambling attempt at a solution or exposition. And usually the solution comes in the form of a realization from within. I don't wish to give the impression that most of the stories follow a similar pattern, because they don't and Jim Murdoch is an intelligent and practised writer, and he knows exactly what he is doing.
What he is doing in this collection is writing continually interesting narratives. His characters may often be idiosyncratic and not always adept at conveying their point, but they do invariably grab our attention and keep it until they decide to close down.
When I received this book in the post (supplied by the author) I had just finished the latest collection of stories by Alice Munro, and was deeply engaged with a collection from Annie Proulx. Both of these writers are magicians with the short-story form and, quite frankly, I did not expect Jim Murdoch's collection to be in the same league.
I was right. But having said that, Murdoch does have an intuitive feel for language, the knack of knowing what will engage his readers and the unfailing ability to spin a tale of intrigue and suspense out of the everyday ingredients of life.
I would recommend Making Sense without hesitation.
Andrew McCallum Crawford
I don't read as much new writing as I should. I'm currently rereading some Kelman and Irvine Welsh, tried and trusted, although they make strange bedfellows. There is so much new writing out there that sometimes it's difficult to make a choice. A couple of years ago I was introduced to Jim Murdoch's work, and have subsequently published some of his poetry here and here on Wee Fictions, so it was with anticipation that I received a review copy of Making Sense,, his new collection of short stories. The stories Murdoch has included are, in the main, first person narratives — monologues, if you like. Indeed, one of them, 'Funny Strange', one of four stories written in a variety of dialects, was originally performed on stage. This, I find, gives a certain form to the collection, in that the reader soon gets into a rhythm. As I read further into the book, I began to wonder how Murdoch managed to create nineteen distinct voices for the nineteen stories gathered here.
Murdoch is best known for his poetry and novels, but it's clear from the outset that he knows what he is doing with the short story form. The flow of ideas in the characters' heads manages to keep the reader engaged. The first story, '√-1', is about a man who is obsessed with numbers. He is regarded as the 'local eccentric' and wants to tell us why he ended up visiting his doctor. The first line of the story is
It was not a nervous breakdown.
which immediately grabbed my attention. A nervous breakdown? Denial? It is followed by
Those were the six words he used but that was not what he meant… Often we say things we do not mean or say one thing and mean something else entirely… As a doctor his words would carry weight… We trust them because we have to trust someone or we would all go crazy.
The main character, Thomas, relates everything to numbers. They are the crutch he leans on:
Mathematics is the language of the universe. Numbers never lie. They never let you down. So many things in this life disappoint.
After some digression, he gets round to telling us about the visit to his doctor:
I was not taken on time. The wall clock in the waiting room was wrong but even taking that into account he was still four minutes late and seven minutes late by my watch which I had checked with the BBC only that morning. It would be too much to believe that the BBC had the wrong time.
There is so much in this story, but there has to be. Thomas is an obsessive. As in all of the stories in this collection, Murdoch makes some excellent observations:
He frowned and tapped his pen on the desk. It was an old Parker 61 fountain pen in burgundy… it must have been the first bars of a tune because in Morse code it was nonsense… You cannot attribute old-fashioned values to someone simply because they write with an old-fashioned pen.
I have found that there is an order to things and there is never anything left after the point if you do your sums right.
That last part is the crux of the story. '…there is never anything left after the point if you do your sums right'. This is Thomas's problem. He needs numbers to make sense of his life, and he knows that if he tweaks them in just the right way then everything will make sense. Don't we all do that to some extent? I well remember studying undergraduate chemistry — it seemed that the whole laboratory were fudging our titration results because, having boned up on the theory, we knew what the answer was supposed to be. But life isn't lived under laboratory conditions, and there is no textbook to crib from. Why would someone feel the need to fudge their results, to make things come out the way they, for want of a better word, should? Is it to avoid the truth that we are all just winging it?
Thomas eventually has a rather public nervous breakdown — he has a vision of an angel who speaks the language of numbers. Is this the divine personification of √-1? That's the way I choose to read it.
One can't help but notice the variety of voices and themes in the stories. In 'Poise', the unnamed narrator has a reverie about a woman on the bus. The narrator harbours feelings for the woman, but can't approach her. Murdoch strings the reader along nicely here (I won't give away the ending) but again he touches on themes which are much deeper than you might assume on a first reading. Interestingly, the woman appears later in the book — in the story 'Islands' (a number of stories have female narrators) — and so we get to see things from the other side:
Sometimes, on the bus to work, I get the feeling I'm not alone. Of course I'm not on my own―I'm surrounded by thirty or forty people―but none of them are with me. Only sometimes I get an inkling that feeling might be wrong. I look for Billy but he's never there.
In 'Objects of Affection and Intention', a young woman, Eve, finds out, quite graphically, that her boyfriend is gay. Sexuality features in quite a few of these stories and Murdoch is good at writing about it — one of the reasons he's good at it is because he knows how to make it funny. Better than Irvine Welsh, I would say, who lays it all on rather too thickly for my 47-year-old sensibilities (although I thought he was the bee's knees when I was 27). Eve tells her mother that she has broken up with her boyfriend and immediately gets grief:
…she knew I needed to be out of the house for something to happen with my life.
Getting over David wasn't the problem. I was the problem.
She decides to take art classes and, after a few weeks, poses nude when the model doesn't show up. She becomes an object for the other students in the class:
When the class was painting, it wasn't painting me, it was painting my body and that was fine. I didn't mind being a body for them. I minded being a body for David. I thought I didn't but I guess it turns out I did.
Her teacher asks her about her painting:
"What's the subject? "… "A skull and some pears? "… "No, no, no. They're the objects. You are the subject of everything you paint. It's through these objects that you get to understand yourself. "
Murdoch, of course, isn't just talking about painting.
'Jewelweed' — for me, the highlight of Making Sense — features a man talking about how he met his schoolteacher wife. I think Murdoch should have placed this as the last story in the collection. There is humour in all of the stories, as well as depth, as I've already mentioned, but some parts of this story are absolutely hilarious. The theme here is different from elsewhere, in that a man is trying to make sense of his partner. This is in contrast to most of the other stories, where the protagonists try to make sense solely of their own existence.
Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself in a mirror and seen yourself for what you are, seen beyond the façade? Vivienne had. I still catch her looking from time to time staring at herself with a kind of question mark hanging over her head. I asked her once what exactly she was looking for but she said she didn't know because every time she looked it wasn't there. She wanted to be more than the sum of her parts, not less.
Vivienne's favourite plant is a Jewelweed:
The jewelweed…its common name is 'touch-me-not' and it's called that because, like other varieties of Impatiens, its seedpods, when ripe, will burst open at the slightest touch.
I like the subtle sexual undertones of that. No undertones in the next part, which almost had me falling out of my seat laughing:
…if you'd said to me within six weeks she would've given up her forty-year-old virginity to me across her creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon―accompanied by a recording of the BBC Philharmonic performing the final movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Proms on Radio 3―I might've been shocked, but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the prospect… Afterwards―to be frank it didn't take too long―we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull, she burst out laughing. You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I looked back at her hanging out of her dress―I'll never forget the look on her face and I can only imagine the look on mine―and I was off too. I'm sure the rapturous applause of the Albert Hall's audience helped.
What I most liked about this story is the way the narrator is made to analyse his wife as a means of analysing himself:
Nowadays, when I look at Vivienne I know I'm judging myself. I'm pretty sure many think I've settled whereas she's dug her claws in and hung on for dear life in case her last chance slips away but it wasn't like that.
This is a nice twist at the end of the book. When it comes down to it, this is what we all do when we are involved in relationships. We try to work each other out. Sometimes we are successful, but you can never really understand someone else completely. The main point of Murdoch's stories is that we can never really understand ourselves completely, either, despite the internal monologue each and every one of us is privy to.
I realise that I've quoted heavily from the book, perhaps too heavily for a review of this length. However, I wanted to give you a flavour of Jim Murdoch's writing as I believe you can only really appreciate stories as good as these by reading them. With Making Sense, Murdoch shows us what an accomplished writer he is.
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