Elegiac and exuberant: short stories from Philip Hensher and Helen Oyeyemi

The master of precision and the ebullient fabulist — though very different writers — are highly recommended reading

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

Tales of Persuasion Philip Hensher

Fourth Estate, pp.316, £14.99, ISBN: 9780007459636

What is Not Yours is Not Yours Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi, pp.273, £14.99, ISBN: 9781447299363

Discussions about the short story too often fall into a false dichotomy that can be characterised, in essence, by a quibble over a consonant. Carver or Carter? On the surface, it would be easy to present Philip Hensher as the Raymond Carver-like elegiac naturalist, giving glimpses of disappointed lives and misunderstood epiphanies, and Helen Oyeyemi as the Angela Carter-ish exuberant fabulist, all giddy metamorphoses and yarns within tales within stories. It would be a disservice to both collections to read them in such a manner.

All the stories in Tales of Persuasion have an exquisitely tweezer-y feel to them. The psychologies of the principal characters — an arts administrator realising how much less exotic his Italian colleague is when they are in Italy together; a manipulated man making tentative acts of kindness towards a gauche acquaintance’s lover; a cabal of complicit schoolgirls bullying a poorer boy with snowballs retained for months in the freezer — are delicately and painfully unpicked. To sketch with such deftness the difference between who characters think they are, how their words and actions reveal them to others, and the ironic distance between these and where the truth might lie for the reader, is satisfying and honourable.

There are hints of the late Anita Brookner in some of these stories. Tight-lipped second best is often the best the characters can achieve. ‘The Whitsun Snoggings’, about a mother and her children seeing her ex-husband and his new lover on a station platform, is perhaps the key story here. Its title, splicing Larkin and the demotic, indicates the concerns with ‘all the power/ That being changed can give’, even if it is not taken.

What fascinates, however, is that Hen-sher, a writer of such limber and precise prose, is so frequently drawn to the slips and solecisms of speech. ‘In Time of War’ brilliantly articulates the protagonist’s blasé naivety and creeping conscience in his Indian trip to a place where ‘every time he heard someone mention the town, they gave it a different pronunciation. Quilon, Kwee-Lung, Co-Lamn, Column’. The drifting perspectives in ‘Under the Canopy’, with a narrator suffering from a terminal neurological illness being buffeted between carers and constructing his own frail reality out of it, are affecting and scrupulous. When, in the opening story, a seething conversation rests upon the difference between ‘But she did own the TV?’ and ‘like, she owned the TV channels’, the reader feels all the filigree webs of distinction trembling, shivering and snapping.

Helen Oyeyemi’s short stories are, in some ways, not discrete entities at all. Images — keys, ghosts, breaths — recur, as do characters, slipping from one story to another as if they were spirits, or sighs, or the key to unpick the lock. In some ways, they chime most with Felipe Alfau’s Locos: The Comedy of Gesture, an underrated book much admired by Mary McCarthy, although its techniques have been taken up recently in a more ‘dirty realist’ book, Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff. Although the collection begins ‘Once upon a time’, there is a constant intrusion of the real into this suppposed fairy realm: online hysteria, technological insouciance, office bullying and insane dieting.

There is a glorious hastiness to Oyeyemi’s prose, scattering stories set in Suffolk with Chinese epigraphs, next to Slavic-inspired meditations on Pinocchio. Gender, race, sexuality and morality are all slippery concepts in Oyeyemi’s world. But there are genuine griefs and an awareness of the awful, and the awesome, here. Even when the stories involve a polyglot profusion of names, there are insights and wry observations. ‘The way he sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is no joke,’ opines one character of a pop idol, and this is, then isn’t, then is a joke again. It’s a little wink to Oyeyemi’s own askance relationship to the tradition of the Grimm brothers and Perrault.

Both collections can sometimes retreat into their own comforts. One offers a product placement version of Henry James; the other a snuggle-blanket version of M.R. James. But at their heights, both analyse class and self-consciousness and melancholy in wholly convincing and suddenly surprising ways. Hensher’s wryness and ironies belie a profound sense of care — even duty; a sense that others are there to be understood. Oyeyemi’s fireworks illuminate a world in which other people are always more mysterious and strange than we might think. Hensher’s stories can sometimes leave the reader perfectly tantalised with yet another plagal cadence in yet another minor key. Oyeyemi dazzles in the cadenzas and stretches the arpeggios — but you might struggle to whistle the tune afterwards.

Anyone interested in one should buy the other. Despite their aesthetic differences, they have a moving similarity, encapsulated in a line by the poet Richard Price, ‘You cannot persuade tenderness.’

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