The adjectives in my post’s title all come from the nearly four pages of blurbs at the front of my paperback edition of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories. Looking them over after finishing the book, I was struck by how consistent the clips are, and how accurate: “exhilarating if dark,” “brilliantly chilling,” “artfully controlled savagery,” “brutally dissecting,” “brusque and brutal,” “cruelty is made manifest,” “dark and judgmental,” “harsh and comic,” “satisfyingly chilling.” I agree that these are just the qualities of the stories in this collection. I’m just not as sure as either these reviewers or the publicity team at Harper Perennial seem to be that these are signs of its greatness — that they are, or should be, unqualified selling points.
I did admire the stories, which I found consistently interesting and intelligent, but I would have liked them much better if they showed some signs of warmth, humanity, or tenderness. Instead, they struck me as cold and sometimes mean, unforgiving. They reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s fiction, or of Edward St. Aubyn, in the precision and taut control of the prose, but I’m starting to get tired of writing that deliberately avoids expressiveness or emotion: flat affect is not the only way to show you are serious, and (as I have argued about both St. Aubyn and, in my arrogance, Flaubert) grim horror is not the only truth to tell about the world.
I found myself thinking, as I worked through the volume, about why I enjoyed the stories in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and David Constantine’s In Another Country so much more. Johnson’s stories are as, or even more, grim than Mantel’s; they are also riskier, as well as more varied in tone and style, and so perhaps less consistently excellent in their execution. However much they are about horror, cruelty, or alienation, though, they seemed to me to also be about how fiction, or how we, can overcome them. In contrast, there’s something voyeuristic about Mantel’s glimpses of loneliness, pain, or cruelty: her stories give me the sense that she’s fascinated by these manifestations of our worse natures, but not moved by them to compassion or redress. Her stories also offer no epiphanies: just meticulous observation without revelation. This is a perfectly legitimate approach to fiction, of course: it’s just, cumulatively, chilling. Constantine sounds more like Mantel than Johnson does, at least at first read, but his stories are shot through with another quality hers lack: beauty — not necessarily as an aesthetic quality, though there is more of that in his writing than in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher too, but, again, as a feeling, a hope, a light you can sense around even the darkest moments in his stories.
Looking over the effusive blurbs again, I’m reminded of the critical enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante, with all her “anger” and “searing honesty.” It seems as if there are a lot of readers who are particularly impressed by writers (women writers especially?) who are both unsentimental and unmerciful. I can be impressed by fiction this ruthless, but I can’t be moved. For me, that puts a cap on the praise I can offer it.
It may boil down to only praising contemporary literary writers who are female if they prove they can write more ruthlessly and unemotionally than male writers. Or perhaps their experiences as women in a field that routinely prioritizes men over women produces bitter fruit.
I hug this sentence to myself and smile: “grim horror is not the only truth to tell about the world.”
For my ‘Pulp Fiction’ class, I was watching some clips from the documentary “Love Between the Covers,” including one that talks about the cultural tendency to value tragedy over comedy, punitive endings over happy ones. I do think there is an inclination to see “realism” and either cynicism or pessimism as linked. I understand it — I get impatient with romance fiction, for instance, because I myself am something of a cynic about love and marriage as “happily ever afters.” But there is happiness in the world, and there is love, and there is kindness, right? So it makes no more sense to block those elements out than it does to blithely pretend things never go wrong or people can’t be horrible.