Some books have a colourÂ palette. Certain colours tinge the prose, or give the impression of appearing in the furniture, scenery, shadow, across the spread of tales. Â This occupies a bleed zone between poorÂ remembranceÂ of detail and a synesthetic approach to these details.
I know, for example, that not every story inÂ Fast MachineÂ features a rusty, 70s orange colour. And yet, it’s there carpetingÂ my head. And, too, I see pinkish blood stains. I see the particular shade of brown which occupy themselves with breeding in dingy motel rooms.
This feeling, this back-of-the-mind consciousness, in response to Ellen’s work, is I think a tribute to the unity that exists therein. Across close to four hundred pages of longer and shorter works, cryptic poetics and smartly heart-squeezing tales and, yes, sordid sorrows, love and raw desire and cigarette butts and dorm rooms, this book performs as a whole. It feels like each story slips a piece into the fabric of things to build an image of a life, a sense of character and place so strong that I can feel the roughness of shag carpet, a woozy wrench of smoke and mountain air.
I’ve had a week or two to let the standouts make their mark on me, and longer still for one of them: ‘How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA’, which I had chanced to read online a year ago (more than that? I don’t remember where but I certainly remember the impression it made) – a story of gawky obsession that insists, in its rawness, to being non-fiction.
“You realise, of course, that you come off sounding completely insane in this essay”
It’s possible that I was slightly insane during this time. I almost forgot to mention that at some point during all of this, I filed for divorce, put the house up for sale, and moved with my daughter into a small, two bedroom apartment across the street from Kmart.
(Is this the point I mention that my husband was mentally ill? That we hadn’t shared a bed in two years? That I often slept with my daughter, a flashlight in one hand, the telephone in the other? That my husband had a sister who couldn’t deal with his breakdowns and hospitalizations and no one else and neither did I? That the only two friends I had in the state were the kind you don’t tell things like your husband isÂ schizophrenic?[…}That one night, after one of his hours-long walks around town, he’d returned to accuse me of having hired a group of teenagers to kill him. “It’d be easier than getting a divorce,” he said. Context.)
Context. Ferocity. Textures so vivid you can feel them under your fingernails and on your tongue. That compelling tug which makes reading one story after another so easy to do, where in other short story collections that would be impossible. Indeed, often in this collection, there are moments of recall – where details from earlier stories suddenly reappear, perhaps in a different light, or expanded upon. The narrator of ‘State Liquor’ opens the book with the lines:
It was our wedding day and we stopped at the state liquor store on our way back. We still had an hour and a half before work.
And we know, later, that this character is the one whose husband later became mentally ill, and who later encountered shag carpeting and dislocated ennui at a Thanksgiving aftermath in ‘Middle School Sex’, and the ‘you’ of ‘Bing Crosby Dreaming at the Lamppost Inn’, after your husband jumps from your car at a traffic light, having to club together what little cash you have to spend the night, Christmas Eve, in a motel with your infant daughter laid out on the grimy bed, White ChristmasÂ a form of solace on the TV.
I could go on listing my favourites out of this collection. Shall I, for a while?Â ’Winter Haven, Florida, 1984′ – a near novella of girlhood sexuality and jealousy and pop, set in the intense, ‘lost girls’ atmosphere of a third rate boarding school. ‘The Last American Woman’, ‘Trucker’, ‘My Envy Has Expanded to Include the Narrators of Road Novels’, ‘Avoidance’, ‘Halfsies’. Shorter flashes which I remember enjoying, but now cannot place, but which formed the texture, spooled their colour into this.
In all, the whole thing being a great many riches, a tapestry steeped in bourbon, smoke and shimmering, anxious, rendered desire.
Helen McClory was raised in both rural and urban Scotland. She has lived in Sydney and New York City and is currently to be found in the South Side of Edinburgh overlooking a prehistoric cliff face. The manuscript of her first novel KILEA won the Unbound Press Best Novel Award 2011, and publication is currently being sought for it. To keep the wire steady, Helen is working on a second novel about the intersections of love, failure and technology set in New York, New Mexico and Cornwall. Progress on this at: http://schietree.wordpress.com/