Yesterday's Guardian magazine was the summer reading special. I worked my way through the five stories and one illustrated feature over lunch today and couldn't help thinking how dreary, with one exception, the selections were. Dreary in content, dreary in what they represent, dreary in their very sameness. It may be that 'summer reading' suggests 'holiday reading' and invites thoughts of something a little lighter, or simply that the news these past few days has been so terrible it merely underlined how tedious these stories actually were.
Let's start with the exception – Shaun Tan's 'A Day In The Life', which is needless to say not on the Guardian's website, presumably because it's graphic art. If you're familiar with Tan's work, you'll know what to expect. If not, his illustrated interview with Der Spiegel will give you a flavour. Either way 'A Day In The Life' is a delightfully weird take on the banalities of such features.
Taking the five stories in the order in which they appear, we begin with Jon McGregor's We Wave and Call in which a primarily second-person viewpoint narrator tells you the reader what you are doing. I have never particularly cared for second-person viewpoint, not least because I've never been entirely clear what it is for. With this story, it suddenly came to me that second-person viewpoint is very often a particularly aggressive, in-your-face, dictatorial sort of narrative, manipulative. It is as though the author doesn't trust the reader to draw the right conclusions without controlling every moment of the encounter between reader and prose. I understand now why I dislike it for the most part. Possibly I don't need to say much more about the story, given that it prompted this revelation. However, I will add that it was clear from the first paragraph what was going to happen; if this was unintentional, I think it says a lot for the banality of the story that it was so obvious from the outset. If it was intentional, it was crudely so, and the journey was insufficiently engaging to justify the writer/narrator/whoever toying with the reader.
Jennifer Egan's 'To Do' is either the height of postmodern chic or else a little conscious of itself for its own good. It's a list, a list that gradually reveals what's really on the compiler's mind, except that it is just a little too studied and amused with itself for my taste. I shall still read A Visit From The Goon Squad but not because of this. This story, which was apparently written in 20 minutes, is tangentially related to the novel, so definitely one for the completists.
David Nicholl's 'Every Good Boy' has the narrator reminiscing about how he came to take piano lessons although singularly lacking in musical ability, and what happened to his piano teacher. It was a slight piece. One might congratulate it for reading like a chunk of someone's unpublished memoir, but I can't help thinking the world is awash in these thin short stories which hang on a reminiscence of a childhood experience, as though this were somehow enough to justify their existence.
I felt similarly about Tessa Hadley's 'In The Cave', a delicate little observation of unsatisfactory sex and a small moment in time that changes everything. I've read other things by Hadley and found them equally unsatisfactory so wasn't surprised that I didn't like this. I don't like the kind of fiction that focuses minutely on small events in the lives of middle-class London women. I couldn't find it in my heart to care about this one and her disillusionment, or her realisation that her lover was wrong about something.
And finally, Fan Flaherty is the winner of the Guardian's most recent short story competition with 'Trade'. She breeds horses. Her short story is about horses. It is probably very wrong of me to get to the end of this story and feel less than I think I ought to. I think I am supposed to be shocked by its callousness but mostly I was struck by the way the author closed down the story rather than opening it out.
And as if to confirm my suspicions that beach/holiday reading is indeed at best a mournful concept, at worst something downright sinister, Boyd Tonkin offered Indy readers a survey of novels featuring beaches in The literary beach. Nevil Shute, J.G. Ballard, M.R. James – and people wonder why, despite living on the coast, I look inland rather than seawards.