Said and Done, James Morrison. Black Lawrence Press. 240pp, $16.00.
Recently trapped at the beach, thinking about the concept of “summer reading”—a sort of intentional intellectual ghetto—flipping through some magazine (People, I think), I ran across a line slagging story collections. The article began with a general nod to the universal unpleasantness of reading them: too much stopping and starting, it said. Every time you become wrapped up in a fictional world—like putting on a Snuggie—that world vanishes and is replaced by a new one. It’s a common complaint, the multiplicity of stories scattering under the large cohesive shadow of the novel. You can see this anxiety manifest itself within the very composition of many current story collections. It’s almost as if the story collections must somehow brand themselves; the stories must become emblematic of some overarching theme. Or the stories recycle the same characters, or each story is like a distant chapter in some scattered novel. These aesthetic restrictions are not a bad thing—some good books have come out of this marketing pressure-cum-aesthetic pressure—but I was struck reading James Morrison’s new story collection Said and Done by its consistent inconsistency, its very collected-ness, how it read as if someone had found these stories on a beach, for instance, and brought them back to you, waiting in your condo.
My favorite story turned out to be “Help,” in which Audrey must take in her mother’s elderly friend Mrs. Wyatt, who’s visiting town for a funeral. Over the next two days a quiet riot of domestic disturbance visits Audrey. Her well-designed life and house are slowly cluttered and disheveled by the old woman’s presence. It’s to Morrison’s credit that these scenes of anxiety are so affecting, no matter our own domestic habits. When Audrey finds a mysterious stain on the kitchen counter, we cringe. When the old woman visits the bathroom repeatedly in the night “performing unimaginable ablutions,” we fret with the same annoyance. Morrison excels at capturing the old woman’s mixture of politeness and forthrightness, and Audrey’s unfolding, repressed horror. Here Mrs. Wyatt arrives with a stuffed goose:
Inside the box was a stuffed linen goose, clad in a bonnet and an apron of pink gingham, and wearing plastic, gold-painted spectacles, poised on the tip of the beak. The goose had about it an air of whimsy and benign indulgence. It was, apparently, Mother Goose. That would have explained the apron, anyway, the bonnet and the spectacles. Its wooden legs were sturdy enough for it to stand on.
“My,” said Audrey.
“When I got me the run of the place I’ll help think out where to put it,” Mrs. Wyatt said in her caustic drawl.
In fact, Morrison excels so much at capturing the horror of old people—Mrs. Wyatt’s hand is described at one point as “an overfed toad”—that the story reminds me of Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity.” The story is powerful not just because we share Audrey’s disgust with her houseguest but because that disgust slowly curdles to show how deluded she is about her own life.
But not all stories in this collection are a Welty-esque conglomeration of old women and petrified younger ladies. The first story, “The Great Men,” is told from the point of view of a drunken, estranged painter who’s now the tour guide for the childhood home of some Famous Painter (never named). His memories of his budding homosexual son parallel a visit to the house by a gay couple. There’s a masterful layering of incident and repetition as the morning tour unfolds. The father/tour guide/failed painter is terribly aware that this couple echoes his son and what he can’t accept about him, and yet he can’t correct his behavior and ends up only horrifying them.
Other stand-out stories include “Stalker,” which bounces between two women who share the same stalker, one who’s actively being stalked and one who’s on the verge of becoming stalked. “Close Calls” is a break-up story where a man’s gay lover kidnaps his baby, though the resulting story is not nearly as lurid as that sounds; instead the emotional thicket they’ve all entered is palpable. “Two Days” is a poetic juxtaposition of two days in the life—years apart—of a protagonist as a petulant child and as a desperate adult. The jump in time shouldn’t work, the effect Morrison is going for should feel strained, but surprisingly it works.
In fact there are a few stories in here where Morrison writes novelistically rather than like a more typical story writer, meaning he moves in between multiple characters’ heads and jumps through space and time. Usually the short story needs the solitary confinement of one consciousness, but Morrison blithely disregards this limitation with rewarding results. “Stalker” needs the two women’s different experiences with the same stalker. And if they are somewhat confusing as individual characters, isn’t this ambiguity intentional?
One of the most surprising stories in the collection is “The Bottom of My Heart,” which begins as a college-kid-in-summer story, with a protagonist trying to pass a French class and living with a roommate who’s much more romantically successful. The story has a charming scene in which the roommate is dumped by his lover and takes to his bed, inhaling nitrous oxide and moaning in post-adolescent despair. The boy’s father comes to retrieve him, hauling his naked, melodramatic body out of bed. The boy’s father is a handy stand-in for the protagonist’s own father. The story shifts gears, though, when the narrator goes to the ex-girlfriend’s house to seek revenge for his friend. A languorous, sexually charged scene of stilted non sequiturs ensues, which ends with them going upstairs. Then, triumphant, our narrator comes downstairs hours later looking for something to eat and is confronted by Racer, a father figure by way of the devil. His relationship to the girl—even his rationale for being in the house—is never fully explained. All the narrator knows is that Racer is there and he’s set on challenging the narrator. The implication is that he’s going to kill him for sleeping with the girl. The collection’s longest story, it moves from collegiate farce to absurd seduction to gothic, Flannery O’Connor territory to startling moments of borderline metafiction to narrow escape. It feels surreal in how it segues from menace to menace, and yet there are times of convincing creepiness, as when the narrator has to put on Racer’s sweatshirt—”a warm, putrid bundle.” Though not one of the book’s best stories, in the sense of supple compactness, its willingness to meander is indicative of the book’s generosity, its interest in variety.
If there is a thematic coherence in Said and Done, it’s the sporadic return to gay-themed stories, of which there are five. But the book doesn’t read like a collection of “gay fiction,” by which I mean a collection of stories rigorously concerned with gay characters and gay issues, though “The Great Men” seems to send the book off in this direction. Instead, the characters’ homosexuality is merely the world in which they live. The stories are about gay characters without being a statement about gayness.
This freedom from labels further confirms the collected nature of this collection. And what’s wrong with that—an assemblage of pieces that one author has written? Reading this book and enjoying the stories, each as free agents of prose rather than members of some cohesive aesthetic team, makes me hope that despite our age of a la carte song selection—no doubt only presaging some age of choose-your-own story collection—we will still be provided occasionally with a true sampler, highlighting variety over conformity, highlighting stories we didn’t select ourselves. Sometimes it’s nice not having a choice.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His fiction appears, most recently, in nth position.
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