Short Story Review – Rupert Dastur – This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night

Last night I was in bed with my boyfriend and because it was warm and we were feeling frisky, we were naked and wrapped in each other’s arms, enjoying the solidity, the weight and the closeness of one another.

This reads young.  Not necessarily in age, but time – this strikes me as a new couple.  When you have less than 400 words to work with (and this story is 360), you have to make it count.  Here, we learn that the relationship is young.  Passions are high, feelings can change quickly, moods swing, and the sex, at least for now, is endless.

A young couple in bed, touching.  And then one of the worst things that can happen, happens – one of them finds a new, strange, hard spot on the other.  The first thought – not explicitly written – is cancer.  Of course it is.  What else have we been conditioned to think of when something new happens to our bodies?  Google search anything about yourself, and invariably the answer is cancer, probably terminal.

Anyway, Rupert Dastur’s  This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night isn’t playing it for laughs, and so I won’t, either.  Instead, the protagonist queries this new spot, alternating between concern and sexual engagement.  It’s clear that they still wish to keep the sexual energy of the night alive, but as the story progresses and the ordinary tasks of turning lights on, checking spots, wondering, take over, the chemistry ebbs.  What has happened to him?  Is this it, then?  Or is it nothing – just a tick.

It’s a tick, collected probably from a park, a park that he shouldn’t really have been visiting.  A tick is an odd thing to find on someone, but there it is.  This turns the story away from a shared experience of ‘him’ and ‘I’ tackling a potentially significant challenge, to a withdrawn, subdued ‘I’ wondering just where that tick came from.  There’s no easy answer, and, left unwritten, is the sleepless night ahead for the protagonist.  Why was he at that park?

From sex, to concern, to hurt, all in a few paragraphs – it’s a clean and nice example of what flash fiction can do.  Dastur hasn’t overwritten the text (so many of these tiny stories are festooned with unnecessarily complicated words, as though (bad) poetry is being written, and not prose), and I like very much his choice of sliding the dialogue into the text.  To break it up with dialogue marks would have made the story too long and formal, clumsy.

There’s a few word choices here which seem off – just a few.  Talking about sexual energy dissipating seems to be a touch high in terms of register.  Most of the other language is relaxed, intimate, close – ‘dissipated’ is too bookish, too writerly.  The same too with ‘secreting’, which comes a little later.

These are minor quibbles, but we are dealing with so few words here.  The story works, and it works well.  In a couple of hundred words we have playfulness, then (mortal) dread, then shared concern, then distaste, then (emotional) dread to end the piece.  There’s a lot packed in here.  Give it a read.

This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night is a short story by British writer Rupert Dastur.  You can read the story online at Reflex Fiction.

Author Rupert Dastur (Twitter)
Title This is Why We Didn’t Have Sex Last Night
Nationality British
Publisher Reflex Fiction

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


Short Story Review – Laura Besley – The Motherhood Contract

Elspeth feels cheated. No-one warned her that she would no longer recognise herself: physically, mentally, and in every other way too. She looks in the mirror and wonders who that person is with pale skin and massive purple globs under her eyes; lank and greasy hair; and a body that still looks six months pregnant months after birth.

I should admit that I come to this story as someone who is about to have their first child.  My son-or-daughter (we don’t know!) is due to arrive in less than two weeks.  I’m not a woman, so childbirth and breastfeeding are not immediate personal concerns, but I am anxious about the upcoming challenges my wife will face, and I want to be as participatory as I can.

This story echoes so much of the worries that came from the antenatal classes I recently attended, at times word for word.  The sense of true feeling here is strong.  I have heard women – my wife – vocalise the thoughts that Elspeth shares with the reader.  This reads true.

Elspeth comes across as an everywoman which is, somewhat ironically, exactly who she does not want to come across as.  Rather than have everyone’s experience, she wants to be herself, Elspeth, an identity and a person, but instead she is a feeding machine for a baby, endlessly tired, with nothing to say to anyone except endless words about the child.  She’s lost herself.

This is a very short story, less than a thousand words, but it carries a lot of emotional weight.  In it, Elspeth, 22, young, newly entered into a relationship, is giving and has given birth, and her world changes. Of course, of course, she knew it would, she was told it would, but the experiencing of it is something else.  The father is with her, but there is another man, the ‘one that got away’, and she wishes he was the father.  And she at times dislikes the baby.  And she struggles with hating herself.  All things you mustn’t do, but she does them.

You must not tell the mother-to-be that there will be days when she regrets her decision.

What is the measure of a woman? Is it their ability to raise a child when very young?  Elspeth wonders.  She feels inadequate and weak, though she’s trying hard.  Besley’s use of italicised admonitions through the text reinforce this exceptionally well, and she was restrained enough, and clever enough, to avoid ending the piece with one of those sentences.  Instead, they offer criticism of the character and the text, and highlight (one of) the struggles of early parenthood.

This is a strong story.  In attempting to unpack it, I must of course examine my own current life state.  I expect that it resonates strongly because I have been, and am, concerned for my wife, and how she will be when the child is born.  She has over a year away from work, which on the one hand is positive, but on the other – what happens to her adult identity  How can the two of us remember to be lovers, friends, companions, partners?  It’s easy now to say that we will, but what, exactly, will happen?

Eslpeth is a sensitively drawn young woman who is self-aware enough to regret the life she has left without succumbing to the depression of admitting that that life will ever return.  She’s committed to her child, though less committed to herself, and her thoughts, though raw, are about what we would expect from a new mother.  Everything is new and wrong, and she’s working hard to make it right.

The Motherhood Contract is a short story by British writer Laura Besley  You can read the story online at Ellipsis Zine.

Author Laura Besley
Title The Motherhood Contract
Nationality British
Publisher Ellipsis Zine

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – Paternity, Revisited

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.  

In Paternity, Revisited, the protagonist, Paula, thinks back to a time when she failed to stop to help a dog that had been run over.  It was clearly in distress, it was injured perhaps to dying, and because of an appointment Paula had continued on her way, hurried, rushing, agitated.  An appointment.  She thinks of it, we are told, often, and feels shame.  “Does death by indifference,” Martha Bátiz writes, “have a name, other than murder?”

Paula, who has spent years of her adult life in Canada, has returned to a vaguely identified South American country, perhaps Argentina, perhaps Uruguay, and from the opening we are led to believe that she is here to visit an old flame, a spark dead but perhaps able to be rekindled.  And perhaps not.  Bátiz’s language choices makes it clear that Paula isn’t happy to be back ‘home’, but that she has been forced to for a certain unspecified reason.  We can never escape our past because we take it with us, or more accurately – because it is us.  Without our past we aren’t anything but sinew and white blood cells.  But what Bátiz’s words don’t do is supply a reason or a clear explanation, or at least not at first – we need to untangle this ourselves.

Human beings are made up of 70 per cent water and 30 per cent of their past; what is done to them is indelible.

Paula smells a man’s cologne, and is transported to her eight year old self.  “Adriana!”, he calls, and then much of the story is devoted to Paula, a grown woman, and an older man, an old man, who at first refers to her as ‘baby girl’, and then as it becomes clear he hasn’t earned the right to, protests instead the choices he has made of life.

A romantic lover?  No, though that isn’t clear at the start.  A father-figure, a stand-in for her real father.  Paula, we learn, was twice abandoned, once when her parents were killed/disappeared/tortured (the history was murky, she was young), and then again when this man took her and raised her, for a time, before she was forced to flee the country.  It’s complicated because it’s clear the man was complicit with some horrible activities, party to the affairs of a murderous regime, and that Paula has spent, now, her whole adult life thus far coming to terms with how she was raised, and by whom.

He wants absolution, to be forgiven.  Paula – Adriana he calls her – is a stand-in for everyone, and if she can forgive him, then all of his victims can, too, and he can die at peace.  He does not deserve peace.  Paula sees herself as the spoils of war, a prize or treasure given to a corrupt doctor for following the government’s orders, killing and torturing as needed.  Ah, but if you don’t actually kill, or don’t actually torture, but instead provide ministrations for the injured and weak, are you in fact evil?  Yes, is Paula’s emphatic answer.  Yes, is my answer.  This man is not a good man, though he wishes now that he might be, and might have his adopted daughter back once more.

Paula has returned to her past in order that the perpetrators be made to come to terms with what they have done.  In that, she is sacrificing herself, in a way, confronting her abusive past and causing the flare-up of her mental health (she has been pulling out her hair, she is clearly unstable and prone to excessive emotional outbursts) – because this is not pleasant for her.  But evil must be made to see itself for what is is, and often that means an innocent person must suffer.

Paternity, Revisited considers how innocence comes to terms with the horrible aspects of mankind.  How many murderers have children who have done nothing?  How many soldiers kill and maim and then return home to work and feed their wives and family?  How many generals order the deaths of faraway civilians and then laugh over wine and cheese at an event?  The answer is, of course, all of them, but that does not mean that the families themselves are necessarily bad.  Touched by evil, yes, and in some ways accomplices (I am thinking her particularly of older children and adult family members), but broadly speaking they have fallen into an abyss of horror akin to the victims.

I like the small touches that occur throughout the story.   Bátiz often breaks away from the dialogue to comment on passers-by, dogs, the smell and feel of the park and the city they are in.  These asides provide colour, yes, and a counterpoint to the conversation:

Here they were incapable of stooping to clean up [dog feces], utterly oblivious to what they were doing to their own hometown.  A perfect reflection of what this country is about.  Too bad no one else has realised that the greatness of a nation can also be measured by how many of its people are actually willing to clean up their own shit.

Paula has returned to clean up the mess her adoptive father has made.  She’s a martyr, here, and it wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that, in part, she is attempting to find salvation of her own for the time she let that dog die.  What other reason might she have to confront a dying old man?  Why not just leave him be?  But sometimes we need to be heard, to receive that rarest of all things – closure.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be very sweet, even if it means breaking an elderly man who simply wanted to see his daughter once more.

Paternity, Revisited was written by Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title Paternity, Revisited
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Mazin Saleem – My Wipes

‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ no longer touched the sides, even it missed the point. There was no more gap between pretence and reality. Before, the point had been that everyone breaks from the spell. Here the Emperor was clothed even when she wasn’t. It’s impossible for the readers of My Wipes to see the naked truth, because there isn’t any. They aren’t lying. They believe that your book is good. They can’t be saved.

Let me start by stating the obvious – taste is subjective, your masterpiece is my failure, my fond writer is your untalented hack.  Sure.  Right.  Okay – but is that really true?  How possible is it to devise a canon which can be, more or less, admired and appreciated?  We shall ignore for a moment (unfairly) the thousands of years of academic careers dedicated to determining, undermining, creating and recreating a canon – be it Western or otherwise.  Let’s stick to the casual reader, the dedicated reader, you and me.

I don’t much like the books of John Updike.  I did, when I was younger, but as my reading tastes broadened I lost my interest in exploring (male) middle-class America’s obsession with sex and, to a lesser extent, material comfort.  I think his Rabbit books will hold, but thousands of other pages can be left forgotten.  But I can see what he is trying to achieve, and I think that he does.  He writes well what he writes, well, ok – Okay.

Alice Munro, too.  I can see why she won the Nobel, and I think it’s deserving enough, but as a writer she isn’t for me.  I prefer greater stylistic flair and a stronger breakdown of narrative and the interaction between author, text, reader, characters.  But again, I can appreciate what she writes and think she is definitely world-class.

So all of this preface is to say that Mazin Saleem’s My Wipes is a clever and funny take on this problem.  It’s a farce, a faeces-ridden farce, and expresses in its absurdity the challenge of the modern literary world, when people jostle with one another to claim this text or that writer as ‘luminous’ ‘enthralling’ ‘irresistible’ ‘compelling’.  You know the words, the skip across the brain because they are, ultimately, meaningless.  There’s no meat to them, just loose flapping skin.  If every review throws up the same tired adjective then perhaps that says more about the reading public than it does about the writers who must oh-so-tediously be described as the voice of their generation.

My Wipes explores (and there’s another tired word) the uneasy relationship between the reader and the acclaimed masterpiece.  In it, the narrator attends a book launch for a book which has been hailed as a masterpiece.  All around him, smiling faces, engaged listeners.  The genius of the author!  It’s astonishing to see in person, isn’t it?

But the narrator isn’t convinced.  He opens the book and can’t quite believe what he sees when he opens it.  On the left page, a colour copy of used toilet paper. On the right page, a description of it, thoughts while producing it, random asides.  Notes.  He has real trouble understanding this, and looks around and the other people.  Their eyes are shining, they are enthralled – how?  Why?  What’s going on?

It’s a clever way to dissect the situation in which everyone but you has stars in their eyes for a genius you just cannot see.  Self-doubt is a possibility, of course, but also righteous indignation at the foolishness of others.  The narrator goes through both experiences.

The use of faeces is quite inspired, and is thematically rich while keeping the tone light.  This is a fun story to read, and it’s funny.

Whereas you’d gone with single ply, I use Charmin Luxury. Whereas you did a standard, going-through-the-motions pressing, I gouge and scrape, I reuse the tissues as palimpsest, and as for my at stool thoughts, I actually use a proof-reader? Know it’s less faeces not fewer. Don’t let the POV shift inexplicably from me to my rectum. Make sure there are no dangling participles, run-on sentences. Being on the loo might feel passive, but artists know that it’s not and doesn’t warrant passive voice. And I wouldn’t even think of using colour copies and not the original sheets, with mere summaries of their faint smells. Does ‘show not tell’ not mean anything to you hacks?

And it is, of course, an attempt to unpack the act of writing itself, to understand how writing goes from the initial thought to the finished, printed page, and what makes it through and what does not.  Why was this author selected?  Why was that story accepted?  Why does a writer abandon this attempt but not that?

Reading through the prism of shit works exceptionally well, and the sting at the end solidifies the watery mass into a fibrous delight.  Oh dear, now I’m doing it too.

My Wipes is a short story by writer Mazin Saleem.  You can read the story online at Minor Literatures.

Author Mazin Saleem
Title My Wipes
Nationality Uncertain – He is based in London
Publisher Minor Literatures

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #921

I remember the Maryborough swimming pool, where I had lessons as a child and spent some time as a teenager, and the young ‘surfie’ man who vanished mysteriously one week after extremely inappropriate material was found on the computers in the upstairs area of the on-site pool office and canteen, where he lived.  Vanished to prison?  Or vanished in some other way? No idea.

-30 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.