Astringent look at childhood

17th January 1997 at 00:00
THE FABER BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY STORIES ABOUT CHILDHOOD, Edited by Lorrie Moore, Faber Pounds 15.99

Thirty-three stories, thirty two authors - not group-ed by theme, chronology or tone but in simple alphabetical order - from "Lies" by Glenda Adams to a nativity story-within-a-story, "Oh Joseph I'm So Tired" by Richard Yates.

The betrayals, addictions, sexual obsessions and national traumas of the post-war period are here but what, to my ears, makes these stories of the late 20th century is the attitude which sees relationships primarily in terms of power.

Sometimes these strands of contemporaneity are brilliantly combined as in Ellen Gilchrist's story "Victory over Japan". The child dreads the return of her soldier father as "he was always yelling at my mother to make me mind ... 'Hit her with a broom. Hit her with a table. Hit her with a chair.But for God's sake Ariane, don't let her talk to you that way.'" She goes to bed and dreams she is at the controls of an aeroplane carrying The Bomb to Japan "Hit 'em, I was yelling. Hit 'em with a mountain. Hit 'em with a table. Hit 'em with a chair."

Almost all the stories are North American - and that too is historically valid. For the past half century the short story in the United States and Canada has been a far more vital (and commercially viable) literary genre than in this country. The quality of writing in this collection is high. I would hazard a guess, however, that more than half the names of these authors will be unknown to most British readers. A brief "Notes About Contributors" section would have been welcome.

Perhaps, though, it would have been a diversion - tempting the reader to speculate about possible autobiographical motivations instead of reading the stories as autonomous fiction. Ransacking personal memories of childhood and adolescence has become the regular warm-up routine for Writers Of Today in Britain and America. What a curse it must be for a parent to have a WOT among their offspring. Not a single example of one's inanities, insensitivities or inebriations will pass unpublished. All that one can hope to negotiate is a sufficient cut of the royalties to keep one in splendour in the old folks' home. "If I hadn't been so ghastly, darling,what would you have had to write about?", the post-Freudian parent might reasonably ask.

The essential feature of the stories in Lorrie Moore's collection is that they are presented simply as fictions - scraps of first-person narrative that are self-contained, focused on a single significant happening and divorced from any autobiographical context. This gives the best of them qualities of astringency and objectivity which the self-pitying, self-justifying personal narrative lacks.

In almost every other aspect they vary - from the bleakness of John Bennet's "Flat Creek Road" where a mother and her children are marooned in poverty amid huge, deserted, fields to the crowded back alleys and rich immigrant food smells of San Francisco's Chinatown in Amy Tan's "Rules of the Game". Writer-adults posing as child-narrators are nothing if not observant and the portrayal, for instance, of Charles D'Ambrosio Jr's alcohol-bleached, dead-end, seaside community in late summer is as culturally distinctive as Romesh Gunesekera's Sri Lanka or Ben Okri's Nigeria.

What can this diverse group of adults say collectively about childhood? Nothing directly. But by drawing attention (in a post-modern, structuralist way) to the nature of their trade - how story-telling can construct identities, offer explanations, be liberating, subversive, pleasurable (as long as one remembers it may not necessarily be true) - they can say a great deal about growing up.

Even the youngest narrators in this collection are, in a sense, adolescents because their consciousnesses are on the move towards maturity; "Knowledge of one's childhood becoming knowledge of the world" as Lorrie Moore describes it in her compellingly-written introduction. The narrator of Margaret's Atwood's "Betty", for instance, tries on several different interpretations of the woman she knew as a child before deciding that the other woman must remain a mystery.

"I would like to show her this story I have told about her and ask her if any of it is true. But I can think of nothing I want to ask her that I could phrase in a way she would care to understand."

The literary world would be a more comfortable place for adults if every Writer Of Today was pledged to share this same humility.

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