It's a mad world;Secondary;Reviews;Books

12th June 1998 at 01:00
MOMENTS OF MADNESS: 15O years of short stories. Edited by Frank Myszor. Cambridge University Press pound;5.95.

Madness is the general theme of this excellent collection of 14 short stories. Sometimes the madness is behavioural and violent, as in Raymond Carver's Popular Mechanics, which gives terrifying reality to the expression "family tug-of-war", as a separating couple physically fight for possession of their baby. In other stories the madness is an insidious psychological growth, a kind of cancer, as in Gogol's famous Diary of a Madman , and Charlotte Perkins Gillman's (literally) creepy The Yellow Wallpaper.

Slow development towards a crisis is the exception, though. The really important word in the title is "moments". Story after story highlights the single unexpected event - impulse or accident - that can prove a turning point, after which life can never be the same again. Col, in Susan Hill's The Badness Within Him, sees his father drown; Gavin in William Boyd's Killing Lizards spies his mother's furtive love-making with a family friend; the girl in Alice Munro's Red Dress - 1946 is asked to dance. For all three, adolescence moves irrevocably forward, but equivalent moments can occur at any age. Such moments are the special territory of the short story.

Though individual short story writers have won critical attention, the genre itself is neglected. Children are asked to write short stories, and given them to read, but when they reach key stage 4 and beyond - the key stage indeed for becoming a self-conscious reader and developing critical skills - the support system provided by critics and editors is flimsy. This anthology not only collects some admirable stories, with varied and flexible thematic links, but takes the genre seriously.

Better still, it takes the reader seriously. It is important, says the editor, "not only to consider what kinds of text you have in front of you, but also what happens when you read and what kind of reader you are". These elements of reader response are addressed and illustrated in the "Resource Notes", thus mediating an important area of literary theory into classroom practice.

Peter Hollindale is a senior lecturer in English and education at York University.

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