Saturday, July 16, 2011

Linked Just By This - #42

STORY:  “The Eggy Stone” by Tessa Hadley – Once again, when I selected this story, I had no idea it was available to read HERE for free! Yay!


BASICALLY:  At a week-long school trip to camp, two girls’ hands touch the same beach pebble--the Eggy Stone--at the same moment. Over the holiday, like best friends, they pass the stone between them by elaborate rituals--but how will they share when the trip comes to an end?

Here’s another gorgeous story you can go read for yourself.  Out loud, if you’re up for it.  Some of the lines seem to long to be spoken.
We crunched in socks and sandals across a rim of crisped black seaweed and bone and sea-washed plastic: the tide was in, the long gray line of the waves curled and sucked at the cramped remainder of the beach, a narrow strip of pebbles…Under our sandals the big pale pebbles rattled and shifted awkwardly.  The boys began throwing them in the sea; we felt between them for treasures, the creamy spirals from old shells, bits of washed-soft glass.
The prose is musical; it lilts from hard to soft and, when said aloud, makes the throat open and close through a revolving progression of vowels.  Word-shape is a part of musicality—but what’s here is more than merely pretty.  This passage lays the nature scene with specific sensory details and a certain breezy-but-invigorated tone.  It mimics the movement of water with its sibilants (SockS and SandalS acroSS a rim of criSped black Seaweed) and its repetition (sea-washed plastic…in the sea…washed-soft glass). Thanks to the mention of “the boys” followed up with “we,” as in we the girls, it also manages to indicate in a masterfully understated manner that the narrator is female.  It’s pretty impressive—information like this, while crucial, isn’t always easy to slip in without being really heavy-handed about it. 

Actually, I’d like to stagger off-course for just a moment on that topic.  In my own writing, I used to think a certain amount of androgyny in my narrators was kind of clever.  I was writing about humanity and human beings, after all, not simply one gender or the other; if I had hit upon a voice, a point of view that could be interpreted in either direction, so much the better.  However, after enjoying many heaping mounds of manuscript workshopping and critique-grouping, I’ve come to learn that a character whose sex could genuinely go either way actually happens to annoy the shit out of readers.  Really.  They don’t read it as groundbreaking or delightfully playful or an interesting commentary on their own internalized gender norms.  Nope.  It just bugs the ever-loving crap out of them. 

But hey.  That’s not to say that you should never, ever do it.  Absolute rules do not exist, no matter what you might hear.  But when we take risks in our writing, we should understand what it is we’re risking.

And one other thing.  You might still fall into this trap if you try to make the sex of your narrator clear through action and voice, but you never explicitly say what it is.  My teacher Jack Trujillo at UNM once told us that if you don’t tell your reader what sex your narrator or main character is, they’ll always assume it’s the same sex as you the writer.  While a narrator that seems at one moment male and another female will frustrate your readers, the narrator that’s left undefined is assumed—without comment or much conscious thought—to be the writer’s gender.  (If something later in the story contradicts what the reader had assumed, they will move on to the annoyance I mentioned above.)  I never noticed this tendency until it was pointed out to me.  In fact, when I actually caught myself flipping to the beginning of a story to see if the writer was a man or a woman so I could figure out what POV I was reading—I realized exactly how true this observation is.  So I pass it unto you, dear readers, with my compliments.  Do with it what you will.

But back to the story at hand.  “The Eggy Stone” strongly calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” (a.k.a. story #31).  Besides being beautifully written, both deal with girls who become close friends for only the duration of camp, and both approach the relationship from the POV of the girl who has less social standing (“The Eggy Stone” in first person and Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” in close third).  But where Atwood’s story takes a long view and uses a remembered tragedy to link a past event to the emotional present, Hadley’s story is quieter, almost completely contained in the childhood moment it seeks to describe.

Through the course of the narrative, the Eggy Stone becomes imbued with a kind of power that links two girls who have little else in common.  It’s a bridge between two distant nations. Speaking different languages, they've got to invent their own form of communication:
We took turns holding the Eggy Stone, and the turns were decided by various ritualized competitions, including folded-paper fortune-tellers, knocking the heads off plantains, and a kind of wrestling we invented, kneeling opposite each other with the stone placed between us and swaying in each other's arms, trying to force our opponent to touch ground on one side or another. Before each competition there was a form of words: something like "Eggy Stone / On your own / All alone / Inaccessible light."
What I love about this is how it externalizes the very real kinds of tacit competition that can occur between girls (and also not-girls, I presume), even ones who are best friends at camp.  A rumination on the ways in which one jockeys for position even with the people one loves would not be nearly so effective as this glimpse into the competitive heart of these girls’ connection.

If you can get ahold of the Atwood story (HINT: try your local library!), I recommend reading it in conjunction with this one.  There’s no such thing as a scientific approach to the study of fiction (what would the control group be—a blank page?), but the subject matter of “The Eggy Stone” is so similar to that of “Death by Landscape” that their differences are truly instructive.  However, even if you’re not trying to dissect the hows and whys of short stories, Tessa Hadley’s writing is lovely and I can wholeheartedly recommend popping over to read this very short story.  Thanks Library Month—you’ve given me another introduction to yet another fabulous author!

P.S.  I couldn't decide which cute bonus pic with neighborhood kitty to include, so here's another: