Nthposition review of Pieces for the Left Hand, J Robert Lennon, 2005

Now this would be classed as flash fiction , I am not sure if the term existed in 2005 but it didn’t flash (ho ho) into my mind. Another piece from Nthposition.com – hopefully not completely gone from the world writ on water that is the internet…


Pieces for the left hand

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

There’s a form of literary snobbery that holds that the bigger a book, the better. To be worthwhile, a fiction must be Important; and to be Important, a fiction must be large. We are a long way from Telemachus, who held that ‘a big book is a big evil.’ In this age of literary elephantiasis, where biographies of the most modest literary or historical figures regularly weigh in at well over the 1,000-page mark, where a novel is not a novel unless it approaches the dimensions of the phone book, the nice things Polonius and various others have said about brevity have been forgotten.

Of course, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in suitably Newtonian fashion some writers turn to the brief, the concise. Last year, the poet Don Paterson brought out The Book of Shadows, a well-received attempt to revive the ultimate mini-literary form – the aphorism.

The small story – by ‘small’ I mean a page or two pages, around 200 or 300 words long at most, rather than a short story as such – has had distinguished practitioners in the past. It is a literary form that has ancient roots. The parables of the New Testament echo in those fragments of Kafka, and those laconic miniatures of Borges that haunt the imagination longer than most deskbusting Important New Novels. The readers of the early days of universal education and widely diffused literacy were rich in small, wonderful stories. Johann Peter Hebel, the German educationalist and journalist, wrote in the early 19th Century a series of ‘house friend’ almanacs that featured tiny stories, one of which, ‘Unexpected Reunion’, Kafka described as “the most wonderful story of all time”. Wittgenstein reportedly carried a small volume of Hebel stories with him at all times, and if you feel like emulating him, Penguin Classics have published a collection called The Treasure Chest which I can heartily recommend.

J Robert Lennon’s Pieces For the Left Hand is subtitled ‘100 Anecdotes’. It consists of exactly that – 100 mini-stories, told in an artless, conversational style. In the Preface, which itself reads a little like one of the stories that follow, we are told about “the author of these stories” – a 47-year-old man, living with his college Professor life in upstate New York, “unemployed, and satisfied to be unemployed”. Rather than working – though in the past he worked what, it is hinted, must have been a tedious job to support his family while his wife began her academic career, “he walks for hours, cutting through fields and forests, hiking along the shoulders of roads”. These walks have begun “to shake things loose in the author’s mind”, and memories accumulate until, sifting through them, he tells himself the stories in his mind. “He is happy with them as they are: ephemeral, protean.”

The stories are grouped in seven sections: ‘Town and Country’, ‘Mystery and Confusion’, ‘Lies and Blame’, ‘Work and Money’, ‘Parents and Children’, ‘Artists and Professors’, and ‘Doom and Madness.’ Some of the anecdotes seem inconsequential, or are burdened with a too-pat irony. But the beauty of a book like this is that the next story is not too far away, and it might be funny or moving or wise or just odd.

It is of course invidious to further compress the already small stories that make up the collection. Some samples: two twins (male and female), turn out years later not even to be related and marry, much to the disgust of the townsfolk who still feel they ‘should’ be brother and sister. A nearby small town the author visits seems deadened, glazed over with grief; his initial sympathy on learning that the inhabitants are mourning the deaths of 11 schoolchildren in a fire is tempered when he discovers that this happened 40 years before. The section ‘Artists and Professors’ contains the most artificial stories, rather too steeped in an over-literary preciosity for my taste, but it also one of the most amusing: ‘Mikeworld’, the story of a 10th planet, the invention of a conceptual artist, which becomes part of the official science of a newly independent South Pacific state.

The stories in this book are not vital or arresting in the way Borges or Kafka’s pieces can be. There is something too much of the bucolic contentment of the narrator’s ambles about them. Also, there is a lack of proper names – we read endlessly about “our Mayor” or “a prominent businessman” or “our local paper’s film critic” – all of which may be intended to convey universality, but means that few of the characters gain more than archetypal identity.

Having said that, it is perhaps the perfect book for someone who has to make a succession of short, frequent bus or Tube journeys (full disclosure: for this review, I read the book on a series of such bus trips). It is always stimulating and never boring. It is a wonderful book for dipping into and reading a few stories at a time; indeed, I suspect that the impact would the lost and the faults enumerated above would be more obvious if one read it all in one sitting.

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