Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2009

Opportunity, by Charlotte Grimshaw

OpportunityOpportunity is a curiously structured book which reminds me of the way Tim Winton put The Turning together, i.e. a collection of discrete short stories bound together by characters who reappear from one story to another, to form a whole.  Whether this structure forms a cohesive whole is one thing, but to me what’s important is whether or not it works to engage me as a reader…

That brings me to the reason why I read novels, and rarely read short stories.  I like to lose myself in a book, to become intrigued by the characters and what they get up to, and in the process to discover some theme or motifs which reveal the author’s preoccupations.  I read like this to share experiences in the novel in the way that David Malouf describes it; it’s a way of getting inside the lives and minds of other people.  I’m not stuffy about style,  form or period – since my adventures with Voss I’ve come to appreciate modernism as much as the 19th century novels I grew up on.

If I read short stories, I miss the development of character and the insights the novel brings, but I appreciate the cunning with which the writer structures the intended impact, and often the writing is beautiful,  Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand’s most famous writer, wrote sublime short stories, of which my favourite is ‘In a German Pension’David Malouf is a master of this art, and so is Olga MastersAnnie Proux, of course, and Alice Munro, who has just won the Man Booker International Prize for her work.  But by the time I had finished reading the third story in Opportunity I knew that not only was I not going to enjoy reading this book, but that it was going to be a chore to finish reading it for our ANZLL discussion.

Drat, I thought as I flicked forwards to confirm my suspicion that they were all going to be written in the same self-obsessed first person narrative.  The narrator of ‘Animals’ is a peevish invalid recovering from an operation – but not getting over his marital problems.  In ‘Stories’ it’s a narcissistic author, and in ‘Pity’ it’s a tiresome lawyer locked in a one of those destructive custody battles.  All three stories so far have been written in dull, flat prose with a repetitive short sentence  structure.  (You can almost hear the nasal whine).  Learning to vary sentence length as part of the craft of writing is a lesson that should be learned in primary school…

The book blurb cautions me against dismissing it altogether:

‘You could look back after a long time and ask, who wanted what from whom?’ A man confronts death after an operation, a devout Christian encounters a man who hurt her long ago, a secretary uncovers her boss’s secret shame. And in a house in Auckland an elderly woman is writing the last book of her life, one which, she says, contains all of her crimes. How are the characters connected and who is writing the stories? Each of these astute stories is an inspection of motive, rich in vivid insight into a diverse range of lives. Together, they form a unified whole. Opportunity is a book about storytelling, about generosity and opportunism; above all it is a celebration of the subtleties of human impulses, of what Katherine Mansfield called the LIFE of life. 

Gosh, invoking Katherine Mansfield!  I should tread carefully… Grimshaw has won heaps of awards and  is widely praised not just in NZ but internationally as well.

This is what her editor, Harriet Allen said at the launch of her latest book, Singularity:

…these ‘almost novels’, ‘almost short-story collections’ are oxymoronic exemplars, they’re disparately cohesive, unified fragments, working together and apart both within each volume and between each volume….they focus on the singular in being single stories about single, separate individuals, who are alone and distinctive, but also they focus on connections, the singularity of space-time, an infinitely dense combination of matter, the point where the Big Bang began and the point in a black hole where all matter will flow. (Cited on Beattie’s Book Blog).

These fans are all experts – and I’m not.  But I don’t like it, and I don’t want to finish reading it. It’s not just the short story genre which brings me up short at the end of each tale with a dull thump; it’s not even the bleak view of people no one could possibly like or care about or be intrigued by; it’s the dreary narrative style.  Those plodding sentences, all more or less the same length.  The NZ Listener describes her descriptive writing as being ‘of the highest order [which would] work just as well as poetry.’ Oh really??

Here’s a sample, picked from a page at random:

After I’d been there a few months things started going badly between me and Sean.  He paced and slammed doors while I was vacuuming.  He called me into his room and said I’d got make-up on his towels.  A couple of times I got so fed up with the rubbish that I threw it into the lightwell.  The caretaker complained and Sean had me on that as well.  (p140)

Or this:

Everything was quiet when I woke up.  It was Friday.  I went to my classes and when I came home there was a note pinned on my door.  It was written in blue pen and it was headed up with my name, Lisa Green, and the words Eviction Notice.  It said that Sean was giving me notice to quit under some act or other, and that the reason for this was my ‘act of violence’. I didn’t think there was anything particularly violent about tossing a cushion, but I didn’t feel like arguing.  I screwed the notice up and walked into the kitchen.  The tap was dripping onto some plastic bags in the sink.  It made a hollow, empty sound.  A trail of brown liquid came out of the bottom of the fridge.  It had been a hot day and the air was stale with the sickly smell of old food. (p140-141)

Maybe the ANZLL discussion will reveal the qualities of this book which have so far eluded me…I suppose I’d better get on with reading the rest of it *sigh*.

Other reviews of this book can be found at the NZ Listener.

Update 6.8.09

No.  I’m not going to finish it.  Not even for my beloved book group.   I got as far as p123, about half way through the story called Parallel Universe and found it simply unbearable.  It’s about as interesting as reading the Yellow Pages Directory…

There are characters all over the place who seem to be vaguely connected: this one is the gynaecologist of that one, or so-and-so is the daughter of such-and-such but the relationships don’t seem to matter at all.  Is that the point?  That people today are disconnected? Hardly original…

Read merely as short stories they’re as dull as ditchwater, the kind of inane plots that left me bored and frustrated.

I’d rather read Ulysses…

Author: Charlotte Grimshaw
Title: Opportunity
Publisher: Random House New Zealand 2007
ISBN 13 9781869418793
Source: Personal copy, imported specially from New Zealand!


Responses

  1. Is that a back-handed compliment to ‘Ulysses’?

  2. No, not back-handed at all! I *love* Ulysses!!

  3. This is heartening.

    At the tender age of 19 yrs old, I picked up ‘Finnegan’s wake’ in a bookshop, and tried to read the first paragraph. Gulp! I couldn’t comprehend a sentence, and quickly popped it back on the shelf, and have never attempted to even open anything of his since.

    His reputation is monumental! But, after your comments, I might summon up the courage in the near future to open my husband’s copy.

    As for Charlotte Grimshaw… well, I guess this is not a problem she’ll have.

  4. To really enoy Ulysses, I’d suggest you read Portrait of a Young Man first. It’s sort of a prequel to it, in the sense that it pioneers some of the techniques JJ uses in Ulysses and explains some of Stephen Daedalus’s preoccupations that are there again in Ulysses. It’s easier to read too so it’s a good introduction to Joyce. See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_Man

  5. Well I really liked it! The author’s a criminal barrister (daughter of CK Stead too I believe) who I think has gotten to know a wide range people from very different backgrounds, and has gotten to know them very well.

    I think she knows what makes these often-unsympathetic people tick, and her ‘dull as dishwater’ style is deliberate – she’s trying to write as her characters think, and I reckon she’s nailed it.

    I liked that she shows the motives and thought processes of unlikeable people, and where their seemingly evil or crazy thoughts and actions come from.

    I liked in particular that the places and people she writes about are so real . I know people like her characters. I know the places she writes about. The Wintergarden, the Viaduct.

    I like that she shows the same incident from many points of view.

    I like that she’s sympathetic to some pretty unsympathetic characters. It accords with a line I’m fond of from psychologist Al Turtle – ‘Everyone makes sense all the time’. There are nearly 7 billion viewpoints, all different, and if one person doesn’t seem to make sense you, it’s just because you don’t understand the person’s circumstances, background, mental and physical makeup – whatever.

    The longer I live the more I find this to be true.

    I especially like that she thinks for herself and doesn’t blandly accept feminist pap as so many women of her generation do. One of her characters tells a bossy midwife to get ‘lost’. Good for him. But I can see the author’s tacit endorsement of this sort of attitude would make many readers uncomfortable.

    In Pity – the point isn’t that a lawyer’s locked in a bitter custody dispute – it’s that at the end, when he has his foot on his ex-wife’s throat – finally – he understands her point of view, sees her weakness but does not condemn – he feels pity.

    And that’s what so many of these stories are about, for me – seeing the other person’s viewpoint.

    Animals – the young mums are the animals, looking out for their young. ‘People are animals’ is a message that comes through in a lot of CG’s stories. And again – the ‘creepy old man’, the observer – she takes us inside his head, tries to show his motives. Different viewpoints.

    The twice-evicted flatmate, whose self esteem is crushed for years after two bad flatting experiences – great story! This kind of thing happens, it messes peoples’ lives up and the author is simply describing what she (I think) has seen – putting it out there for contemplation.

    I’ll stop there, but suffice to say I liked ALL the stories in Opportunity and thought about them a lot.

    To each his own I guess. I’m going to read Singularity and Foreign City too. I recommend the Night Book.

    • Thank you David, I really appreciate how much trouble you’ve gone to explain your POV and to set me straight about it without being unkind or rude! I hope you visit often and share your thoughts about books again.
      BTW if you really like Opportunity, check out Even the Dogs (find it by using the category Titles -E in the drop-down list). I think you’d like that too.
      Cheers
      Lisa
      PS Are you a Kiwi?

  6. […] Award), not to mention the NZ Montana Fiction award and medal for Fiction, I abandoned it.   (See my *blush* somewhat churlish review). But the greater length of this novel allows the atmosphere to build, creating undeniable tension […]


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