The Benefits of Breathing by Christopher Meeks, 24 May, 2020
Short stories are difficult beasts. While many people write them, very few write them well. Hemingway and, of course, Carver were masters, but so too was P.G. Wodehouse and, in his earlier days, Ian McEwan. To use a more mercantile measure, the average collection of short stories in the U.K. sells about 800 copies; most are published in literary journals where they languish.
So this collection from Christopher Meeks, most already published in literary journals, was a good find because a single short story from an author only informs that author’s skill by luck. While, for example, Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants has become a fixture of literary classes, and most of those written by him during the Spanish Civil War leave an impression, some of the hunting ones are almost embarrassing: when Hemingway was good, he was very good, but he was not always so.
This is a collection of eleven (why not a round dozen, I wonder!) stories which all concern romantic love. This is a subject that I haven’t encountered very often in shorts and which I actively avoid in novels: that I finished the collection at all was enough of a surprise; that I enjoyed it astonished me.
That already attests to Meeks skill as a writer. With the single exception of the first story – where I struggled – each story captured and held my attention. They concerned interesting characters and the situations were just far enough out of the quotidian that the stories didn’t become banal.
The characterisation was done by showing, not telling:
Chelsea rummaged in her big leather bag for her keys. She worried she might chip her freshly painted red nails. The nail salon had been a treat for herself. Small things helped.
This tells us a lot about Chelsea in a very few short sentences: she has a big leather bag so like to carry a lot of stuff, but that stuff isn’t organised so she has to rummage to find things. Her nails have been painted as a treat and she is careful to keep her little treat. And the last sentence is an understated hint that things are not all well.
And, in another
He hated her subtle power plays. To prove that he wouldn’t fall into that trap, he walked across the street to the shade. He paralleled her movements eastward on his side of the street.
Again, in a few short sentences, we see the protagonist is in a relationship where each struggles to dominate, but both are passive-aggressive in their responses – to the extent that he ends up stalking his own partner.
This one stuck in my mind:
“Oh,” said Jerry, looking more closely, noticing the boy with longish blond hair had the same infuriating cowlick on his crown as he had had as a kid, like an exploding dandelion.
It made me laugh.
The scene-setting is also pulled off well, with enough to be useful without so much as to intrude:
Nestor walked with a bounce in his step past a bougainvillea bursting with red flowers. He stepped into the park, onto a flat grassy field, moving toward a circle of tall trees. His goal: the majestic oak at the front.
They were one unit, and when they curved one way, they became grey pixels. These birds did what they were meant to do. As the doves swooped around, the sunlight caught them, and for a moment, they were an arrowhead, all white.
Arabella waved to Nestor, more like heiling Hitler than a happy hello”
Which also made me smile.
All authors lay bare their souls when writing, but shorts allow no place to hide and curating your own stories can flay you as well. I did notice that three of the stories pivoted on the same device of slipping and falling on a slippery something on the ground, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory turned up more often than I would have expected, and there was a lot of film history. There was also a bourgeois feel to the stories: we had none of the gritty and alcoholic poverty of Carver, nor the sunny blue skies of English fairy-tale-aristocracy of Wodehouse.
Set those gripes to one side. I set myself a quota of five star reviews; this collection makes the grade.