by William Boyd
Published by Knopf
275 pages, 2005
Reviewed by David Abrams
In graduate school, my creative writing instructor would make us write one-sentence summaries of short stories she assigned us to read (in Hollywood, this is known as "the pitch"). While reading William Boyd's new story collection, Fascination, I decided to apply this exercise to his short fictions:
Paring Boyd's plots down to single sentences, however, robs these and the other 10 tales in Fascination of their artistry, depth and complexity. There is strata within strata on these pages.
The most memorable short stories -- by everyone from Anton Chekhov to Alice Munro -- are novels condensed into miniature, hard gems. Or, as Boyd himself recently wrote in The Guardian: "Like a multivitamin pill, a good short story can provide a compressed blast of discerning, intellectual pleasure, one no less intense than that delivered by a novel, despite the shorter duration of its consumption."
In Fascination, which is packed with literary multivitamins, the author of the novels Any Human Heart and A Good Man in Africa wades neck-deep into the swamp of humanity to bring us 14 tales of desperation and desire. Boyd's writing is sharp, precise and often very funny. In this collection, it is also as diverse in tone, structure and subject matter as any book of short stories I've read.
Some of the stories read like grad school writing exercises ("Beulah Berlin, An A-Z," for instance, is broken into 26 sections, each ending with a word that linguistically reverberates into the first word of the next section). But beneath the clever narrative tricks lies not only a fascination with language but with the way we react in moments of crisis, especially those times we try to suppress sexual urges. One story's epigraph, a quote from Chekhov, seems especially apropos to the collection as a whole: "Every person lives his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy."
Not coincidentally, that particular story is "The Woman on the Beach with a Dog," a re-vision of the master's "The Lady With the Dog." Boyd moves the adulterers' rendezvous from a beach in Yalta to Cape Cod in 1944. When the man, Garrett Rising, arrives at the crossroads where he must choose between wife and lover, Boyd turns on a brilliant show of Chekhovian agony as the lovers wallow in post-coital conversation in a motel room whose carpet is patterned with knights in shining armor:
"We have to do something," she said.
Most of Boyd's characters are caught in similar moments of indecision. As the narrator of "Beulah Berlin, An A-Z" muses, "How do you know when your life is intrinsically uninteresting? You just do. Some people live quietly, unhappily, with this knowledge; others do something about it." Some readers -- especially those turned-off by Woody Allen films -- might find this collection unbearably full of self-indulgent anxiety. However, I for one was fascinated by the way Boyd turns angst into art and consistently makes it a fresh experience from story to story.
The collection's standout centerpiece, "Incandescence" -- true to its title -- burns with the kind of artistry that turns a piece of short fiction into a work of imagination that expands beyond the boundaries of the page. Boyd creates something every bit as complex and dramatic as Ian McEwan's novel Atonement as Alexander Tobias returns to the English manor of his former girlfriend, Anna -- a woman for whom he still hopefully and hopelessly pines -- for what appears to be a casual family get-together.
When I saw Anna again I knew I loved her still. That I had never stopped loving her and that I would never stop loving her. And suddenly I felt a kind of grief for my life. It's a terrible thing, this, when you know your life has gone irrevocably wrong, and that, every day until the day you die, you will be confronted with the idea of an alternate life that you could have, should have, lived. There were moments that weekend when I felt suicidal. I felt that I should end my life now rather than live on with the torment of what might have been.
Anna's family has fallen on hard times and hopes that Alexander will be able to help them out of a financial jam. When he arrives, Alexander realizes he's previously met his ex-girlfriend's husband and he's not the successful, charming businessman he appears to be. Even while that's going on, Boyd complicates the story even further by revealing several devastating skeletons in the family's closet.
All this in less than 20 pages; and, as you can see, it's a plot that defies the one-sentence summary. The characters, events and emotions of "Incandescence" are so rich and compelling, we secretly long to explore them in a longer work.
But here's the catch: to turn "Incandescence" into a full-length book would flatten it out and make it just another pale, pudgy novel. One word more, one word less and the multi-strand narrative Boyd has spun would crumple like a spider web in a hurricane. His breadth and depth and control is simply breathtaking here and throughout the entire collection. | January 2005
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.