Xenobe Purvis reviews Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In
Look for them and you’ll find that there are plenty of cracks in literature. Ruptures, physical and emotional: writers seem to love them. In 1936, four years before his premature death, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a piece in Esquire about depression and addiction called ‘The Crack-Up’. “[T]en years this side of forty-nine,” he writes, “I suddenly realized that I had prematurely cracked.” He elaborates on this theme of brokenness: “a man can crack in many ways — can crack in the head — in which case the power of decision is taken from you by others! or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves.” Comparing himself to a “cracked plate”, Fitzgerald describes the process of “pasting it together”, the act of sealing the cracks in his mind, body and nerves.
A few years earlier, Katherine Anne Porter was making crackedness a subject of her own in ‘The Cracked Looking-Glass’, a story about a flawed marriage, which is scrutinised over the course of the narrative by the wife, Rosaleen. Looking into her fractured mirror, she finds the “wavy place made her eyes broad and blurred as the palm of her hands, and she couldn’t tell her nose from her mouth in the cracked seam…” Eventually, she comes to terms with this distorted reflection, and the life she sees within it.
Cracks are not merely a passing motif for writers, however. Lorrie Moore — that brilliant spinner of tales — observes that cracks are inherent to the short story form itself. In her introduction to 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, Moore attempts to define the form:
At one literary festival I attended recently in England, a couple were consulting their program. “Who is reading next?” asked the husband.
“I believe it’s a new American short story writer,” said the wife.
“Really,” the husband said, then, after perusing the program further, closed it abruptly. “I need a new American short story writer like I need a hole in the head.”
Well, we all know what he means.
And yet why not a hole in the head? A new little garden space for planting, a well-ventilated, freshly lit room in the mind? Do we not want to feel the tops of our heads come off, as Emily Dickinson said a poem did for her? A story does not intoxicate or narcotize or descend and smother. It opens up a little window or a door. And the world gets in it in an intimate way.
Short stories don’t just describe cracks in people and minds and objects — they embody them, too. They are spidery seams of otherness, allowing brief insights into different worlds. Moore’s description above is reminiscent of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Anthem’: “Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”. Both are a celebration of fracturedness.
Cohen’s lyrics lend Clare Fisher the title for her recent short story collection, How the Light Gets In, in which she responds to ideas of cracks, lightness, and darkness. The first story — ‘in praise of cracks’ — establishes a question which the subsequent pieces seek to answer. “For much of my childhood, there was this poem magnetted to the fridge”, it begins: “blessed are the cracked for they let the light in.” “I didn’t get it”, the narrator says: “when I looked in the mirror, I saw no light, no cracks, just smooth pot-bellyish skin. Did this mean I would never know light?” Throughout her collection, Fisher explores the significance of this question for a troupe of characters in a range of inventive situations.
There is the sex worker, the bullied schoolboy, the man at the information desk at Victoria coach station. Then there are the bickering couples, the abusive couples, the almost-incestuous couples. There are fragments and full stories. Formally, Fisher is unafraid to experiment, and thematically she is even more fearless, leaving few issues untouched. The stories are set in the modern day, largely addressing the habits and concerns of women and men in their twenties and thirties. Complications at work, breakdowns of communication, and the chasm between digital and real selves seem to preoccupy Fisher. With a particular focus on characters in London and Leeds, her stories explore the crises — big and small — of contemporary life.
A thread runs through the entire collection; the stories all take as their subject the twin territories of light and dark, but their approaches to this Manichaean theme are very different. Lightness and darkness are featured in many ways. Light is manifested variously in the blue glow of iPhones, the Divine Light of ex-cult devotees, the shine of spilled bubble bath, the “slice of the moon” on a scarred face. Darkness is given equal billing. Several lists punctuate the collection, entitled ‘dark places to watch out for [1-5]’. Each of the five lists challenges the short story form: they are all composed of unaffiliated paragraphs, with no clear narrative arc, no characters. But the writing here is some of the most poignant in the book. ‘dark places to watch out for ’ lists gravity as its first offender: “That bastard. Cracking the hips of old people. Skinning the knees of the young.” (There are those cracks again.) Other ‘dark places’ include the “silence which crusts around the woman who slaps her child on the bus”, and the “mostly forgotten late nineties/early noughties girl band, Atomic Kitten; their songs find their way into your ears at the precise moments when you are likely to cry.”
These fragments feel emotionally honest; they prove the potential of the short story form. Chris Power has written frequently and brilliantly on the impact of the short story. In the New Statesman last year he alighted on William H. Gass’ definition of the form as a way of articulating the short story’s power. Gass, he explains, “proceeds by exclusion before moving into abstraction: ‘It is not a character sketch, a mouse-trap, an epiphany, a slice of suburban life. It is the flowering of a symbol centre. It is a poem grafted on to sturdier stock.’” Lorrie Moore provides us with another eloquent definition, one which many of Fisher’s stories seem models for. “Short stories are about trouble in mind,” Moore writes:
A bit of the blues. Songs and cries that reveal the range and ways of human character. The secret ordinary and the ordinary secret. The little disturbances of man, to borrow Grace Paley’s phrase, though a story may also be having a conversation with many larger disturbances lurking off-page. Still, the focus on the foregrounded action will be sharp and distilled as moonshine and maybe a little tense and witty, like an excellent dinner party.
How the Light Gets In is shot through with these “little disturbances”, returning over and over again to the damage and redemption of a cast of largely unnamed characters. It is riddled with cracks: formal fractures; broken relationships; interrupted conversations.
In terms of its quality, the collection itself is not without cracks. While the narrative voices are consistently engaging, there are one or two stories which don’t quite land. This doesn’t weaken the series as a whole; as Joyce Carol Oates has written, the effect of the short story “is rarely isolated or singular, but accumulative; a distinguished story collection is one that is greater than the mere sum of its disparate parts”. Still, occasionally, shifts in focus feel miscalculated. Take, for example, the following fragment:
Everyone was shocked when he threw himself off the tower of that church only a quarter of a mile from the college where he was Secretary of the Boat Club, JCR Social Secretary, a member of the Ball Committee and the Charitable Committee, and, according to both his Philosophy and Politics tutors, one of the most academically gifted students they had met in recent years. … But no one was as shocked as the woman who, at the moment at which he made the last decision he was ever going to make, was eating a cake in the church café garden, a few hundred metres below and — fortunately — several metres to the left of him. The cake was gluten free.
This reads like typical Popian bathos; the final sentence is pithily satirical. But what it is satirising is unclear. Food fads? Tabloid journalism’s insidious eye for detail? The limits of our concern for male depression? Tonally, this feels a little odd; why, one might ask, does this account of the suicide of the Secretary of the Boat Club conclude with something so mocking, so anticlimactic, when the other portraits in the collection are rendered with such sensitivity?
But these questionable moments are few and far between. The collection is largely absorbing and occasionally very affecting, sharing many characteristics with the work of a true master of the short story form: Lydia Davis. Like Davis, Fisher rarely names her characters, and their situations are never developed beyond a handful of pages. Both writers eschew the formal conventions of plot and resolution, encouraging their readers to fill in the gaps around their fragments with conclusions of their own. Speaking on form, Davis has observed:
We can’t think of fragment without thinking of whole. The word fragment implies the word whole. A fragment would seem to be a part of a whole, a broken-off part of a whole. Does it also imply, as with other broken-off pieces, that enough of them would make a whole, or remake some original whole, some ideal whole?
A fragment, she explains, and the “inarticulateness” that comes from, say, grief, are closer to true emotion than a false sense of resolution. She calls these fragments the “writer’s stutter”. “[T]he reader”, she says, “witnessing the writer’s stutter, is witness not only to his grief, but also to his process, to the workings of his mind, to his mind, closer to what we might think of as the origins of his writing.”
There is plenty of stuttering in How the Light Gets In, and — in consequence — a real sense of rawness, Davis’s “origins” of writing. Unfinished conversations are a recurring theme in Fisher’s stories, as are misunderstood conversations and debates that don’t lead anywhere.
Several stories take the form of interrupted monologues; ‘mistakes’, for instance, ends like this: “But not always./ Not always./ Because mistake will be mad e, and somtimes/ Sometimes/ The person making them/ Will be/ You.” And in other places, Fisher’s narrators are explicit about trying and failing to pinpoint their imperfections: “It’s hard being human”, says the narrator of ‘trying’, “ordinary; freakish; a being with volume and weight; an interminably messy creature; a body which wants things; and a soul whose hunger, it seems, the harder you look up and down and over and around and around and through and in the cracks of this city, is never sated.” Yet despite her attraction to the trope of inarticulate awkwardness, Fisher has a remarkable ear for speech, and confidently embodies a range of different voices. It is worth noting that the collection was conceived as a series of spoken word performances; many of the stories have the pace of something spoken aloud, a free-flowing, confessional air.
Fisher’s eye for the texture of the everyday, of the ordinary, stuttering imperfection of human interaction, is what brings this collection to life. Taking notes from Davis and Moore, she experiments with form to explore the quirks of the mind, following her characters through darkness and lightness, tracing their many splinters and seams. Filled with fractures of the best kind, How the Light Gets In is a valuable addition to the body of literature about cracks.