Orbits, Intersecting

MacKenzie Warren reviews Ruby Cowling’s This Paradise and Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Animalia Paradoxa

For readers of a certain set, Ruby Cowling and Henrietta Rose-Innes might already be familiar names. If you have an abiding interest in the contemporary short story — enough interest to pay attention when the latest shortlist from the latest competition hits Twitter — chances are good that you’ll recognise their work. Cowling has previously been up for the Bridport Prize and the White Review Prize, among others, while Rose-Innes was runner-up for the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012 and appeared on the Galley Beggar Prize longlist in 2017. Now, both authors have published their début short story collections in the first round of prose titles from UEA’s Boiler House Press. Although they share a few overlapping interests — environmental degradation, intergenerational moral obligations — they are, by and large, quite different writers who arrive on common ground only insofar as they are both at their best when they push themselves to the limits of their craft.

Ruby Cowling, This Paradise.
Boiler House Press, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

‘The Two-Body Problem’, one of the early stories in Cowling’s This Paradise, is emblematic of the collection as a whole. It opens with a page broken into two columns of text, equal in length, placed side-by-side. Each column is narrated by one of a pair of twin sisters — Esther on the left, Stella on the right — and each sister begins her story with the same sentence: “We are as close as we can possibly be.” In the very next sentence, however, the sisters begin to diverge, and each page of the story is given to another two columns in which parallel events are narrated from two different perspectives. The sisters grow up together, then go their separate ways, moving to opposite ends of the country to attend university. Although years pass by without a reunion, each sister lives constantly in thought of her missing half — as if a single consciousness has been split into two bodies — until finally their paths begin to converge again. At first the convergence occurs despite the distance between them. On one page, both columns again begin with the same sentence, though the words underscore the sisters’ separation: “On our twenty-second birthday we are as far apart as we have ever been.” Later, as the sisters draw physically closer to one another, their two columns begin with the same words but branch off in different directions before reaching a full stop: “We talk about work, share our silly dreams”, Esther begins, while Stella disagrees: “We talk about me moving back”. The story ends with the sisters reaching an uneasy reconciliation, accepting that they will be forever bound despite their different places in the world, so that — as Stella puts it — each sister follows the trajectory of her own orbit, but her progress is acted upon by the gravitational force of the other.

As it is with Esther and Stella, so it is with This Paradise. There are two types of stories in Cowling’s collection: those that are formally irreverent and those that are more conventional. Among the formally irreverent stories are ‘The Two-Body Problem’, as well as ‘[Superfar]’ and ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’. The first of these is comprised of a series of letters written in a sort of digital dialect of English, in response to letters withheld from the reader; the second depicts an international political scandal in a combination of realist prose and smartphone screenshots, while the margins of the text are crammed full of tweets and bullet point lists that speak back to the unfolding events. Comparatively straightforward are stories like ‘Edith Aleksander, b.1929’, about an elderly woman’s deathbed reflections; ‘Mating Week’, about an ill-fated attempt to breed moths; and ‘On Day 21’, about a period of rainfall lasting three weeks. More impressive than these sketches are ‘Flamingo Land’ and ‘This Paradise’, both of which imagine a not-too-distant future wracked by demagogic politics and climatic destruction inflicted on the underprivileged.

But This Paradise is at its best when its twin orbits intersect, when Cowling blends convention with irreverence. The result is often an edgy, misshapen scenario, more apt for a truly experimental form, forced into the straightjacket of realism and fighting so hard to break free that it ends up bursting the seams. Indeed, in ‘We Are Part of This’, the ill-fitting confines of a prescribed form are explicitly taken up for dismantling. The story follows a group of women attending a retreat billed as “a celebration of femininity: fecundity, friendship, general non-penile things”, where, the narrator says, “we know we will have to take the risk of expressing ourselves, perhaps through dance, or spontaneous poetry.” As it happens, when the story opens, the women are busy expressing themselves through the activity of “mak[ing] dolls, about eight inches tall, out of ‘whatever feels right’.” “We’re not sure anything feels right”, the narrator says; “nevertheless, our hands are busy.” Participation in various creative activities is enforced, we learn, in lieu of conversation — “talking is tolerated but chat is forbidden” — and the person enforcing it is the tyrannical Greta, for whom expression through language is a denial of presence in the moment:

Daughters, PLEASE! … Ask of yoursel[ves]: what you are saying RIGHT NOW, is it worthwhile of your breath? Does it HELP us? Are you even HERE? Tell me, do you want to LEAVE?

Ridiculously, hilariously, after a mishap befalls the venue for the retreat, one of the attendees sends out a series of tweets (@shewolf65) which raise the ire of Greta to uncontainable levels. But then — just as the story seems like it might be a satire of power structures in an all-female environment — ‘We Are Part of This’ turns on a dime and becomes something very much stranger, more serious, unexpectedly lending credence to Greta’s New Age intimations that her women, or all women, are intimately connected on a mystical level. Somewhere along the line, Cowling flips a switch so that, even though the story remains dominated by the realist mode, the rhythms of its prose shift from the acerbic to the incantatory, and its purpose shifts accordingly from sharp critique to dark rhapsody.

Better still are the two stand-out stories of This Paradise: ‘Eliminate Toxins and Increase Bloodflow’ and the exemplary ‘Biophile’. The first is a piece of flash fiction set in a Thai massage parlour. It opens in the manner of a farce, complete with a character named “Mr. Smeed”, a man described as “a white slug” with “[s]kin like rice paper, flesh like jelly underneath, as if he’s spent his whole life on a damp mattress in a cellar, eating margarine”, but it ends with two genuine shocks, back-to-back, absolutely disproportionate to the brevity of the whole. ‘Biophile’, on the other hand, takes a strange, static situation and stretches it out over twenty pages, ending in a bizarre breach. It captivates from the very beginning, with a voice apparently issuing from a void:

—I’m down maybe five feet. Muslin over my mouth and nose. I take a moment to thank the leaf-filled rectangle of sky, yank the tarpaulin, and the black mound falls. Then I pull the tarp out of the way and scrunch it down my side, and delicious hunks and crumbles of dug earth say: welcome. …

Here’s the idea. Lie here, breathing with care, and make a long, long count to five in the glorious black. See what happens. At some point my wish will come true and I’ll bud; a tendril will burst from me in spite of it all, wrap me into the world. From my flat edges, roundness.

In time, I’ll push up and out into the mossy night. Ejected from under the skin of the world, I’ll be real again, greener, humming with mitochondria. A twig in the nest, a bee in the hive, a member of the family, a body in a body-shaped space—

The narrator works from home as a computer game programmer, dedicated to her job beyond the call of duty, but ‘Biophile’ stretches her commitment in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the members of her family stage an intervention. They believe she is withdrawing from the real world, into her digital life, to an extent that amounts to self-harm: she has stopped eating and almost stopped speaking in meaningful sentences. On the other hand, the more she involves herself in producing code, the more she fantasises about withdrawing from her digital world and immersing herself in a world of pure organic matter: she yearns to be subsumed by the soil, to decompose, to generate new life. There is minimal movement to ‘Biophile’ — it’s less a story than an elaborate description of a scenario — but this is no flaw. In fact, the stasis of the narrative allows the language of ‘Biophile’ to take centre stage and develop a conflict between competing lexicons: the language of the narrator’s fantasies grows ever richer, ever more florid in the best sense of the word, until it threatens to overwhelm the arid language of her domestic existence.

Henrietta Rose-Innes, Animalia Paradoxa.
Boiler House Press, £10.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

By comparison to This Paradise, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Animalia Paradoxa is a model of restraint. Given the title of the book, its conventionality is puzzling: “Animalia Paradoxa”, according to a brief preface, is “the taxonomic category created by Carl Linnaeus for mythical, dubious and imaginary animals. They feature in editions 1 – 5 of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, but were removed from subsequent editions.” Yet in truth, although the title suggests that these stories might have an interest in breaking with established forms, only a handful of stories venture beyond the safety of straight-up naturalism. That’s not to say that Rose-Innes’ naturalism isn’t accomplished — indeed, it’s often pitch-perfect — but it’s difficult to read this book in the wake of This Paradise and not be a little dismayed by the comparative lack of ambition, of willingness to take risks with the shaping of a text.

Now based in Norwich, where she is involved with UEA’s creative writing programme, Rose-Innes is South African and most of her stories are set in her native country. Among the highlights are those that take place against the stark landscape of South Africa. In ‘The Boulder’, a young man scrambles up the slope of a dry, rugged mountain, towards a pile of boulders heaped up against the incline as if “waiting their turn like huge, slow children on a diving board”. After he returns to the house below, which belongs to the family of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, he is shocked to find one of the boulders suddenly dislodged, smashing into the house, and apparently crushing his girlfriend to death. In ‘The Leopard Trap’, a woman retreats to an unfamiliar part of the countryside to seek respite from a marriage on the rocks, and on a whim she decides to visit the half-forgotten historical site of the title. Although it turns out to be little more than a “heap of stones”, “coffin-shaped”, she decides to crawl inside, to see what it feels like to be in such a confined space. In the process, she imagines herself becoming the animal it was designed to capture, and later, upon returning home, she allows the disquiet of the experience to colour her feelings towards her husband.

Other stories, however, are less satisfying than these two, mostly due to an awkwardness in their length. In ‘Promenade’, over a period of several weeks, a man strikes up a wordless acquaintance with a boxer as he goes about his daily walk, only for their relationship to end in unexpected tragedy. It’s a poignant story with some beautiful descriptive prose, but it takes so long to reach its conclusion that it blunts the emotional punch of the event. In ‘Star’, an elderly woman who is “not what you would call a sports fan” becomes improbably involved in the World Cup. Here, the problem is brevity; the situation is wrapped up before it can really begin, escalating into more than a sketch, so that ‘Star’ ends up reading like a shaggy dog story. Elsewhere, stories are dogged by the sense that they are somehow both too long and too short. In ‘Homing’, for instance, a husband and wife find their home surrounded by a gargantuan luxury property development. The tone of the prose leads ‘Homing’ to read like a parable, or in any case makes it want to seem so abstract as to be borderline fabular, absurd, surreal. But it’s too drawn-out to get under the skin like the icy abstractions of, say, Joanna Walsh, and it’s too brief to complicate its own scenario with the insane elaboration of Ivan Vladislavić — who has given a blurb to Animalia Paradoxa — in his similarly-themed novel The Folly (1994).

That said, even the weaker stories in Animalia Paradoxa showcase Rose-Innes’ talent for making sentences that sing. In fact, her best sentences sing in almost a literal sense, as she often impresses the most when finding words to make an auditory event audible to the mind’s ear. In the first story, ‘Sanctuary’, the narrator notices three children skipping stones over shallow pools of water: “The oldest boy”, she says, “made one zing from his snapped finger with a noise like a bumblebee.” In ‘Promenade’, when the narrator and his acquaintance engage in mock-shadowboxing as they pass one another, the thrust-and-halt of clenched knuckles makes something whoosh off the page: “[t]he huge fists lunge at me, snap back; so close, I feel a tickle of warm air on my face”. And when the boulder is dislodged from the mountainside in ‘The Boulder’, Rose-Innes writes that “[i]t must’ve sung through the air, thrashing the bush on the slope into a sappy pulp with every bounce, on its way to embed itself in the lawn of the luxury holiday home below.” You can hear the arrhythmic descent of the boulder in that sentence: it bursts through bracken with the sh of “thrashing” and “bush”, then it judders over the ground with the drumbeat of ps and bs in “slope”, “sappy”, “pulp”, “bounce”, “embed”, and at last it rolls to a standstill on soft grass in a succession of lilting ls: “itself”, “lawn”, “luxury”, “holiday”, “below”.

And, thankfully, Animalia Paradoxa has its own handful of stand-out stories. High on the list is ‘The Bronze Age’, an affecting depiction of an awkward father-son relationship which ends with the collapsing of two millennia into a single moment, as well as ‘The Second Law’, a story both sexually charged and melancholic, in which the narrator closely observes time-bound bodily processes in contrast to the mechanics of a perpetual motion machine. Better than these is ‘Limerence’, Rose-Innes’ one true foray into fabulism and formal play, which cross-cuts between verses of erotic poetry from the ancient world and the present-day story of a woman with a medical condition that leads her to literally consume her lovers. And better still is the title story, which has been wisely placed to round out the collection and at last make good on the promise of some Linnaean oddity. Reminiscent of the title story from Jessie Greengrass’ début collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (2015), it tells of an eighteenth century naturalist’s expedition to “Cap d’Afrique” in search of a mythical creature. The naturalist intends to capture, kill, preserve, and deliver the creature to a French countess, not reckoning on its gift for elusiveness. The beauty of the story resides in the twists and turns of its language, which is always a poor match for the visible phenomena it attempts to describe, and the way the narrator’s struggles with language lead him to eloquent despair:

My mission now seemed laughable. How could the Countess have thought that a spun-sugar cabinet might contain any part of this elemental land? In my half-asleep state, it came to me that I had done things altogether back to front. All her pretty shells and pebbles … I should have put them in my pockets, brought them with me on the ship. And then set them free, here in this world of ancient stones and long horizons.

‘Animalia Paradoxa’ is a story in which the act of narration unfolds with as much trepidation as the narrative itself; the narrator has very little faith in his own eyes, witnessing things beyond the credence of a rational mind, and no greater faith in the words with which he accounts for what he sees. So he attempts variously to describe a creature he hasn’t seen, a creature he has seen only traces of, a creature that might not be a creature at all, and a creature so ephemeral that it might properly exist nowhere else but in his testimony. The story is understated yet finally profound, with a numinous quality to its reverence for mystery; it enacts an elegant dance between that which is palpable but unnameable and that which remains insubstantial even when it can be harnessed in language.

It’s often in the nature of short story collections to amount to rattle-bags, assortments of narratives of wildly varying quality. Then, too, when a collection on the whole avoids including so much weak material that it sinks, there’s still the question of the degree of success. Just how impressive is an impressive collection? Does it confirm a great talent, the author’s achievements being considerable and sustained throughout? Or does a higher proportion of rough patches make it more a signal of promise, a source of hope for real achievements to come? Both This Paradise and Animalia Paradoxa are collections that signal rather than confirm: they attest to Cowling and Rose-Innes’ confident command of conventions and occasionally demonstrate each author’s skill in departing from the tried and true — but they don’t yet indicate a burning zeal to reshape the form on every fresh start. It may be that neither author ends up doing that, of course, and instead retreats to the sureties of the realism they appear to have mastered. But this would be a shame, and a loss for readers interested in the possibilities of the short story form. Cowling and Rose-Innes are both at their best when jettisoning the constraints of the straightforward — when they energise their work by kicking aside old narrative crutches rather than relying on them — and so much the better if each of them can do this more fearlessly, with no need to prove a mastery of the basics, the next time new work bears their names.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.