Angela Meyer, A superior spectre (#BookReview)

Angela Meyer, A superior spectreA superior spectre may be Angela Meyer’s first novel, but her already significant writing credentials, including being the author of the short/flash style fiction collection Captives (my review), and the editor of the anthology The great unknown (my review), ensure this is a confident debut. And it needed to be, because Meyer took big risks in this book – structurally, genre-wise, and with her characters.

Let’s start, however, with the title. It hints at genre, doesn’t it? And yes, this book does owe much to genre, but more to genre-bending than to simple genre. It has two storylines – which is part of the risky structure – one set in mid 19th-century Scotland, drawing on historical fiction, and the other also set in Scotland, but in 2024, making it more speculative fiction. There is also a touch of the Gothic here, with visitations, hidden rooms and madhouses, with dark thoughts and hints of perversion. But, the novel is more complex, more sophisticated than that suggested by this idea of two interwoven storylines from the past and the future. The two epigraphs that introduce the novel clue us into this complexity. The first epigraph is from Emily Dickinson and suggests that the “superior spectre” is not “external”, or “material”, but something “interior”, or “more near”, while the second, from Kafka, hints at the dark side of love and human nature.

These ideas are explored through the two main characters: Leonora, a young farm girl from the Scottish Highlands, and Jeff, a dying man who has “escaped” Australia (something that is difficult to do in his chip-controlled futuristic world) to die alone in Scotland. Leonora is poor, but well-read and resourceful; she’s a hard-worker and loves her father; she’s sensual, sexual, but not afraid to express it; and she has a mind of her own, but is independent rather than wilful. She is, in other words, easy to like and wish well for. Jeff, on the other hand, is more ambiguous, and thus a challenge for us readers. Not only does he admit to some questionable sexual proclivities, but his behaviour in Scotland, particularly towards Leonora, becomes increasingly selfish. He knows it, but in the end puts his needs and desires ahead of hers. How, though, given their different eras?

Well, let’s now turn to the structure. Meyer sets us up at the beginning with a comfortable, predictable structure in which third-person Leonora’s story alternates with first-person Jeff’s. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in this, but it doesn’t last. In Part 2 (of this four-part novel), Leonora’s story also becomes first-person. It happens because, as the back cover blurb has told us, Jeff is using some experimental technology (a “tab”) that enables him to inhabit Leonora’s mind, and at the end of Part 1 he decides to change how he brings her to us. His aim, he says, is to enable us to “partly inhabit her as well” though in so doing, he warns us, our thoughts too, like Leonora’s, may be “infected” by him. I like books in which the structure itself underpins the meaning of the work. In this case, the structure unsettles us – as in, where are we now, who are we with – and mirrors the discord being experienced by Leonora, who wonders

about how powerful our thoughts can be. We might think we are sick when we truly have no ailment. But if we present the symptoms, and believe them, are we not sick anyway? . . . I wonder if a person could learn to be aware of when the mind is influencing a bodily reaction, and also when an instinct is overruling the mind.

So, in A superior spectre, we have a destabilising structure, a slippery character in Jeff who knows he doesn’t deserve our sympathy but wants to justify himself nonetheless, and a creative intertwining of genres – but to what purpose? There are several, I think, some personal, some sociopolitical. The latter is obvious. For Leonora there are the gender expectations which limit what a young girl of her class and background can do: she cannot study at university as some young women she meets are doing; she cannot marry the Laird for whom she falls; and she cannot protect herself from being deemed mad when she admits to strange visions of flying machines and horseless carriages. For Jeff, whether we like him or not, there is the lack of personal freedom that comes with living in a so-called technologically-advanced (dystopian) society. It’s not completely coincidental that Meyer wrote her final draft of this book on Jura, where George Orwell finished 1984.

But, it’s the personal – particularly the grappling with one’s inner demons or “spectres” – that gives the book its greatest power. Jeff’s selfishness, his poor self-control and yet desire to explain himself to us, recall characters like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. It’s hard to completely hate a character who is so open about his self-disgust even while he does nothing about it, and who engenders at least some sympathy from his Scottish landlady. She doesn’t approve, but she doesn’t reject either. In the end, Jeff is more pathetic than hateful, partly because his “spectres” are plain to see.

Leonora’s “spectres” come from her challenge in matching her sensual nature with the life she finds herself in, from her desire to find that freedom espoused by John Stuart Mill:

It is difficult for me to read about freedom and tyranny without relating these words to my own situation. Mill’s number one basic liberty is a freedom of thought and emotion. The individual being sovereign over his own body and mind. But what if your thoughts are being suppressed not just from the outside, but from some inner tyrant also?

She knows her aunt wants the best for her, a “good” marriage, but fears this would mean

suppressing the thoughts and emotions I have? It is the opposite of liberty; it is to put myself potentially in the hands of another tyrant. I feel I am pressing at walls all around.

Jeff’s “infection” of her (his tyranny), then, can have multiple readings: not only is it a manifestation of his selfish disregard of others, but it represents her own inner spectres, and symbolises the male control she rejects.

A suitable spectre is not an easy book to pin down, but this just makes it more enjoyable. And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, how about that it offers an intelligent interrogation of past and future, of inner conflicts and outer challenges, through two vividly drawn, not-easy-to-forget characters?

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAngela Meyer
A superior spectre
Edgecliff: Ventura Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781925183917

(Review copy courtesy Ventura Press)

Angela Meyer, Captives (Review)

Angela Meyer, CaptivesHave you read any flash fiction? Some of the pieces in Pulse would qualify but, besides this, I hadn’t read much until I picked up Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, which I bought for my Kindle last year. I bought it for a few reasons: I enjoyed and reviewed the short story collection she edited, The great unknown; I follow her blog Literary Minded; and of course I like short fiction. So I read Meyer’s book and was – dare I say it – captivated!

Meyer has divided her collection into 7 sections, the first 6 of which are titled using polarities – On/Off, Up/Down, In/Out, With/Without, Here/There, Then/Now – with the last being, simply, Until. The titles are as terse as the little works they contain. And a couple are very little, being just a couple of paragraphs, while the longest are, I’m guessing, around 500 words. This brings me to the matter of definition. How do we define flash fiction? Well, as with all definitions, there’s not complete agreement. Most agree that it can be as short as a sentence, but there’s no such agreement on the upper limit. Some say 300 words, some 500 words, and others 1000 words. The term itself was first used in the early 1990s, but there are other terms, including micro fiction and sudden fiction. I won’t discuss this further. I’m happy to be fluid about the definition, and I like the term flash fiction.

Writing a very short story sounds challenging to me. As Becky Tuch writes in The Review Review “Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word.” Meyer clearly understands this imperative, and demonstrates a sure grasp of the form. Indeed, several of the works included in Captives have been published elsewhere, which suggests her writing in this form has gained recognition.

Captives contains 37 pieces, and they vary greatly in topic, theme and setting. Some are set in the past, some the future, some in exotic places like Norway or Scotland, and others in Australia. Some are realistic, while others toy with the unexplained. Their protagonists range from a man who has accidentally locked himself in the toilet (“Thirteen tiles”) to a sister with a secret (“We were always close”). Some pieces have been inspired by news stories like those about men who lock up women for years (“Green-eyed snake”) or about the man who walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon (“Tightrope walker’s daughter”). Other pieces reveal writers she admires, such as George Orwell (“Booklover’s corner”) and Italo Calvino (“One of the strings and their supports remain”). In all, though, the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves. As you’d probably expect given the form, we don’t always know the outcome. Meyer leaves clues, of course, and sometimes we can be confident we know what will happen, but other times those clues simply tease us with possibilities.

The collection starts with a bang, almost literally. In “The day before the wedding” the bride discovers something new about “her love”. He is out duck-shooting, and

Still her love had the gun trained on her, and she stood, and even when he lowered it and his expression revealed play, a joke, she knew she’d seen his true face.

I don’t think this spoils the story, because the conclusion which follows is one of those teasers I mentioned – unsettling, but for whom? Meyer’s language here is tight and spare, and uncompromising. I loved it, and knew I’d made the right decision to buy this book.

Subtitled “Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment”, the collection is dark, overall.  But, there are (somewhat) lighter pieces. In “Glitch”, Daniella finds a solution to her problem of hearing the devil, “the hiss of Beelzebub”, in the machines around her, and in “Brand new” the narrator finds comfort in the company of a brain-damaged elderly man. This story reminded me of my reading group’s joke that when we are old and have lost our memories we will just read the same book every month. Much cheaper, and just as much fun – if we choose the right book!

I can’t possibly cover all the pieces, so will look at one section, In/Out, which comprises six pieces. In “Meds” the narrator needs to decide whether he will join his partner and friends in their calm, medicated (or, as he sees it, capitulated) lives, while in “One of the crew” a woman fakes being a writers’ festival official. There’s an interesting paradox here: in the first story our protagonist is invited “in” but doesn’t want to accept, while in the second the woman wants to be “in” so pretends to be so. In two of the other pieces, the in/out dichotomy is more literal. There’s the aforementioned toilet prisoner in “Thirteen tiles”, and there’s “Foreign bodies”, in which Kate, a prisoner in gaol, starts to swallow increasingly bigger objects. The conclusion to this story, though, pushes literalism to the limit. Indeed, in many of the stories, Meyer plays with the tension between literalism or realism and the absurd or fanciful. There’s often a fine line …

I haven’t talked much about the writing, because the stories themselves are so powerful. However, part of the power of the stories comes from the writing, of course. It’s perhaps intrinsic to the form, but the writing is direct, spare. It can also be elliptical at times. Meyer expects her readers to work, but that too is the nature of short fiction. And there is tight pointed use of imagery, as in the opening paragraph of “We’ve always been close”:

My sister and I stretched a tarp over the mud to make a slide into the dam, just like when we were kids. It was full from the recent storm. Magpies called. From the dam, I splashed gritty brown water up onto the slide to give my sister something to slip on. She squealed and laughed and the sound dirtied my chest with guilt. She gripped my shoulders after landing, as she was afraid of the bottom. We’ve always been close.

On the surface a happy scene, but we know from the language that something is not quite right …

Captives is an appropriate title for the collection because, whether they know it or not, most if not all the protagonists are captives in one way or another – some physically, some psychologically or intellectually, some both. Some escape, while others remain trapped (at least to the best of our knowledge). Deborah, a psychologist in “Spark”, is trying to escape:

She had wanted to agitate the structure, to act out, in ways a psychologist should not.

Fortunately for us, though, Meyer is a writer of fiction and it is perfectly acceptable for her “to agitate the structure”. This she has done with confidence and flair. Not every story grabbed me equally, but I think that’s more to do with me and my experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if different readers found different stories worked best for them. So, my recommendation is that if you haven’t read flash fiction, this would be an excellent place to start.

awwchallenge2015Angela Meyer
Design: Sandy Cull
Carlton South: Inkerman and Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9780987540126

Angela Meyer (ed), The great unknown (Review)

Angela Meyer, The great unknown

Courtesy: Spineless Wonders

The great unknown is a mind-bending collection of short stories which explores, as editor Angela Meyer says, “the unknown, the mysterious, or even just the slightly off.” I was, in fact, expecting more horror, thriller even, which are genres that don’t really interest me, but this collection is not that. There are some truly scary scenes – so if that’s your bag then you’ll appreciate this collection – but many are more subtly mysterious, giving the collection a broader appeal.

There are nineteen stories, most of which are the result of Meyer’s direct invitation to some favourite authors. Six, though, come from the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, 2013, of which Meyer was the judge. The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files where inexplicable things happen. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in setting, voice, subject matter – and even tone. Some are funny, some sad, most are disconcerting and some, of course, are scary.

The collection starts in a suitably creepy way with Krissy Kneen’s “Sleepwalk” in which the protagonist, Brendan, wakes up in the middle of the night to find his partner, Emily – the sleepwalker of the title – missing from their bed. This doesn’t sound particularly unusual, except that upon investigation Brendan discovers Emily intently taking photos – and not with a modern digital camera, but one requiring “real” film. When developing the photos, they see a blurry grey figure. Who is it? What does it mean? To find out you’ll have to read the story – but I can say that it provides a perfect opener to a collection of stories in which the relationship between a couple is a common springboard. After all, where better to explore the inexplicable but in that closest of human relationships, the one in which love and hate, trust and fear, so often collide.

Several of the stories confront contemporary dilemmas. One of my favourites, and winner of the Carmel Bird Award, is Alexander Cothren’s “A Cure”, a truly disturbing Twlight-Zone-like story about a treatment, the appropriately named MindFi, for compassion fatigue. Another TZ-like story I enjoyed is Guy Salvidge’s “A Void”, which is also futuristic and drops us into a world of “Seekers” and experimental drugs. I’m not sure why I enjoyed these TZ-like stories because it was a Twilight Zone episode that set off the most distressing period of my childhood. I’m sure it was that show that turned me off horror for life – quite the opposite reaction to Angela Meyer’s it seems!

Another clever story, and one with an unexpected narrative point of view, is Mark O’Flynn’s “Bluey and Myrtle” about a caged bird and his old mistress. Both have lost their loves and are lonely, but it’s the self-aware bird who takes things into his own hands. Growing older is also the theme of Susan Yardley’s “Significance” in which a woman’s sense of invisibility and irrelevance manifests itself physically. As a woman of a certain age, I can relate to that (though fortunately not within my own family). This story reminded me of Anne Tyler’s novel Ladder of years, except that Tyler explores her theme without resorting to the “fifth dimension”.

Before I stop picking out favourite stories, of which there are several more, I’ll just mention PM Newton’s “The Local” which perfectly captures life in a remote country town and the dangers that lie within. There are of course stories that I didn’t like as much. For me, the writing in Chris Flynn’s “Sealer’s Cove” was too self-conscious and the time-travel story didn’t grab. And Ali Alizadeh’s satire on the Oprah Winfrey-Lance Armstrong interview in “Truth and reconciliation” was a good idea and funny to a point but a little too heavy-handed for my tastes. Satire is like that, I suppose.

An important part of editing a collection is ordering the contents. Meyer has done a neat job of placing the stories in an order that seems natural and thereby enhances our reading. For example, two outback stories featuring missing people, PM Newton’s “The Local” and Rhys Tate’s “The Koala Motel”, one set in a pub and the other a motel, are placed together. And Paddy O’Reilly’s “Reality TV” is followed by the TV-set show, Alizadeh’s “Truth and reconciliation”. It, in turn, is followed by Guy Salvidge’s “A Void” in which drugs feature. Three stories in a row – by Marion Halligan, Susan Yardley and AS Patrìc – feature missing or disappearing women. Put this way, it sounds a little mechanistic but in fact it provides a subtle underlying coherence to what is a highly varied collection.

Meyer concludes the collection with Ryan O’Neill’s “Sticks and Stones” in which a reader, who smugly comments that “characters in ghost stories behaved as if they’d never read ghost stories”, becomes haunted, hounded even, by words. They move, follow and curse him … words, indeed, are dangerous. Be afraid, be very afraid – but don’t let that put you off reading this book! It’s well worth the odd heart palpitation.

awwchallenge2014Angela Meyer (ed)
The great unknown
Strawberry Hills: Spineless Wonders, 2013
ISBN: 9780987447937

(Review copy supplied by Spineless Wonders, via Angela Meyer)