Vicky Jarrett, The Way Out (Freight, 2015)
By Gerard Lee McKeever
Writing about the poor is a dangerous game. It is, perhaps, the most dangerous game in literature. The exploration of disadvantaged social realities raises a series of (often unhelpful) controversies. What right does the author have to speak? Do they possess an authentic voice? Is this cultural appropriation? Patronisation? Idealisation? What about the audience – who is this for? Is literature by its very nature a bourgeois preserve? The life of the “people” is an elusive and volatile question, and these bristling doubts make things difficult.
Part of this sensitivity can be traced back to the work of the German polymath Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century. Herder was influential in the development of culture as we now know it. In the preceding period culture was chiefly understood as an active process, a narrative of progressive development (“culturing”).
In Herder’s hands it became a relatively static entity bound to the great cultural works, social customs and historical consciousness of the people (“national character”). Particularly central was a national literature, in a gesture which is still profoundly relevant in contemporary Britain in the respective significance of Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. Herder’s völkisch model of culture prepared the way for that seminal piece of popular ventriloquism, William Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800). “What is a Poet?” Wordsworth asks: “He is a man speaking to men.” He is a man speaking in the “real language of men.” He is a man, of course, “endowed with more lively sensibility” and a host of other superiorities, yet one who mediates “ordinary things […] in an unusual aspect,” revealing “Humble and rustic life” in all its “elementary” virtue. The problems with this line of argument are manifold and probably too familiar to merit much comment. Suffice it to say that “speaking to men” slides into “speaking for men” and invites the criticisms that Wordsworth’s assumption of the vox populi has intermittently received. Certainly anyone with much experience of the Cumbrian dialect might well have reservations about the poet’s “real language.”
In short, then, literature bears an unusually pronounced relationship to the supposed authentic voice of the people, and is jealously policed because of this power. This is especially true for poetry and song (and to a lesser degree drama), all of which can lay claim to the oral tradition, that heartland of the Volk. Yet, even at the turn of the nineteenth century, fiction was accruing much of the same cultural capital. Thus it is a delicate environment into which Vicki Jarrett’s debut collection of short stories is released, pitched by its publisher Freight Books as capturing “the lives of women at the margins,” in “a world of chip shops, offices, call centres and run-down homes.” In a series of twenty-two short-short stories (some only a few pages long), Jarrett fixes her gaze on a social substratum marked by overlapping forms of disadvantage (“intersectionality” is the term currently used to describe this clustering effect). Gender, class and age are the prime threads in the web, recurring through the collection as the often painful architecture of that great modern construct, “identity.” Identity politics provide both the ideological context and polemical thrust to Jarrett’s work here, which is interested in the experience of social dislocation, more or even rather than its root causes and remedy. This is a literature of struggle rather than one of protest, though the former may necessarily invoke the latter. The blurb’s listing of urban monuments, “chip shops, offices, call centres and run-down homes,” reflects the level on which this experience is construed as modern or postmodern. These sites of secular vacuity are populated by characters struggling with what Émile Durkheim defines in Suicide (1897) as “anomie,” the condition of social and moral breakdown occasioned by rapid historical change. Yet Jarrett’s is not a portrait of ritual meaninglessness. Indeed the strength of her writing lies in its ability to tease out the complex, dense import of small moments and interactions. She is capable of communicating layers of understanding and the strangeness of human behaviour in a society that is broken but far from dead. A marker of the success of this writing, then, which is promising though not (yet) perfected, is the degree to which it negates the difficult questions I outlined above. Distracted by her characters’ struggles to live authentically, we can allow ourselves to forget about the text’s own journey.
Like most writers, Jarrett’s voice takes a bit of getting used to. She is capable of moments of taut aesthetic radiance, as in the description of an exploding street in ‘What Remains’:
When the gas main exploded under number 36 flinging slates, bricks and assorted debris high into the night sky, winking across the stars to land in the back gardens and hedges of neighbouring houses, Marvin looked up.
There are delicious flashes, yet these nuggets of exuberance linger among a prose that is sometimes functional. Jarrett writes a precise and generally well-crafted English, but could allow herself a few more suggestive departures – although this is certainly an issue of personal taste.
The physical decay of the city is a key image in the collection, its sequence of protagonists bound to an urban space that is fundamentally untrustworthy, an anxious landscape filled by “the lonely howl of approaching sirens.” In ‘What Remains’ the chaos of an accident enters into an elderly man’s life, confronting his sense of uselessness and inability to communicate properly: “Marvin tried to explain but she was already gone.” Experiencing the world as a confusing set of challenges, experienced by the world largely as invisible or off-putting, Marvin is representative of Jarrett’s studies in decline in all but his gender. His clumsy attempts to deal with his discovery of a severed hand, which carries “the scent of some macabre night-blooming flower,” is one of the ways in which her characters forge pockets of meaning (he puts it down his trousers). A number of the pieces have sharp and unexpected conclusions and this is a case in point, the drama of the explosion finally enveloped and dissolved in Marvin’s dementia, the act of making a cup of tea finding him back at a kind of existential ground-zero or groundhog day. If in the story a child’s cry becomes “a tiny human siren,” Marvin’s particular tragedy appears to be his imprisonment in a world of circular and prosaic anxieties, which even the destruction of the street cannot finally puncture.
The brevity of these works functions as both a strength and a weakness. The generic paradigm of the “short story” has been shifting in recent years – mostly contracting – influenced no doubt by the mores of online reading and other forms of impatience. Despite compensatory interest in long-form short fiction (generally 7,000 words plus) this has meant that the industry standard is now closer to 1,000-4,000 words for shorts, while flash fiction can be anything from 10 to around 500 words long (previously the domain of the witticism, the vignette and the anecdote). In Jarrett’s case the tighter end of the scale can work very nicely, as in ‘Fitting’, where the act of buying shoes devolves into doppelganger gothic. Again, she has an eye for juicy social detail, here the embarrassment of someone trying on your own temporarily abandoned footwear: “Surely she must have noticed the shoes weren’t new?” The protagonist ends up following the thief through the city, never quite gaining ground, “joined by an invisible cord that neither lengthened nor shortened.” This invokes a whole Scottish tradition of uncanny storytelling from Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hogg’s Edinburgh masterpiece, indeed, strikes a particularly relevant note, given Jarrett’s roots in the city: at times this collection could be considered an essay on the capital, though this is not made explicit. Regardless, the doubling motif works well in ‘Fitting’, played out with a satisfying degree of the surreal. Jarrett probably over-explains her ending slightly, the protagonist reflecting that, “these footprints should mark my departure from identity,” though this is something she is rarely guilty of. In ‘How to Not Get Eaten by Tigers’, for example, the ‘meaning’ of the tale is left alluringly below the surface of the narrative, though this piece falls foul of the chief pitfall of the short-short story. As in other work like ‘Loving the Alien,’ the form can invite a sketchy notepad feel, offering an idea that is not fully worked through. The trick in writing within these constraints is in creating a satisfying narrative arc: no small challenge. Thus most effective short stories do not feel as if they could have been plucked from something longer. They articulate a fully-formed internal logic, even when this is fragmentary. Such forms of wholeness are certainly possible in even the shortest fiction and Jarrett demonstrates this repeatedly, yet a few of her pieces do threaten insubstantiality.
Returning to Wordsworth’s pompous declarations about men “speaking to men”: the issue of gender is consistently foregrounded in this collection. As if things were not already sufficiently imbalanced, many commentators have noted the disproportionate impact of the austerity years upon women in Britain. It is an axis of inequality that can appear natural almost to the point of transcending politics: gender discrimination being so manifest as to pose as existential certainty rather than ideological contingency. In ‘Ladies’ Day’ a trip to the races involves the proffer of female-only space and what this might involve. In the event it becomes saturated with the residue of ongoing daily lives as mothers and partners, an escape that is no real escape at all: “None of us are used to talking without constant interruption from children.” Escape, as the title of the collection suggests, is its dominant motif, though it is rarely realised and in ‘Ladies’ Day’ is played-out only vicariously in the physical overabundance of a sprinting horse, “a hurtling mass of muscle and sweat.” Yet while the ladies have only one day – “every other day” belonging to men – the horse also has no way out, chasing the vanishing point of “a place where maybe she can stop running.”
Also effective is the claustrophobia of low self-esteem in ‘Bingo Wings’, one of a number of stories that deal with the trauma of abortion, child removal and infant mortality. Yearning for a past that contained “hot breath and sinew,” Dora lives through a set of closed possibilities, clinging to the escape-laden notion that the child she was forced to give up for adoption went on to become a medical professional in Australia, and not “a druggie, like those lassies in the flats.” When she wins a national jackpot at the bingo, so resolute is her confidence now in “waiting for nothing to happen” – “It always did” – that she stays quiet. “Nothing” happening, of course, on one level very much involves an event for Dora, as she pines for her lost daughter. Jarrett paints a life of disappointment, habituated until success is an alien and unsettling incursion, even if Dora does nurse her victory in a private moment of feeling “light” enough to “fly in great swooping arcs around the hall.” The small routines of existence are nicely crafted here:
She poured half of her bottle of stout into a glass, arranged her books on the table and tested her dabber on a scrap of paper, making a trail of red dots.
Mirroring the typographical device of the ellipsis, this “trail of red dots” is a fabulous symbol for a life that has ceased to have the potential for growth, trailing off into stasis. Living “in hope,” has become a resigned, cyclical anticipation of “nothing.” Yet just as ellipses (like all “nothings”) are pregnant with meaning, the story is not entirely devoid of positivity, through the suggestion of something beautiful or at least genuine in the human condition: “There was a grace about them that couldn’t be hidden by any amount of brown cardigans or puffy ankles.”
The mechanisms that perpetuate poverty are naturally complex. Recent research on the experience of the Holocaust has demonstrated that serious trauma can impact our genetic makeup and thus be transmitted physically across generations. This adds some problematic colouring to ideas about hereditary predisposition and the possibility of escape, though social conditions are surely the overwhelming factor at play. In ‘Mezzanine’, Jarrett probes at the nature/nurture question. A young woman who works as a “Picker,” climbing among shelving in a large warehouse, wonders at the nature of her troubles. Her mother embodies the question of inheritance, speaking in prefabricated phrases like “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” – these units of culture, or memes, operating with the patchwork structure of DNA. When the protagonist seeks out her father, she is confronted with the “overlaid shadows” of family lineage, “like a lesson in cause and effect.” As the father comments, “the apple never falls far from the tree.” Yet if the story seems to confirm that, “You can’t get away from genetics,” this may actually be a means of rationalising a more disturbing revelation: that the inescapable force is actually society itself, a damaged set of circumstances inhabited by father and daughter alike.
Towards the end of the collection, Jarrett returns to the physical disintegration of the city in a story called ‘Rubble’. In ‘Fitting’, she had imagined a kind of cleaning ritual involving the removal of the skin, “coming away in one unbroken piece” to leave her subject “pared down to my essentials.” It is a fantasy of regaining organic wholeness, once again “purely human,” returning to some pre-anomic state that lingers under the surface like a section of archaeological history. For a story that begins with shopping, it is appropriate that this external layer should be described as “branding.” In ‘Rubble’ it is the city itself which sheds its epidermis, the road “rolling itself up like a monstrous Swiss roll.” Yet this image is less one of rebirth than of apocalypse, leaving Melanie, the mother in the story, terrified for the fate of her infant son. In general terms, the supernatural as a narrative ploy can be subdivided into two categories, distinguished by the nature of the irony they deploy. In the first, the uncanny remains real within the dramatic frame; in the second it is punctured, explained away as a flaw in perception. ‘Rubble’ pursues the latter, rationalised approach, with urban collapse a nightmare born of mental distress, itself tied to the anxiety of joblessness. Yet if the flaying of the landscape is revealed as a mirage, there is a lurking sense that it – perhaps like all daydreams – is rooted in truth. The Way Out resists making overt statements about the structural aspects of social problems, but in moments such as this an underlying analysis squeezes through. As symbolised by the impasse of traffic, the city appears to be fundamentally out of balance, at least for those that dip below a threshold of stability. Melanie does not, perhaps cannot, quite articulate the matrix of pressures bearing down upon her, and perceives simply her environment being torn apart, rolled up, withdrawn. Her visualisation of threat again essays the claustrophobic spheres of being that preoccupy Jarrett. The story does a good job of articulating the stakes of parenthood, which can render problems in life unusually urgent and unacceptable. As a whole, the collection demonstrates a flair for realising constricted lives and patterns of thought from which there appears to be no way out:
Dear God. Doesn’t anyone else see it?
Despite being across the divide in Scotland’s central belt, Glasgow publisher Freight is a natural home for Vicki Jarrett’s short stories. This is clean, contemporary writing that mostly sustains a sense of purpose. A variety of the pieces have previously appeared in Gutter magazine, to which Jarrett is a regular contributor, and so the collection feels like an output from a progressive Scottish publishing scene to which Freight and Cargo provide one form of institutional apex. Collected short fiction can work in miscellaneous form, yet a strong thematic drive is generally a safer bet, and the congruence of the work here is salutary. Not everything in the book entirely comes off: against the punchy emotional impact of ‘Human Testing’ – which dramatizes memory as a melting together of timelines – there is the muddy, aggressive homoeroticism of ‘Chicken’, which feels insufficiently developed. Equally, while Jarrett articulates patterns of thought and interaction that feel extremely well-observed (the horrifying trial shift in ‘Home Security 2’ is a strong example), her occasional nods to colloquial speech aren’t always fully integrated. That said, The Way Out amply demonstrates Jarrett’s capacity in the unique world of short fiction. Already successful as a novelist, it will be interesting to see which form she favours in the future. At her best, she can produce a face-slapping and sly storytelling energy, providing “ordinary things” the “unusual aspect” which, after all, allows us to see them again. “The place already looks abandoned,” she writes in ‘Rubble’, but Jarrett’s skill is in showing us the vivid detail that loiters in the cracks of life. If there is truly no escape, then that becomes a critical vision indeed.
 For more on the development of the term “culture”, see Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. edn (London: Flamingo, 1983), pp. 89-90.