A Review of Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There
By Eugen Bacon
Now I’m for sure going to struggle to explain the way she just sat there, okay. So just you try to be patient now because I do have something to say here and you might be glad you listened. (1)
How we approach a short story, any story, influences our interaction with the text, where pre-reading judgements affect the intercourse between the author and reader. My approach to this collection was of a reader expecting to notice characteristics of the archetypal short story. As I immersed myself into the act of reading, I experienced subtle and then significant movement from being resistant to being enticed by the author’s voice and style.
Let me explain. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the short story as ‘a very brief story with immediate point’ (1964: 976). The Collins English Dictionary defines the short story as ‘a prose narrative of shorter length than the novel, esp. one that concentrates on a single theme’ (1991: 1431). But, on defining a short story, A Dictionary of literary terms and literary theory says ‘when it comes to classification this is one of the most elusive forms … One is confronted with the question: how long (or short) is short?’ (Cuddon 1998: 815). So it’s not that I was confounded by the length of the stories, this being a matter of subjectivity; or that I was deterred by the language, this being easy, conversational, vivid:
I took Maria-Elizabeth for a walk along the beach and I showed her the scar on my nape where I’d been stabbed and she ran her finger around the thin lips of hardened tissue and I felt like she was pressing a coin or an amulet into me. (70)
What threw me were my anticipations, balanced against my understandings of the general principles of writing a short story. Namely I was chasing what American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver meant when he described his approach to writing the short form: Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on. (1981, 1)
While stories in Hang Him When He Is Not There find intensity in the everyday, the author lingers. Sure, the innocuous narrator sends a chill along your spine without drawing attention to it, as in a mystic’s act:
Walking alone one afternoon, I became lost, and woke in a trailer with a woman asleep on the other side of the cabin. Her tracksuit was blue and came off without her waking. (55)
The narrator does not expound the rape beyond these two sentences, and simply moves on, immediately, to explain life in the mystic household:
Fights in the house never crossed the sexes, occurring only between women, inexplicably, or between men…. (55)
My resistance linked to the fact that these short stories do not adhere to what author Paul March-Russell fondly posits as literary fragments (2009: viii). These stories do not boast precision. In their elaborations, they read like excerpts of a novel.
The prologue sets the tone of the prose, of an author fascinated with text. The subject matter is abstract, about a woman stuck in a place:
By the look on her face if you’d asked me six months ago I’d have said without a doubt that she was stuck in the last room, if you know what I mean. I’ve seen it a thousand times, the same look, like they’ve been walking forever through some mansion that’s always had a million hallways and rooms and attics and dungeons, and they’ve always just without really knowing why been going through this doorway or up that stairwell, not really chasing anything in particular, just moving from place to place, and now suddenly for the first time they’re standing in a room that doesn’t seem to have any way in or out, no doors or passages… (1)
The rest of the stories mostly go likewise. Told in first (sometimes second) person narration, voice is bold yet easy, conversational. Vignettes read like chapters of a fat novel, one that promises a titillating climax. The assemblage is not a tome but is loquacious in a ‘maddening’ or an enthralling way.
Returning to my approach, and subsequent inner scrutiny, I cast a spotlight on my immediate disposal to question, and linked it to what Wenche Ommundsen suggests on conditioning factors in the author/reader relationship, i.e., the ‘textual intercourse’ between the author and reader, and how it interacts with dynamics such as the ‘genre to which the text is perceived to belong’ (1993: 74). Generic expectations in the reader’s approach (anticipation of what is preconceived as fantasy or science fiction or short fiction, for example) ‘condition the reader’s reception of the individual text’ (74). As a writer of short fiction I approached the collection seeking short stories.
But the separate narratives possess none of the characteristics of a typical short story: not a ‘combination of the compact form and the possibilities for innovation’ (Thomas 2016); not ‘pocket sized epics … sympathetic to a sustained, intensive vibe’ (Rintoul 2016); not ‘a glimpse … of a wider story’ (Horn 2016). These vignettes do not ‘throw the reader straight into a world, and pull them out again just as quickly, leaving them asking questions, and constantly thinking’ (Canlin 2016); rather, they ceremoniously paint portraits in intricate detail. They coax the reader into an absorbing world, and entertain them with possibilities:
I knew Jimmy pretty well for a while there back when I was just starting out at my job. We used to hang out in our lunch breaks sometimes… I mean I always knew he had some problems and I always felt for him. He’s one of those guys you kind of feel a bit close to because he never talked any shit… Shit. Beheaded. What the fucking hell. What the goddamn fucking… And Jimmy of all people. (37 – 38)
Possibilities emerge when the narrator’s monologue transverses (with levity) from the telegram of a beheading to a drinking problem:
And so look it’s not the kind of thing I just go about saying to people but I think we’re sort of at the point where I don’t feel like it’s much more of a thing for me to just admit that I’m an alcoholic… I’m just a guy that actually needs a little drink like on a regular basis… (42)
With each idiosyncratic narrator, the author takes a risk because, like most human relationships, literary communication mediates a precarious balance of power: power to narrate, power to interpret, power, finally, to accept or decline the roles offered by one’s partners in the literary act (Ommundsen1993: 68). The author, with his experimenting, disremembers the reader’s supreme power to abandon the text (71).
Flashback to my initial resistance… As I mulled upon my power to abandon the text, and then chose to reconfigure my approach, I stopped my pursuit of the archetypal short story. This release of readerly expectation changed everything. No longer salivating for condensation, precision, careful use of textual space … I began to savour the narrative. The text started offering itself as an object of desire. It seduced me; played upon me like the body of a lover (Ommundsen 1993: 71). Suddenly I was willing to engage with the literary act and give this text a ‘fair go’ (75).
I at once recognised postmodernism at work, in March-Russell ‘speak’:
The postmodern is … undecidable (2009: 222–223): The prologue and stories such as ‘Local anaesthetic’ (about Errol Doyle and his immobility—or his passing, or Ursula and her reading—or her death) and ‘I want to be honest with you, sir’ (about a beheading—or an alcoholic) leave meaning to be uncovered.
The postmodern is … decentred (March-Russell 2009: 224): Nearly all stories in their ‘undecidability’ dissolve centralisation; the narrator throws text off-balance and proposes new centres of meaning.
The postmodern is … simulation (March-Russell 2009: 226): An unpredictable narrator draws a thin line between reality and the hyperreal.
The postmodern is … surface (March-Russell 2009: 229): The narrator, in stories such as the mystic who rapes, is capable of hinting at underlying truth while staying inexpressive, revealing something disturbing with emotional detachment.
“I stopped my pursuit of the archetypal short story. This release of readerly expectation changed everything. No longer salivating for condensation, precision, careful use of textual space … I began to savour the narrative.”
I recognise postmodernism (Roland Barthes in particular) in snippets of Turner’s text, recitations within stories, a narrator talks of ‘fictions’, ‘literary sketches’, ‘prose’ (93), where a finished text offers ‘a feeling of content or justice, the end of an itch or an illness, the trueness of a plane’ (8). I ponder if this inner gaze refracts to Turner, whose delight in language brings to fore postmodernist Barthes’ idea of play, enchantment with unique articulation.
Turner offers in his text a language whose ‘forms can be filled in different fashions’ (Barthes 1985: 26). No longer resisting, I begin to appreciate the level of detail in describing:
– a mother: She is a horror of obesity, balancing even as she sits, knees splayed, the shapeless dreams of an Islander woman draped over her Danish flesh … Her ears, alone, are small and elegant. (7-8)
– old age: the weather is a mood but it’s also a pain. A pain in my joints, to be precise. (94)
– masturbation: Gabriel was sitting on the floor massaging his testicles with his back against the foot of his bed and he was wearing only a t-shirt. His heels were tucked up against his buttocks and his other hand was splayed on the floor beside him and his eyes were closed. (65)
– relationship with a father: he used to sometimes throw his half-full dinner plate on the ground and leave the table and go and sit on his armchair on the other side of the room and watch my mother and sister and me in reverse … It was a bit of a game for my sister and me. Scary but still a game. And kids like that stuff. Though my Mum always struggled to keep her face straight and sometimes she went red and laughed and coughed because she was trying to stop it. And there were tears of effort and coughing or choking and occasionally she just got up and covered her face and ran off. (39–40)
– fear and respect: And maybe the difference is that sympathetic people understand your fears and show you with everything they do and don’t do that they know what scares you. And with their own behaviour towards you they sketch the outlines and shadows that make a really accurate sort of image of your fears… (44)
– anal rape: That morning one of the older men in the house had come into a room where I was laying down and crawled onto my back. He ripped my shorts with his ropy, hairless, grey arms … I protested in good faith, scratched him at the hip … bit a cheek, then let myself be held, in silence, as the man’s old body wound down, slowly eased its vigour, and dripped off me like a wet shell. (56-57)
– A wife’s contempt ‘as sincere as death’ (94).
Metafiction is present in direct reader address:
The smell was foreign and putrid. Around a thin wall my mother sits (she, alone, is always in the present—not a memory but a fixture)…I was indeed a proof-reader. (7–8)
As I read, a pattern emerges. Nicholas Turner’s debut collection is not quite a story cycle. A typical story cycle in the literary world contains narratives held together by the arrangement of stories, thematic ties or collective protagonists, where a set of related tales constitute a closed and sufficient unit. Recurring themes of death, near death, psychological deficits of primary and secondary characters—whether novelist, mystic, doctor, nurse or resident of an aged-care nursing facility—loosely bind some stories in Hang Him When He Is Not There. In fact two fictions, ‘Local anaesthetic’ (21) and ‘What he meant when he said’ (105), offer recurring characters, location and events.
In ‘Local anaesthetic’, a young nurse at the Lady Flinders nursing home secretly assumes the role of psychologist, nudged by the nursing home’s director to reportage on the patients:
The nursing home’s director, having secretly employed the young nurse in the role of psychologist, accepted her analysis late one evening in his office. (33)
In ‘What he meant when he said’, it turns out the young nurse’s name is Jennifer:
Having majored in psychology during her undergraduate degree, Jennifer was occasionally asked to examine guests at the Lady Flinders, and provide reports in secret to the director. (110)
Both narratives mention the same author, Gunter Grass, and the author’s books: Local anaesthetic and Cat and mouse. However, each narrative offers a different protagonist with their unique storyline. The young nurse is merely a recurring secondary character, who in ‘What he meant when he said’ ends up becoming a successful novelist!
On rethinking the works, I arrive at an edifying conclusion that renders my experience of the collection charming. Hang Him When He Is Not There is literary and postmodernist: ‘untethered from its origin’, ‘forever resituating its destination’ (Ommundsen 1993: 59). It plays with hyperreality: what is real or imagined?
The narrator reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges, who in ‘Borges and I’ conducts a monologue with the self, and concludes, ‘I do not know which of us has written this page’; of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)—whose narrator’s peculiar foreword endures in a thorough playfulness of text across the entire narrative, despite the work’s sombre topics (paedophilia and murder); of Gerard Murnane in A million windows (2014)—who lends his novel to a certain peculiarity, fitting the very description of a novel only in being fictitious prose of book length.
Like Murnane, Turner encloses characters, actions and some realism that loses and finds itself in the narrator’s ‘non-sentences’ and play with trust and mistrust in the writerly/readerly relationship:
I’m returning from the bathroom. I am wet. I pretend I was not expecting you, but I was. I am. I am always expecting you. I am only surprised when I emerge from the toilet and you are not there. I’m emerging and you’re there, that’s how I know it goes. (103)
Sporadic moments of frustration remain in this gem where I wish for language restraint, a tighter edit; where long sentences interrupted with the narrator’s bracketed thoughts disrupt this reader’s flow; where the final chapter ‘All that remains’ reads like a postscript, cut scenes from a finished film …
But I no longer question the author’s intentions, capabilities or psyche, his world views or moral concepts. With the narrator’s oft direct address, I am an active reader, never a passive bystander observing the textual spectacle from a safe distance … (Ommundsen 1993: 77).
Foreshadowed by its quirky name, Hang Him When He Is Not There is darkly humorous, impish, elusive and intimate. Its inescapable narrator stays accessible, conversational in his or her logic, or illogic, irrespective of topic: an escapade, a rape, a beheading. Characters circumvent a literary or scholarly world: journalists, novelists, ghost writers, film makers, academics … This collage of short fiction is a fresh, electrifying, perplexing, flamboyant cornucopia of self-reflective text.