Sometimes you read something that makes you wonder ‘why bother?’ as you’ll never write anything so fine. In Something Like Happy, John Burnside’s latest collection of short fiction, there is such a story. ‘Peach Melba’, is a remembrance of things past, of how the mundane and everyday can trigger the strongest memories.
But Burnside’s ‘Peach Melba’ is not simply his version of Proust’s Madeleine cakes, it is a reminder of how the memory of such small pleasures can remain important to hold on to. As the narrator asks ‘Why does one moment have so much power?’, and in this case it is because it is wrapped up in love, death, adolescence and, yes, happiness. Joy and pain.
What makes ‘Peach Melba’ standout in this collection of outstanding tales is because it has hope. The narrator is looking back and it is the hope of his younger self that is uplifting. There are large chunks of the prose I would like to quote here, but I’ll make do with the following; ‘We are, as we grow older, the products of the choices we make, both conscious and unconscious, and the only wisdom we can ever attain is the wisdom to know how the process works, at the most hidden level‘. Cookery and existentialism, no wonder I love this story so much.
Another reason ‘Peach Melba’ stands apart is because it has warmth, being one of only two stories set in the summer. Burnside has the weather match the mood, and if you know his fiction then you’ll know the love of snow and winter is a recurring motif. On the whole these are tales of ‘lives of quiet depersation’ set against a backdrop which is invariable cold and harsh. The title sets the tone in that for most of the characters ‘Something Like Happy’ is the best they can hope for.
‘Slut’s Hair’ is a visceral tale of domestic abuse, where a simple tooth ache leads to a brutal extraction and another cycle of violence followed by guilt. As Janice waits for Rob’s return she remembers some of the previous times where his jealousy and insecurity lead to a brutal and inevitable conclusion. Saving the kitchen mouse becomes symbolic. It is her secret from her husband and saving another’s life is a small victory for her in her constant battle.
In ‘The Bell Ringer’ the pragmatic Martha replies to Eva’s wishes of happiness by laughing, ‘I doubt anybody will come out of this happy‘. There is an acceptance that life is, if not quite ‘nasty, brutal and short’, that it will be mostly suffered rather than celebrated. This makes it sound as if Burnside is a mixture of James Kelman, Morrissey and Harold Pinter, a man who marvels in misery, but like those three his writing can be misunderstood in this sense. There are vivid sights, sounds and smells; there is love and humour on these pages, but Burnside never makes unrealistic promises for his characters. Every single person is utterly beleivable.
In ‘Godwit’ Wee Jamie’s life is saved by falling for Zoe Anne, while Fat Stan’s falls apart. Zoe Anne’s choosing of Jamie over Stan changes all their lives. As Stan turns to violence it is not only Jamie who reflects how his life could have followed a similar path. It would be trite to suggest that ‘all you need is love’, and Burnside is far to complex a writer to do so, but one of the themes that run through these tales is that the men are often hopeless on their own (although they are often hopless when they’re not on their own as well), and that it is the women who offer the hope.
Never is this more clearly expressed than in the final story. ‘The Future of Snow’, is one of reflection. Frank Morton, ‘Poor Frank’ as he is known in the village, is wandering the snowy hills looking for his dead wife. Frank is widely pitied but no one knows what to do for him, so he is doomed to search until he can look no more. This terribly sad story set against the beautiful backdrop of a snowy evening is a subtle and evocative end to these tales. As the narrator goes home to his family he compares Frank’s life with his own, and that’s what every story here does, forces the reader to compare their lives with those in the book. It is not to feel ‘there but for the grace of god’; more that we can question such moments in our own life, both good and bad. The feel of this collection is almost like a novel, one where individual lives are examined one at a time rather than interwoven. They are linked by place, sometimes by people, and even recurring phrases and images. This is not a collection just to dip in and out of, but one to be considered as a whole to get the full effect.
Burnside is as well known as a poet as he is a writer of fiction and it would be easy to say that you can see them crossing over into each other, but when you look at his back catalogue in every form of writing, including non-fiction, then you can only conclude that this is a master of all of his trades. Every paragraph in Something Like Happy contains a memorable phrase or image, but to anyone who has read Burnside before this should come as no surprise.
Perhaps it is because he is not easily categorised that he is not as well known as he should be. When I’ve asked other writers, and critics, about their favourite Scottish writers, Burnside’s name is invariably one of the first to come up. For any one who loves writing then John Burnside is the man for you, and Something Like Happy is a great place to start (alongside his award winning 2011 poetry collection Black Cat Bone). He may occasionally make you feel ‘what’s the point’, but that soon turns to inspiration. If you’re going to measure yourself against someone, it might as well be the very best.
*As a taster to the collection you can read the first story, ‘Something Like Happy’ on the New Yorker website.