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Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday August 25, 2013 MYT 8:47:12 AM
By ABBY WONG
SHORT stories have a difficult time winning a reader’s heart. They have to be swift, as, knowing that it is a short story, our attention span will be short. They have to engage readers with a myriad of messages, only one of which is ultimately revealed in full – not bluntly, but subtly, subtly enough to enthral readers with a sense of fulfilment, that they are wise enough to get the underlying message.
It is a game of hide and seek, and within such a small number of pages, reader and writer must come to the same conclusion. Most of the time, they don’t, however. But that is the true joy of short stories – writers keep readers guessing, and readers think they have guessed right. “Ah, I get it. The wife goes to meet her lover and ends up dying in a car crash,” the reader will exclaim.1
“Maybe,” the writer will chuckle, half wishing the reader has really got it, and half feeling happy that his idea remains opaque. 2
As this after all is a game, the tone has to be playful, and the voice, personal and stylish. At times, a short story writer will have an embedded story told in footnotes (as I have quickly learned to do in this review).
Readers, their eyes traversing between the top and the bottom, become even more intrigued. Not that this technique gives a clearer understanding of the writer’s mind, sadly. It muddles it.
“Ah, the parents are so romantic,” a reader blurts out a revelation.
The writer now guffaws, “You fool, read the footnote. They dance like two strangers trying to pass each other in a narrow corridor!” 3
But the reader thinks he is smart to have figured out what he thinks he has figured out. And he reads on. With no time to waste, he most likely is wrong – but it doesn’t matter, really.
Together, short stories form a collection, and the order in which they are arranged is important. The most impressive piece must take the lead, lest readers give up on the entire book upon reading the first few lines of the first story. Readers, more inclined to big dramatic novels, tend to be less forgiving of short story writers.
“They can’t write a full novel, hence a collection of short stories,” readers will mumble, their hands quickly turning the pages and their eyes darting from one page to another impatiently. 4
“What I have in there will blow you away,” the writer cries. 5
Indeed! If you are such a reader, of such a sceptical disposition, do allow me to recommend this collection of short stories: The Weight Of A Human Heart. It is a book that’s heavy not because of its slight number of pages but because of the wonderful short stories the writer weaves with his heart.
The writer must be whole-heartedly in love with language and literature. It is a love that is reflected in every paragraph and in every story throughout the entire collection. This is a love letter to English, as a language, and a paean to literature, as a source of enjoyment.
The writer’s mastery of language is not at all pretentious, though. He is a scholar at times and a comedian at others, taking readers on rambunctious rides in stories that poke fun at the English language and literature, the very things that he honours.
In the story entitled Four Letter Words, a son talks about his dad whose life can be succinctly covered in nine four-letter words, none of them decent.
I highly admire the writer’s penchant for trickery. He is a writer who winks towards what might be allusions to his thoughts, and distracts readers with stories that are all at once colourful, playful, humorous, heartbreaking, melancholic, bitter, and affectionate. In the end, readers care less about the codabut more about how intoxicated they are by the beautiful stories that take place in Europe, Africa and Asia, and the writer’s incredibly poignant reflections on loss, hardship and frailty of the human spirit.
Obviously discontent with constraints that force boring stereotypes on literature, this writer is highly creative and he pushes the limits by making up arbitrary literary experiments never before seen or heard of, making literature entertaining and exhilarating. 6
I am smitten by the writer 7 and his debut. It is a wondrous literary feast I so want to devour yet so wish I could savour slowly. Why not make this your entrée, your main course and your dessert? You will be utterly pleased.
1. The wife of the narrator in the story entitled Africa Is Crying had actually gone to see the gorillas before the car crash.
2. In fact, he thinks Africa, being the wife’s true love, has ironically devoured her, and he, equally ironically, chances upon the scene of death, not knowing it is the wife’s deathbed.
3. The parents of the narrator in Footnote are boring individuals and they were virgins when they married.
4. I too used to have such shallow presumption.
5. That’s the writer of this collection of short stories bellowing, and what he says is true.
6. Have you read a story in which another story reveals itself in the footnote? There is one in this collection.
7. Ryan O’Neill, an Australian writer and a metaphor for good storytelling.
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Short stories, The Weight Of A Human Heart, Ryan O’Neill
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