Making Sense – A review of Jim Murdoch’s Short Story Collection
The first time I saw her if you’d said to me within six weeks she would’ve given up her forty-year-old virginity to me across her creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon – accompanied by a recording of the BBC Philharmonic performing the final movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Proms on Radio 3 – I might’ve been shocked, but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the prospect. It would’ve taken quite quite a stretch of the imagination but then I guess that’s why I’ve always found wedding rings a strange source of fascination. Why? Because that’s a sign to everyone they’ve done it – with a man – probably more than once, possibly the previous evening and yet you see them all over the place – these most-ordinary women – on the bus or the train, clattering away on typewriters or trying to control hoards of unruly schoolchildren and you can’t tell – but you know. When I met Vivienne I couldn’t imagine her with anyone. The only wedding ring she possessed dangled on a chain between her breasts and they were well covered up. The thought simply never crossed my mind. It was a pleasant surprise to find she still possessed a fine cleavage indeed . Afterwards – to be frank it didn’t take too long – we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull, she burst out laughing. You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I looked back at her hanging out of her dress – I’ll never forget the look on her face and I can only imagine the look on mine – and I was off too. I’m sure the rapturous applause of the Albert Hall’s audience helped. I think that was when we fell in love (our coup de foudre), if you really wanted to pin things down to a moment in time, as if any one moment in time’s all that important.
(A taster from Jewelweed)
The opening story of this collection is a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative from an obsessive-compulsive character on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But there are several stories here which are narrated in the form of a monologue. Poise introduces us to a middle-aged woman who is entranced by another woman she only sees at the bus-stop or on the bus; they have never met, though they did once exchange a few words. Our narrator is poised for that one day when they will become friends. It didn’t happen today, but it might happen tomorrow. In Funny Strange we meet a man who was once a professional comedian, but who, after a long sojourn with alcohol, is longing to bring some humour back into his life.
There are a couple of stories here which I couldn’t read. From time to time Murdoch throws into the mix a short narrative in what I assume is Glaswegian dialect. I did try with each of them but made no headway whatsoever. Unfortunately,the glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book discovered a pit of indolence in me.
But in the main these stories present us with a character and a problem or a dilemma, together with an often rambling attempt at a solution or exposition. And usually the solution comes in the form of a realization from within. I don’t wish to give the impression that most of the stories follow a similar pattern, because they don’t and Jim Murdoch is an intelligent and practised writer, and he knows exactly what he is doing.
What he is doing in this collection is writing continually interesting narratives. His characters may often be idiosyncratic and not always adept at conveying their point, but they do invariably grab our attention and keep it until they decide to close down.
When I received this book in the post (supplied by the author) I had just finished the latest collection of stories by Alice Munro, and was deeply engaged with a collection from Annie Proulx. Both of these writers are magicians with the short-story form and, quite frankly, I did not expect Jim Murdoch’s collection to be in the same league.
I was right. But having said that, Murdoch does have an intuitive feel for language, the knack of knowing what will engage his readers and the unfailing ability to spin a tale of intrigue and suspense out of the everyday ingredients of life.