I want things that I read to tattoo me. Like globally significant moments from my lifetime and memory; Mandela’s release, Diana’s death; I can remember where I was when I read fiction that scars me. I like scars, as I like tattoos – they remind me of a particular moment and the associated emotions. They remind me of what’s good about humanity; connection through stories.
I read Carver’s What We Talk About… on a long train journey from London to Cornwall, and spent that subsequent weekend in Falmouth pretending I was a Carver character. Colin Barrett’s Young Skins was a night-bus ride home from central London; I didn’t want to put it down even for the two-minute walk from the bus stop to my house, so I decided to stay on the bus all the way to Penge in order to spend more time with the inhabitants of the fictional town of Glanbeigh.
When tasked with the joyful and demanding provocation of my ‘favourite story’, I delved into my mind’s canon: Carter, Munro, Saunders, Keegan, Kennedy and Carver. But there was a dominant itch in the form of my recent reading of May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break. Raymond Carver’s editor Captain Fiction Gordon Lish, decided that Tan will, in two and a half years’ time, make the big lists of go-to short story writers. He was “jazzed crazy” by the collection. I’m in excellent company, so I’ll put my money where my mouth is.
It took me a long time to complete Things to Make and Break. I kept re-reading each story, double-checking I hadn’t been deceived by first-read impact. I took it everywhere with me; a child and her lovingly chewed blanket. I hoped my friends would be late for meeting so I could cram in a few more pages; I tried not to look disappointed when they arrived uncharacteristically on time.
‘Legendary’, the opening and most striking story of the collection, is about a nameless female narrator and her obsession with her anonymous lover’s ex-girlfriend, Holly. Here is a character whose obsession with her boyfriend’s ex feels like an investigation into the nature of contemporary relationships. The narrator desperately yet subconsciously tries to piece together logic as to why this odious yet bland man is able to connect temporarily with females who are exploring their freedom. Our protagonist explores freedom through her extreme consumption of evening classes (life drawing, Italian, karate) and Holly, one of his many ex-girlfriends who now exist as naked polaroids in an envelope labelled ‘TAX PAPERS’, through her occupation as trapeze artist:
Ten weeks later, when all the bones were knit, he finally saw her do her act. That’s when he dumped her. He doesn’t say, but I guess she must have looked too free and capable up there, swinging from the ropes.
As the narrator becomes more and more fixated with Holly, her bizarre behaviours (carefully choosing and buying Holly a book and delivering it to her house, fondling objects in her bathroom, waiting for her to appear at the end of her road for nights on end) make me feel huge empathy for these seemingly unsympathetic actions. This stalking feels creepy on the surface (“We’re so close I can smell her piña colada shampoo”) but the more we learn about her partner’s subtle cruelty and lack of ability to connect emotionally, the more we understand the narrator’s intentions. This man reminds me of a society preoccupied with quick-fix pornography and hook-ups; the anonymity of the characters in the relationship compounds this allegory.
The descriptions of sex are startling; matter-of-fact and devoid of intimacy: “It’s short and thick, and when he pushes it up inside he doesn’t use his hands at all. He doesn’t look me in the eyes, only at my mouth.” / “He is inside me. ‘Hi,’ I say, and start to move… ‘Pretend you’re still asleep’” / “He wants me to strangle him while we’re doing it.” How Tan was nominated for the bad sex in fiction award really confounds me. This sex is refreshingly explicit. It spits and rubs its Converse on Mills and Boon.
‘Legendary’ provides the right sort of detail, reminiscent of my university creative writing tutor’s Carver-stolen mantra: ‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger.’”
I was intrigued by the physical components of the stalking. The internet is not given time or mention in this story and this feels like a significant contribution to the story’s timelessness. The pared and precise language is reflected by the prominence the story gives to objects. Bicycles, books, physical photographs, envelopes and, a classic trope of much American fiction, a courier service, are all featured. The attention given to these objects creates a perfect amount of space. I’m drawn to writing that masters absence – I feel this honours the ubiquitous character of the reader: “We’ve broken up but I haven’t moved out, and I’m cutting his hair.” Glorious, stark space that makes me want to dive right into the page.
‘Legendary’ provides the right sort of detail, reminiscent of my university creative writing tutor’s Carver-stolen mantra: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” We become familiar with the narrator through her focus on others and observations of the physical world: “It’s mesmeric, the way their asses tick from side to side like a watch on a chain.”
As a compelling piece of fiction, ‘Legendary’ exists by itself as a sucker punch of neat, hard prose that forms its own complete world for seventeen pages, leaving a bruising aftermath.
Laura Kenwright is the Producer of the London Short Story Festival and Audience Development Manager for Spread the Word, London’s writer development organisation. The London Short Story Festival takes place at Waterstones Piccadilly from 18 to 21 June and Laura is jazzed crazy that May-Lan Tan will appear alongside Laura van den Berg and Jon McGregor.
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May-Lan Tan’s story collection Things to Make and Break is published by CB Editions and her chapbook Girly by Future Tense Books. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, The Atlas Review, Arete and The Reader. Born in Indonesia, Tan has lived in Hong Kong and the US and is now based in the UK. She works as an editor and copywriter, and is currently writing a novel and a story cycle. Read more.