Friday, 19 October 2012

Strange stories at Lancaster Litfest 2012

One of the great things about a good short story is that you're never sure where it's going to take you. That was certainly the case listening to David Constantine and Adam Marek at Lancaster Litfest on Thursday.

Just as I enjoyed reading Constantine's prize winning story set up the road at the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, I was equally delighted when he announced that he was to read 'Goat', based in my home town of Durham. Like watching the 'Holiday' programme to see places you've already been, I was looking forward to mentions of the Market Square, the Cathedral and other favourite places.

Picture then, if you can, a tramp called Goat, so called because of two lumps on his forehead that look as though they might be horns. Goat, who suffers from priapism, has made his refuge in the headmaster's study of the ruined Bluecoats school. The school has been transformed into an ice palace by one of the coldest Christmases in memory. A Canon, about to be defrocked, is brought by the kind-hearted Fay to meet Goat. Fay takes out her penny whistle and soon the Canon and Goat are dancing joyfully, faster and faster, by the firelight.

In 'An Industrial Revolution', Marek transported the audience to the less familiar territory of a palm oil plantation in Sumatra. Set in the near future, this is no ordinary plantation, 'manned' as it is by humanised orangutans. We discover that these are no ordinary orangutans; they walk on two legs, handling dangerous tools with great dexterity and communicating in sign language. As the story unfolds, narrated by an investigative journalist revisiting the plantation after twenty years, we realize the shocking part played by his companion Eleanor in the development of the orangutan colony.

Constantine says that he is not a realist writer. Despite the realist settings of his stories, he acknowledges that his characters are often decidedly odd. But then, he argues, all people are odd, and some are odder than others. In Goat, Constantine shows man's urge to feel more alive.  For the Canon this is a utopian moment - only a short-lived escape from mundanity - but remarkable nonetheless.

For Marek too, strangeness is rooted in reality. He spoke of the importance of specificity in story telling. Even when writing about the future, not everything we know will have been abandoned. There will still be, he argues, antique chairs and biscuit tins.

So why do these writers prefer the short story to longer fiction? Constantine confessed to a loathing of the pluperfect tense. In a short story it's easier to experiment with form and not be constrained by novelistic conventions. He's not interested in the preamble or the closure - he wants to get straight to the part that interests him. Marek too enjoys the the freedom to experiment with form and perspective.  Short stories have the added benefit, he suggests, of being easier to abandon than a novel if they're not going well.

All in all, with intriguing stories and interesting debate, it was another entertaining evening at Lancaster Litfest.

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