Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.
A promising start
I read a glowing review in New Scientist that convinced me this book was written just for me. Quirky, surreal short stories, each drawing inspiration from a science fact. I seared the title and author’s name into my memory so I could track it down.
I looked for it in every bookshop I went into. It wasn’t in Border’s Books, Kinokuniya, Abbey’s, Galaxy Books, Angus & Robertson, MacLean’s, The Book Grocer, Dymmock’s or Cooks Hill Books & Records. In the end I gave up and got it shipped from Amazon.co.uk. When it arrived I was excited.
It gets weird
Only when I held the book in my hands did it start occurring to me that things were a bit weird.
On the front cover I am reminded of this: The author has the same first name as me (not unusual) but with the same spelling (less common).
On the back cover I am informed of this: She (like I – and many others) has “two loves: fiction and science”. She (like I) studied maths and physics at university. She (like I, but to a varying degree) subsequently drifted towards science communication. Some of her short stories have been published by public media organisation BBC, or online or in print. (I have had stories published by public media organisation SBS, and online and in print).
In the frontmatter I learn this: that her partner has the same name as my partner (this is now the realm of lower probabilities). She has increasingly been focusing on flash fiction. My last writing project was flash fiction.
In the very first story I realise this: that she has used as a basis for the story exactly the same New Scientist article that I once quoted in one of my pieces of writing.
I feel like I am about to read something written by myself in a parallel universe.
Actually there are two problems here that combine.
Firstly, my own perfectionism and unhealthy levels of self criticism. I am one of those people who still implodes in the agony of embarrassment over something stupid they said fifteen years ago but no-one else will ever have remembered.
Secondly, I am largely untrained in the art and craft of literature. This doesn’t stop me enjoying certain books deeply, or disliking others finely. But it does mean if I were ever asked to be a judge for a literary award I’d be completely hopeless. I’d be the person who panned Zadie Smith for being boring (simply because I personally find her boring) and heaped accolades on whatever Oulipo-esque experimental creation that’d happened to appeal to the left hand side of my brain at that particular moment.
When faced, therefore, with a book which I seem to have written in a parallel universe, this happens: I lose all objectivity, I cringe at every tiny flaw I find, and I am completely unable to work out whether the book is total, embarrassing, amateur garbage (i.e. the book I believe I would have written) or wonderful, quirky, heartfelt and technically sound brilliance (i.e. the book I am always aiming to write).
My review of this book
This book is one of the following two things:
(1) a collection of amateurish indulgences with high aims that nonetheless consistently falls short of the mark by its use of cliche, factual error or almost-but-not-quite-there characterisation and voice
(2) a highly enjoyable and unique work that masterfully combines the objective world of scientific fact with heartfelt, human tales of longing and loss. The author’s provocative imagination conjours stories that brush the edges of magic realism and existential absurdity in moving, surreal tales reminiscent of Peter Carey’s The Fat Man in History. (And so on; blah blah etc. This is how people rave about books, isn’t it?)
Specifics: First Story
The White Road, the first and titular story, is set in the Antarctica of the near future. It’s narrated by the woman who runs a truck stop on the ice road that links coastal McMurdo Base to South Pole Station. She serves coffee and scrambled eggs to delivery drivers, and tries to escape the memories of unnamed horrors from her past.
I like the story. (You can read it yourself online). I like the way the narrator talks, in lazy blunt idiom:
That’s what we call it, because that’s what it is, all white. Some days, you’ve got to wear those special glasses that they gave out on the Induction Day. Two pairs, in case one got broke. They said, Don’t look at that snow when it’s sunshining or we’ll be putting the patch over your eyes, and that’ll be enough seeing for you.
The induction day. In case one got broke. When it’s sunshining. Love it. I also like the little snatches of conversation that happen in the truckstop – completely meaningless but still the stuff and pith of life. I am moved by the tragedy. I admire how Hershman’s created a character as closed up as the Antarctic is open.
The subtle little hints about the tragedy in her past bug me. They feel way too heavy-handed. They should be like tiny cracks in the coziness of the story that trip up a reader; draw their eye back as if to check whether they really did read what they thought they did; reward them for their careful reading. Instead they feel like they’ve been mentioned in the way a child mentions an achievement and then waits for recognition and approval.
Worst of all: she makes a big factual error – bad enough for any book, but excruciating for a book specifically inspired by science. The narrator’s life is dictated by the rhythm of the day: “In the evenings we’ll watch the TV.” “I open for business in the morning of a minus forty”. “Last Wednesday it was one of them sunny days”. “We get up when the sun does.” But she’s only a few miles from the pole where there should only be one day and one night a year. Oh, it makes me squirm like that time I had a story published about a space journey and afterwards when my dad read it he pointed out I’d said in the first paragraph that the shuttle was partly made of cement (I meant ceramic! How could I have been so stupid to have mixed it up and not noticed. Everyone must be laughing at me in contempt, etc.). Ouch.
Specifics: Other Stories
Heavy Bones is a short and punchy and moving and funny vignette that’s ruined (in my own self-conscious reading) by the awkwardness of the last two sentences. Self Raising is a poignant story of a woman who has sacrificed her own career in science to motherhood, and while I like the magic-realist ending, I can’t buy into the idea that a business making cakes in the shape of lab coats and test tubes could actually have a market. The Hand, a mere 11 sentences, reminds me painfully of the melodramatically emotional stuff I used to write (and still do, sometimes), full of hanging ellipses and yearning. Space Fright starts with the line, ” ‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’ ” Oof. Mugs has the same mistake I often find when reading over my own stories – the last line should have been omitted and the story would be stronger. I’m not sure I fully understand Sunspots but I like it nonetheless. Brewing a Storm makes a good point but I feel it’s too obvious. And so on.
In the page on her website where she references other ‘science-inspired’ writing, she doesn’t mention Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. How could she miss this? His stories are in almost exactly the same format as hers – and he is a classic and defining author of the genre.
You are clearly not going to get it here from me, so you might instead be interested in the following reviews by less neurotic people.
♦ Angela Meyer talks to Tania Hershman about The White Road and flash fiction (crikey.com.au)
Hershman also shows how a ‘flash’ story should and can work – a rounded idea, rendered with punch.
♦ Reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk (average rating 4.5 out of 5 stars)
This collection of short stories takes as its theme the edgy and sometimes difficult relationship between humanity and science. There is a great deal of energy about the stories, as well as a strong and distinctive voice.
♦ Sue Guiney talks to Tania Hershman about Judaism, science and The White Road
These stories capture entire lives in just a few strokes. They are generous of spirit and keen of insight. I can’t recommend them highly enough
May I say I won’t be missing her next book! Using science articles from New Scientist as inspiration, Ms. Hershman has written tight little stories absolutely bubbling with surprises, imagination, and brilliance. I just couldn’t stop reading. The volume is slim, so it was like eating at one of those fine, fine restaurants that serve small but gourmet portions, and you want more, more, more. So I kept turning the pages, delighting in the variety of voices, the unexpectedness of each piece.
Tania Hershman does better. She’s not a scientist, nor a science-decorator. Instead she’s an interested, dreaming science observer who pays serious and at times myopic attention to sci-tech news stories and considers what they might mean, how people might live with them if handed them like a lump of clay.