Monday, November 22, 2010

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "The Trojan Prince"

[Will be playing around with different ways of recapssessing this stories this week.]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Nov. 15, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 50.

THE "FIRST" LINE: "It's an April morning and a young man waits at a black-painted front door on a decent street in Tynemouth. It's a much more decent street than the one where his home is."

From a reader's perspective, a story that opens with description -- particularly lifeless, generic, paid-by-the-word descriptions like these -- is already fighting the tide. Only one thing stands out, simply by contrast, and that's the idea of a "decent street," and its relationship -- "much more decent" -- to him.

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH: "The year is 1920. This young man has missed the World War; he has closed his mind now even to the thought of the war, which, it seems to him, has devoured everyone's pity and imagination for too long." 

The humble, declarative sentences of this first paragraph don't look like much, but again, they actually work well in contrast with these final lines of the opening. This young man thinks not of pity nor imagination; consequently, Hadley's writing has neither.

THE FIRST "PAGE": "He holds his head back warily, defiantly, on his shoulders, so that the furnishings in this house won't get the better of him: the dado with its raised pattern of diamonds under thick brown paint, the polished wood of the hall stand, the yellow gleams of brass among the shadows -- the face of the clock, a rack for letters, a little gong hanging in a frame with a suede-covered mallet balanced across two hooks, a tall pot to hold umbrellas."  

There's a consistent tone to the story, a dry pace that's occasionally interrupted by a flash of humanity. Everything we know of young James McIlvanney so far has been defined by the objects around him, which is sort of boring, but it makes his Dickensian scheming -- "I'll have all this one day" -- more interesting; and again, the contrast: "He doesn't particularly like it, but he wants it." Repression is in the air.

Repression's a good tone for Hadley's story, which deals not only with class, but with sex, or the awakening thereof. As it turns out, James's plan revolves around striking up relations with his second cousin, Ellen, and using his future potential (he plans to apprentice at sea) to eventually marry her, thereby gaining her possessions. But right from the start, his plans are sabotaged by the revelation that Connie, a childhood "enemy" of his, has been taken in by Ellen's family. His courting, therefore, is always to the both of them, and though he treats Connie roughly, mentally criticizing her and her loose ways, it's clear that he's falling for her.

As with most classically romantic stories, this one's listless. Emotions are muted, actions are stilted, and there's a lack of tension and build to the story. James spends time with the girls and then the story cuts a half-year later, to his narrow escape from a shipwreck, ending with the revelation that he has chosen Connie, forgoing the cold logic and wise decisions for the emotions and passions that we have not yet seen. The contrast between the dreamy picnics and very real time at sea aboard The Trojan Prince is there, but it hasn't been used for very much; the story's setting and pace feel squandered.

THE BOTTOM LINE: "He knows he ought to marry Ellen Pearson and get a house full of furniture. But he can't. He won't."  

Funny, I'd have preferred that Hadley begin her story here. After all, it's hard to believe in James's choice when Hadley has spent the whole story undermining and cutting away from it. Moreover, the deliberate choices in style, this seems like the obvious ending, and in truth, the short carries a lack of suspense, surprise, and stakes. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

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