You’re wondering about the heading, aren’t you?
What has it got to do with The Art of the Glimpse (lovely title and exquisite cover design by Owen Gent) of a new collection of Irish short stories which features 100 practitioners of the form, old and new, including yours truly. The anthology is forthcoming from Head of Zeus and edited by Sinéad Gleeson – she of Constellations fame and the newly-announced winner of the Dalkey Book Prize.
Well, the story of mine that Sinéad chose is from my first collection A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape 1995) which is called “Divided Attention”. It’s a story I have a soft spot for because it was the first time I wrote in the second person voice, but other anthologists haven’t shared my enthusiasm for it, until Sinéad came along, that is.
Because it was composed originally on an ancient Amstrad, I had to transcribe the story on to my current laptop for Head of Zeus. As I did some small edits along the way, I began to realise how archival the story had become in the 30 or more years since I wrote it.
It was an utterly 20th century creation, a story that couldn’t, and wouldn’t be written now. Not because of political correctness, or the storyline, but because of technology.
Briefly, the plot is this. The narrator, a woman in her thirties, shares her guilt about an affair with a married man, by confessing her feelings to a man who makes a series of abusive calls to her in the middle of the night.
Here are five props and devices (both plot and apparatus) I’d have to rethink if I were to bring the story up to date.
1.The landline: the telephonic encounter between the man, who is (mostly) silent, and the female narrator is conducted exclusively on a landline. A what?
2. The phone box: the abusive caller, who’s engaged in what one might euphemistically describe as digital activities (in the old-fashioned sense) while on the phone, uses a public phone box. Which is where the Press button A line comes in. The phone kiosk referenced in this story featured a coin-operated phone. You inserted your coins one by one into a slot on the top and dialled your number. When the other party answered you pressed button A in order to be heard. (If there was no reply, you pressed button B and got your money back through a silver chute at the bottom – sometimes!) As I write this, I realise it doesn’t sound archival, it sounds prehistoric!
3. Caller ID: the narrator’s phone is a fixed, manual, non-digital, stand-alone instrument attached to a wall socket. It has no electronic display. Caller ID has not been invented.
4. Public exhibitionism: The narrator describes a much earlier encounter with a man who exposes himself on the street. For anyone of my generation, this was the persistent sexual threat of our youth. There seemed to be no end of men in dirty macs whose full-time job it was to expose themselves on buses, in cinemas, on the street. The advent of the internet has driven them indoors; I imagine they’re all now porn purveyors on their screens at home.
5. Monetisation of the “dirty” phone call: Nowadays you elect to experience smut on the phone, and you have to pay for it. The free dirty phone call is a thing of the past.
Around the time I wrote this story one of my party pieces was a poem by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, called “Do Not Pick Up the Telephone” which I admired for its superstitious misanthropy. It’s a most untypical poem of his in that it isn’t about eagles or crows, or nature, “red in tooth and claw”. It’s about the perils of the phone, a purveyor in Hughes’ mind, of bad news and death.
I sought the poem out and realised that it’s almost as archival as my story.
Death invented the phone, it looks like the altar of death, he writes. Not any more, Ted.
You plastic crab, he berates it, which is a perfect analogy for those crouching models of the 80s and 90s, but not right for a slimline mobile.
World’s emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece/Stupidly your string dangles into the abyss – Mouthpiece? String? All old hat with wi-fi, Ted.
But although the phone is as outmoded as the one in my story, Hughes’ poetic rage remains admirably deathless!
“O phone, get out of my house
You are a bad god
Go and whisper on some other pillow
Do not lift your snake head in my house
Do not bite any more beautiful people. . .”
That’s the spirit, Ted!
The Art of the Glimpse includes work – from across the centuries – by Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney, Melatu Uche Okirie, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheridan Le Fanu, Danielle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor and Maeve Brennan – and 87 others! It appears in October 2020.