Hitting Trees with Sticks is the title of one of the contenders for the BBC Short Story competition. It is one of five finalists. The winner should be announced by Monday 7th December (listen to podcasts here ). The title, ‘hitting trees with sticks’ comes together with the first and last paragraphs in a circularity that is one of the great techniques of the form.
How can the novel compete? Within the duration of a thirty-minute drive, Jane Rogers takes you, with empathy, into Alzheimer territory. (And when the story’s done, you’ll never leave again.) An elderly woman is losing her mind and she knows it; she putters round and around her home in an ever-shrinking circle of memory. The story ends as it begins, with a little girl whacking a tree, only this time, we are mentally whacking that tree with her as well. Good stuff.
I have now listened to all five stories on BBC Radio 4. (Because this is an all-female list, from 2010, British men now have an iron-clad case for an APPLE PRIZE for male writers [or a BROWN PRIZE – one is never quite sure if the ORANGE PRIZE is named for the fruit or the colour], but I don’t suppose that is going tohappen. Whether it is domestic violence or literary domination, men are supposed to take their medicine like, well, men). Anyhow, I have listened to all five stories and it is clear that I will not make a good judge. Here’s the reason:
Hitting Trees with Sticks is probably the most tender. Still, the first to be broadcast, Other Men’s Gods is a clever yarn with this wicked humour (indeed the humour is so irreverent that it pokes fun at Jehovah Himself. – So friends of the writer are probably well advised to avoid her company henceforth during tropical storms – enhanced risk of lightning bolts, you see). Again, OMG employs the same Circularity of the Fixed Idea, ending the story on a witty reiteration of scripture that just takes the breath away.
This ‘Fixed Idea’ is to the short story what the rhyme is to the poem. Assonance and the iteration of the same sound brings to poetry more than the sum of its parts. But, iteration is not as cheapened in fiction. And not as easy to do well. Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch does not rely on it. Indeed the Moss Witch, which is perhaps the most atmospheric of the shortlist, ends quite unspectacularly. It is a magic story and the writer appears to tire of it all and simply, well, makes her heroine vanish into thin air. Yet, it was quite a ride getting there. She manages to put in all her Botanical Gardens research into the story, writing in seven- or eight-hundred double-barrelled biological names for fungis… yet the effect is more poetic than pedantic and the listener yearns for more (I do hope this yearning carries over into the written page).
Indeed this shortlist is curious for getting the most ‘unsexy’ topics into contention. Lionel Shriver’s Exchange Rates for instance is all about pennies and pounds… You would think that all those decimal points would miss the point in a season of dumbed down entertainment, but the writing (and reading) is fleet, and once the old man dies, the listener does sit up and pays attention. Still this was one penny-pinching protagonist that was difficult to care much about. As for Kate Clanchy’s The Not-Dead and The Saved, halfway though I thought the young man might as well die and save us all the trouble. But I probably wasn’t fair to it: that was the one story I had to interrupt now and again to get on with life. Of course, my radio has no pause button and everyone knows that interruptions will cost any story some empathy. So there’s my money for you: hovering between Other Men’s Gods and Hitting Trees. [I won’t make a good judge because I’ll tell them to just split the prize money down the middle and be done with it.]
It is not just my money too: My eight-year-old is like most other children of this decade: it takes a visual snare with the pace of a Transformer movie to keep him in his seat. Yet he walked in, half-listened to OMG and Hitting Trees, and got hooked. We heard out the Radio 4 programme together – which is probably something for the record books. Now, that’s catching them young.