Lionel Shriver

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.

Chuma.

5 Replies to “Hitting Trees with Sticks”

  1. Sharon Alexander says:

    This was a wonderful short story. I was listening to it in the car on Radio 4 whilst picking up the children from school. The children and I carried on listening on the journey home and then sat in the car on the drive till the end!! We were totally enthralled and continued to discuss and empathise with the character. My children are 12 and 8. Thank you to the author for making us stop and think about this terribly sad condition.

    Reply
  2. Chuma says:

    Spot on, Sharon;
    Overheard my son retelling the tale!
    Of course it is a good thing I’m not a gambling man: Kate Clanchy’s *The Not-Dead and The Saved* eventually scooped the prize. Now I will have to go back and listen to it again. It was the only one I didn’t get to hear properly.
    But a thumbs-up to all the finalists: it was a good quality short-list.

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  3. Herbert Huber says:

    All five short stories in the shortlist are excellent. Thank you, Chuma, for some helpful remarks to them. What you named ‘The Fixed Idea’ is a good structural element in short stories as long as it makes some sense. I prefer to call it an echo (at the end of a phrase or an idea from the beginning). So, Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch does have it too (the phrase ‘Perhaps there are no more Moss Witches” is repeated), but you’re right, the story doesn’t rely on it.
    My review of the stories is available at
    http://www.lesekost.de/Us/gb/short/HHLGBS01.htm, regrettably only in German.
    I tried to find one of your books in Germany but except the poetry collection nothing is availabe. Is “Extortionist (Pacesetter)” by Chuma Nwokolo, Macmillan Education, from 1983 a work of yours?

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  4. Chuma says:

    Hi there Hubert!
    Although I don’t read German, one of the benefits of GGG’s (google the ‘gentle’ giant) domination of the WWW is Google translate. So I got a gist of your reviews – at the risk of one or two mangled metaphors…

    Yes, I probably lost my teens to two novels, The Extortionist and Dangerous Inheritance – although the latter wasn’t released until 1988 or so. For some mad reason, Dangerous Inheritance comes up on catalogue and amazon.com as being written by ‘Chuma Nwokol’!

    Anyhow, you can definitely get my newer novels, Diaries of a Dead African and One More Tale for the Road from Germany via amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/9782190039/ref=dp_olp_new?ie=UTF8&qid=1263789698&sr=1-3&condition=new

    Thanks for stopping. I am pleased we both have that preference for Hitting Trees with Sticks. (I hope this impression gained from your German article is correct). The shortlist for the year provides excellent material for passionate agreement and disagreement…

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  5. Ronnie says:

    Hello everyone!

    I’ve been meaning to write this for ages! Is there any way we can get access to a hardcopy of the short stories?? I was incredibly taken by ‘hitting trees with a stick’ since it touches home. And I tried to listen to the other ones, but never found myself in the car again at that time on that day! but the reviews make all of them sound delightful.

    Thanks for any information you can give me,
    Regards,

    Ronnie

    Reply

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