Colin Barrett’s Young Skins: “Diamonds”
If “Calm with Horses” was all about Barrett relaxing into the long-distance gait of the novelist then this story is all about the explosive energy of the short fiction sprinter. Even less concerned with narrative and sustained characterisation than the collection’s opening stories, “Diamonds” demonstrates the raw power of Barrett’s prose as well as the strategic weaknesses of his methods.
The story begins with a display of pyrotechnics:
The midland skies were huge, drenched in pearlescent light and stacked with enormous chrome confections of cloud, their wrinkled undersides greyly streaked and mottled, brimming with whatever rain is before it becomes rain. Each time I came to and checked the carriage window the same cow seemed to be eyeing me from the same sodden, tobacco-brown field.
Little more than a shot across the reader’s bow, we move on to discover a protagonist who is all out of luck and all out of options. Rock bottom is rising up to meet him and the only way out was a return to source… to Glanbeigh!
I began to consider my hands in the starlight of bar-rooms – the brittle wrists of yellowed skin, the nicks and weals and livid pink burn marks of unknown origin – and realised I was already way along on that project. It was go home or die, and home was an oblivion that was at least reversible.
One time star of a local football team, the protagonist is taken in by his one-time headmaster. A “Sentimental Authoritarian” who gives him a job, a place to stay and an opportunity to rebuild… or at least arrest the decay.
The months pass and the protagonist settles back into the rhythms of the academic year. He teaches gym, he keeps the grounds, and he goes to the local AA meeting as a condition of his continued employment. Though competently handled, the AA meeting strikes me as both too obvious and too generic for the type of story that Barrett has been working on in the context of this collection. Glanbeigh is a town full of wasted lives and drink-cudgelled faces… AA feels both improbable and curiously American. The scene might have been rescued by either pyrotechnics or a particularly arresting take on a hoary old trope but Barrett provides neither and so the scene feels more like an over-elaborate ramp for the stuff that follows after.
Anyway… our protagonist happens to meet someone at the meeting and the pair wind-up heading back to her place for a drink:
Her hair was a wan, unconvincing brown; one prompt spook away from turning completely grey. She had a round face, pale eyes and a faded scar on her nose, a blanched diagonal seam, neat, across the bridge, like a tiny rope burn. She was not good looking, but there was a watery indefiniteness to her features, a pliancy, that just then appealed.
I hate to carp, but meeting ‘the wrong woman’ in AA is almost as big a cliché as having your character go to AA in the first place. The trope pops up in the TV series Dexter and Fight Club and those are just the first two names to slough from the top of my imagination. I like the “just then appealed” as it suggests that this isn’t about the woman so much as all the shit around her but Barrett’s decision to focus on a tiny scar feels like misdirection born of guilt: Look at the scar… look straight at the scar… don’t look around the scar… don’t notice that I’ve skated over the things that forced him onto the booze and off the wagon in the first place.
Barrett presses on by exploring the woman’s condition and hinting that she might be yet another of those fierce Irish women who reduce indolent man-children to tears. The pair sneak back to the woman’s home and shuffle through the details of their lives in search of some basis for connection other than being busted, horned-up and in the same church hall on the same damn night.
‘I had best friends I saw every day for five straight years I wouldn’t know now if I passed them in the street,’ I said. ‘So I wouldn’t be offended if you don’t remember me.’
‘But you were there and I was there,’ she said. ‘In our young skins, though we didn’t know each other from Adam. Strange to think of it.’
Earlier I mentioned that “Diamonds” illustrated some of the problems with Barrett’s methods and we’ve reached the point in the piece where I take that particular gun down from over the mantelpiece and fire it into my own face.
Like many technically proficient artists, Barrett is a lot better at being evocative than he is at being analytical. As I suggested in my pieces about “The Clancy Kid” and “Bait”, Barrett likes to shift into a quasi-fantastical register as a means of getting himself out of trouble. Rather than delving into character or making some substantial point about the world, Barrett relies on pyrotechnics and the capacity of those pyrotechnics to inspire his readers. Thus, most of the stories in this collection build to some vaguely evocative piece of imagery before slithering from our memories.
In “The Clancy Kid”, it was the kid in the crown.
In “Bait”, it was the way the two women seemed to rape the driver.
In “The Moon”, it was… well… an actual proper character beat.
In “Stand Your Skin”, it was the mother fantasising about the death of her son.
In “Calm with Horses”, it was the riding lessons.
In “Diamonds”, it’s a great big fuck-off hole in the ground.
The woman the protagonist sleeps with explains that she is married to a man who works in a vast overseas diamond mine. Somewhat puzzlingly, she has no picture of her husband, only a picture of the mine clipped from some foreign magazine:
There was a town, or at any rate a stretch of dinky building-like structures spread out along its far rim. The surrounding landscape was suitably desolate, a lunar terrain of chalks and greys, and indeterminate formations of rock and dirt, scrubbed clear of anything alive or green. The mine was widest at the surface and narrowed as it deepened, like a funnel. Carved along the exposed inner-strata of the mine wall was a presumably machine-made channel or pathway that wound all the way down to its unseen centre.
Give Barrett some credit… the mine is an arresting image with all sorts of intriguing externalities beginning but hardly ending with the hollowness of the pit, the need to dig deep in order to find stuff of value and the idea of it getting hotter and more hellish the deeper you dig. These are old, familiar thematic resonances but Barrett is relying on the audience’s muscle memory to carry the story to fruition as the image of the mine is left unconnected to anything else in the story.
Having fallen off the wagon, the protagonist returns to the life of an ambulatory drunkard. He leaves the cottage provided to him by the school, checks into a shitty hotel and begins drinking heavily:
On the second or third or eleventh day I met a blonde woman with a black tooth
The pair retire to the protagonist’s room for booze and sex and when the conversation turns to backstories, the protagonist appropriates the identity of the first woman’s husband. He is a diamond miner, he’s just in town for a few days, he even throws in a few of the stories he heard at AA.
Then neither of us said anything and through the window I listened to the noise of another city, growing already familiar. I slid from the sill, put on my trousers and belt. Checked my wallet. I picked up my dead mobile, consulted its blank screen, and told her it was time to go.
Barrett plays the scene for pathos but the protagonist has been drawn in such sketchy terms that it is hard to be that invested in his slide towards alcoholism. With no character, no plot, a few overly familiar scenes and an image of a hole in the ground, “Diamonds” feels more like a delivery vector for linguistic pyrotechnics than a working story. Devoid of local colour or the evocative imagery of Glanbeigh’s fucked up gender dynamics, the story feels hollow and under-worked, its methodological flaws made all the more apparent by the absence of counterweight. There’s simply not enough here to catch the mind and a mind uncaught is liable to lapse into cynicism.
Okay… so maybe I’m being a little harsh.
The great Adam Roberts recently posted an essay about a talk he gave relating JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. My lack of a humanities education means that I’ve never read The White Goddess but Roberts suggests that Graves might well have articulated a set of aesthetic ideals to which I am increasingly drawn:
I tried to set in parallel these two books as representing and anchoring two very different possible-narratives of 20th-C ‘Fantasy’: one about story as linear, populated with likeable, comprehensible characters who overcome adversity to triumph in the end, set in an imagined world painstakingly constructed to be coherent and graspable. A story not only overwhelmingly male in terms of dramatis personae, but overwhelmingly masculine in ethos, about courage and endurance and war, about power-over dynamics and Force and so on. The other is not linear, not pitched to be likeable, not interested in character, but rather a matrix of moments of poetic intensity that works and reworks certain themes in a spiralling, circular dance of signification and insight and bafflement; a story (because The White Goddess is, amongst other things, a story) overwhelmingly female.
I’ve noticed that it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to engage with the first type of story: I don’t really care about coherent world-building, I never become emotionally invested in the lives of fictional characters and I tend to view most narrative structures and character arcs with an intense scepticism bordering on outright hostility. It’s not just that I am bored by stories about people triumphing over adversity and making a world the better place, it’s that that I don’t think the world functions that way and so any story that includes these types of narratives strikes me as either dishonest or ideologically compromised.
Given that most popular culture relies upon the kinds of structural and narrative conceits that I struggle to metabolise, I find myself alienated from most popular culture. As recent reviews may suggest, the culture I consume is the culture that I can transform by passing it through a critical lens. For example, I adored Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) because I was able to parse it as a series of arresting images and philosophical observations floating across a sea of ambiguous narratives and characterisation. Conversely, I didn’t think much of Bryan Forbes’ The Raging Moon because the source material’s social insights and flashes of psychological clarity were buried beneath an intensely prosaic love story.
Looking back over the reviews I’ve written of Colin Barrett’s short fiction, it occurs to me that I’m struggling to reconcile the two modes of writing described by Roberts: I enjoy Barrett’s bafflement and flashes of insight but I complain when these images and themes fail to acquire a coherent shape.
I addressed this question in a column for Interzone in which I wrote about the importance of ambiguity:
Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.
It now occurs to me that this might be something of a bodge… an ugly compromise between two very different sets of aesthetic ideals. Indeed, what I suggest in that Interzone column is that great works of art provide what Roberts calls “a matrix of moments of poetic intensity that works and reworks certain themes in a spiralling, circular dance of signification and insight and bafflement” but that the greatness is somehow dependent upon the ease with which the audience can use a variety of critical techniques to transform said matrix into something more prosaic. Under this view, greatness is all about finding a sweet spot between legibility and illegibility:
I didn’t enjoy Mad Max Fury Road because its themes and images were so transparent that the film felt like Baby’s First Feminist Text.
I didn’t enjoy this short story because the evocative images and flashes of insight failed to cohere into a substantial point about humanity, gender, love, politics, god, nature, or whatever ‘respectable’ form of subject matter you care to name.
I enjoyed the James Salter short stories I read for much the same reason as I love the work of Claude Chabrol: Though ostensibly opaque, the themes and images can be re-constructed into profound and challenging ideas about human psychology.
Robert Graves seems to have been aware of the ambiguities of this practice. He coined the term ‘iconotropy’ to refer to the process of either deliberately or accidentally misinterpreting a set of religious or mythic images in order to make them fit with a competing set of myths. The ambiguity of the process comes from the fact that while ‘iconotropy’ does erase and replace an image’s original context, it does allow old images to acquire new resonances and so prove enlightening to different sets of people. Assuming the death of the author and the irrelevance of a text’s intended meaning, what is criticism if not a process of reclaiming old images and placing them in a context that makes sense to an individual critic?
As a critic, I am increasingly aware of this ambiguity and am not entirely clear on how to resolve it. Is it fair to suggest that Barrett’s stories fail to hit the mark because their images often struggle to invoke anything beyond a succession of dislocated images? I don’t know… Someone could quite reasonably say that if I wanted insights about human nature and the world then I should have picked up a work of non-fiction. Perhaps one way of resolving this ambiguity is not to judge a work by the strength and elegance of its ideas but by its ability to create a desire to go and look for those ideas in the first place. Judged by this yardstick, Young Skins is a good collection but it’s not as good as James Salter’s Last Night and it’s definitely not as good as a film like Tarkovsky’s Stalker.