This is the first time I’ve read a book by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Christine Schutt, but she has a disarming and fascinating way of writing about self-consciousness, family and the passage of time. In “Pure Hollywood” the opening title story is also the longest tale in this collection. It’s an impressionistic story of a brother and sister after the sister’s much older husband dies. He was a wealthy famous comedian, but she soon finds she’s shut out of any substantial inheritance and she’s forced to vacate the modernist home she inhabited like a California Hockney painting. The odd series of events which make up her life feel as if they’ve been crafted in a Hollywood film script so she forms an odd emotional distance from her own sense of being. This is a feeling that recurs throughout many of the stories in this book where the enormity of characters’ loves and losses have a sense of being scripted and so they are abstracted out of the personal. What’s left is the sordid and grimy reality that they inhabit like bemused spectators blinking in the sunlight after spending too long in a dark movie theatre.
The stories include a range of characters from an affluent young couple on holiday to men purchasing flowers for a garden to a widow harangued by her daughters about her growing drinking habit. But almost all the characters are accompanied by some sense of personal loss whether it’s a spouse or child. Gardens also frequently feature in the stories so running alongside these deaths are a proliferation of plants and flowers growing with stubborn insistence. Tied into this surrounding life is a sense of eroticism, but the presence of gardens isn’t necessarily comforting or benign. In ‘The Duchess of Albany’ it’s stated “The garden was not genteel.” In fact, two of the stories refer to the surrounding flora as “thuggish” as if they are mocking or bullying these survivors. Gardens must be tended and cared for, but also controlled and wrangled with just like the people in these characters’ unruly lives. The result is a bewitching mingling of imagery and sensations about how our relationships grow beautifully, but soon wilt or threaten to restrictively entangle us.
It’s interesting how some of the stories slip into the surreal. The story ‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ about a woman named Ella who is employed by a number of affluent mothers to care for their children is particularly intriguing. The narrator reports how this child carer is much trusted, but no one knows much about her. At the same time as Ella appears the body parts of unknown children start being found in KFC buckets. The story has a high-pitched unsettling edge while not giving any conclusions. It strongly reminded me of Schweblin’s anxiety-inducing novel “Fever Dream”. The shortest stories in this collection seem to be the ones where Schutt also takes the most narrative risks in a way which doesn’t always feel successful or satisfying. Yet these micro stories also left some unsettling concepts lingering in my mind such as ‘Family Man’ where a husband living a remote “country-quiet life” feels that “The past sleds behind him.” But, on the whole, it feels like longer stories allow Schutt the space to develop characters that will resonate more powerfully such as an imperious rich old horse rider named Mrs Pall-Meyer or an irascible highly sexed famous painter named Gordon. On the whole I enjoyed these stories which have a vertiginous power to disorient their reader and articulate the peculiar subtleties of conflicting emotions.