Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99
“Nobody buys short stories anyway,” says a character, Richard, in the prologue to Kirsty Gunn’s new collection, Infidelities. “No one thinks there’s enough going on.” The challenge from writer to reader is stark; watch out, there will be plenty going on here. Gunn lives up to the promise, to an extent. Her stories are varied and strange, populated by meditating monks and trapped wolves, foxes that dart across your path. Many flirt with a fashionable self-consciousness: these are not simply stories, but stories that know they are stories.
The collection is divided into three parts: “Going Out”, “Staying Out” and “Never Coming Home”. As these subtitles suggest, Gunn’s characters often share a desire for something beyond: a different kind of existence, a higher truth, a freedom from the confines of their current life. And so we come to the infidelities. The straying is not simply marital. There is the pregnant woman who suddenly runs away from her husband-to-be; the unhappy wife who walks out on her drunk husband and sleeping children to search for a monk in a forest; the terminally ill composer who leaves her husband behind in Scotland knowing she will never return. Yes, these women are fleeing men, but their infidelities aren’t anything as mundane as affairs. They are knottier, more deeply felt than a sexual urge. Gunn’s infidelities are internal – epiphanic realisations that life is being lived dishonestly, that they are trapped in a domestic configuration that barely hints at their inner experience. They stray because an outdated mode needs to be discarded and replaced by something new.
Take Helen in the final story, “Infidelity”. One morning on her honeymoon in a cottage in Scotland, Helen rises at dawn and has a chance meeting with a man fishing at a river. Nothing happens, really. He puts his fingers round her wrist, “like a bracelet or a cuff”. And then she runs away. It is a passing moment, and yet the encounter gives Helen a destabilising jolt and remains the most powerful experience of her life, even now, four children and many years later. “Everything else was secondhand, everything in some way planned or imagined or prepared for, her marriage, her children, her life, everything created, like a story.”
Helen has been on a creative writing course and is trying to write the story of this episode. She goes round in circles, struggling with her approach, what she should include, how she should begin. It is a classic example of Gunn’s tendency to meddle with her form, a direct exposure of its artificiality. And you realise, as you read, that you are being led in a full circle, too. Helen’s husband, Richard, seems to link back to the Richard we met in Gunn’s prologue, the Richard who said that “nobody buys short stories anyway”, the Richard who was talking to a writer in a bar, a writer who had written a story called “Infidelity”.
As well as layering and linking, Gunn is pointing out the ultimate infidelity – that of writing itself. “It was always me, inside them,” says the writer in the prologue. She is, in a way, Helen, and all the other characters who are straining at the edges of their lives. The effect is diverting. Gunn has announced her own presence as the author and so plays with the notion of writer as adulterer, whose life and relationships are simply there to be mined for art.
But this meta-mode is also distracting. The stories are so burdened by self-awareness that they start to unravel at the edges. Characters say things like, “Oh, don’t do that . . . don’t go turning all that into fiction. Bad enough that it happened, darling.” From story to story, narrators seem to share the same voice – asking themselves endless rhetorical questions: “Because she’d kind of known, hadn’t she?” and “It was why she’d married Bobby, wasn’t it?” Perhaps this is purposeful, the stylistic echoes between the tales all part of the carefully planned architecture. Either way, the characters at times struggle to live and breathe.
If that’s an old-fashioned concern, so be it. Gunn’s collection is a deft contribution to a growing genre of contemporary fiction that wrestles with itself – think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelised memoir, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline. But there’s a balance to be struck. If you want to poke holes in your fiction, if you want to worry about its formal relevance, you have to make sure you’ve written something strong enough to withstand the interference. Even a story that knows it’s a story needs to be a good story, doesn’t it?