December 16, 2008
Charles Lambert: The Scent of Cinnamon
We’re always being told how hard it is to sell books of short stories, so a hardback collection from a small publisher and a debut novelist must be some sort of gold standard of a tough sell – a challenge for the next series of The Apprentice. Salt Publishing, however, have two valuable tools at their disposal. The first is their system of virtual book tours, Cyclone, whereby authors make guest appearances at blogs to get online airtime for their books. The second is Charles Lambert, author of the excellent novel Little Monsters which I enjoyed earlier this year. His collection of stories, I felt, must be worth a look.
The Scent of Cinnamon opens with the title story, which is easily the most attention-grabbing in the book, right from the opening paragraph:
Dear Mrs Payne
I have been given your name by the Reverend Ware, vicar of the English community here. I am a blunt man, and I shall come straight to the point. Ware tells me that you have recently lost your husband and are without means. He has suggested to me that you may be interested in marriage with a man who can provide you with the security and affection you require. He has indicated to me that I may be such a man.
It also cries out for a high-concept single-sentence description, though it’s impossible to do so without spoiling it. Others have suggested that ‘The Scent of Cinnamon’ is the best in the book. I’m not so sure of that – it is terrific, though I think there are others which may be even better – but it does set the tone for a book full of dissatisfied relationships, varied settings, and occasional sinisterness.
It was this last quality that pleased me most about Lambert’s stories. The likes of ‘Girlie’ and ‘Beacon’ or the coda-like closer ‘The Growing’ have an otherworldly creepiness to them where the truth is revealed to the reader gradually and then suddenly. It would be no insult to consider these deeper and richer counterparts to the underrated adult stories of Roald Dahl (though, ironically, the most powerful tend to be narrated by children). Yet, as with ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’ – an unsettling account of the worst holiday with a Donald since Don’t Look Now – what makes them excel is Lambert’s understanding of the darkness that exists within the human heart, the horror that comes from within rather than from above or below.
For this reason I was disappointed by the more garish ‘The Number Worm’, which seemed too arbitrary, while a story like ‘Air’ showed that even in a straight(ish) story of a relationship, Lambert knows what he’s doing. My overall concern, however, is a perverse one: like Alvy Singer’s women who thought the food was terrible and the portions too small, I liked nearly all of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon but thought it too long. 300 pages is a lot of stories, like one of those CDs that has 16 tracks and lasts an hour and a quarter. This may be why I felt the book to be ‘front-loaded': I may not have given the later stories the same attention as the early ones. But for anyone without a mad completion impulse, who can read a story here or there with calmness aforethought, The Scent of Cinnamon is a very interesting, and even exciting, collection.
I am delighted to be part of Charles Lambert’s virtual tour for The Scent of Cinnamon. My Q&A session with him is as follows.
Several of the stories in The Scent of Cinnamon have either ‘twist’ endings or withhold information from the reader so that by the end, early events are seen in a new light. Is this a conscious policy, and does it reflect your own taste in stories?
The first short story I ever wrote – I must have been about thirteen – described the arrival of a group of rather seedy, provincial types in a draughty room above a shop. They’re there to conduct a séance of some kind with the aim of summoning a spirit. They go through the usual rigmarole, not really expecting anything to happen, when, to their horror, they hear footsteps on the stairs outside the room. Except that they aren’t footsteps. What they hear is the sound of cloven hooves on wood…
I mention this to show that, while other people were reading Hemingway and would soon be moving onto Carver and all those dirty realists, I was devouring the Pan anthologies of horror stories, Saki and Somerset Maugham. It was a feature, I think, of horror stories in those more innocent days that they saved their nastiness for the end – now they’re more likely to have gore from page one on – and Saki’s stories, which I still love, exist purely to provide a context for the final twist. These clearly had a lasting influence on me.
The next short story writer to blow me away was Kafka, but I’d more or less stopped writing prose fiction by that time (I was fifteen and a full-blown poet!). Obviously, this doesn’t mean that a piece like ‘In the Penal Colony’, with its wickedly gradual horror, didn’t stay with me and make a difference to how I write stories, and much else besides. And then, as I’ve said before, there was M.R. James…
I think that this kind of background – along with the fact that I’ve never studied creative writing in a formal sense – made me fairly immune to the influence of stories I started to read much later on, stories I now find, as a reader, far more rewarding – I’m thinking of people like Alice Munro (obviously) and Tobias Wolff and Lorrie Moore. Margaret Atwood, though, showed me a kind of writing that seemed to bring together the neatness of the stories I used to admire and the rawer more authentic sense of life being lived that the other writers have, and I’d recognise her as someone who’s affected the way I approach writing a story.
I think that some of the stories in the book occupy a kind of middle ground between these two approaches. ‘Moving the Needle Towards the Thread’, for example, certainly has a twist and, in many ways, looks like the decayed heir to a Maugham-like heritage, but it also has an ending that is, I think, ambiguous in a very un-Maugham-like fashion. Soap is another story that plays with, and then against, the reader’s original impressions, but I hope it’s a long way from the glibness that twist-in-the-tail implies.
Some of the strongest stories in the collection are written from the viewpoint of a child – as (in a way) was your novel Little Monsters. At their best, these are combined with unsettling and threatening elements, as in ‘Girlie’, ‘Beacons’ or ‘The Growing’. Why does this approach appeal to you?
What’s interesting about this question, John, is that I wasn’t aware that these three stories – and, as you say, Little Monsters – shared an approach at all. Talk about the unexamined life! It wasn’t until you mentioned it, that I thought, well, yes, of course. How fascinating! I was aware that ‘Beacons’ and ‘All Gone’ were both written from the viewpoint of the same rather anxious, thoughtful, Stephen-Spenderish little boy because, well, he’s basically me, or I’m him, with all the provisos and sleights of hand that story-telling involves. But I hadn’t thought about the other two having anything in common with each other or with anything else I’d written.
Looking at them now, as a group, it’s clear that one of the things I’m doing when I choose to use children as the channel through which the narrative is seen is what Henry James did with Maisie; I’m exploiting their clear-sightedness and innocence. Children see everything, but don’t necessarily understand any of it. Whether they’re protagonists or witnesses, they tend to be one step behind – or to one side of – the attentive adult reader, which sets up an interesting narrative gap through which the unsettling elements can squeeze. In ‘Girlie’, for example, the real story is about the dead twin and how the survivor compensates, but the little boy doesn’t know this and probably never will. In ‘The Growing’, I’d expect a reader to start wondering about the nature of the mask long before the girl makes her doomed attempt to see what lies beneath. And so on.
I’d also say that having no children myself means that I’ve never fully grown up. I’m at the age where many of my friends are wondering why hostile, sulky delinquents from outer space have occupied their teenage children’s bodies. And what do I do? Easy, I side with the kids. I remind their mothers and fathers of compromising photographs from their own pasts. Basically, I can’t grasp the crisis from the parent’s viewpoint, however hard I try. So children are not only, as I’ve just said, unreliable narrators; they may also, paradoxically, be the ones I relate to – and trust – most.
Later stories in the book foreground gay relationships. Did you deliberately withhold these from the first half, to avoid being labelled a ‘gay writer’ – and to what extent do you define your work like that anyway?
Yes, I did hold them back, and I think it’s partly, as you say, because I didn’t want to be labelled, although what was uppermost in my mind was, first, to open the collection with the story I thought most likely to appeal to the largest number of readers and, second, not to scare off people who’d only read Little Monsters by plunging them into scenes of explicit gay sex before they’d had a chance to find their feet. As I said a couple of weeks ago, though, when I visited Jim at Jockohomo, I am uncomfortable about the label ‘gay writer’ in a general sense, and certainly when it’s applied to myself. Apart from issues of marginalisation, which can affect writers as different and as respected as, say, Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White, I think this discomfort has to do with a more intangible personal sense of not really wanting to belong. As a gay man in a long-term relationship, I’m keenly aware of the need to fight for equality and I’m more than happy to stand up and be counted, and so on, and my blog is sometimes, I think, almost unhealthily obsessed with the homophobic ramblings of Ratzinger et al. But at the same time I’ve never had an authentic sense of extended gay community that wasn’t induced by drugs, alcohol and hi-energy dance music, nor sought it, and the unhappiest holiday of my life was spent on Mykonos, feeling that I wasn’t really up to scratch. This is part of my general resistance to groups; I cringe if I’m presumed to belong to a putative ex-pat community, and I don’t have much sympathy with the idea of writers’ communities either. This doesn’t mean I don’t have gay friends (as they say), but, as a writer at least, I think I see my sexuality as a resource to be drawn on rather than as something that defines what I do.