Friday 24 December 2010

Polly Samson, Perfect Lives

Cover image by Chloe Firouzian
Polly Samson’s latest short story collection is the literary equivalent of an ivory-handled backstab by a genteel killer – and all the more enjoyable for it.


Perfect Lives is Polly Samson’s third book, following a wildly acclaimed and bestselling debut story collection, Lying in Bed, and an equally well-received novel, Out of the Picture. It’s being published in a year of tremendous quality short fiction: collections by Michele Roberts, Helen Simpson and Salley Vickers have all come out to great fanfare and admiration. Samson’s latest more than holds its own. It hides its power behind a polite smile – the smile of a woman trapped in a terrible marriage, pretending that everything’s okay. Beyond the neat beachfront facades, the good clothes and wine, great haircuts and artistically hand crafted rugs that fur up the surface of these stories is tragic disappointment and emptiness. The characters’ inner lives grate with misery and it is a sign of Samson’s intelligence that she can recognise how misery is not charming but often makes people mean, petty, grasping and selfish. She is too realistic to be sentimental. There is nothing poignant about her work, because poignancy is the stuff of romantic novels and crocodile tears, not the existing world of weakness, damage, intellect and hypocrisy.

Perfect Lives is, furthermore, beautifully structured. Many of the characters appear as background players in other people’s narratives and this connectivity enables Samson to explore everything from the lonely life of a gangling bachelor and ex piano prodigy to the woman whose piano he tunes – a seemingly perfect ‘lady’ whose cheeriness and grace are, we realise, just a front. It also gives her the opportunity to show just how many masks people wear, a different one for home, for parenthood, for work and for the neighbours.

Samson is also a supremely gifted prose writer. There is readiness and joy in her imagery, like a travelling companion whose thick grey hair “leapt from his crown in a single whirl like a Viennese Fancy”, a bad bottle of “flinty wine”, a camper van that has “the soft contours of a patisserie, icing the exact colour of Parma Violets with cream fenders.” A comically gloomy Nosferatu-like piano tuner visits a house in which a cheap piano “stood against the wall of a small sitting room like an old bore.” There is brilliant sarcasm and mockery, like the young woman whose mother is politically active and principled, but whose virtue is lost on the sulky daughter: “I grew up in a house where above the kitchen table was a poster of a poor African child with a distended tummy and flies in his eyes. SAY NO TO WORLD POVERTY! I sometimes suspected that the better-dressed parents of my school friends, the ones with lots of scatter cushions, were the ones who said ‘Yes!’ to world poverty. All those wicked people with their pot-pourri and lovely soft sliced bread.” And there is just gob-smacking honesty and unflinching frankness: a new mother dreads a day alone with her baby because it’s like “being left in charge of a nuclear power plant, lonely and bleak, slightly nerve-wracking, with lots of servicing and safety checks required.” A woman whose boyfriend wants to leave demeans herself in “a river of tears washing over a fortnight’s dismal blow jobs that failed to make him stay.”

But in many cases it goes much deeper than that. Samson’s imagery is stark and apt and often reveals a devastating hidden meaning – a significance beyond its own stylishness – at the end of a story. So in The Egg, the first story and one of the best, a loveable old husband is said to have had a winning smile, “lips almost like a handle hanging from a deep dimple in each cheek.” As the dimples have deepened with time, “In brackets was how she thought of his smile now.” How cruel and utterly genius that phrase, “in brackets”, looks when one realises that this charming and yummy cosy hubby is actually just a cheat and liar who has another daughter somewhere, whom he’s been going to see and taking to school when he’s “on business” in London. His love isn’t as simple and accessible as it seems, at all; it’s enclosed, parenthetical, circumscribed. It’s a smile delivered in quotes and hedges and special conditions, just like his promises. The Egg is really the story of this man’s wife, Celia, and her utter terror as she carefully makes this jerk’s breakfast while, outside, his love child delivers him a Father’s Day gift of an egg, which smashes on their floor when she posts it.

In Barcarolle a piano tuner (this is a running gag in the collection – there are a lot of different pianos and pianists and tuning opportunities) visits the home of a woman who irritates him. He bitterly dislikes her wispy and desperate personal style, her house that’s full of tacky marionettes and an abusive parrot shouting obscenities from the corner of the room. His irritation, as is obvious, is the reflection of his own depression and self-hate. Tellingly, he takes her family photos off the top of the piano and puts them “face down on to an armchair with all the tenderness of a man stacking bricks.” His own family memories are of being a prodigy who lost out, at his prodigies’ music school, to two peers of his: a far more gifted Eastern European genius and a beautiful female friend. Those two eventually got together and (with typical Samson precision) did not live happily ever after. They appear in later, equally excellent stories.

Samson is the master of the switchback, the double twist in the tale which gives each character due karmic justice, but not in the way they expect. In Morganna the faithless ex of a hippy woman is reduced to babyish dependency after a bike accident. Samson writes dryly, “Perhaps it was simply a niggled ridge of karma that sent his front wheel spinning.” One laughs horribly at the scene in which she patronisingly bathes him in a hospital bathroom while his foxy new girlfriend cries aggrieved tears of jealousy on his hospital bed. In his reduced, mumbling and befuddled state Morganna gets the ex to sign off on health insurance for their daughter, something he’d been refusing to do because he enjoyed the sense of power it gave him. As he signs she realises she’s over him.

Samson’s wit flourishes when she is setting light to romantic folly – sometimes literally, as in A Regular Cherub, when a hideous giant teddy bear, a vast and tacky slogan of  maternal love, catches fire in the country house bedroom that a woman’s baby is sleeping in. Until the baby’s in danger, the woman hadn’t thought she loved it. It turns out she does, and the reader is just as happy to see the final embrace as they are to wave goodbye to the dreadful bear.

All this obvious greatness and skill makes me puzzle at the reviews Samson has received for her work. All have been positive, of course, but they have been typically belittling. Samson is billed unfairly as the distributor of secret pages from a ladies’ home journal, domestic, pained, small. On the cover of Perfect Lives is a quote from Ali Smith, one of the UK’s most talented and cutting edge writers: “An unexpected combination of romp and classical: thought-provoking, sassy and comforting.” But the stories are not comforting in any way at all. The characters do not romp and neither do the plots. Instead they skulk, they simmer, they brood. They are brittle, not sassy; in fact one wishes that some of Samson’s doormats would get some sass. Equally, John Banville, famous for writing the dullest Booker winner ever, describes the stories, with typical patronage, as “silken.” What does this mean? It doesn’t mean anything. Silken is the hair of a My Little Pony or a Regency girl’s embroidery cloth.

Perfect Lives is set in the world of lifestyle adverts made flesh and given a midlife crisis, wrinkles, a paunch and a desk drawer full of unfulfilled expectations. Samson’s ageing and bored lovers are surrounded by things, stupid gorgeous things that they hate, yet they covet still more things: the piano tuner loves to perk up the beautiful instrument of a rich family, a woman married to a dullard covets a Leica camera by Hermes. Many of the characters have no real jobs. Instead, they tinker and dabble and potter and craft. Many are bad parents: in At Arka Pana a young woman meets her renowned concert pianist dad, and he’s an arsehole. In The Rose Before The Vine a terrible mother tries hard to reach her daughter, by turns wheedling and sentimental. In Remote Control a dreary woman with a shit husband forges an emotional bond with her sarcastic back-chatting cat.

It is not just that these ‘perfect’ lives are secretly imperfect and the collection’s title is sarcastic. The characters are often actually genuinely contemptible. Their relationships are traditional and repetitive. There is no true friendship between anyone. The men’s selfishness and abusiveness and the women’s submission, weakness and passive aggression are equally risible and cruelly enjoyable to read about. The men cause pain but it doesn’t occur to any of these essentially rather stupid women to tell the men to get lost. They are like dogs, whining around their owners no matter how hard they’re kicked. But Samson sees all this and shows it.

The most powerful story is the one that, on the surface, seems the simplest. The Man Across the River is about memory, violence and consequences. A woman recalls an afternoon spent idling in some local fields. She is avoiding her mother, a political activist whose commitment irritates and embarrasses her. You think the story is about mothers and daughters misunderstanding each other but it is not at all. The girl realises that she has been spotted and is being followed by a strange man holding a branch like a club. The man is on the opposite side of the river but, as she tries to get away, he jumps in and swims across to reach her. She escapes, in panic and embarrassment, hearing him shouting behind her. Afterwards she tells herself that she made a mistake and that what she felt, instead of instinct, was daft panic. She was silly, she scolds herself, the man was harmless. Years later her mother remarks in passing that the man, who had worked locally as the meat deliverer from the local butcher, has been imprisoned for the murder of a young girl.  

The Man Across the River is a standout story in a collection of standouts. It’s all the better for being inspired by the rather unsubtle thriller genre and by its gory, predictable but no less horrid twist. Still, whether blatant or subtle, nobody gets off lightly in Samson’s stories. There’s a little bit of punishment and pain for just about everyone, though no more than they deserve. The men are uninteresting, up-themselves wankers but when Samson strafes them with her highbeams they don’t look like monsters at all, they look bored and boring and pathetic. Equally, the women have no spirit, force, wit, courage or anger, although they do notice small details. But they lack the willpower to do anything about their own pain. I want to dunk nearly all the characters, both sexes alike, into a cold river, haul them up by the collar and slap them. But that is part of the smartness of the work. Samson sees straight through the illusions, delusions, lies, decor and outfits to her characters’ weakness and hypocrisy. It makes for excellent, wincing, recognising reading.

At the end of this word perfect, clever, cruel and beautifully curated selection, I am certain of two things. I will never marry. And I will always read Polly Samson.

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson is out now, published by Virago