Dislocated in Minneapolis – Andy is pulled up short by the stories of Mesdames Weldon and HospitalJune 10, 2013
Is Mesdames even a word?
Fay Weldon’s 1991 short story collection Moon over Minneapolis (or, Why she couldn’t stay) has been on my shelves for roughly 20 years. I read The Cloning of Joanna May in the early ’90s and loved it and found the story collection in a bargain bin a few years later and grabbed it on a whim. I read the first story, Subject to Diary – about a late-thirties woman in an exclusive abortion clinic, not for the first time, who changes her mind and decides to keep the baby because the anti-abortion receptionist is rude to her – and didn’t go back. And I’ve never read another Weldon book, partly because at heart I’m a bit of a literary sexist pig and most of my reading is taken up with male writers, and partly because that first story just didn’t do it.
With this year’s Reading Challenge involving books on Nettie and my shelves that haven’t been read yet I decided to give Fay another chance.
Wrong move. Or maybe the right move, because at least now I know I was right first time round.
Weldon is funny. And clever. And she writes well. And god knows there isn’t enough writing out there from a female perspective. Hell, even a literary sexist pig like me knows that. It’s just that these usually funny, often clever, well-written stories are all just a little bit … Nothing.
There’s a difference between stripped back and shallow. There’s a difference between minimalist and brittle. Weldon’s characters don’t exist as anything but cyphers, whether for her take on relations between men and women or class warfare or, perhaps most unforgivably, her bitchy, sarcastic lack of compassion. In her defence she is not the kind of one-eyed feminist who believes it’s all about the Sisterhood (do they even exist, really?) and is well aware that sometimes class and privilege play a role in the hand you’re dealt, along with what you’ve got between your legs.
Nevertheless, for the most part these stories were sometimes amusing, very occasionally enlightening, sometimes boring, rarely involving, and ultimately unimpressive. To be brutal, reading them was a bit of a waste of time.
Which is why I read something else as well.
Janette Turner Hospital’s 1986 story collection Dislocations is a bit of a cheeky choice on my part. It only landed on my shelves earlier this year, when the secondhand shop down the street received a generous donation of books from the estate of a late professor of literature who’d been a regular customer there. There was bucketloads of stuff and with my already bulging bookcases in mind I chose just three – Thea Astley’s novel Drylands, David Malouf’s story collection Dream Stuff, and Hospital’s Dislocations. Disappointed with Weldon’s stories, I thought I’d give Hospital’s a crack.
It’s not a fair comparison. Weldon is a comic writer, a satirist of relations between men and women and where women find themselves in a world still mostly controlled by men; this, more or less, is really all she’s interested in. Which is no bad thing, but her stories tend to be very. very one-note.
Hospital was born in Melbourne in 1942, raised in Brisbane, moved to the US in 1967, and by the time Dislocations was published had also lived in India, Canada and the UK. These stories were written and/or published separately between 1970 and 1986 and reflect, in various ways, many of the different phases of her life. One of the best, and last, of the stories, Morgan Morgan, is presumably a recollection of her life and her grandfather in Melbourne before her family’s move to Brisbane when she was seven. The earliest story, You Gave Me Hyacinths, in which a slightly out-of-place teacher and a student who thinks she has no future share a few moments of understanding, is another of my favourites, and while it somehow “feels” like a writer’s early story this is probably influenced by my knowledge that it is. The weakest stories, After the Fall and The Baroque Ensemble, date from 1979 and 1980 and were both published in the same journal; they are a bit formulaic and, if you wanted to read this but were pushed for time, I’d suggest skipping them – and, perhaps, Golden Girl.
Other favourites include The Owl-Bander (about, um, banding owls), Mosie (about a New York home cleaner), and Port After Port, the Same Baggage (a bit Travels with my Aunt sans the randiness). This collection as a whole doesn’t live up to the two Hospital novels I’ve read, Due Preparations for the Plague and Orpheus Lost, although the best, which are mostly the later, stories do. It’s almost certainly out of print now, and Hospital has since published a Collected Stories, something I will get around to finding soon.
As for Weldon … Hmm.