Who are the truly artistic writers of today?
This is a question you don't like to ask yourself too often, isn't it? For at least 20 years I've found it impossible to name a better writer in English than John Burnside. I was going to say in Scotland, or in Britain, but when I allow my mind to drift across the Atlantic, where I always tell myself the "real talent" is sequestered, I find an equal paucity of skill, of daring, honesty and beauty.
Something Like Happy, a collection of stories is, largely, about happiness. So it is, therefore, about pain. It is about things which are here and things that have disappeared. It is about the frightening blankness of fog, and of people, and the deliberate erasures we make in our lives. It's about indistinct forms, figures in chambers and unvisited rooms.
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Burnside manages to write about the world on the stage and in the wings of Fife (there's one story here which has escaped to Salerno). There are three distinct districts. There is the Fife of pretty villages and St Andrews, which could pass for almost anywhere in the bourgeois world; this county he peoples with a number of characters gone gently wrong. Almost all of them are pitifully alone in one way or another; this is something that has long been a part of Burnside's plea about existence. Then there are rough estates, the pebble-dashed life of Dundee. And there is the teeming natural world of the shore, to which he always returns us.
For all the tumult, violence and longing in these stories, there is happiness in the world as Burnside paints it – rather private and solitary happiness, but of a kind to which we should perhaps all aspire, now. He seems willing, in a way, to forgive everybody everything, and to remind us in our struggle not to forget to look on nature, which has been observing us and our actions all the while.
Peach Melba is a fantastic, astonishingly vivid story of accidental death, with the visual punch of a Pedro Almodóvar film – a number of these stories have much in common with that film-maker's intense, lurid broodings on sex, men and women, and the fragile self. Another tale, Sunburn, is a winning observation of a single moment in a young man's erotic history when an attractive neighbour rubs lotion on his shoulder.
The collection is also concerned with the sheer impossibility of men. There are many betrayals muffled in fog and snow. In Slut's Hair, an emotionally isolated young wife has a tooth extracted by her idiot of a husband in place of the more usual sort of domestic violence. The surgical precision of his unpleasantness is beyond creepy.
In The Cold Outside, a story brimming with tension, a lorry driver whose cancer has "returned" offers a lift to a person who turns out to be a young man in drag. He's been beaten up. What this might suggest to the driver goes unsaid, the boy surprising him by saying that he is relatively happy in the world.
The driver later remembers the things that have made the young man happy: "Like his memory of the school atlas that he'd been given in geography class – how he had loved the way the world was all mapped out, all the colours and lines and borders perfect and just, so that it looked like the kind of world it would be a pleasure to inhabit, an utterly fictional world where you could never be lost, because everybody and everything belonged somewhere." What a perfect description of John Burnside's wish for us.