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Alexander McCall Smith

It’s interesting when the writer of a piece of fiction begins his story by calmly declaring that one of his techniques bears no dint of conceit, when, in fact, it is typically thought of as conceited. McCall Smith starts “Rain” by sharing his thoughts on authorial intrusion, that dismantling of the layered screen separating world-constructor and world-absorber; he admonishes it while in the process of implementing it, so that we wonder, “What is the good of this? Why won’t you simply launch into the story proper?”

The story proper is a simple one, without fantastic artifice, or suspenseful leaps of faith. It concerns the intertwined lives of two men, Riv and Ian, who meet, fall in love and decide to build their lives together—two men who are initially surprised but humbly, happily gratified to find in the other’s contrasting Self a near-perfect mirror of reflecting desires. Their dreams turn to having children; after deliberation they decide to employ the services of a flighty surrogate who seems, nonetheless, suitable for the procedure. Riv and Ian decide on a mixed-batch donation, so neither will be entirely certain which of them turns out to be the father of their future child. As their wisely supportive doctor friend, who arranges the specifics of the procedure, remarks:

“The danger, I would imagine, would be resentment. If one of you knew that you were the real father, then you could start assuming that your word carried more weight than the one who wasn’t. Humanity is messy. People behave in ways they’d never dream they’d behave in. Let me assure you of that.”

So what happens, then, when both Ian and Riv begin to cultivate their separate, private doubts, suspicions and secret musings over their son David’s parentage—specifically, which one of them is the father? They both, independent of the knowledge of the other, turn to their doctor friend for a paternity test, but neither of them receives the results they expect, altering the fabric of what they believe in an unexpected, nigh-impossible to predict manner.

I have always been a fan of McCall Smith’s elegantly understated, economical writing style, having enjoyed his Isabel Dalhousie novels supremely over the years. They are akin to a certain brand of literary indulgence that bears the sweet taste of a known formula, while bearing none of the bitter dregs of a truly frown-worthy fictive style. “Rain”, titled partially in homage to W. Somerset Maugham‘s short story of the same name, is crafted on the same standards of fine tale-telling to which one grows accustomed after a steady diet of McCall Smith. His authorial perspicacity and emotional involvement in the development of his characters, and the situations in which they find themselves, is both gentle and unsentimental. The result is that we enjoy the lives of these men; we appreciate what they endure even when they are sad, out of sorts with themselves, each other, and the world. We recognize in their interludes of woe and joy familiar skins of our old, new and unborn experiences, ones we can pull over our own bones like overcoats, marvelling at how well they fit, at how seemingly easily they speak to what we know, and the places we’ve been, the places we have yet to go.

Why the title “Rain”, though, you might still be wondering? A story titled in partial homage still needs to have its name bear some relevance to the concerns of the narrative itself, no? Rightly so… and rain is important in this sweetly sad reminiscence of a tale. It frames, in torrents both obscuring and revealing, the principal exchanges at the heart of the piece. It is to a background of rain that worst fears are confirmed, and under the same deluge that glimmers of redemptive hope, even in the face of atrocious deception, are glimpsed. McCall Smith stitches in these fine lines of symbolic significance without having to bash his reader over the head with them, repeatedly; this adds to the story’s understated, undeniable appeal.

Divided into paragraph-length chapters that span years, possibly a decade, possibly  more, the story holds the weighted significance of a shared segment of a lifetime’s worth of memory, without the pages and pages devoted to slow, steady exposition one might normally associate with this level of development. We learn as much about Ian and Riv by what McCall Smith does not say about them, as by what he makes plain in his prose. Some may find the chapter assignation cloying, but I can only conclude that it is enforced with the same display of thoughtfulness that the author evinces in other chief aspects of his narration.

You might be able to read “Rain” twice in the length of time it takes you to walk from your house to the post office on the corner, but if you read it today, I daresay you will enjoy a Sunday speckled with the finest calibre of thoughtful thoughts… and what more could you ask for, from a short story, than to be reminded of all the rain that’s framed the best and worst moments of your life up to this point?

You can read “Rain” by Alexander McCall Smith here. (New Statesman)

This Sunday, Ellen, the creator of the Story Sundays feature, shares her thoughts on ‘Aviator on the Prowl’ by Kalpana Narayanan. You can read her post at her blog, Fat Books and Thin Women, here.

Story Sundays was created by Fat Books and Thin Women as a way to share appreciation for this undervalued fiction form. All stories discussed are available to read free, online. Here’s Fat Books and Thin Women’s Story Sunday archive, and here’s mine. Want to start up Story Sundays on your blog? Yay! Email story.sundaysATgmail.com for details.


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