Books: Independent choice - Short stories

Pick of the week: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant
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The Independent Culture
Victor Hugo said somewhere that when a butterfly stamps its foot in Europe, there is a tempest in Asia. The butterfly effect is now better known in most of us as a tenet of chaos theory. In her new collection, Beyond the Blue Mountain (Viking, pounds 14.99), Penelope Lively - doyenne of the British short story - plays with the idea in "The Butterfly and the Tin of Paint". A house painter, knocking over an open tin of Dulux gloss, eventually brings down the prime minister. Despite monsoons of misfortune, no one gets our sympathy. It is the best story in an amusing and accomplished volume. In most, however, there is no bigwig ripe for a fall. The tempest occurs in the teapot of an ordinary life. Indeed, a focus on low-flyers and their grey horizons is what connects all of the volumes under review.

The most ambitious is The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant (Bloomsbury, pounds 25), by the Canadian-born New Yorker writer who now lives in France. This major retrospective brings together over 40 years of artistic life. From the earliest story, dated 1953, to the most recent, 1995, the technique is enviable, and the insights sure. Gallant frequently peers into the anxious psyches of Anglo-Saxon visitors who are afraid they are missing the romance of the real Paris, where the French have excellent dinners and ecstatic tete-a-tetes behind doors closed to naive foreigners. In some stories, we see the people in those barricaded houses, and begin to think that the French class system may be even more convoluted than our own.

Gallant's book is enormous in every sense, and the autobiographical preface, less how-to than credo, makes the point that, unlike novels, story collections should not be read in serial monogamy. "Read one. Shut the book. Read something else," advises Gallant. But almost every reader will want to come back to these, which show no signs of age.

Yet I do see a generational divide in these books. Lively and Gallant, the eminences grises, tend to end their stories with an insight into how life is more complicated, more wonderful or bitter, than the protagonist had thought. Perhaps things can't be changed, but one is decent and will survive. Younger writers, bred on TV crime and spiralling real crime rates,go in for violent landscapes and emotions. Their endings often reveal that the protagonist is not as decent as he or she, or we, thought.

Take Kate Pullinger's "Willow", in My Life as a Girl in a Men's Prison (Phoenix House, pounds 9.99). A happily-coupled middle-class lesbian writer who teaches women's studies to violent men, discovers deeply incorrect emotions within. "May looked down at Clare's nakedness and found herself wondering if she could kill her, if she could murder the person she loved most ... she fought back a surge of nausea, shocked to find it coupled with desire." Pullinger isn't afraid of looking at anything. These stories are deft, honest and compelling. In this second collection, the Canadian- born Londoner who wrote the novelisation of The Piano takes us into the bloodiest regions of bruised tender hearts.

In the title story of Brady Udall's Letting Loose the Hounds (Cape, pounds 9.99), a young American ne'er-do-well and born victim who can't seem to control anything suddenly gets a chance at payback. As he consents to help a friend murder someone he has never met, he feels a spurt of purposeful energy, "a strange, hot thrill". Udall's control of language is remarkable, especially in one who seems to believe that violence maketh the man. He writes about people we wouldn't want to know except on paper. Raymond Carver's influence is visible, but Udall is his own man. He will be an interesting writer to watch. He is already an interesting one to read.

Sylvia Brownrigg's stories are good-natured, often joyous, and in the best sense sweet. They are full of bumptious heroines who choose life. Brownrigg is another American-born Londoner. Ten Women who Shook the World (Gollancz, pounds 9), her first book, is too short: one wants more of these sexy, wild achievers. There is the "Amazon" who built the pyramids and other wonders of the world; and the "Hussie from the West": "I have been called promiscuous - your face has to pucker when you say it. I prefer to think of myself as an adventurer." At the rodeo and elsewhere, "I lasso, I corral, I ride 'em, they huck." When she falls off life, she gets back on.

She will ride anything - "bulls, horses; men, women, ideas." As Victor Hugo might have said, "Oh la la."

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