Dead Tropes Society

ON EARTH AS IT IS by Steven Heighton, Granta pounds 9.99

This book of stories caters to a modern form of the age-old syndrome, the hunger for epiphany by proxy. The reader will feel better for the fact that a lot of the characters experiencing such covetable revelations only do so shortly before they, or someone they love, dies nastily.

Trying to immerse yourself in another culture - Nepal, for instance - while avoiding the beaten tourist track? You'll get squashed by a runaway taxi. Trying to reconnect with the literature professor you had a torrid affair with while a starry-eyed undergraduate? You'll have a heart attack, and go all Molly Bloom in your last interior monologue.

Reading this collection of stories reminds you of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, shouting at his cowed poetry students: "Seize the day!" This otherwise unexceptionable message is often expected to shore up a whole story on its own. "To Everything a Season", for example, is a set of four mini-stories on the theme of the last lovemaking between a couple. Message: savour the last time. Except, of course, you never know it's the last time, so you can't. In the weaker stories, the burnished contours of the writing itself start to crack, and Heighton puts together his words in the dutiful, rather than inspired, fashion of a creative-writing graduate. Leaving out verbs for literary effect, hauling off the shelf a few not-quite-trendy and anyway inappropriate scientific metaphors, putting stuff in italics, planting a few po-mo textmines ("Not much of a story to begin with," he admits dangerously a page into "Downing's Fast").

Heighton has been praised both as a prose writer and a poet (although the vers libre in "Root-Fires", a story over-freighted with Easter symbolism, is poetry only by virtue of tortuous grammar and lineation). But look at this: "A century's worth of gases, ovensmoke, fallout and Agent Orange, defoliating the skin, ironising the atmosphere so foully that the heart's own dialect is alien, unpronounceable." There are many bad things in this sentence: the glib concatenation of wars, the pun on "ionising", and the word "dialect", which does not mean (as I suspect Heighton wants it to) either language or language-game, and looks to be there simply because it has a nice Greek ring to it.

And yet the novella, "Translations of April", that contains this exemplarily bad sentence is extremely fine: a seven-part love letter to a dead girlfriend that becomes a hymn to the transfigurative powers of art. For once, the carpe diem trope is worked for - this message, we are told with magical understatement, is "what the dead, in translation, always seem to say". Ranging from contemporary urban twentysomethings to starving 19th-century polar explorers, or a shipwrecked sailor who is rowed to safety by a ghost, "Translations of April" is the proper triumph of Heighton's fictional technique. The final story, "The Dead and the Missing", also conjures magic from the story of a guitar-playing Canadian soldier in the trenches in 1917, who is saved from a fatal sleep by the singing of a German in the adjacent tunnel.

At the end of this uneven book, it is clear that there is a big difference between two meta- physical techniques: trying artificially to force transcendence on to ordinary life, and seeing ordinary life with an eye that is open to the colours of transcendence. Heighton does both, but only one is worth the candle.

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