Infidelities by Kirsty Gunn
Kirsty Gunn introduces Infidelities, her collection of short stories, with a teasing vignette that appears autobiographical, about a writer who has just finished writing a short-story collection called Infidelities. The writer says of her stories, ‘I’m not discovering the story, and then writing it down. No. From the beginning, I was there […] I’m in the midst.’ So, as I begin to read, I’m looking for her. Where is she, this writer who has just described kissing her ex, at a late hour when her children and husband are asleep, and who seems to be implying that the book I’m about to read is dangerously confessional?
At first she does a good job of hiding; she is a perfect ventriloquist. Each story has a distinct voice with it’s own dialect and syntax, each voice at one with the story’s preoccupations and the character’s state of mind. ‘Listen to me now, you. How I sound.’ One character vocalises this, but every story in the collection demands it.
The first, ‘A Story She Might Tell Herself’, slows me right down. It keeps taking asides into seemingly inconsequential details, the details that the protagonist Helen’s life is composed of. I’m not immediately disposed to appreciate this, because of course the other thing I’m looking for is infidelity. The collection’s title and introduction have primed me for a juicy exposé. So I reconcile myself to the idea that this is a book for a patient reader, and I settle down to read each sentence with restful attention, letting the details accrete to the tidal turn of the story.
My expectations are thrown again by ‘The Scenario’, the third story in the collection. The playful meta-fiction of the introduction is back with a vengeance. It’s a story about someone writing a story about someone telling a story. Or is it a story about a conversation about someone writing a story about someone telling a story? These layers intersect surprisingly and amusingly as the characters flirt with each other and the story flirts with ideas about ‘meaning and perception, language and the body,’ and ‘high, high theory.’
The structure of the book places all these voices in relation to each other. In the introduction, a conversation between the writer and her ex inspires the three sections of the book, ‘Going Out’, ‘Staying Out’, and ‘Never Coming Home’. It also mentions the final story, ‘Infidelity’, so that a thread of curiosity runs through the book and the end links back nicely to the beginning.
‘Infidelity’ has the satisfying effect of acting as a commentary on the rest of the collection as Gunn examines, with playful irony, the process of writing a short story. Helen, the writer in the story, tries to follow her tutor’s instructions, but she is beset with doubts, second guessing herself, worrying about the experience of the reader and how to fictionalise reality. She also worries about the title of her story, and whether she can meet the expectations it sets up.
So here the writer is again, I’ve found her. Of course she gradually emerges in the other stories, or perhaps more correctly, between them, because despite their different voices they talk to each other across the collection. They talk about women and children working out who they are, in relation to their husbands, fathers, families; they talk about storytelling; they talk about how peoples’ lives change due to tiny consequential details. They also talk about infidelity and how it can be a kiss, a telephone call, letting go of a memory, or just a feeling.
Infidelities, Kirsty Gunn
Faber and Faber, £12.99, 224pp