MAY 2, 2017
TO INTRODUCE A STORY with a heavy pair of stone testicles takes a singular writer and — dare we say it — a ballsy one, like novelist Alison MacLeod. This particular anatomical contribution comes from the sphinx presiding over Oscar Wilde’s tomb. According to a young narrator in MacLeod’s short story collection All the Beloved Ghosts, “It’s not a pretty angel this time with soulful eyes and a slippery dress. No. It’s a big fucker with broad square wings rising from its back.” Peering underneath, he notices a vandal has hacked off the “angel’s bits,” only to discover his great-uncle, the cemetery keeper, using them as a handy paperweight on his desk.
Like this story, titled “Oscillate Wildly” after a song by 1980s band The Smiths as well as the deliberate play on Wilde’s name, most of the pieces in the collection use historical fact as a point of departure. (In case you’re wondering, Wilde’s sphinx was in fact castrated by a vandal in 1961 but has since been happily outfitted with a comely silver prosthesis.) Through nuanced and often lyrical prose, MacLeod imbues cultural figures and events with color and emotional authenticity. Even rumors are swaddled in a luminous believability until they are beyond doubt.
Many of the characters in All the Beloved Ghosts are figures lost to the past, including some historical icons such as poet Sylvia Plath, Princess Diana, and Virginia Woolf’s niece, Angelica Garnett. Even the author’s great-aunt makes an appearance as a main character. Resurrected and celebrated through finely honed storytelling, they are spirit made flesh again.
The subject of three pieces is Anton Chekhov, the renowned Russian playwright, short story writer, and, like MacLeod, an astute and compassionate observer of human nature. The trilogy opens with an almost too-clever, “wink-nudge” retelling of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” set in present-day Brighton. It is followed by “Chekhov’s Telescope,” which is narrated by an archly judgmental young reporter who secretly follows the writer and his wife, Olga, and chronicles their relationship.
The final piece in the trilogy relates the oft-repeated story of Chekhov’s death. Like Raymond Carver’s version, it is bolstered by biographical facts, but written in Chekhov’s voice and laced with sardonic humor. After his heart stops following a long bout of tuberculosis, the great writer wryly declares, “I never was anyone’s straight man, and true to myself, I died doubled up on my side. Never let it be said that I don’t amuse myself.” As a tragicomic series of incidents plays out afterward, Chekhov recounts with unchecked delight, “Finally I am removed from the hotel under the cover of darkness in — how fantastic! — a hotel laundry basket.” His mirth increases as his body is transported in a refrigerated car used for oysters: “I never subscribed to any heroic ideal. I am happy to be mistaken for an oyster.” Later, transferred to a luggage car to Moscow, he concludes, “I am now content to be mistaken for baggage. It’s true I would be a poor first-class steamer trunk, but I believe I have the makings of an excellent carpet bag.”
Like Chekhov, MacLeod is highly attentive to sound, from everyday noises to mellifluous voices. “[K]nitting needles tsssk and click” between a woman’s fingers on the subway. A man notices “[s]ome part of the nun […] is whistling in the key of D. He does not know that in the whorl of each of Sister Kate’s ears sits a newly fitted hearing aid.” These minute details add texture to the work and enable music to play a redemptive role in many of the stories.
One of the most striking pieces in the collection is MacLeod’s rumination on the late Princess Diana, the complicated role of the media, and the dissolution of her own marriage. Unlike the other stories, “Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames” is a memoir that includes snapshots that the author took, as a starstruck teenager, of the princess visiting a local hotel. Written in a less self-consciously literary style than her fiction, it is a frank examination of hero worship and the illusions that buttress and eventually damage relationships.
Having explored wartime anti-Semitism in her Booker Prize–longlisted novel Unexploded, MacLeod has proven herself to be unafraid of addressing racial prejudice in her work. In “Solo, A Cappella,” she takes on the 2011 race riots in North London. Although the uprising occurred two years before Black Lives Matter emerged, the story attempts to convey the movement’s liberatory message. It centers a young Anglo-African couple in love against a backdrop of police brutality and the systemic racism resulting in the relentless oppression of the Black community in London.
However, even if it was written with the best intentions, its romanticized angle could be construed as problematic and simplistic. Moreover, MacLeod writes in the voice of a young Anglo-Ghanaian “yute,” and it is a less than convincing one, with a light dialect that inadvertently falters at certain points. While anchored in emotional truth and accurate geographic underpinnings, the story is hampered by this inauthenticity. As a woman of color, I also found there to be something discomfiting about a privileged white female mimicking, and potentially inventing, the rhythms of a working-class Black youth.
MacLeod is in better form when depicting the culturally diverse commuters on the London Underground in “There are precious things.” The careworn lot ranges from an evening attendant for the Victoria Station ladies’ toilets to a soloist in a choir studying a six-part score. An incident on the train rouses these disparate characters from their respective tender concerns. They rise, united, to advocate for social justice before returning to their private lives. Even with its theme of transience in a multifarious, postmodern society like London, the narrative suggests a continuous thread of humanity linking its characters. Inclusivity is thereby captured in a more credible way than in “Solo, A Cappella.”
The beginning of “There are precious things” best demonstrates MacLeod’s innovative use of language. The first paragraph comprises one phrase: “on the 4.38 out of Mile End.” This compact fragment gives the effect of a subway train traveling from an unknown past and halting at a stop (a full stop, at that). Throughout the story, there is a similar effect as characters are introduced, one by one, through their most immediate thoughts, so the reader must relate to them in medias res without prior knowledge of their respective histories.
In “We Are Methodists,” the reader is afforded a more robust version of a character’s past, including the more grisly parts. Toby, a reticent plumber and heating engineer, visits the narrator’s new house to make a series of repairs. Over the course of his visits, he opens up to her about his experiences as a Royal Marine captured in the Battle of Basra. He describes the ordeal of being tied to a metal chair in the heat of the desert for weeks on end:
We were dehydrated. Starving. We sat till we fell off. You only knew you’d fallen off when you came to on the ground. After a point, you were just glad of the chair. You’re baking in the heat but you love your bloody chair.
The invasion of Iraq emerges as a specter in a second story, “How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest.” On the night of the 2015 Paris attacks, the narrator finds a prominent politician hurrying home on a London street and places him under citizen’s arrest for being a known war criminal. Tying her hand to his, she leads him first to a cafe and then to St James’s Church, where something strange happens.
In an abrupt instance of magical realism, the narrator’s niece appears on her cell phone via FaceTime and suddenly bursts into the church through some kind of cosmic wormhole. In MacLeod’s universe, ordinary situations can warp into the surreal. Ghosts casually roam, clustering in the windows of a restaurant, pouring a cup of tea at a table, or even communicating through a wine glass. In “We Are Methodists,” once Toby has begun to reveal his experiences in Iraq, the narrator finds desert sand collecting inside her East Brighton home.
In MacLeod’s short stories, whether they are factual or not, the reader is often ineluctably drawn to the characters — even if they are jihadists, like in “In Praise of Radical Fish.” Awaiting a phone call from an Islamic recruiter, a trio of young men attempt to withstand a weekend at Brighton Pier to test their radicalized mindset. The buoyant narrator, a newbie who isn’t afraid to consult Islam for Dummies, confesses he “struggled with an embarrassing excess of good cheer” in contrast to his more somber companions as they stroll along the boardwalk. Having won stuffed animals at a shooting gallery of ducks, he is sternly ordered, “No one may hold a cuddly toy when the call to Holy War comes.”
This lighthearted story has a sobering underside: Brighton was on the register in 2014 for being a potential terrorism target because of its high number of radicalized Muslim teens — a result of racial discrimination and many other factors. As with many of the pieces in this collection, the narrative acknowledges the complex multiculturalism in England, exposing both its heartening and nightmarish aspects.
Besides being well versed in current affairs, MacLeod is impressively well connected. She has collaborated with her friend Denis Noble, an eminent cardiologist, on a story that puts him in the ironic, and possibly fictitious, position of receiving a heart operation. As with all her work, she meticulously does her research, investigating everything from slaughterhouse operations in 1960s England to the logistics of cardiac surgery, and adds a layer of compelling detail to the narrative.
MacLeod was also personal acquaintances with painter and writer Angelica Garnett, the subject of the book’s eponymously titled story. She creates an evocative portrait of the woman who was the keeper of the Bloomsbury Group’s secrets — and a witness to its ghosts. On her way to an onstage interview, Angelica wanders through her property and encounters the housekeeper of her childhood years, as clear as day, followed by her late mother, Vanessa, who appears as a woman still in her 40s. Angelica’s reaction to the latter is swift and vehement:
Vanessa simply has no right to be alive and painting here in the orchard. Nor has she the right, after so many years gone, to stand before her daughter, still unaware, still so absorbed, and so vivid it is as if she, Angelica, is the ghost, the lesser presence, the trick of the light.
And in that last sentence, we are reminded that ghosts are not merely the past or the fictional. They are the current, the mortal — those with heft and presence, an internal monologue, a beating heart and tender parts, and the capacity to love and be loved. In this way, All the Beloved Ghosts concludes with a final shiver of recognition.