Sentences — February 23, 2009, 5:21 pm

Have Another Biscuit With Your Tea

Last night was the annual American devotional exercise to the
excesses of second-class storytelling
. I
didn’t watch, so won’t bag on the particulars, much less the idea of
such a celebration. It’s very likely that if I had watched I would
have wept a joyous plenty: when it isn’t purely ridiculous (“you’re
the next contestant on… the Price is Right!”) it is
uncomplicatedly moving to watch people get good news (a version of
Stendhal’s Syndrome,
I’m guessing). Even so, most movies, especially movies that are well
received, are terrible, for reasons that the Oscars make routinely
obvious, both by what films they omit and of course select. Benjamin
Button

was, to my mind, high flown garbage of a very pure
grade
,
an excellent example of the triumph of technique over storytelling
truth.

What can be accomplished without $160 million dollars isn’t surprising
at all, and it’s always nice to see something short and authentically
moving that doesn’t require any effects more special than syntax and
something to say. Granta, for example, has a new issue devoted to
“Fathers”. Many good short
pieces by a range of writers including Jonathan
Lethem
,
Joseph O’Neill, Siri
Hustvedt

and Francesca Segal.
My favorite in the issue is by Ali
Smith
. I haven’t read
her novels but
now will. Her brief “Portrait of my Father,” contains this paragraph:

My father, one afternoon, sat at the dinette table, unscrewed my talking bear whose cord had broken, and screwed it back together. It worked. ‘When people are dead, graves aren’t where to ?nd them. They’re in the wind, the grass.’ That’s the kind of thing he said. When I asked him what you do if you see something in the dark that frightens you, he said, ‘What you do is, you go up to it, and touch it.’ When things went wrong in the neighbourhood, people would come to my father for help. When we went to visit an old neighbour last autumn, in her eighties too, she called him Mr Smith. ‘Call me Donald, now, Chrissie,’ he said. She shook her head. ‘You’ll have another biscuit with your tea, Mr Smith,’ she said.

And not much more. A deceptively simple recollection, that ends like a
Russian gymnast nailing a dismount. Deceptive ease, real power, and
nothing extra. The whole thing takes three minutes, and will brighten
your Monday. Read it here.

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