A Dark Contemporary Eye
High energy plot-lines define this collection
By Neil Murphy
The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories
Claire Tham’s The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories comprises six stories, two of which, “The Gunpowder Trail” (1999) and “Driving Sideways” (2001) won the NAC Golden Point Short Story Award. Collections of stories don’t always manage to achieve a unity of style and subject matter to rise above a fragmented gathering of disparate elements but Tham’s collection achieves coherence through its technical variation and distinct patterns of motifs as well as the consistency of its type of subject matter. Throughout the collection the reader is confronted with high energy plot lines dealing with, variously, prostitution, drug-dealing, betrayals of all kinds, extra-marital affairs, murder, intrigues, implied incest, underage sex, embezzlement, mother/daughter and father/daughter relationship problems and kidnapping. The dramatic life in the collection is primarily provided by these plots and thus, in many respects, they act as the defining agents for the collection.
Technically, Tham clearly attempts to reach beyond the all too predictable realist sequential narrative style that limits many short fictions. Instead she continually works at constructing temporal variations, spatial shifts, dual narratives and ambiguous endings. In addition, there is the occasional use of figurative suggestion, like in “The Pool Boy,” in which the narrator’s Saturday afternoon lover, the pool boy, is meant to echo her father’s watery death. The overall effect is suggestive of a desire to interweave ideas, time frames and other kinds of significance and it works much of the time, despite the occasional confusion caused by unheralded temporal/spatial shifts, particularly in “Driving Sideways.” In addition, this reader is not convinced that the use of ambiguous endings is always entirely successful. The non-absolute closure in fiction is generally meant to generate multi-layered possibilities or act as a refusal to commit to a sense of finality but here, at times, the multiplicity of possibilities fails to materialise effectively and, instead, the open end acts as a vague promise of some new adventure yet to come, especially in the two opening stories, “The Gunpowder Trail” and “Driving Sideways,” or as a way of introducing a hazy quality of yet more dread, especially in “Highway.” In general, however, the enterprising variations in technique indicate that the author is clearly aware of the benefits of the juxtapositions of time and space, and, in almost all cases, the stories benefit greatly from such awareness.
One intriguing aspect of this collection is the reappearance under different guises, in many of the stories, of a female figure who is presented as either extremely dangerous or emotionally absent, or both. In two of the stories, “The Gunpowder Trail” and “Driving Sideways,” the leading female character is described as an assassin, Elin, in “Do What You Have To,” is a “neat, criminally self-possessed figure,” who casts a “chill” when she enters a room, and Ms Tan, in “In Memoriam,” is depicted as “the kind of female that can easily run an army and put the fear of God into every man,” while her sister, who turns out to be even more terrifying, despite initial appearances has a “dead-eyed remorselessness.” The mother in “The Pool Boy,” shares qualities with all of the above while Deanna in “Highway,” is devoid of an emotional life, albeit because of an amphetamine habit. The curious point about this pattern of characterisation is that the ruthlessly heartless females still manage to elicit some of one’s understanding. The success of these stories, in this respect, is rooted in the author having managed to create contexts for the women’s behaviour. Nonetheless, this kind of representation remains puzzling, and, one might argue, a little limiting. Even the younger females seem to be following in their elders’ assassin paths, with both ‘Jade’ (“The Pool Boy”) and Wen Shan (“The Gunpowder Trail”) showing distinct signs of blossoming into emotionally distant women, something which seems to both please and intrigue them.
While this collection represents a significant achievement, and Tham is obviously a writer from whom important work can be expected in the future, The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories falls short of being a highly accomplished work in its own right. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the avalanche of dramatic plot lines, while individually feasible, combine to give the collection a quality of melodrama that tests the readers credibility. For a writer who is obviously adept at constructing reasonably complex narratives, it is a little surprising that the primary sources of drama in the collection are the plots. More frequent figurative usage of language and/or the construction of arrangements of resonant images would have generated a more complex fabric in the stories and hence made them artistically stronger texts, as would a sense of irony at key moments. Ultimately, there is too powerful a sense of the literal about them, but one suspects that the author is more than capable of infusing her future work with more density.
Secondly, the characterisation in the stories is too often reduced to caricature; at times, it appears intentional. For example, Steve, in “The Gunpowder Trail” is “New Age-leaning, tofu-eating, acoustic guitar strumming... the embodiment of every West Coast cliché.” The admission that he is a stereotype partly redeems his presence in the story, but other kinds of cliché proliferate, like Jek in “Driving Sideways”: “There was a lounge-lizard quality in Jek, though at times he gave the impression of being a hyperactive kid,” and in the same story, the line “It was odd, how he felt he’d known her forever, even though they’d just met,” does little to convince us that we are in interesting company. Finally, the motley band of expatriates who participate in the events of “In Memoriam,” certainly achieve the status of clichéd ang mohs, but never convincing humans.
These gripes are included here, are not made in an effort to discredit Claire Tham’s collection, which is, in many respects, very well crafted and engaging. Instead, my criticism is borne out of a belief that the author is still growing and while this collection is not quite the finished product, there is every chance that greater things are possible from her. The residual impression from these stories, at least to this reader, is that unlike many lesser writers, Tham is exploring her craft, using an array of technical devices that serve her well here, but may well serve her better in the future.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004