‘Said and Done’ by James Morrison
Author: Viet Dinh
November 9, 2010
Full disclosure: I am ‘friends’ with James Morrison on Facebook (though we’ve never met in person), and we both appeared in an issue of the North Dakota Quarterly (Morrison’s story, “Help,” is reprinted here).
But rather than bias my review of Said and Done, I like to imagine that our tenuous association means something, but I suspect that our Internet-only connection better reflects the skewed relations between Morrison’s characters.
In his best stories, Morrison maintains a narrative distance, keeping the relationships between characters oblique. As a result, the reader becomes an active part of the story, drawing his own parallels.
In “Stalker,” for instance, two women who work at the same company (but have never met) have the misfortune of dating the same, obsessive man. As their stories run simultaneously, each woman comes into her own power, making their eventual encounter with each other less a climax and more an emotional sigh of relief.
“Two Days,” similarly, follows this pattern of not-quite-connecting. The story presents two snapshots of a young man: first as an adolescent fighting with a young friend, then again as an adult trying to dissuade his lover from leaving.
Morrison doesn’t force heavy-handed links between the sections; instead, the reader finds his own resonances, draws his own correlations.
Morrison’s ebullient use of language is on full display, avoiding the understated, minimalist style popular in American short fiction today. Instead, his images are full-throated: a thought comes upon a woman “like a mugger lurching into a dark alleyway,” a spray of window cleaner hangs “like a spidery vapor in still air.”
Morrison writes descriptions with a miniaturist’s eye, reveling in intricate detail.
At times, though, Morrison stretches too far. “The Bottom of My Heart,” for instance, describes open windows gaping “like the mouths of dolorous, yawing coeds with the wish that they could open even further, let in still more air.” While the individual elements of that image are evocative, in combination they dilute each other.
Similarly, Morrison’s erudite narration oftentimes conflicts with his more earthy characters: The conflicted father, for example, who gives tours of a famous artist’s home in “The Great Men” doesn’t quite ring true; while it’s believable he would take swigs of moonshine on the job, it’s more difficult to understand the invective he hurls at a gay male couple, especially considering his avowed ambivalence towards his son’s ambiguous sexuality.
Other characters fall into ponderous speechifying: the shy college student in “The Bottom of My Heart” encounters not one, but four characters who proclaim more than they converse.
Much better are the stories in which the narration mirrors the characters’ obsessions, a combination that deepens our understanding of the characters. An antique appraiser’s precise attention to a priceless clock in “The Fullness of Time,” for example, reflects his younger lover’s pre-occupation with photographing young men.
The nameless narrator of “Washing Up,” on a quest to retrieve a deceased composer’s unpublished works, wanders into clubs and out into the streets, feeling as trapped as the manuscripts held ransom by the composer’s mother.
This is where Morrison excels: with characters who crave some sort of connection.
Sometimes they make it, as with “The Fullness and Time” and “Help,” and sometimes the opportunity slips from their grasp (“The Great Men,” “Close Calls”).
As Morrison shows, the process of forging that connection takes more than simply clicking a ‘Friend’ button.