Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, March 13, 2020

Hilary Mantel, _The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories_

I STARTED THIS one while waiting for the new Thomas Cromwell installment to hit the shelves...and now we have it! This was a nice way to fill the interim, in any case.

All of the stories except the last (the title story, as it happens) were published before the book came out, mainly in the Guardian or in the London Review of Books.

It seems to me that English/British short story writing does not have a biggest dog in the yard like the New Yorker, a publication whose prestige and ability to pay are such that it actually functions as part of the gravitational field for short story writers, pulling the form in a certain direction.  On the other hand, I'm having a hard time thinking of contemporary English/British fiction writers who are famous mainly for their short stories. I know Julian Barnes has published a couple of collections...but is there a Lydia Davis/Diane Williams/Deborah Eisenberg/Raymond Carver/Gary Lutz writer, someone whose short fictions are their best known?

Maybe they need a New Yorker. Not that the New Yorker is going to publish Diane Williams or Gary Lutz, probably. Well, who knows.

Mantel's stories have a few old-school moves, like the cold-water-in-the-face shock ending ("Winter Break," "How Shall I Know You," "The Heart Fails Without Warning"). Here is the U.S.A., we go more for the enigmatic-trailing-off ending that does not seem like an ending at all. I found these crack-of-thunder endings refreshing and enjoyable.

The stories are relatively recent (a 2004 story is the earliest), but they hark back in some ways to Mantel's earlier novels. "Sorry to Disturb" has the same setting, in effect, as Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and the narrator of "Comma" sounds a lot like the narrator of An Experiment in Love. "Terminus" is a ghost story, in the neighborhood of Beyond Black.

The main event, though, is the final and title story, in which a woman whose house (semi-detached?) overlooks the hospital from which Margaret Thatcher is leaving after an eye surgery lets in a repairman who turns out to be an IRA sharpshooter, intent on killing Thatcher. The surprise is that the woman turns out to be not unsympoathetic to the undertaking, even willing to get a little complicit. This must have touched off controversy of the sort Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint inspired, but her reputation is probably secure nonetheless.

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