- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

FIELD STUDY: STORIES

By Rachel Seiffert

Pantheon Books, $19.95, 215 pages

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN BARBARA

This collection of 11 short stories by British writer Rachel Seiffert is the greatly anticipated follow-up to 2001’s “The Dark Room,” her debut novel short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

With its unrelieved drabness and often labored prose, “Field Study” will perhaps disappoint the high expectations of her readers, but it is nonetheless a remarkable work by a gifted storyteller.

In her choice of subject matter and setting, Miss Seiffert shows admirable versatility. Her characters range from Englishmen to Germans, Poles to Americans, and her stories take place in settings across Europe. And just as in “The Dark Room,” she writes comfortably both of contemporary and mid-20th-century life.

But what unites these stories is their dark point of view — for Miss Seiffert’s fiction is surpassingly, overwhelmingly negative. Her approach is not to reveal the positive, energetic, progressive growth of her characters, but to show their breakdown, disintegration and decay. Faced with doom, they passively await it.

In a signature story, “Blue,” Kenny, an Irish teenager, makes a short-lived attempt to find a job and a decent apartment in hopes of supporting his pregnant girlfriend. But without explanation, he gives up, and Miss Seiffert leaves us just at the moment he’s coolly shrugged off his responsibilities.

In another story, “Architect,” the author describes the professional and personal decline of an architect. A promising talent at the start of his career, he loses his sense of space and construction, his ability as a draftsman, and, with them, his will to live. Though he later regains his powers, it is not by his own initiative; his character is passive from start to finish, a puppet controlled by an occasionally merciful puppeteer.

A third story, “The Late Spring,” describes the death of a beekeeper from old age and weariness.

Beset by the forces of nature or society, these characters are incapable of saving themselves; they crumble, collapse. This sort of grimness will repel some readers, but Miss Seiffert’s dark outlook often leads to artistically happy ends, which her readers should appreciate.

In the title story, a doctoral student named Martin comes to Poland to study the toxicity of a river. Convinced that it is polluted, he urges a woman and her son to stop swimming in it. But his attraction to the woman and concern for her son cloud his judgment and his research proves inconclusive. Having jumbled his personal and professional lives, he leaves for home in shame. The muted, subdued tone Miss Seiffert takes in the unfolding of the narrative contributes to its powerful effect.

Yet if she is capable of artistry, she is not yet a complete artist. Too often, her characters are slightly drawn, ill-defined — mere husks, devoid of substance. Too many of the stories are flat and humorless. More important, her fiction seems to lacks the blood, color, and raucousness of real life. It lacks go, vigor.

Equally troublesome is her sometimes belabored and affected prose style. Like a magician who explains how his tricks are done, she writes with obvious artifice — as if she wants her readers to see the effort that goes into her style. The first paragraph of the story “Tentsmuir Sands” is a good example of this tendency towards strained English:

“The boy is carsick. After his journey backward along the motorway and then through the pines. In the back of the long family car, between the cool box and the beach towels, staring at the white stripes on black tarmac receding, the corners and trees of the sandy track to the beach.”

Here the first sentence is clear enough, but the second is a fragment, ending awkwardly. In the third, she seems to avoid writing “The boy stared at the white stripes …” out of sheer willfulness.

There are many other lapses into pretense: “His small son sucks red drink up through the straw and nods”; “[t]wice, three times, four times, laughing, lurching as the boy screams delight on her back.”

And sometimes she phrases what seem to be the most simple expository passages in the most unnatural and mystifying way: “In the door and then chopping, no sitting down between and no hello either.” Here, and in many other places, a natural style would have served Miss Seiffert better.

Still, there are good stories in “Field Study,” and there is even something to be said for that grim view of life Miss Seiffert brings to her fiction. It exerts, the more one reads, a slow, heavy, potent attraction, as sleep does for the tired.

There is, indeed, even a minor masterpiece in this book, “Francis John Jones, 1924-,” the story of a British deserter from World War II whose existence, in the present, is loudly underscored by the space after the hyphen in the title. The fact that he is even alive is a kind of shock, an insult to the war dead, yet the author makes it clear that Jones, the deserter, could never have behaved differently, and here her negativity is at its most powerful.

A mixed book, one with high merits and trying faults, “Field Study” should nonetheless assure Rachel Seiffert’s place as one of the best British authors writing today.

Stephen Barbara is a writer in Hoboken, N.J. He has written for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

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