Tessa Hadley has remarked that she is "irresponsible" as a short story writer. Perhaps that explains the off-footedness I feel with any of her stories, stories in which characters appear (to me) to gravely misperceive the true nature of what they see and hear, as well as the true nature of what they experience.
In the same way, I as a reader feel as if Hadley purposely misleads me. It's as if a Hadley story is a pattern of shards that she intends to be fit together a variety of ways. There is nothing wrong in that as an authorial policy - as long as it is not covering up a basic lack of intent and knowledge on the author's part.
Of course, Hadley is being ironic about being "irresponsible". She is tweaking the reader, much as she does when she tells the readers not nearly enough. Her position is that in a short story, it is almost a necessity to develop a technique that allows her to draw a character with glancing stokes at the past, surroundings, intent, or experience. Fine, as long as it isn't a basic laziness.
Marina, the heroine of "The Stain", once saw a grotesque thing in a tree, something obviously once alive, but what was it? She saw it, but because it was grotesque, and out of place, and because she had trouble reading what it actually was, it was terrifying and remained so - a stain. It remained with her as a horror, partly because she could not understand it, partly because her understanding of things was turned upside down, and partly because she is shocked that there could be something she cannot understand. This is, of course, the most important authorial comment that Hadley has structured into this story. By the time the story ends, Marina has once again encountered something grotesque and out of place. The delicious difficulty for the reader is that neither Marina nor the author explains exactly what that upsetting, out-of-place thing is.
I am still in awe of how "Betsy" can transform ordinary The New Yorker stories into gold...
She is a regular "comments person" on the blog The Mookse and the Gripes, and a few weeks ago she analyzed Tessa Hadley's story The Stain that appeared in The New Yorker. I enjoyed the story, though was left feeling somewhat blase about whether it really had much to say. Betsy, of course, delivers a tour de force round-up of all the nuance in the story and why I was so ambivalent. Here's an extract, the full review is here (in the comments section):