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52 Books #25: Chattering

July 2, 2011

Louise Stern is fourth-generation deaf, and her debut short-story collection Chattering (Granta) aims to open up some of the world and experience of deaf people to readers fortunate enough to have their hearing. Crucially, this isn’t issues-based writing of the sort that might scuttle a collection from a less sensitive writer (hearing or otherwise): no po-faced worthiness here. These twelve stories are about people who, in the awful old cliche, just happen to be deaf.

Instead of worthy, cringey stories about coming to terms with a disability, for instance, Stern writes about two girls on a beach holiday (‘Rio’), a trio of teens having a faintly sinister after-nightclub experience at a stranger’s house (‘The Velvet Rope’), and the secret life of a window cleaner (‘The Window Washer’). At their best, the stories are oblique and faintly odd: ideally, you finish them with a puzzled smile.

I was very taken with the transliteration of sign language — ” ‘I am move here with friend mine. I had wonderful time this here since. I was work in bar. I will look other job now. You are interesting to show me more round this city? You know where party?” ‘ (p.63) — as awkward and sweet as any difficult translation from another language, and, I should imagine, a rare thing for any non-hearing-disabled reader to experience even at this remove. I was rather hoping for a story written entirely in what amounts to dialect — my feeling was that Stern doesn’t quite go as far here as she might, in opening up the hearing-disableds’ world to readers.

This isn’t, of course, the project she sets herself, which is to highlight similarities and parallels rather than prise open gaps. For the most part, the collection succeeds at this; one feels gently educated for having read it. More troublesome is the fact that a number of the stories are indifferently written and some are lightweight: the hitch-hiking story of ‘Roadrunner’ is a set-piece which feels inconsequential; ‘The Window Washer’ is a highly ordinary story depicting the insights her unnamed character has into the lives of his employers, one obsessively clean, the next outrageously untidy, and has the air of a creative writing exercise or even a school-level short story (‘Imagine the sights a window-cleaner might see. Make the point that people mistakenly assume his near-invisibility makes their own lives opaque’). Deafness doesn’t have much bearing on this story, and I don’t think it really works therefore. These stories need to be engaging, surprising, beguiling or horrific in their own right in order for Stern’s project really to work, and too many of them are skimpy and anodyne.

On the other hand, when the stories work, as the first and last pieces in Chattering do very well, they really work. The would-be hedonistic exploits of the two deaf girls in ‘Rio’ are bewitching and have a nicely sinister undercurrent as they meet and go home with a man who enlists them as escorts, telling them: ‘ “Men always want silent women… You two are the perfect women. You are beautiful and no words come out of you to ruin the fantasy… Men would pay anything you wanted, to be with you.” ‘ (p.10.) And in the concluding ‘The Deaf School’, Stern rewardingly turns her attention to a wider context, tackling the pressures and strictures of institutions, like the titular one, essential to the deaf, and what happens when commercial or financial considerations rob the disabled of one sort of lifeline. This is the story where Stern shows greatest potential, taking flight from the smaller, insular and sometimes insubstantial stories that clutter up Chattering, marking herself as writer of sensitivity, insight and measured but powerful conscience.

Other reading in Week #25 (w/e 24th June)

Simon Reynolds Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1974–1984 (Faber)

Dominic Sandbrook White Heat: A History of Britain in teh Swinging Sixties 1964–1970 (Abacus)

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One Comment
  1. never judge a book by its cover, but that is a very nice cover!

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