Granta 118: Exit Strategies Edited by John Freeman

John Lavin examines the latest edition of the Granta magazine; Granta 118: Exit Strategies Edited by John Freeman.

Granta 118: Exit Strategies begins and ends with two memoirs. Claire Messud’s chronicle of her father’s death, ‘The Road to Damascus’, and Alexsandar Hemon’s account of the Bosnian War via the medium of his families’ beloved red setter (the ironically titled ‘War Dogs.’) In between we are treated to a series of significant departures, the majority of which highlight human helplessness. Helplessness in the face of death, Alzheimer’s or simply the ability to have a positive impact on another individual’s life.

The collection boasts new pieces from two of the world’s most celebrated writers: Alice Munro and Anne Tyler. Munro, in particular, appears to be incapable of writing anything other than masterpieces these days and ‘In Sight of the Lake’ represents yet another perfectly judged insight into the human condition. Returning to Alzheimer’s – the subject of one of her most famous stories, ‘The Bear that Came Over the Mountain’ – this time Munro goes directly into the mind of a woman in the grip of the condition. This information is, however, kept back until the end, when it transpires that the care home the woman has been trying to visit is actually the care home in which she lives. Munro describes the disease in a way which calls to mind Kafka’s The Castle: a world, that is, where a claustrophobic dream-logic holds sway. Disorientating, absurd and above all terrifying, ‘In Sight of the Lake’ is as close to faultless as short stories get.

Granta 118: Exit Strategies Edited by John Freeman review
Granta 118: Exit Strategies
Edited by John Freeman
256 pp, £12.99

The extract from Anne Tyler’s new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is an account of a husband’s coping mechanisms in the first days and weeks after his wife has been killed by a tree falling onto their house. Even though the house is mostly unusable he insists on living there until it becomes impossible to do so. As ever Tyler has an impressive grasp of male psychology and the piece is a typically understated triumph.

There are also two pieces from two of our great literary elder-statespersons, John Barth and the late Adrienne Rich. In ‘The End?’ we find Barth, having newly turned eighty, wondering if he will ever write another book. Finding himself going through a creative lull he wonders whether that is all it is, or if it is a more permanent, final lull. In the process of doing this he gives us many illuminating insights into his own creative process; a process which he writes about with such passion it is difficult to imagine that he is quite finished with it just yet.

Rich’s poignant ‘Endpapers’ finds the poet looking back at her life and work and declaring that:

The signature to a life requires

… a sheet of paper held steady

after the end-stroke

above a deciphering flame.

There is thought-provoking work here too from up and coming writers Chinelo Okparanta and Jacob Newberry who, in their differing ways, offer up exit strategies weighed down by compromise. The central character in Okparanta’s ‘America’ is finally granted her visa to leave Nigeria and go to university in the US. She goes but she is haunted by the knowledge that she, like so many other of Nigeria’s brighter prospects, is leaving her country to stagnate into ever greater circles of corruption. This is perhaps best summed up by her observation that spills like the Gulf oil spill were happening ‘on a weekly basis in the Niger Delta area’:

Here spills were expected. Because we were just Africans. What did Shell  care?

In Newberry’s ‘Summer’ a group of four gay male friends meet up in Mississippi each year to try and recapture the sense of freedom and abandon that they had experienced the first summer they had spent together, a period in which the story’s narrator had come out. He remembers how he once, in tears, told his friends:

I never thought I’d have the strength to live like this.

But the story’s defining moment comes when his friend Jay announces he is going to marry a woman he had dated before he came out himself. Although Jay is not physically attracted to the woman he considers it an exit strategy worth taking. An escape route out of a life of loneliness and parental condemnation.

It is also worth mentioning Stacy Kranitz’s eerily beautiful photos of the Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf of Mexico. It is an island which ‘is now one third the size it was when Native Americans first settled there in 1876, fleeing south to avoid enslavement.’ An island which finds itself slowly disappearing into the water while the US government looks impassively on.

Indeed the only dud note in an otherwise brave and arresting collection is David Long’s inexplicably poor ‘Bonfire’; a story which is solely memorable for containing some of the worst writing on the subject of sex this side of Nuts magazine:

You know what? she said. You should take your pants off before they rip.

Well, it was true, he was scary hard.

A minute or two later, she was straddling him, rocking semi-languid droopy-eying him. She was uncommonly flat-chested but he found her sexy beyond words… her nipples like buffed mahogany in the evening light.

But this is a minor oversight in a collection with more than its fair share of riches. A collection that, in typical Granta tradition, somehow manages to transcend the sum of its parts. Leaving us with a sense, not only of human helplessness, but also of human kindness and wonder.