Suspended Sentences

Written by C.D. Valere for Signifyin Guyana on

Lessons in Crafting Fiction: Mark McWatt's Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement
The opening frame: setting the stage for interpretation

In the preface of Suspended Sentences, Mark McWatt tells us the collection was the result of an attempt to write a book of short stories “purportedly by different authors and within a narrative frame.” The authors were modeled loosely on his own college classmates from the mid-sixties. He adds, when he first discussed the idea with David Dabydeen (another Guyanese writer of note), Dabydeen felt it would be difficult to “maintain distinctions between the styles/voices of the storytellers.”

Somewhere around the third or fourth story in the collection, I vigorously agreed with Dabydeen. The voices were all beginning to sound the same. They were the voices of Guyana’s elite, well-educated, privileged young men and women. But in attempting to speak through the voices of several of those young elite, McWatt gives himself room to show varied (high-browed) literary approaches to some shared Guyanese (and universal) experiences: love, sex, friendship, generational issues, folklore / myth, and the condition of Guyana spanning over 30 years—from its year of independence (1966) to somewhere early in the new millennium.


In addition to the varied literary approaches, two other important factors help frame and set the stage for ways to interpret the collection. First, is the idea that the group was ordered to write the stories as punishment for bad behavior, and to write them for Guyanese readers. The second notable factor provided for help in interpreting the collection is that even though it appears the court case and punishment which ensue from the teens’ destructive behavior are orchestrated by their parents and teachers, the writing project takes on new importance when one member of the group, who had been seriously collecting their stories over a period of three decades or so disappears mysteriously in the Pomeroon. McWatt (one of the group) becomes the one who sees the project through to its final stage by collecting and editing stories from all the others.


The opening frame therefore presents a very believable set of realities out of which the stories are crafted. The frame provides two events (Guyana’s independence, and the teens’ celebration and punishment), a specific time reference and setting, a purpose (purposes) for writing, and an intended audience.


Violence and tranquility: stories about love, friendship, and sex


Four of the 11 stories in the collection combine issues regarding love, friendship, and sex in a mature, illuminating manner. “Sky” is a story about two middle-aged men who rediscover their childhood friendship and love for the interior beauty of Guyana, and in the midst of their rediscovery, one of the men reveals violent (maybe even manic) homosexual tendencies. The story interweaves peace and tranquility with violence in a way that surprises and thrills, and conveys a strong, sad message about the destructive nature of self-denial.


But “Sky” also reaffirms the comfort of true friendship. A confession at the end of the story leads to a memorable moment of one man’s self awareness, and the other’s compassion. The narrator summarizes that moment: “At that point I feel the tears come to my eyes, in part because the pain we both feel now seems so unnecessary. I tell myself that what I should do, if I wasn’t in such pain, is make passionate love to this huge troubled adolescent, if only to put him out of his misery. But I knew I couldn’t do it, even if I weren’t injured. We’re all haunted by what we have to live with, by ruling images of self, which we fashion very carefully over the years . . . He puts one arm around my chest and we stay like that most of the night, not talking much, thinking of our hurts …” (Suspended Sentences, p.69).


“The Bats of Love” also pairs mania and austere self-denial. One of the young men in the story denies himself pleasures in pursuit of his studies, and becomes so focused on books, that he can’t distinguish real emotions from fake ones. He becomes obsessed with the “love” poem written by a friend and his lover as a prank. Even when he is made aware of the prank, his obsession with the “love” images in the poem continues. 

The male friends take two different approaches to scholarship: one focuses on scholarship only and excels until mania overcomes him and he has to quit; the other combines scholarship and other real-life experiences (travel, sex, love) and becomes a healthy accomplished scholar—a professor, a husband, a father…a complete man. Unlike in “Sky,” the differences between the two friends in “Bats of Love” are never reconciled in their friendship. The story ends sadly with suicide, and gloomy, mournful ruminations about wasted promises.


In “A Lovesong for Miss Lillian,” once again a man’s unbalanced focus on scholarship and excellence is interrupted by sexual obsession. The young man, an over-achieving lawyer becomes obsessed with an older woman who used to be his dead father’s lover. This is one of the two stories in the collection where the love connection appears to be a successful one. (Any love connection where the parties involved get what they want most should be considered successful.) She gets the financial security she’s seeking, and he gets her. After reading the sad endings prior to this love story, I read the end of this one quickly hoping for a happy ending. I pretended not to notice the woman’s dependence on the young man for survival, and that there was something discomforting about a son going where his father went, so to speak. (Note: need to work on my euphemisms).


The absolute crowning moment of the collection is “Still Life: Bougainvillea and Body parts.” In it, a father visits his daughter who is an Art student in Toronto because he’s concerned that she’s in a funk over her art, and her live-in boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know the real purpose for his visit. She nevertheless feeds off his comforting presence and finds the words, actions, and will to complete her art project successfully, and to end the relationship with her lackadaisical boyfriend.


The beauty of the story lies in its depiction of a tender, expressive father-daughter relationship that would make a daughter either envious, or make her hug the father she has. (My feelings as a daughter are somewhere between the hug and exasperation.)


The second of the story’s gems is in its portrayal of the relationship between the father and his wife (girl’s mother). The story is told through letters (epistolary device) he writes to his wife detailing their daughter’s life. And he adds details from their own relationship that span the history of it—from their first walk home together from school, to their conversations and love-making in bed as college students, through to their conversations as parents of adult children. My favorite line in the story is the narrator’s affirmation that “nothing will ever replace the solitary pleasures of pen and paper, of beginning the process with a pen and an empty white page” (p.154). I would add, it’s even more pleasurable to be the recipient of such a letter—a piece of thoughtful, self-revealing writing.


The daughter’s completed art work, which is revealed at the end of the story provides another of the collection’s inevitable pairings (or combinations) of tranquility and violence. Add functional love (between parent and child, and between husband and wife) and the dysfunctional love between the young couple to that, and what you get in “Still Life: Bougainvillea and Body Parts” is a compelling illustration of some of life’s dualities.


Lost in the bush: stories about disappearance and folklore / myth


Five stories in Suspended Sentences employ “extra-literary” devices—myth and mystique, folklore, the realm of the supernatural—in ways that provide answers to some of life’s mysteries. In the stories the realm of the supernatural isn’t just an inexplicable aspect of local culture; it is a valid way of seeing and understanding the world.


In “Uncle Umberto’s Slippers,” the narrator tells of his uncle's encounter with a woman by the water, who encourages him to go away with her. At first he resists, but when he is run over by a truck six weeks after saying goodbye to the woman, it is assumed he was led by her to his death. And when a pair of slippers he always wore disappear and mysteriously appear at the spot where he usually met with the woman, the woman’s role in his death is confirmed. On one hand, it’s the kind of head-nodding moment that people who understand the realm of the supernatural would have. But in the story, there is a partial explanation for the occurrence that isn’t necessarily supernatural.


Umberto’s wife’s caution to him when she is first aware of his meetings with the woman contains a dual mix of realism and myth that would help some readers (those not of the head-nodding-supernatural-understanding kind) make sense of it all. She tells him, “I don’t know who it is you see, or you think you see, but you got to be careful how you deal with strange women who want to ask a lot of questions – you say she had you hypnotized, well many a man end up losing his mind – not to mention his soul – over women like that. The day you decide to have something personal to do with this woman, you better forget about me, because I ent having no dealings with devil women” (p.27). In her warning is a combination of the explicable lure of an enticing woman, as well as the lore of strange woman sightings that abound in tales of the Guyanese supernatural.


In “Two Boys Named Basil” duality is again presented, this time with the help of the German originated doppelganger myth. Two friends mirror and shadow each other as they compete and excel in scholarship, until one disappears during a trip to the Interior, and the remaining friend is left bereft of the desire to excel or compete. He “disappears” into a life of mediocrity and solitude until he thinks he sees his missing friend’s face in a picture of the Baracara falls near where he disappeared over thirty years prior.


The sighting leads to a revival of his character. The revival takes place on a dance floor (a place where he’d previously had no skills, although his dead friend did) where he glides and floats freely, “as if a long lost dimension of self had reawakened within him and was asserting its presence, and its hunger for pleasures long denied” (p.50). The story engages with its realistic doubling of the pair of men, and its doubling of Guyanese “bush” mystique with the more universally recognized doppelganger myth. 


“Afternoon Without Tears” is another story in which the narrator’s experiences in the bush illustrate the mystical ability of Guyana ’s Interior to transform its visitor in some way. He sums up his experience as follows: “The ‘bush’ was that vast, semi-real expanse of country other than the eastern strip of coast. It was known for consuming people for long periods before casting them up again upon the coast of civilization and certainty. With an involuntary shudder, I suddenly discovered in the word ‘bush’ a whole purgatorial experience, a dangerous trial and judgment of self…” (p.71).


(I gotta say it.)

Huh? I wish my involuntary shudders (when they occasionally occur) could be as illuminating, but maybe they need to occur in Guyana ’s Interior for that to happen. And how on earth does ""semi-real"" apply here? Last time I checked, that bush was fully real. 


Nevertheless, the presentation of the bush’s mystique is mostly believable in this story that loudly proclaims its tribute to another Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris.


As in “Two Boys Named Basil,” a hunger for pleasures long denied pervades another “disappearance” story, “Alma Fordyce and the Bakoo.” In the story, an elderly upper class woman who has never had a sexual relationship of any sort becomes fascinated with a bottled bakoo in a bar, whom she thinks is her long-lost brother. The bakoo escapes and she and he become engaged in a violent sexual relationship that ends with their disappearance (ET-style) on a bicycle into the skies.


Up until the disappearance bit, the story of the imprisoned bakoo (or a man of small stature, physical or otherwise) who escapes and wrecks havoc makes sense. His rage at being held in captivity and made into a spectacle seems quite logical. In that way, the story may be a valid explanation for the rage of the mythical bakoo, if the story originates from men held in captivity.


Like the Bakoo story and other “myth /folklore” stories in the collection, “The Tyranny of Influence” also merges reality and myth mostly successfully. It puts the story of creation in an Amerindian context, and manages to tie Eastern, Western, and American myths together in a way that makes most sense in art, whether it’s on a painter’s canvas, or on the pages of a book.


Big problem


While most of the stories certainly befit the Commonwealth Writers' Prize this collection received, sections of “The Visitor,” which I blogged on here already, could be serious contenders for the delete key awards a fellow book reviewer is working on. As some of you can tell, I love a good skin-teeth, but parts of this story (probably intended to be funny) I just found unbelievably silly. Nuff said. Read it for yourself and see.


Signifyin’ conclusions:


Despite “The Visitor” and other small problem areas I indicated, Suspended Sentences is the work of a master storyteller, a true craftsman of fiction. The stories experiment mostly successfully with several devices and forms of literature—the epistolary, science fiction, the supernatural, erotica, doubling, mimicry—and many of them illustrate the beauty and captivating mystique of Guyana’s Interior in ways that delight and inform. The stories also contain believable mixes of reality and elements of fiction, all of which make it a valuable keepsake, and a book I'm certainly going to be using in my classroom.


Lastly, and probably most importantly, Suspended Sentences’ message about Guyana, which spans over thirty years of observation is a sad but credible one. It is as follows: 

“The so-called trial and the suspended sentences it imposed may have haunted the surviving members of the gang for over thirty-five years, but it does not compare in horror to the purgatorial sentence imposed (by its own people – all of us) on the independent country of Guyana – a sentence of indefinite duration which continues to be served and wherein the individual suffering and the social deformity seem to increase year after year. Over the years the country lurches from one calendrical totem of independent nationhood to another—celebrations of emancipation, Mashramani, the hallowed raising of the flag in memory of that first independence midnight—as we continue to bite each other like bugs in a stinking bed where, for years no warm-blooded body of hope has come to lie …” (p.244).

Although I’m all too aware of its truths, the above message left me dejected. I had hoped for a more positive message concerning the role of literature, of writing, of fiction, in the view of a new Guyana.

Posted by C.D. Valere on March 02, 2008 at 11:59 AM | Permalink 
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