Boiler House Press has simply outdone itself with the publication of two superb works under the Recovered Books imprint. Earlier this year, I read Gentleman Overboard, a splendid, psychological tale of a man faced with the terrifying prospect of drowning at sea, and now it’s Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger, an American author who sank without a trace during her time but is now seeing a revival. In a nutshell, this is simply the best short story collection I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in to my end of the year list.
Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.
Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.
In this piece, rather than comment on each of the nineteen stories, I will focus more on those that to me were real standouts.
We begin with “White on Black”, the second story in the collection, a sharply observed tale on race, the difficulty of assimilation that comes with it; a look at how outsiders are always perceived as outsiders. Set in a private school attended by “nice” children, our narrator recalls a particular time when schools were starting to plant the seed of diversity in the minds of its students.
One of the private schools attended by the “nice” children of the West Side some twenty years ago followed not only the liberal practice of mixing rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, but made a point also of including Negroes.
This is particularly exemplified in the tale of the Wilsons, Negro siblings and central characters whose arrival at the school cause quite a stir. Paul, exquisite with striking features, quickly makes his presence felt with the boys, while Elizabeth makes similar strides with the girls. Boisterous and confident, both Paul and Elizabeth fascinate their peers, and contrary to being left out because they are black, they go on to become extremely popular in the school. But the innocence of childhood rarely carries itself into the harsh, cruel world of adults. As the children grow, so do their attitudes change with the dawning realization that it is not easy to practice the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity in the real world. Paul resents this fact, Elizabeth tries to adapt to it with varying results.
Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky” – a prescient tale of ruthless corporate culture, mindless consumerism and joblessness. It’s a masterclass of character study, the stream of consciousness technique, satire and tragedy. The scene of action is the book section of a departmental store during Christmas rush and here is its principle cast of characters…
Mr Keasbey is the archetypical aggressive, competitive and experienced salesman, who always “signed in daily at eight-forty (ten minutes before the deadline).” Miss Bodkin is irreverent and a tad cocky, what she lacks in punctuality and discipline she more than makes up for in her superior sales skills. Joey Andrews is the new young man on the block, eager to please and massively relieved at finally bagging a job. Miss Paley, a teacher in her previous role, is a misfit in the book department, not really adept at selling, the pressure of being fired hanging like a Damocles sword over her head.
There’s so much going on in this story – the crippling impact of the Great Depression, the disintegration of the American Dream, a fiercely competitive and vacuous corporate life…and it’s astonishing how expertly Slesinger coalesces these various threads into a polished, unforgettable whole. The depiction of the commercial world replete with clichés is spot on – the customary, meaningless speeches given by the bosses at the start of everyday, the fear of not meeting targets and being laid off; as well as the rush of the Christmas season where customers behave like “animals stampeding in panic inside a burning barn.”
The machinery starts with a roar; unorganized come into conflict with organized; the clerks are over-powered, the floor-walkers swept along with the stream of customers; the aisles are drowned; arms reach like fishing-rods into the piled bargains on every counter. But gradually the frantic, haphazard customers are subdued and controlled by the competent motions of well-trained officers, who reason, who separate, who mollify and implore. Still mad, but under direction at last, the crowd settles around counters creaming to be fed.
Brilliantly enmeshed in the story are Joey’s inner thoughts which highlight the crucial points of his former life – the ambition of securing a good education, the depression era turning those dreams into dust in a heartbeat, followed by scrounging on the streets and finally gratitude at being employed at the department store. Also poignant is Miss Paley’s plight, another victim of the Depression era, fired from her long-held teaching post. Poor Miss Paley is out-of-sorts in a sales role rousing both pity and embarrassment in her fellow colleagues. The story ends with two dismissals – one hardly surprising, but the other one pretty unexpected.
“The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation. The titular character Annie is a loyal housemaid at the Friedmans’, a well-to-do Jewish family in New York. In their employ for many years, Annie is sincere and efficient, takes her work seriously and it is a matter of great pride to her that she is indispensable to the family. Annie also feels a sense of achievement in the hardwork and discipline involved in being elevated to that position. From a newbie (Greenhorn) many years ago to an experienced maid now, that successful transition is a product of the Friedmans’ training and Annie’s will of iron.
And yet we learn that something is amiss; a sense of loneliness and emptiness that wells up in Annie every now and then. For Annie desires a happy married life and a home of her own. The mornings are busy and buzzing with work as are the evenings, but the lonely afternoons with the hours stretching endlessly accentuate feelings of uncertainty and fear; we see a gamut of emotions raging in Annie’s soul as she contemplates hanging up her working boots and settling down.
The dining-room looked gloomy and dead through the window in the swinging-door. When there was no longer work to be done in these big room beyond the kitchen, they seemed too strange to enter alone…Oh yes, the afternoons were lonely, and it was too bad that she wouldn’t be going out tonight with Joe to Trommer’s.
She is already seeing a man called Joe who is crazy about her, but he resents how Annie is always at the beck and call of the Friedmans’ and how uppity she has become after years of working there. Joe feels Annie is being exploited while Annie, fiercely loyal, is always defending them. Thrown into this mix are Mrs Friedman and her daughter Mildred. Mrs Friedman expertly manipulates Annie’s feelings agreeing to her decision to marry but also subtly conveying how important it is for a woman to remain financially independent. Mildred, leaning towards the left, hates her privileged life and her mother taking advantage of Annie, but she is unable to make Annie understand her position. As the tale progresses, the sense of distress in Annie reaches fever-pitch as she is confronted with the frightening prospect of Joe possibly leaving her out of sheer frustration.
“Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a marriage, the erosion of self-esteem and the burden of dependency that this development involves. Taking place over the course of an afternoon, this is a tale of Ben Grader, a young man with a successful career who one day is unexpectedly fired from his job. At first, Ben displays a fair amount of bravado but as the day progresses as do his wanderings around the city, this bravado transforms into uncertainty, loss of self-esteem and resentment, the latter particularly aimed at his wife who would now take on the role of sole provider.
“Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage. The story opens with Margaret Flinders on the front steps of the hospital waiting for her husband Miles to hail a taxi to take them home. We learn that Margaret was in the hospital for an abortion, and she is stricken with grief at the step she has taken. Margaret and Miles are left-wing intellectuals immersed in a life of exciting ideas, freedom, and independence. To them, raising children is not an option, it is simply too bourgeoisie and an unnecessary burden.
But when Margaret gets pregnant, she realizes that she wants to keep the baby, while Miles is against it. During an evening of drinks that leaves them both intoxicated and exhilarated, Miles convinces her to abort the pregnancy. Margaret goes through with it but she is devastated at the irreversibility of her actions. What deepens her sadness is the uncomprehending reaction from the other residents in the maternity ward – the women who have delivered babies, whether alive or stillborn – who can’t fathom Margaret’s decision to abort. Moreover, when she observes these womens’ husbands excited at the prospect of fatherhood and their indulgence towards their wives, she begins to wonder whether there is any substance to her married life with Miles.
…intellectuals, with habits generated from the right and tastes inclined to the left. Afraid to perpetuate themselves, were they? Afraid of anything that might loom so large in their personal lives as to outweigh other considerations? Afraid, maybe, of a personal life?
“In The Times So Unsettled Are”, Heinrich and Mariedel are Socialists who refuse to leave Vienna during a time of great political upheaval, when the Socialists are hell-bent on transforming the political and economic landscape of the country. But their dreams and plans are perennially in the threat of being torn to shreds. During endless conversations over cups of coffee in a traditional Viennese café, Heinrich and Mariedel become entranced by the American couple Richard and Mahli (Molly) – their infectious humour, love for one another and the aura of happiness that they convey warm the hearts of the Austrians. Richard and Mahli try to convince Heinrich and Mariedel to begin life anew in America, but they refuse. Several years later, Heinrich is killed and his death leaves Mariedel in a state of shock she is not willing to acknowledge, but it provides her with the impetus to finally leave Vienna for America, reunite with Richard and Mahli and live vicariously through their happiness. But things don’t turn out as planned and what Mariedel witnesses disturbs her even more. This is a beautifully written tale of love, loss, friendships and broken dreams.
Fractured relationships and mismatched wavelengths of both husband and wife are running themes, the myriad facets of which shine in many of these tales. Yet Slesinger is not keen on taking sides, both the men and women she portrays are flawed. For instance, in “Kleine Frau”, a young couple on a honeymoon is disconcerted by the drowning of a child belonging to one of the local families, but while the husband is bereft at not doing his best to help, the wife in her selfishness is unhappy with him for ignoring her in the mounting cold. “Mother to Dinner” wonderfully captures the intense conflict in a young woman who is torn between pleasing her cold, intellectually superior husband and her bourgeoisie mother who the husband never fails to deride. In “After the Party”, Helene Colborne, a wealthy upper class woman is tormented by her husband’s Socialist tendencies and later by his sympathies with the working class; and suffers a nervous breakdown when he pledges all his wealth to the Communist Party.
What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. Slesinger is as adept at painting a picture of the economic perils and complex social issues of her time as she is at showcasing the nuances of marriage and relationships, expertly weaving these elements together to form a rich tapestry of stories. Often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is accessible and engaging, most of these stories are set in the 1930s but the topics that form the nucleus of these tales exhibit a timeless quality. These topics carry much weight even today – the travesty of race and its non-inclusive aspect; disparities of class and that unbridgeable economic divide; a bleak corporate culture that epitomizes soul crushing competition and mind-numbering drudgery; politics with its clear demarcation between socialism and capitalism; not to mention life changing events such as job loss, abortion, death and divorce that expose cracks in the relationships of ill-matched couples. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.