The Bear & his Daughter is a collection of seven short
stories written over the past thirty years and presented here
as Robert Stone’s first collection. Stone is the author of five
‘acclaimed’ novels which, according to his blurb, focus on standard
American preoccupations such as ‘the jungles of Vietnam’ and ‘the
sinister glamour of Hollywood’. The stories featured here reflect
other favourite Stateside obsessions such as alcoholism, the politics
of abortion and that good old staple of postmodern culture, psychotherapy.
The first story in the collection, ‘Miserere’, is a grim account
of a woman who has become involved in the bizarre and extremist
world of anti-abortion campaign work. It is probably the best
story in the book, not for its execution but for its premise.
Stone introduces the reader to a group of broken, bereaved women
who find a strange solace and redemption through recovering foetal
corpses from the trash cans of abortion clinics and taking them
to Catholic priests for blessing and Christian burial. It is wonderfully,
grotesquely gothic in parts and there is genuine poignancy in
this story as Stone takes us to the very edges of religious fanaticism
and personal tragedy, but the narrative is overburdened by detail.
Stone wants us to understand his protagonist and her motivations
so he gives us not only her life history but a lot of unwelcome
and unnecessary detail about her daily routine. This does not
serve to illuminate but merely to diffuse the potential emotional
intensity of the story. It is overlong and displays a total disregard
for the economy that is essential to a good short story. Stone
tries to cram a novel’s worth of background behind the action
of most of the stories in this book and in doing so displays a
real lack of understanding of his genre.
The story ‘Helping’ is apparently much anthologised, probably
because it is the one about psychotherapy. Our starring psychotherapist,
Chas Elliot is (surprise, surprise) actually a bit mad himself,
an alcoholic, in an unhappy marriage, etc. etc. He has been on
the wagon for quite some time and, in this story, Stone treats
us to the sight of his inevitable fall from it. Elliot is very
unhappy, as are all of Stone’s characters. His wife is unhappy,
his colleagues and his patients are unhappy. His neighbours are
happy but Elliot, and seemingly Stone too, despises them. He
seems incapable of writing happy people without making them seem
like ghastly, hollow parodies of happiness, dark versions of the
Flanders family from The Simpsons. There is no redemption
for Stone’s characters, no real sense of hope in any of these
stories. The darkness is complete and this smacks of a rather
adolescent self-indulgence and unattractive misanthropy on the
part of the writer.
‘Helping’ is full of dialogue, which is probably the weakest
aspect of Stone’s writing. It is clipped, over stylised, and
like no conversation you ever heard in your life:
‘God’ she said. ‘What have I done. I’m so drunk.
‘Most of the time,’ Elliot said, sighting down the
barrel, ‘I’m helpless in the face of human misery. Tonight I’m ready
to reach out.’
‘I’m finished,’ Grace said. ‘I’m through, Chas. I mean it.’
This preposterous, sub B-movie kind of dialogue is a hallmark
of Stone’s approach to storytelling, the effect of which is to
render even the most emotionally complex relationships in the
book shallow and bordering on absurdity.
Another prevailing theme in The Bear & his Daughter is
recreational drug use/abuse, and it is one that very much reflects
the writer’s generation. The story ‘Porque no Trene, Porque la
Falta’ is a surrealistic, drug-addled tale of sixties drop-out
culture in Mexico. It reads like a Freak Brothers cartoon strip,
unfortunately without the humour. Stone is a man who takes both
his writing and his subject matter very seriously and if there
is humour of any kind to be found in these stories it is so black
as to be almost imperceptible. His prose is macho and often pompous.
Take this passage, for example, from ‘Under the Pitons’:
Blessington was trying to forget the anxieties of
the deal, the stink of menace, the sick ache behind the eyes. It was dreadful to
have to smoke with the St. Vincentian dealers, stone killers who liked to operate
from behind a thin film of fear. But the Frenchman was tough.
This kind of writing is reminiscent of the cheap spin-off novels
that are written based on Hollywood blockbuster movies, the kind
of prose that you can imagine being read aloud by the gravelly
and portentious voice that accompanies most American movie trailers.
Stone is a writer who has undergone a complete irony bypass. Either
that or he is a brilliant and masterfully opaque self-parodist.
I suspect the first, and I also suspect that I may have read an
entirely different collection of stories to the American reviewer
cited on the back of the book that refer to its ‘hugeness of soul’.
‘Whatever keeps me going’ says one of the characters in ‘Helping’,
‘it isn’t optimism’. The same may be said of Robert Stone. I wouldn’t
like to speculate on what does keep him going, only to say that
I hope it runs out soon.
Reviewed by Polly Rance