Books

“I Want to Read Everything”

The characters in Helen Oyeyemi’s short stories are as infatuated with narrative as we are.

Helen Oyeyimi.
Helen Oyeyemi

Manchul Kim

For a reader who wants most of all to get lost in a book, the difficulty of reading short story collections is that every several pages she and the author must dissolve the world they’ve summoned up together and start anew. Fictional beginnings are always an uphill climb, requiring a push from the reader until her imagination meshes with the words and then the words fall away and the reading coasts along on pure momentum. Even when a short story achieves that frictionless delight—and not many do—the glide doesn’t last long. Soon the end arrives, and then the climbing commences again. This is one reason why millions of readers will gobble up 1,000-page novels set in an imaginary kingdom but still regard slim collections of literary short stories as too much work.

The most gifted writers—and the precocious British author Helen Oyeyemi, barely into her 30s with five novels and two plays to her name, is one of them—have their tricks for conquering this inertia, and some of the best tricks are old ones. Oyeyemi’s new short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, contains nine tales, the first of which begins, “Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.” Hardly innovative, those familiar four words followed by that mysterious foundling, but there’s a reason why old wives have been using such devices for centuries: They work. Then there’s the utter confidence of Oyeyemi’s voice and the way it dips into a conversational mode every now and then to make you feel as if you’ve been waved into a gossipy circle to get the real lowdown. “Her taste lacked refinement,” she remarks of the foundling, now grown into a laundress named Montserrat. “Her greatest material treasure was an egregiously shiny bit of tin she’d won at a fairground coconut shy; this fact can’t be denied.”

When Montserrat becomes fascinated by the artist who lives above the laundry, she sneaks upstairs to watch the other woman at her easel: “Montse saw that the Señora sometimes grew short of breath though she’d hardly stirred. A consequence of snatching images out of the air — the air took something back.” Yes, Oyeyemi has her flashes of lyricism, but they’re so fleeting that they leave you refreshed and yearning rather than drenched in verbiage; her stories are never mere set pieces for the display of exquisite prose. Each woman, Montserrat and the Señora, wears a key on a chain around her neck, but only one of the two knows which lock hers is meant for. This first story, “Books and Roses,” transpires in a slightly fabulist Spain, a place out of a sumptuous old Marlene Dietrich movie, complete with professional gamblers, lady pickpockets, climbing roses, lonely mountains, and doomed lovers.

Most of the rest of the stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours are linked, with major characters in one story later turning up as minor characters in another. This loose, multiracial, polymorphously perverse, generation-spanning cast lives mostly in present-day England, but they have roots elsewhere. Anton grew up in “a country that’s not even sure it’s really a country,” a “ridiculous place” where “every day there was news that made you say, ‘Oh really.’ Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay. Or yet another member of the county police force was found to be an undercover gangster. If not that then a gang member was found to be an undercover police officer.” Others feel insufficiently anchored where they were born. Teenaged Radha, so tongue-tied she can speak freely only to her big brother and the companionable ghost in her bedroom, is dragged by her brother to a party. There she meets and is smitten by the alluring Myrna Semyonova, whose family runs a very odd puppeteering school. Part of Radha’s story, unfolding in the longest and most complex piece in the book, is narrated by one of the puppets.

Freddie Barrandov—whose parents emigrated from a country where his father was arrested for “repairing the faces of broken clock towers without authorization”—wants to teach nursery school, but his family insists that he go to work at the Hotel Glissando. I, for one, would read a dozen stories set in this establishment, where “the furnishings are a mixture of dark reds and deep purples. Moving through the lobby is like crushing grapes and plums and being bathed in the resulting wine. There are three telephone booths in the lobby. Their numbers are automatically withheld and they’re mainly used for lies.” The clientele flits tantalizingly through Freddie’s narrative, suggesting a feast of intriguing tales that Oyeyemi may never get around to telling. So many short stories feel starved of plot, but hers brim with it.

This is a world in which a young girl’s fall from innocence via a nasty YouTube exposé of her favorite pop star finds succor in an invocation of Hecate—the three-faced Greek goddess of crossroads, portals, and witchcraft—whose curse hounds the singer-songwriter into true repentance. Oyeyemi, who was born and spent the first four years of her life in Nigeria, makes allusions to Henry James and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and her stories will remind some readers of those of Kelly Link and Angela Carter. But her buoyant embrace of the multicultural milieu her characters inhabit also recalls the joyousness of early Zadie Smith, especially White Teeth. Hers is a vision where identity matters, but it doesn’t trump everything. What has the power to transcend it is love and literature.

In “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society,” Dayang (Anton’s boyfriend’s daughter), joins the eponymous Cambridge University social club. The Homely Wench Society forms in 1949 to prank and chasten the all-male Bettencourt Society, which holds an annual party in its London townhouse to which only extremely pretty girls are invited. (The pretty girls end up siding with the Wenches, which in itself is a bit of a fairy tale.) The 21st-century incarnation of the Wenches has found its own raison d’être in a literary magazine featuring an interview with Myrna Semyonova, who, under a unisex pseudonym, has written a “long, whisky-soaked” Charles Bukowski parody, a joke rendered even funnier by the fact that critics take it seriously. The Wenches summarize their new ethos as “laughs, snacks and cotching [hanging out],” but they still regard the Bettencourters as their natural enemies, which makes it all the more troubling that two of the Wenches find two of the Bettencourters so attractive.

Keys, locks, and doorways feature in all of the stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and this one is no different. Having obtained the key code to the Bettencourt townhouse, the Wenches infiltrate in the dead of night to sabotage the bookshelves, which they correctly anticipate to contain works almost entirely by male authors. These they swap for books by women and wait for the boys to notice. The effects of the escapade prove unpredictable, though; the Wenches end up being impressed with their purloined male-written volumes. “They have good taste, though,” admits one member grudgingly. “I want to read everything,” is how Dayang puts it, expressing what feels like Oyeyemi’s credo. “When it comes to books and who can put things in them and get things out of them, it’s all ours. And all theirs, too.”

In a recent interview, Oyeyemi remarked that when it comes to writing, she feels that she’s still “very much learning on the job.” (If so, given the effortless authority of these stories, look out.) “I’m not convinced that I know how to write,” Oyeyemi explained. “I’m very confident that I can read. I feel like I’m such a good reader.” That makes sense, and it also illuminates how What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours escapes the chorelike quality that has come to be associated with the average contemporary short story collection. Too often, the short story is left to writers’ writers, but Oyeyemi is a reader’s writer. It makes all the difference in the world.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. Riverhead.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.