reviewed by Jon Duelfer
The short fiction in Membranes – the recent issue of Granta – is excellent and shows off a different style from the previous issues. Hold Your Fire opens with direct and simple prose, telling the story of a cynical narrator in sincere, undecorated language.
The Station, the second piece of fiction in the issue, has a similar style. Although J. Robert Lennon’s descriptions are more elaborate, the story itself is straightforward. There is no jarring stream of consciousness or lengthy character study. His focus is the story and he tells it well.
I have noticed that much of contemporary short fiction focuses on the ramblings of an egotistical (or horribly self-effacing) narrator, designed to show off the complexity of the author’s thoughts or prose. I don’t mean to bash this style – I enjoy reading it and am often very impressed with the modern short fiction writer’s skills – but The Station reminds us what a powerful piece can do with a straightforward narration, and what its central focus should be: the story.
The narrator is on his way to an island where he will man an observatory – presumably as a solider on a mission. As he approaches on boat, the island appears through the fog. He disembarks, and finds that it’s deserted.
The wind was strong at my back as I trudged up the rocky beach to the path that led through the old village. The cottages were ghostly, colorless. The wind roared through them, making strange music out of their empty windows and doorways. Inside some of them, the remains of wooden tables and chairs lay decaying on the dirt floors. A few tin cans, a fork or spoon.
He makes it to the station and sees his predecessor. They share only a brief few words, and the man heads out the door. The narrator calls out to him.
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘What am I – that is –’
‘Manual’s on the desk in the bedroom. When it says every three hours, it means every three hours.’ He punctuated these words by poking my chest with a trembling finger. ‘Also –’
He shook his head. ‘Never mind. It’s pointless. You’ll do it anyway.’ He flung the door open and tramped out into the wind. The clouds were parting and the sun was visible just over the ridge. Soon it would descend, and my side of the island would be cloaked in shadow.
I followed him a few steps down the slope. ‘Tell me!’ I shouted. ‘I want to get it right.’
He shook his head, stared briefly at the ground. Then he looked up, pointed at me, and said, ‘You’re gonna want to go down the other side of the mountain and check out the Facility. Don’t do it. Okay?’
‘Unbelievable,’ the main said. ‘There you go. I can hear it in your voice.’
I loved this interaction. It sets suspense for the rest of the story, even if it is somewhat of a cliché. Regardless, I wanted to know about the Facility.
The narrator’s job at the station is to record “readouts” from a machine that sits in the control room. The machine is essentially a large screen that seems to be showing a live video of the island, but “resembled an oil painting more than it did an electronic device.”
It has a mystical air more so than a scientific one. This made me classify the story as pseudo-Steampunk; the retrofuturistic device seems advanced in an odd way, especially since this story takes place before cell phones. The description of the narrator’s task makes this clearer.
I hurried back to the control room, lay the manual open on the desk, and followed the instructions as quickly as possible: recording the values indicated by each readout; adjusting the knobs, levers and switches to nudge those values into the proper range; and taking note of the new values. The only remaining task was to enter all the new data into the terminal.
On the first try, he is late inputting the data into the terminal. He receives a call on the control room’s telephone. A voice on the other end tells him that he can only make this mistake two more times before he is “suspended, terminated, or imprisoned.”
As was obvious from his interaction with his predecessor, the narrator is captivated by the Facility. It sits on the shore, on the other side of the island, at the bottom of a rock cliff that he has to descend to get to. Before climbing down, he questions if he should heed his predecessor’s advice.
Why should I permit my own behavior to be dictated by a stranger’s obscure system of values? There was nothing in the manual that forbade exploration of the western shore of the island, and I had two and a half hours to go before my next upload.
After braving the dangerous climb, he makes it to the doors of the facility. Although they seem to only open from the inside, they open automatically as he approaches.
The darkness was absolute now. I began to panic: I inhaled so sharply and hoarsely that I nearly chocked, and sweat broke out under my arms. My scalp tingled with such intensity that I thought I could feel my hair turning brittle and gray.
Inside the Facility
The Station was a thrill to read; it was gripping, beautifully written, and took a deeply emotional twist at the end. In a literary landscape that loves to focus on technique and form, Lennon’s story shows us that the story should take the wheel.
At the same time, I don’t want to downplay Lennon’s writing; his descriptions are elaborate and the interplay between the narrator’s mind and reality is smooth and exciting.
This issue of Granta, Membranes, came out swinging. I had considered temporarily canceling my subscription, as I was in the middle of moving, but I am glad that I didn’t. This issue has some of the best new short fiction that I have read yet, and The Station is among them.