by Jeremy Gavron
Seven. I know, too, that the list is involved in what I know.
Eight. So we have looked at a poetry list, a memoir list and now I want to look briefly at a fiction list: “An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried”, by Debbie Urbanski. Here are some lines from the beginning of the story, followed by some lines from the end.
The coordinated release of various strains of a human sterilization virus.
The no-child laws.
The launching of the Colony into space, no final destination in mind, for those able to afford the journey.
Retraction of health care services for the ill and/or “undesirables.”
Resurgence of prayer.
The demolition of nursing homes and/or retirement homes in the redlined countries that have reached or surpassed their maximum population density.
Suicide incentives for those of a certain age.
Daily calorie restrictions.
And skipping now to the last lines:
And the end of the story:
Make one’s own yogurt in reusable glass jars.
Corporations partner with environmental non-profits. Coca-Cola launches “Arctic White for Polar Bears.”
Host a greening-your-community house party.
Send an email template to your representatives supporting a carbon fee and dividend.
Ride a bicycle.
Carpool in the carpool lines.
Bumper stickers: There is no planet B; There are no jobs on a dead planet; Wake up.
Turn off the lights when you are no longer in the room.
As you’ve probably realised, “An Incomplete Timeline of What We Tried” is a story written in reverse chronological time. A list of initiatives, beliefs, actions, in response to climate change, beginning with human extinction and ending with bumper stickers. It’s simpler and more gimmicky than the two texts we’ve looked at so far but it is an effective piece of short fiction, carrying a decent punch.
Unlike the Rankine and the Pawson, Urbanski’s story is notably linear. As the James Joyce cartoon at the beginning demonstrates, order can be central to the effect of lists, particularly when humour, satire or irony is intended. If the “Forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” was anything other than third on the list on Joyce’s refrigerator the joke wouldn’t have quite the same effect. Similarly if Urbanksi had ordered her story in chronological time the ironies would have been if not lost then weaker. By going backwards from the extinction of the human race, where the story begins, to current times, through the list of failed strategies, the irony of each avoidance or evasion, the halfheartedness of our contemporary responses to the climate crisis, is exposed for us all to see.
The story gathers force from its chronology but also through accumulation. Like Rankine and Pawson, Urbanski keeps circling back to the same themes – scientific efforts, social engineering, wall building, faith that God or aliens will save us. The brevity of each item gives the cataloguing an incantatory quality that infuses it with a sense of lament or elegy or funeral chant. As in Citizen, the white spaces encourage us to dwell for a moment between each entry, to take in what is being said, as well as to imagine what has been left out.
Nine. So most writers are probably not going to write a whole work in the shape of a list. But lists can also be employed within stories or novels.
Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Be an Other Woman”, is about a young woman who makes lists. In fact she starts making lists after she learns that her lover’s wife is a list maker. “She’s just incredibly organised,” her lover tells her proudly. “She makes lists for everything. It’s pretty impressive.”
This being Lorrie Moore, the protagonist’s – she doesn’t have a name – newfound propensity for lists is employed for both comic and poignant effect, such as in this shopping list:
Health food toothpaste
Heath food deodorant
Vit. C, on sale.
Like many a Lorrie Moore character the woman is both self-aware and blind, acute and naive. Invited to her lover’s apartment for the first time she makes a mental list to help her decide what to do:
1. rip open the front of your coat, sending the buttons torpedoing across the room in a series of pops into the asparagus fern;
2. go into the bathroom and gargle with hot tap water;
3. go downstairs and wave down a cab for home.
The order is revealing here. If this was merely about the punchline, like the Joyce cartoon, the item about ripping open the front of her coat would be third. That going downstairs and waving down a cab, the most sensible choice, and the choice we know, and she knows, she is not going to take, is third, emphasises the bathos and pathos of the situation.
These lists, like all the lists in the story, are windows into the protagonist’s mind and character, in this case her awareness that her situation is humiliating and absurd and at the same time her inability to change or challenge it. This could have been achieved in other ways, through dialogue or action or interior monologue, but the listing of her choices draws us into the workings of her mind, into her process of decision making. Like Citizen, the story is told in the second person, though not so much here to universalise the experiences as to implicate us, to make us wonder whether we too might be capable of falling into the same trap.
The story ends when the protagonist learns that the woman with whom her lover lives is not actually his wife – but the woman for whom he left his wife. That she, the protagonist, is the third woman on his list, and she kicks him out, love, and lists, “draining from her.”
What this might suggest is that list-making is a dysfunctional way of approaching life, though as most literature is about dysfunctionality in one form or another it makes lists not unsuited to the task of storytelling.
One of the most poignant lists in Lorrie Moore’s story is the protagonist’s “list of all the lovers you’ve ever had”:
Ed “Rubberhead” Catapano
Charles Deats or Keats
This list is a story unto itself. These four names, Warren Lasher, Ed “Rubberhead” Catapano, Charles whose surname she can’t quite remember, Alfonse who doesn’t even have a surname, tell us why she stays for so long with a man who takes her to his apartment for sex when the woman for whom he has left his wife is away at a convention. Tell us how we let bad things happen to us even when their names inform us they are bad because of lack of confidence and self-esteem.
Ten. Lists are the most prosaic, the most mundane, the least literary of literary forms, but they can also be among the most flexible, the most useful, the most evocative and fanciful.
The British writer Tim Etchells wrote a story, “The Chapter”, made entirely out of a list of names of Hell’s Angels. In fact, he is still writing it ten years on, adding new names whenever he thinks of them: Cookie, Sparrow, Benton, Burger, Jobbo, Sharko, Scalpel, Dickhead, Tanker, Bongo, Dongle, Donut, Dibble, Grudge Bucket.
The story has no plot, no dialogue, no character development, no description, but reading these names the mind starts to fill these gaps: the bikes, the leather jackets, the way Sharko might speak, how Grudge Bucket might object, how the evening might end up.
Stories employ lists without us necessarily realising they are doing so, such as these examples from some recent reads. What, for example, is a character description if it isn’t a list of a person’s characteristics, like Eileen’s description of herself in Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same title? “I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointy and hesitant, my posture stiff.”
The same with descriptions of place, whether the typical list of notable attributes that make up most such descriptions, or the list of community rules that teach Mia and Pearl about the world they have moved into in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere: the way to write their address, what the strip of grass between sidewalk and street is called, where to put the garbage cans.
In her first novel, Crudo, Olivia Laing uses lists to explore the fault lines in the relationship of the oddly-matched couple, one of whom is and isn’t Kathy Acker, who are getting married in three days:
Her husband [as she already calls him], emails her a list of his shopping and cooking intentions plus a Word doc of the household expenses, many of which she finds immediate fault with. £200 a month for electricity, insane. Virgin TV, she won’t pay that, she’s been a TV refusenik since she was seven, standards to be maintained. Cleaners, fine okay she has entered a new era. The cooking and shopping list is more endearing, it is 100% her husband’s style. On the morning of their wedding, at 9.30 precisely he proposes to go to the market for salad materials, rosemary, potatoes, courgettes, and strawberries (the Oxford comma is his), and to check if the fish man is there on Saturday. Order sea bass if so, he writes (If not, buy now.) At 11 he will make dressing for salad, at 11.10 he will ice their wedding cake. She has asked him repeatedly to buy a cake but he believes absolutely that this is a task only he can accomplish. They are getting married at 3pm, though this is not on his list.
Julian Barnes’s novel, A Sense of an Ending, begins with a list artfully designed to get the plot rolling, to draw us in to the story with what it tells us and what it doesn’t tell us:
I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house.
Eleven. Lists are where writing began and also where writing teaching often begins, such as writing classes in which the students are given a list of words and asked to write a story that includes them. Or to imagine a character out of the contents of a purse or a wallet or a desk drawer or a bookshelf.
Such lists can also be a useful tool when writing a story, a way of freeing up the mind, opening up a character or a narrative. Lists, as something we are used to writing in everyday life, can come more easily, are free from some of the more complicated anxieties of the blank page.
Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, writes in Zen and the Art of Writing, how he compiled long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and stories: “provocations,” as he put it, to “feel my way towards something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.” “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness.”
One of his most famous books, Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel about an America in which books are banned, grew out of a list he wrote of his likes and dislikes, which included among his likes, books, and among his dislikes, book burners.
Lists reach into our consciousness and our unconscious. Take the list of gay slang Susan Sontag, a great list maker, wrote in her journal as a sixteen-year-old girl:
A gay boy, a gay girl, the gay kids, straight (east), jam (west), normal (tourist), he’s very straight, he’s very jam, I lead a jam life.
This list takes us straight into the mind of a teenage girl in the 1940s trying to work out her sexuality. It speaks, in a handful of words, of her innocence, her curiosity, her earnestness, her efforts to understand, her urge to break barriers. The quaint language speaks too of the times, a world, and culture, overtaken, yet still resonant.
With a little imagination lists can bypass the rational or the linear and go straight to the heart of the matter.
In Winter Journal, Paul Auster compiles an inventory of his scars which “tell the story of who you are, for each scar is the trace of a healed wound and each wound was caused by an unexpected collision with the world.”
In The Things they Carried, Tim O’Brien’s soldiers are revealed by lists of what they carry, not only in their rucksacks, but in their hearts and minds.
Twelve. In the 1990s I worked for a couple of years as a writer in residence in a prison. It was a male prison a few miles outside London and most of the prisoners were from the city. This was the before the internet and cell phones, few of the cells had TVs, and with time on their hands a good number of the men wrote. As time passed, as I earned their trust, pages of prison note paper with stories or poems or fragments of memoir etched into them would be left in my pigeon hole or thrust into my hand as I walked across a landing or down a corridor.
I was born and raised in London and thought I knew the city, but here in these writings were new and different Londons. This was a time when the London novel – a genre once bestrode by Defoe, Dickens, Thackeray, Virginia Woolf – had become mostly small-scale and surburban. The most celebrated London novel of the time was Martin Amis’s London Fields, with its faux street talk and cartoonish characters. The writing I was reading in the prison, for all its weaknesses in craft and form, was far more exciting, its language, straight from the street, far more alive and exhilarating.
The year I stopped working in the prison, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, written in Glasgwegian dialect, won the Booker Prize. A few years later Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was published, followed by Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The city novel, the London novel, was reviving, the possibilities of the city, its epic landscapes, taken up by working class voices, voices of immigrants and the children of immigrants. One recent example is Guy Gunaratne, with his debut novel, In our Mad and Furious City.
In an afterword to the novel Gunaratne, a Londoner of Sri Lankan heritage, writes that his “experience of having been raised in London has always been one of multiplicity in terms of language and tradition.”
In our Mad and Furious City is told in the voices of a West Indian man and his London born son, an Irish woman and her London born son, and a London born Muslim boy of Pakistani origin. One of the ways in which Gunaratne approaches the city’s multiplicity, its multitudinousness, is with lists. In a section titled “Mongre”l, Yusuf, the Muslim boy, considers the city he knows:
The barbershop on Broadway where Rodrigo would give you a cut for pennies if he knew you. The French lad on Minister Road who sold long boxes of fags out the window. The one cash machine near the Polish shop where you could get notes out in fivers.
The novel is set against ethnic tension and riots and ends in tragedy for Yusuf. But despite this, in its multiple voices, its friendships between boys from different cultures, its compendiums, catalogues, lists of differences, “elsewheres,” as Gunaratne puts it, there is something hopeful.
In the novel’s prologue, told, we realise only at the end, in the voice of Yusuf from beyond the grave, this manifoldness is celebrated in a list appreciating its own listfulness. “Jamaicans, Irish pikeys, Nigerians, Ghanaians, South Indians, Bengalis. Proper Commonwealth kids, ennet. Even the Arab squaddies from UEA. We’d all spy those private-school boys from Belmont and Mill Hill and we’d wonder how would it have felt to come from the same story? To have been moulded out of one thing and not of many?”
Thirteen. Actually, there is no thirteen. I’m going to leave you to list your own thoughts here.