Jim Murdoch’s Making Sense is a book of short stories. But they’re not your average short stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. In fact, some don’t even end at all. And I’m not saying that as a criticism—it adds to the fabulous charm of Murdoch’s style. They make you think.
Most (as the majority are written in 1st person) are what I would call “glorified journal entries,” as they are very much focussed on how each narrator perceives the immediate world around them. They are making sense out of their life. In the words of Murdoch in his introduction:
“There are five (arguably six) senses and yet we use the words ‘sense’ to describe many other ways in which we perceive and conceive the world around us, that we use to make sense out of this world and wonderful place in which we find ourselves; sense of humour, of entitlement, of community, of place, of urgency, of being, of justice ...”
Reviewing a book of short stories is quite a task. Because each story is different. So, I’m going to offer some thoughts about the collection as a whole, while drawing upon aspects of individual stories.
Let me first tell you that I really really enjoyed this book. Any criticisms I make are not a reflection of dislike, they are merely observations—things that stuck out at me, but did not in any way affect my level of enjoyment. If you read the book, you may very well feel differently. And I do highly recommend this book. Especially if you are a fan of the vignette.
The collection started off brilliantly. The first story was so brilliant, I even emailed the author to tell him so. He replied, “just because one story’s brilliant doesn’t mean they all will be.” Ha! I laughed. I read the second story. Again, brilliant! One of my favourites. What’s he on about, I thought. He’s being too modest. I read the third. Hmm ... okay, I’m not sure about this one. Perhaps my ambivalence had to do with the fact that it is written in a dialect, which was tough to follow (I’ll go more into that in a minute.)
Overall, some stories weren’t as strong as others, but the strong ones were really strong. Strong enough for me to want to give the book five stars. In the end of opted for four, because I decided I should be looking at the collection as a whole, not just what I loved about it.
So let me break this down into subheadings:
Sometimes (not always) I couldn’t recognize the female narrators as such. On many occasion they sounded male to me, but perhaps that’s because I know the author personally and could recognize his own voice in the pieces. So this could absolutely be a matter of being too close to the author. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you decide to read the book.
I felt that, on occasion, the dialogue is a tad wooden. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these few instances, it is too “what you read is what you get,” and doesn’t integrate enough subtext. However, some of the dialogue is so well done that I experienced writer envy. I just adored the way he approached the dialogue in the story, Life, in which a man reflects on his right as a man to cheat on his wife:
It’s only fair one supposes that, as he thinks about other women while he’s making love to his wife, then he should return the favour while making love to another woman.
“Stephen? What’s up”
“I can feel that. What’s going on?”
“For God’s sake, Mary, I’m doing my best.”
“Helen, yes ... sorry.”
“Come on, lover boy.”
“Just give me a second will you?”
“I could flick you again.”
Murdoch is a master at first lines. Clever, witty, all-round fabulous. Here are some of my favourites:
“If there’s one thing that annoys me about my mother it’s this: she watches life with the sound off.” (Coping)
“I’d always expected one day I’d feel this click inside, from OFF to ON, and I’d go, yes, now’s the right time to start thinking about having kids.” (Failing)
“Nowadays people make too much of a thing about being touched.” (Islands)
“All men are the same—a few bubbles short of a bath,” (Silence)
“Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let’s you and me get a few tings straight: I’m yer narratah; my name’s nonna yer goddamn business, but whad I say goes.” (Monsters)
I found that most of the stories written in 1st person (excluding ones in a dialect) sounded like the same person. Of course, they each had their unique quirks, but I think because these are short stories, and there isn’t enough time to really develop character, it would have been tough to make them all sound completely different. So this isn’t a criticism, it’s just an observation. There are 20 stories in this book, so kudos to Murdoch for being able to write from 20 different perspectives in the first place. I have a hard enough time writing from three different perspectives in a novel.
Ah ... dialect. I think Murdoch anticipated a little struggle from his readers regarding the stories written in dialect, because he added an Afterword called “A few thoughts on voice,” which explains a few things about his choices. But let me tell you about my thoughts.
I have nothing against writing in dialect. I have written in dialect on many occasion. When I write in dialect, I chose a few select words to alter the spelling of, which reflect the accent, but still enable the reader to get into the flow without too much effort. But the difference between Murdoch’s dialects, and the dialects I use, is that Murdoch really goes the full hog. I’m talking practically every second word being an unrecognizable spelling to those unfamiliar with it. That made it tough reading.
Thankfully, these were short stories, and not Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (which I had to study at university; it left a bad taste in my mouth), so I got through them. I found Zeitgeist and Disintegration the hardest to follow. But found Monsters relatively easy and it ended up being one of my favourite pieces. I imagine it has to do with the fact that Zeitgeist and Disintegration are written in Glaswegian, and Monsters in a “New York mobster circa 1930” (Afterword) accent, which I have most likely had more exposure to from television.
My Favourite Stories
√-1, Poise, Stray, Life, Failing, Scent, Silence, Katherine & Julie
My Favourite Lines
“I realise Adam was supposedly split down the middle and hence males and females were intended to be a match made in heaven but there has to be more to any relationship than complimentary genitalia.” (Poise)
“Houses are unnatural places, full of rules and straight lines. Nature doesn’t have much use for either of them.” (Stray)
“When a china plate hits, say, a kitchen wall, it breaks, it shatters into fragments but when a watch breaks it just dies; you have to look closely to tell. That’s what must have happened to my parents’ marriage.” (Stray)
“I used to worry about being me, that I might not be doing it right.” (Scent)
“The only real answers you’re ever likely to get in this life are the ones you’ve been carrying about in yourself all your life. It’s not until someone pops the right question that the answer makes sense.” (Scent)
Er ... buy this book! Read one story a day with your morning coffee. They're short, but rich. And you might learn something new about yourself and wonder why you’ve never thought about the world like that before. I certainly did.