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Nature's Magician

Anthony Cropper

"She looked out over the snow and knew, at that moment, that she would live for the rest of her life in this same small house and that she would always be alone."

Reviewed by M Bobowski

At first it seemed that Nature's Magician was the appropriate story to lend its title to this collection by Anthony Cropper. It's a disjointed story that flits from thought to thought, a jumble of childhood memories here, explanation of scientific experiments there, and a dash of marital intimacies and infidelities for spice. The commonality, the thing that gives form to apparently random thoughts and memories, is the narrator's desire for a grand unified theory — a way to make sense of the sum of his experience. 

In the end, he's still looking. The collection feels disjointed, too, and I didn't see a connection between the stories.

Cropper's voice is strong and gives continuity. In the case of his nameless narrators (and there are a lot of them), it overpowers. There's nothing to prevent the I who sits beside the bed of his comatose brother in Of All Things from being the same I who has conversations with his wife based on slips of paper drawn from a jar in Birdsong or the I whose wife leaves in This is My Life. They all sound alike.

Where Cropper's voice serves him well is in his third person stories. It holds them together despite experiments with structure and makes them my favorites. In particular, Crocodiles is patterned after a play. It begins with a cast of characters and a description of the setting. The action takes place in a single room, props like the Hoover and the bottle of vinegar are referred to in brief slugs of action, and the story is told primarily through dialogue. It's crisp and spare, immediate in the present tense, and beautifully constructed with negative space.

The only flaw in an otherwise perfect story is the ending, or rather, the lack of. Crocodiles would have been stronger for cutting the song from the end, which I wasn't able to bring myself to read after the first time.

Cropper shows the same weakness in what was, for me, the most memorable story in Nature's Magician: The Carpenter. The two stories are similar in several regards. They share the choice of third person point of view. Both use a slightly experimental form; in Crocodiles the story is structured like a play, in The Carpenter the story is told in twenty-two micro-chapters. And they both have endings that drag out for no discernible reason, as though Cropper was afraid to just let them stop.

The Carpenter begins like an old-school fairytale. The title character, the Carpenter, is poor and must choose between paying rent or buying the wood he needs to ply his trade. He chooses the wood and moves into the damp barn that serves him as a workshop, but falls ill, and while he sleeps in a fever he receives a prophetic dream. He wakes to find himself robbed of all but one small piece of sycamore, and it just gets worse from there.

Though it's never explicit, there seems to be a loose kinship between the Carpenter and Jesus. The parallels go beyond the choice of trade. The Carpenter is a good man frustrated by the failings of lesser men. The greed of the merchant who fails to pay him a fair price for his bed ultimately damages his health. The greed of the robbers deprives him of his livelihood. He says, "I need a miracle," and a voice comes to him and tells him to make something with his lone piece of sycamore. Anything. Whatever his heart tells him to make. He works his last bit of wood (we're never told what he crafts) and when the customer he has hoped for does not arrive, he despairs. He blames God. "'If God exists,' he cries out, 'then he has made my hands cold and my stomach ache.'"

I won't ruin it for you, but the ending might. The story itself ends with part twenty. Parts twenty and twenty-one are, respectively, philosophical pondering on story construction and an explanation of why the story has no ending. I sympathize with Cropper — endings are hard and it's tough to know when to shut up and let the story stand for itself. But it has to be done.

Ice is less distinct than Crocodiles or The Carpenter. It has a more traditional short story structure, and more fluidity between memory and events (which seems to be a hallmark of Cropper's). It also doesn't suffer in the ending, wrapping up tightly on itself. It was in Ice, on the third or fourth reading, that I discovered the grand unified theory that defines Nature's Magician and finally illuminated what had been frustratingly outside my view — that there is an underlying commonality, that the stories do fit together, and that it's not just a hodgepodge.

In Ice, Helen's friend Lola finds enlightenment through a self-help seminar and as she embarks on her goal of improving her life, they grow apart. Lola wasn't a great friend, she poached Helen's man after all, but she's not unlikeable. The relationship between Helen and Lola is true; we've all had a friend that does crappy things to us and we still keep them around. Not always because we're forgiving, or we see a better person inside, but usually because even a friend who is kind of a jerk is better than being alone.

The irony is that when she seduces and then discards Simon, Lola takes away the man Helen loves, and with him her opportunity to be with someone and to stop being alone. She secures Helen for herself, staving off her own loneliness, and later discards her when she begins to lighten her life. Helen realizes "that she would live for the rest of her life in this same small house and that she would always be alone."

That's the grand unifying theory of Nature's Magician. These are stories about being alone.

 M. Bobowski  lives in northern Sweden. She really likes books and hopes to write one someday.

M's other Short Reviews: Ursula K. Le Guin "The Birthday of the World and Other Stories"

James P. Blaylock "13 Phantasms and Other Stories"

Daniel Marcus "Binding Energy"


Publisher: Route Publishing

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes 

Awards: Longlisted, Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize

Author bio: Anthony Cropper has written two novels and edited three short story collections. He received the BBC Alfred Bradley Award for Radio Drama for his play I'll Tell You About Love. His first short story collection Nature's Magician has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.

Read an interview with Anthony Cropper

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