Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

Purchased from Chapters.ca

A few nights ago I sat down with Maile Meloy’s new collection of short stories, intending to read one or two and then move on to something else. A couple of hours later, having read eight of the 11 stories, I forced myself to close the book and save the last three for later. Now it is true that I am notoriously undisciplined when it comes to short stories — no matter how firm the resolve to space out the reading, I hardly ever succeed. Despite that, my “Meloy” experience is a testament to the readability of this collection. I’ve reread all 11 since and am happy to report the (somewhat more disciplined) second approach confirmed my initial positive response.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It has received significant critical attention and may well get more in the next few weeks as American fiction prize season moves into high gear. It was one of five fiction works on the New Yorks Times 2009 Top 10 list and a Los Angeles Times Best Books of 2009. Tony's Book World included it in his year-end top 10. Meloy is also no stranger to prizes, even though this is only her fourth book — her initial collection, Half in Love, won a PEN-Malamud award and she was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for her first novel, Liars and Saints.

As you might gather from my experience, Meloy is a highly readable writer. Her prose is direct and accessible. She is a realist, but that is not her strength — it is the curves that she plants in her realism (and there is often more than one in any given story) that make her work so seductive. That is a trait that I particularly appreciate. Ian McEwan does it in his best books and the two do bear comparison.

Consider this excerpt from “The Children”, which supplies the title for the book. Fielding is opening up his cabin, but is obsessed with how he will tell his wife that he is leaving her for the young woman (now 32, it must be said) who as a 17-year-old taught their children how to swim. Another young woman, a friend of his children whom he has also dallied with, shows up to says the truth is known. And then his wife arrives (we know she is smarter than Fielding) and effectively traps him into promising he will stay:

She watched him, his eminently intelligent wife. He pulled her closer to make the scrutiny stop, and feeling her head on his shoulder was reassuring. He was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like an old bathrobe. He seemed to be none of those things, and could only deceive the people he loved, and then disappoint and worry them when they saw through him. There was a poem Meg [his daughter] had brought home from college, with the line “Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?

“Doomed to ambivalence and desire” is a condition that could be ascribed to most of Meloy’s central characters, whether they find themselves caught in a relationship that seems to be lacking something or whether they are considering entering a relationship. These 11 stories are not linked but the frustrating desire to have it both ways is a uniting theme.

Meloy was born in Montana, the state immediately south of Alberta where I live, and sets a number of her stories there. I admit that added to the appeal of this collection for me — Montana’s mix of prairie, foothills and mountains is not dissimilar to my home territory.

One characteristic of this part of the world, for those who don’t know it, is that things are a long way apart, a trait the Meloy puts to good use in the opening story “Travis, B.” The B. of the title is Beth Travis, a young lawyer in her first job in Missoula, who has signed up to teach an evening course in school law in Glendive. The problem is that Missoula is on the west side of the state — Glendive is an icy eight-hour drive across state, near the North Dakota border. A tough commute for a two-hour class.

The other main character in that story is Chet Moran, a ranch hand marked forever by the polio that afflicted him when he was two. He had a job in Billings but:

That winter, he took another feeding job, outside Glendive on the North Dakota border. He thought if he went east instead of north, there might not be so much snow. He lived in an insulated room built into the barn, with a TV, a couch, a hot plate, and an icebox, and he fed the cows with a team and sled. He bought some new magazines, in which the girls were strangers to him, and he watched Starsky and Hutch and the local news. At night, he could hear the horses moving in their stalls. But he had been wrong about the snow; by October it had already started. He made it through Christmas, with packages and letters from his mother, but in January he got afraid of himself again. The fear was not particular. It began as a buzzing feeling around his spine, a restlessness without a specific aim.

Chet wanders into Travis, B.’s class, takes a seat and falls, kind of, into love — well, infatuation anyway. If the commute is a problem for an evening class, you can imagine the challenge it poses to a relationship, particularly for two people who are not very experienced at relationships anyway.

It is hard to adequately describe a Meloy story without providing spoilers. Those two are reasonable examples of what the collection has to offer. In every story, the author finds a wrong note or jarring chord and then plays it to perfection. Her realism supplies the framework, the off-chord is explored in detail to provide the compelling aspect of the story.

I haven’t read Meloy’s other books, but the titles alone (Half in Love, Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter) would seem to indicate that this is the territory she does like to explore. She does it well enough here — and I certainly recommend this collection to anyone who likes the short story genre — that I look forward to my own future exploration of her work.

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16 Responses to “Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy”

  1. Sasha Says:

    I asked my grandfather (who lives in the US) to look for this book for me–I hope he finds it (and sends it to me soon, haha), because if I hadn’t already been hooked by that title, or this book’s multiple appearances in “Best Of” lists, then your post is the clincher. I love realism, and “the domestic,” and I always like having good short story collections on my bookshelves.

    Thank you! :]

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sasha: Welcome. I hope the book lives up to my recommendation — I am comfortable that it will.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    This sounds brilliant, Kevin, especially the comparison with McEwan, who I very much like. I’m growing to love short stories more and more. Once-upon-a-time I would never read them, but last year I read four collections and very much enjoyed them.

  4. Trevor Says:

    This sounds like a collection of short stories I need to read. I usually get through only one or two per year and focus my short story attention on the magazines. Strange, but until this post I never paid it any attention, despite seeing it get critical attention. Thanks!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: If you like McEwan, I think you will appreciate some of the twists that Meloy puts into her stories — like McEwan, you have to be prepared to grant her some licence of lack of plausibility, but she rewards that. I suspect some of the stories will also provoke reminders of the Australian “frontier” experience.
    Trevor: Given your Western upbringing and experience, I think you will find many of the same reminders of “home” that I did (I should note that not every story is set in Montana). And one of the strengths of this collection is that Meloy does position of version of the common theme of wanting it both ways in all of the stories, which gives it some aspects of a novel-like feel.

  6. Trevor Says:

    I haven’t dug into the archives yet, Kevin, but I know that some story collections have won the NBCC. Or, rather, those collections that feature one larger novella-sized story and a few other shorter stories. I’m not sure how frequently that happens, or even how frequently one is a finalist. She could be up for another PEN/Malamud, and the Pulitzer often rewards a good short story collection. Do you think this has what it takes for a short story collection to win some of the awards that frequently go to novels?

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I don’t know the U.S. prize history that well, but my impression is the NBCC would probably opt for a more “challenging” work (illustrating how difficult it is to be a critic), although this one could make the shortlist as a nod to the short story.

    The Pulitzer is the most confusing of all to me — it seems to be a reflection of that particular year’s jury tastes. The collection would certainly rank with last year’s threesome (in many ways, I preferred it to Olive Kitteridge) but I think that group was rather light reading by traditional standards.

    Also, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders hit the NBA shortlist ( my review is here for those who have not seen it) and would be another short story collection candidate. I would have a tough time choosing between this collection and Mueenuddin’s since they both have different strengths. I would say that both are good examples of the potential that the genre has for those who are hesitant about it.

  8. lorna macintosh Says:

    yes kevin, i agree with you appreciation of meloy. on hold at my library is a copy of half in love or something like that. have you read it? it is also by meloy.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I haven’t, Lorna, but I intend to since most of the stories are set in Montana, which was part of the attraction of this collection for me. I also intend to read her novel, Liars and Saints. She is a very good writer.

  10. Trevor Says:

    I’ve started this collection finally Kevin. It is bedtime, I’m tired, yet I want to keep reading it. That first story was just to my taste, so simple a premise but treated so well. And it does make me miss the open spaces and the mountains.

  11. Trevor Says:

    Oh, I meant to say that had you mentioned she is the older sister of Colin Meloy I would never have waited so long. He is the founding member of The Decemberists, one of my favorite bands — very literate and eclectic. Must be something in that family.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: She has a way of capturing the Western North American landscape — and its people –, doesn’t she? You have to have lived here to understand the constant, almost dialectic, pull between mountain and prairie that is a feature of life (and very much present in that first story, and a few others). I hope you enjoy the rest as much as I did.

    Sorry that I don’t know Colin Meloy (of The Decembrists for that matter). And I am not sure that I would have mentioned the sibling relationship even if I did know about it. :-)

  13. Trevor Says:

    I’m not sure if you’d like The Decemberists, Kevin, but I think they’re a great story-telling band, very critically acclaimed by the likes of NPR here in America. Colin Meloy was a creative writing major too, and most of his songs are not angsty or uppity, they’re nice, amost old-time stories. In fact, one of their signature traits is using any instrument they come across, which leads to some interesting stuff.

    My favorite album is Picaresque, which has a few nice stories in “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” “The Bagman’s Gambit,” and one of their most famous (and rightly so — it’s very fun) “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” A few years ago they wrote an album centering on the story of the crane wife, and then last year they release an album that is one long story/song (though several tracks); there’s no way to appreciate the songs individually since they are part of the whole.

    I was looking at Maile Meloy’s promotional website and she, surprisingly, lists The Decemberists as her favorite band. :)

    Now that I’ve read this short story collection, though, I must say that the sibling relationship connection would have worked either way for me. Had I read Maile Meloy’s stories first, I would have been excited to find out what her brother was up to.

    By the way, thanks for pointing the way to this collection. The first story, “Travis, B.” is my favorite. Its longing and sense of menace and then sadness, all in the context of the great space of the West. One of my favorites ever, I think.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Okay, you got me. I am listening to The Hazards of Love bought from iTunes as I write this — The Crane Wife, also bought, will follow. In return, I would like to point you to Loreena McKennitt, a quite good Canadian harpist who makes music of much the same genre (check out her Alhambra double CD). I suspect she a Meloy know each other quite well, but that is just a guess.

    Back to reading… Travis, B. was also my favorite story and I remember it with great fondness. I suspect that having actually experienced driving across Montana (in winter) is a major help in appreciating the story, but it is great even without that reference. I do have Meloy marked down as a “fall” purchase — that’s when I catch up on authors whom I am quite sure that I will like.

  15. Trevor Says:

    I just went to the bookstore to see if they had more Meloy to offer. I would have bought whatever they had, but they didn’t have anything, I’m afraid. I’m kind of anxious to try her novels, as they apparently each deal with the same family. I could certainly stand to see how she spreads across two books.

    As for the music, I do know Loreena McKennitt and like her. I’ve never listened to her Alhambra CD though. Mrs. Berrett and the boys are out of town this weekend. A double-CD sounds like just the thing to get me through it :).

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    The Alhambra CD experience is her exploring her Celtic roots, with reference to Moorish Spain, all contemplated from Stratford, Ontario where she lives. Very weird, of course, but then the music is very nice. And I do find that The Decembrists (I’m now on about tune seven) are very McKennitt like.

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