On a Friday evening a fortnight ago, my girlfriend and I made our way to the Royal Academy on Piccadilly for Pin Drop, a literary salon that celebrates the short story. There are lots of literary salons in London (see this recent feature in the Evening Standard), and it’s wonderful that ‘live literature’ and various forms of spoken word are proving so popular, but in offering an evening featuring one or two short stories, read in their entirety (and usually by the author), Pin Drop can’t be beaten. The limited number of tickets available for each event gives it a really intimate feel, perfect for the short story form. I remember going to one last year where the actor Russell Tovey read ‘White Angel’ by Michael Cunningham, the story of two brothers growing up in Ohio in the 1960s. There’s a moment in the story that has a devastating impact, and when he came to it, Tovey was choking back tears, as were all of us in the audience. It really demonstrated the power of literature to move a room full of people, and hold them together in a moment.
At this particular Pin Drop event, the brilliant Lionel Shriver was going to be reading. My girlfriend and I are both huge admirers of Shriver, who was announced as the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award only the week before, and, having attended a couple of events at which Shriver had spoken in the past, I was sure that hearing her read one of her own stories would be something rather special. Before reading her story, titled ‘Vermin’, Shriver explained that she – an American living in London – had written it partly in response to the obsession we Brits have with owning property. The story is about a couple – Michael and Kate – who move into a rented house in Brooklyn, a two-storey hovel that they affectionately christen ‘The Little Dump’. Kate remembers how they were happy there, content to live in a tumbledown property with racoons for neighbours and a big vine growing in the backyard, dancing around a single candle in an otherwise empty living room. Until someone else on their street inquired about buying The Little Dump…
Whether or not it was home ownership that changed them, or led to the demise of their relationship, Kate isn’t sure, but she believes that owning The Little Dump affected Michael, and not – from Kate’s perspective – in a good way. He wanted to paint over cracks, fill in holes. The vine that had provided warmth in winter and cooling shade in summer was seen as invasive, the racoons were no longer mere nocturnal visitors but ‘vermin,’ and had to be driven away. Marriage is complicated, says Kate, and neither she nor Michael will ever really know what led to the end of theirs. Yet Kate believes it was due to the driving away of the racoons which symbolised, for her, the loss of wildlife in their habitat, and the loss of a wildness and a wild life that she and Michael once shared, and that formed such an important part of their relationship.
Shriver read brilliantly, even taking the care to articulate various noises made by animals and cars! Pin Drop normally make the readings at their events available to listen to on a podcast afterwards, and if they do for this one I recommend you take the time to listen. It’s a fascinating story, about relationships, about communication, about how well we can ever know one another, about how events change people in different ways, about perception. In addition to being treated to a wonderful story, it’s a worthwhile experience to listen to that story read by the author, arguably the person who knows it better and more intimately than anyone else. The writer/reader pauses at very specific moments, draws out words, lets them hang before moving on, chooses to read certain phrases or sentences in one long breath; for the audience, it’s a totally different way of understanding and appreciating the words and the story than if we had read it to ourselves. Indeed, in the Q&A that followed, Shriver noted the difference for her as the writer between reading her work out loud and reading it silently.
Pin Drop offers an evening with a difference: an immersive literary experience that is short and sweet (you can be out of the door by 7.30pm leaving you free to go on for drinks or dinner afterwards) yet thought-provoking, with stories read by the authors themselves or other talented readers and narrators with a demonstrable passion for the form.