A Thematic Analysis of Hope and Other Urban Tales by Laura Hird

Published: 2021-09-30 01:30:04
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This essay analyses the theme of escape in Laura Hird’s Hope and Other Tales. As well as this, an exploration of narrative tone and style is considered, along with the author’s choice of structure and characterisation. A demonstration of the text’s relevance to 21st Century Scottish Culture is also included, with references to the text itself and outside interviews and reviews from literary critics. The ideological model of literacy[1] (Street, 2000) will underline the analysis of the book, and direct the way in which it is read.

Hope and Other Urban Tales focusses mainly on the darker side of the human experience. In Hird’s own words, her work is centred on “nasty stories about dysfunctional people” (Taylor, 2009).[2] With key themes involving escapism; social change, manipulation, depression and sexuality, the book offers a detailed glimpse into 21st Century Scottish culture primarily through each narrators’ introspective qualities. This essay however, will concentrate on the main under-lying theme of escapism in the text, as well as Hird’s syntactical and lexical choices, and what effect they culminate to. The author’s tone and style will be the first literary aspect to be considered, with reference to the ideological model of literacy as proposed by Brian Street in his paper Literacy and Development.
One of the most important literary aspects that achieves Hird’s sense of an empathetic, self-aware and socially observant author is Hope’s narrative tone and style. Since most of the stories are written through first-person perspectives, the narrator is able to connect at a very personal level to the reader as though the happenings of the story are real. Each narrator’s feelings and emotions are captured through their own descriptions of them; allowing the reader to better understand their experiences. We are also subject to a large amount of narratorial interference (which at times, is arguably quite stifling) that serves to remind the reader of what the narrator is feeling at any exact moment. This ties in well to Hird’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing, in which thoughts and actions are described in real time. Present-tense also intensifies this reaction from the reader, as we are lead to know as much or as little as the protagonists do. – (Pg. 1 – 10, Hope’s best example of psychological realism)
Present tense is used in many of the short stories in this collection (Hope, The Happening, Destination Anywhere, and Meat). Hird puts this device in place not only in order to allow the reader to live the events of the story at the same time the characters are; (there by making them more ‘alive’) but to compliment her inter-personal, nonchalant style of writing. For example, in Hope, the narrator explains:
“We seem to become embroiled in this intense conversation as soon as we sit down. There’s none of that ridiculous small talk that Edinburgh people usually use to keep people at a distance till they’ve decided what to dislike about them. Hope appears to have angles on everything that I’d never even contemplated before…” (Hope, Chp. 2, pg.14)[3]
This quote also implies a deep-seeded basis of empathy that is present within the narrator’s tone. It is with lines like “none of that ridiculous small talk…” that shows a wanting for personal connection between the characters and indeed, the rest of the world around him. Past the confines of Hope’s apartment, this speaks volumes about the state of 21st Century Scottish culture.
The previous passage is particularly interesting because of its implications towards contemporary Scottish culture. Here the subtext dictates that ordinary Scottish citizens are closed-off, reserved and un-involved with each other to the point of even disliking one another’s company. Whilst the narrative choice of first-person means that everything in the story is somewhat biased to an extent, the reader can see beyond that; and look into the real-life writer’s feelings about her surroundings. Such a blunt observation coupled with judgement (“what to dislike”) allows the confidence and self-assuredness of the writing to materialise plainly in the reader’s mind. Further to this, it can be said that although Hope is a product of the mid-2000s, it pays noticeable homage to mid-90s Scottish literature. For instance, Hird’s work has been said to be caught in a “Trainspotting hangover” [4] (Briscoe, 2006) – a nod to Scottish author Irvine Welsh. Hird herself has confessed also that she is a great admirer of Ian McEwan, author of Enduring Love[5], where her methodical approach to de-familiarization was born.
The ideological model of literacy dictates that literature should be judged as social practice and not merely “technical and neutral skill”[6] (Street, 2000). It also describes a more culturally sensitive approach towards literacy than its counter – the autonomous model. This effectively directs the way that the book should be read; with more allusion towards a social commentary. Hird wrote this collection as a product of her own inherent knowledge and understanding of the working world. Her state of ‘being’ attaches itself to the stories, the characters and her choice of words throughout the entire book and results in enabling the reader to see her most-inner workings and the effects of the defensive, emotionally stale culture of Scotland in the 21st Century.
Furthermore, the ideological model also commands the way in which the reader reads. Each reader’s conception of themselves and their identity becomes the root of their understanding of the text. Hope and Other Urban Tales then becomes a mix of both the author’s perceptions of being and the reader’s. Allowing the two perspectives to inter-twine as such culminates to a very personal response that elicits an extension of the reader’s set of prior beliefs.
Whilst the 90’s have clearly influenced Hird and her attitudes to her art, the period has not distracted her from contemporary 21st Century culture with reference to the writer’s loyalty to her idols, such as Welsh[7] (Morace, 2001). Hird adheres to the stream-of-consciousness writing style popular in the mid-90s, as well as psychological realism[8] (Cuddon, 1999). This means that Hird’s characters are not content to merely explain the events of a story; they have to explain their motives and thoughts aswell. Interior monologues are therefore a staple technique employed in the collection, as well as narratorial interference, which is consistently present throughout every story involving first-person narration. These modernist techniques result in a slightly fragmented style of story-telling, in which the narrator’s character is arguably the most important aspect of the story, as not only do they tell the story, they act in it as well.
The writer’s attitudes are most notably introduced in the title’s novella, Hope. Here we are subject to Martin’s (the story’s narrator) account of Scottish people, society and culture. Hird’s choice of syntax, her sentence structures and passages of time demonstrate a noticeable disassociation from the novella’s universe; it’s ‘real world’. This disassociation carries well into the collection’s escapist theme; which has been said to be the common link between every character in Hope and Other Urban Tales[9] (Alapi, 2006). Escape is mentioned in almost every story and implies an escape from the morally deprived society of the 21st Century. Whether this ‘escape’ is physical or metaphoric, it denotes the action of leaving a life behind, and it inhabits every story:
In Hope: “I’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere hot.” (Pg.2)
In The Happening: “Annual leave is precious.” (Pg. 69)
In Reanimation: “We need to get out. If we don’t go out now I’m afraid we’re never going to escape.” (Pg. 97)
In Victims: “Would you leave them for meNever see them again?” (Pg. 166)
In Destination Anywhere: “I’ve found, by experience, that running away is usually the answer. I have been running away since I was a kid.” (Pg. 203)
In Meat: “Atleast it feels like I’m escaping for a little while.” (Pg. 217)
(Most obvious examples)
This escapist attitude stems from an inherent disassociation in every character. They could even be argued to be tragic heroes; who pave the way for their own downfalls through poorly guided actions. If each character maintained their innocence and their naivety, then they would be more comfortable and engaged with the world around them. As Hird clearly demonstrates through her incredibly observant narrations, these characters describe events and other people as if they are, on the most part, static and blind to real understanding (with the exception of Hope’s character in Hope: Pg. 1 – 69). There is therefore a feeling of superiority that parallels this and which results in a cynical, pessimistic writing style that implies dissatisfaction with the novel’s universe. Because the story is based upon the element of realism, this denotes dissatisfaction with the real world as well.
The culture of the time is obviously a closed, harsh and faceless one. One that is controlled by television, rat-race artistic types as symbolically shown in Destination Anywhere by ‘the artist’, who remains nameless throughout, and money (Pg. 182). This theme of escape is symbolised effectively in Meat by a few different aspects. The initial death of the lamb being the most notable (Pg. 223 – 230). What reinforces this theme is how the father reacts to its death: “You know how much these things are worth?”[10] The father thinks only of the saving he will make if he brings the lamb home to be eaten, instead of deliberating on the tragedy to any kind of extent at all. He uses the death of the lamb as an escape from his son’s confession (Pg. 221). Instead of confronting his son about being homosexual, he “pushes [his son] away” (Pg. 222). The narrator’s father does not acknowledge his son whilst he is “clearing up”. These semiotics exhibit the “clearing up” of the relationship between father and son – the “dismantling” of his involvement with the situation. This metaphor leads to a physical symbol of escape: when the boy says in his interior monologue how he’s “not sure where we’re heading” (Pg. 222). The father takes country roads back from the fishing trip and drives through thick fog and darkness on the way. Fog traditionally symbolises foreboding, or the clouding of emotions. In this case, it symbolises the growth of the father’s anger and disappointment at his son because he is not addressing it. Instead he runs in both an emotional and physical sense – adding that he “doesn’t bloody know” why they are going the way they are (Pg. 223). Desperation to escape is therefore effectively symbolised here, as anywhere is better than being alone on that boat with his son. (Pgs. 221 – 230 are discussed here).
To intensify the author’s allusion to characters that wish to escape their respective realities, we are permitted to see how it has affected Hope itself (or herself, as the case is); she does not own a television, and claims she “can’t stand it. The real opium of the masses. I can’t tell you how many good friends I’ve seen wither to death in front of the box. It’s worse than cancer” (Pg. 16). Here the author’s pessimism for the modern age again appears. Not even hope is un-tainted by it. Television is the most practical semiotic of the contemporary age, and here it is regarded as being a kind of poison that is transporting people away from reality. Hope seeks to stop the modern age entering his dwelling so she can remain in her own version of reality – thereby escaping the shared experience of “the masses”. (Pgs. 16 – 18 cover this issue).
Escape is also demonstrated in the story Destination Anywhere, where we witness the result of contemporary TV culture on the youth. In this story, a thirteen-year-old girl appears at first to be genuinely interested in the narrator’s line of work (photography), and is the only one at the gallery party that will pay him any attention. Whilst this seems hopeful, the culture of drinking and drugs is once again introduced into the fabric of the text, and the girl transforms after her initial attempts at persuading the narrator to take photographs of her. Behind the closed doors of the narrator’s apartment, the reader witnesses her manipulative personality that she adopts in order to “become famous”… “proper famous” (Pg. 192). Hird makes this aspect even more disturbing by choosing a young girl to portray it – Thereby saying that the “innocent” young are far past being innocent. (Destination Anywhere begins on Pg. 181 and ends on Pg. 211).
“She doesn’t have a hope in hell. I despise people like her. Jesus, even the youth don’t have any substance left any more. It depresses me.” (Pg. 192)
Here we see how the narrator has developed a strong hatred for contemporary culture of all kinds, especially the new generation. This becomes intensified when he flees his own apartment after the child makes her manipulative intentions clear. He is forced to escape his private space, even, and enter society for a brief period of time. The narrator also details how “the sense that I may have just made one of the biggest mistakes of my life is tempered slightly by the feeling of relief at being away from her.” (Pg. 198). Escape becomes the thing that he desires most, regardless of the cost. Hird’s character comes across as dysfunctional and borderline weak-spirited in this regard, as all he seemingly wishes to do is run away from any situation.
The reader’s expectations of her character are mis-informed, and the archetype is thoroughly mutated and transformed into something devoid of any soul or empathy. Characterisation here is truly impressive as a result, as we are made to share in the narrator’s hatred and frustration of the girl, after feeling like the narrator truly has the upper hand at the party: “Her face brightens as I walk towards her again. It’s almost a shame.” (Pg. 186). The reader wants to like the girl in the first part of the story, as she is a symbol of innocence; a symbol of hope. This is however juxtaposed by her comment “I’ll love you forever…” (Pg. 195). The quote is also important as it demonstrates how the modern age will even sell love and the immaterial in order for media exposure. Nothing is sacred in the new age’s eyes. Hird sees this.
Structurally, the book is fairly one-sided; as if the prose is primarily constructed around “off-the-cuff one-liners”[11] (Taylor, 2009) that have spawned from the writer’s real-life observations. Not only does this make the prose hyper-real, but it adds to the chatty, micro-literate feel of the book aswell. Chapters often begin with very short statements that try to hook in the reader’s attention: “Time passes quickly.” (Pg. 23. Dependant clause). “The other day I killed a wasp.” (Pg. 93). “Ken. Perfect name for the bastard.” (Pg. 79). Hird recognises reader psychology in the sense that she knows shorter flashes of imagery will capture the attention of people quickly; set a scene for them or throw them into the physical action of a plotline. She also uses the same technique to conclude stories or chapters: “I can make myself like anyone.” (Pg. 10). Techniques like this serve to increase the deliverance of the prose, and enable easier-reading of the text.
In conclusion, the main theme of Hope and Other Urban Tales surrounds the more deceptive, malicious personality traits of human beings on the fringes of a society-gone-wrong. Whilst these characters are documented as such, their behaviours culminate to real, balanced individuals with hidden pockets of tenderness underneath their hardened exteriors. The shared feeling of wishing to escape their respective realities is found in all the protagonists in question, yet the ways that these wishes materialise differ substantially as they all possess a realistic duality in their natures. The ideological model of literacy governs this reading of the prose and proves that culture, society and the writer’s own understanding of them has a deep all-around effect on the creation of such psychological texts.
Adams, J. (2003). Interview with Laura Hird. Available: http://www.barcelonareview.com/35/e_int_lh.htm. Last accessed 19/08/2013
Alapi, Z. (2006). The New Review. Available: http://www.laurahird.com/newreview/hopeandotherurbantales.html. Last accessed 19/08/2013.
Blake, W. (1970). Songs of Innocence and Experience; Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Oxford Paperbacks. ISBN-10: 0192810898. The Lamb, Pg. 1.
Briscoe, J. (2006). Hope Springs Infernal. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/nov/11/featuresreviews.guardianreview21. Last accessed 19/08/2013.
Caesar, M. (1999). Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics and the Work of Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 9780745608501. Pg. 55.
Cuddon, J.A. (1999). The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, UK, Penguin Books, ISBN-10: 0140513639.
Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power, UK, Longman, ISBN-10: 0582414830.
Goodman, K. & Goodman, Y. (1979) Theory and Practice of Early Reading, U.S., Routledge, ISBN-10: 0898590035. Learning to Read is Natural, pg. 137 – 54.
Hird, L. (2009). Interview by Trev Taylor. Available: http://www.laurahird.com/. Last accessed 19/08/2013.
Hird, L. (2006). Hope and Other Urban Tales, Scotland, Canongate Books, ISBN-10: 1841955736.
McEwan, I. (1998). Enduring Love, UK, Vintage, ISBN-10: 0099276585.
Morace, R. (2001). Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: A Reader’s Guide, UK, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8264-5237-X.
Randell, Stevenson. (1992). Modernist Fiction: An Introduction, The University of Kentucky, ISBN-10: 0813108144.
The Scotsman. (2006). Hope Heralds a New Dawn. Available: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/hope-heralds-a-new-dawn-1-1416335. Last accessed 19/08/2013.
Street, B. (2000). Literacy and Development: Ethnographic Perspectives, Introduction, London, Routledge, ISBN-10: 0415234514. Pg. 7 -8.
Welsh, I. (1994). Trainspotting, UK, Vintage, ISBN-10: 0099465892.

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