That the Bed May Creak Louder: On Toni Kan’s Nights of the Creaking Bed

by thepingofpong

In art circles, the argument comes up now and again about which influences the other: art or life. Both sides are compelling hence, it is best to assume the argument would mostprobably outlive us or would at least reincarnate in another form.

Mr Kan and his book provide us with an angle to that argument. More specifically the question is, has the man’s occupational form of Attention Deficit Disorder affected his fiction? Like many basic questions, there are no easy answers.

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Briefly, the author has worked in Hints (a soft sell magazine), at least two banks, a telecom company and presently is in the board of Next– a newspaper. In fact, Toyin Akinosho of the Guardian labelled the latest move to Next, contrarian.

Somehow, this urge to move has crept furtively or otherwise into his recent collection of short stories, Nights of the Creaking Bed. From the nomenclature (and quite possibly, nature) of this sub-genre of literature, it can be inferred that the short story form is the best suited to Mr Kan’s psyche. The inference is arguable but this book is a good place to start the debate.

Nights of the Creaking Bed opens with the eponymous story, and the story itself opens with what is arguably the most promising first line in contemporary fiction, “My mother was a kept woman”. Beginning the collection of 14 short stories dealing largely with suburban life with those six words does seem inspired.

Those words are spoken by a middle-aged man reflecting on his childhood with his mother living in a sort of salubrious disgrace. She is in a relationship (which is mostly sexual) with a married man, as the narrator’s father “had disappeared to wherever vagabond husbands and vagrant fathers go…”

In his presence, the narrator noted “there was a bounce to her gait that slashed years from her age”. Soon after, they lock themselves in her bedroom, twice a week, the bed would start to creak. The narrator seems to have wished these moments continued for once Uncle John leaves, his mother would become “tetchy and grouchy” and undoubtedly assumes her real age. It is surprising that Oedipus complex does not rear its head in this story–the narrator as a child knows what it is to share. This blind belief in his mother’s happiness takes a beating when a classmate insults him with the facts and a black eye results from the ensuing fight. Children are not the only ones who know when to spring a secret for one-upmanship. An adult does same to the mother directly and here the difference between a child and a guilty adult shows. There is no black eye or fight instead, the mother gives the neighbour what she wants–some money.

It is a powerful story Mr. Kan has sketched, but that is just what is wrong–it is a sketch. The ramification of growing up in opprobrium is never fully explored and it is in this regard that the story and indeed the collection fail.

It is disheartening that after this good story–despite its shortcomings–the others reduce the ramification further and after a while, it is unbelievable that the eponymous story is within the covers of same book as the others.

Story after story, the narrator (or Mr. Kan himself) refuse or do not know to, broach aspects of the stories that would provide the emotional intensity typical of stories aiming to be perceptible, if not palpable. As the New York Times once posited, “The crisis in any story, once it is stated, most be resolved in a way that touches off emotional responses in the reader”.

In the story, God is listening; a promising premise gives way to a comfort lost (a la Nigerian movies) and ends with an unlikely person being the harbinger of redemption. The theory of “character is conflict” is not in the author’s plan as characterization in any form; save the shallowest i.e. mother, son, daughter, lover, etc, is eschewed in a somewhat canny manner.

The adopted point of view for most of the stories is first person as is common with first books/stories, and one is tempted to blame the characters for the lack of depth of the stories. Possibly, they do not want to reveal motivation, hence exposing (unwittingly) flaws in their character. This explanation is not tenable for several reasons; one being that, when the point of view does change, the third person or Mr. Kan is also culpable for this defect. The pattern is repeated several times and it becomes clear that the adopted point of view/mode of narrative is not to blame.

Truth is, several of the stories should be longer–actually almost all should be much longer. That they are in this “abridged” form suggests some form of authorial indolence. This statement is not advocating the addition of unnecessary bits and pieces but that whatever would enhance the emotional response from the reader and yet add to the story should be included. In the 1983 edition of The Best American Short Stories, Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Tyler noted, “The most appealing short story writer is the one who’s a wastrel. He neither hoards his best ideas for something more ‘important’ (a novel) nor skimps on his material because this is ‘only’ a short story”.

A more honourable reason for this skimping of material can be proffered when one realizes that the stories were previously published in various magazines, and possibly, these magazines had word limits. This reason, though honourable, is not particularly realistic, as the original length could have been restored easily.

Had the latter reason been more plausible, the editor would have shared the blame for this deprivation of a more encompassing reading experience. However, there is evidence in Mr. Kan’s acknowledgement supporting authorial indolence. The relevant fragment reads as follows:

Special thanks to friends, mentors and kindred spirits who read and made comment…Without you guys, this book would have been finished long ago…

One can only wonder the kind of book that would have reached us had it “been finished long ago”.

Mr. Kan however shows versatility as a wide range of stories are contained within the 166 pages. The focus appears to be middle class life, taboo, and relationships. There are detective stories, romantic schlock (strongly reminiscent of his Hints days), mystery, humour and some that defy rigid classification.

The plots of the stories are basically one-dimensional and there are no intricacies of any kind except flashbacks that add length but not emotional heft to the stories.

The more serious stories deal with relationships especially the mother-son relationship. In fact, 3 of the stories actually begin with “My mother”, another with “My son”. Several others contain a mother figure. It is obvious that women interest the author. He depicts them with a naive fascination if not in less than flattering light.

Mr Kan shows them abandoning their sons in varying manners–emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. Nevertheless, it is not just evil they are capable of as Mr. Kan shows a wife drive out at dusk to save her husband in the “Phone Call Goodnight”. Still, it must be stated that the more realized women are those fraught with frailties namely, the nameless mother in the title story and “The Passion of Pololo”. In the latter story, the Oedipus Complex deferred in the former story shows up with devastating consequences, such that it seems the author is a latter day apostle of Freud.

Mr. Kan does not dwell on setting but different regions in the country are shown and he gets relatively high scores in capturing the different dialogue patterns in these parts.

The writing itself has sparks of brilliance with some very good phrases and well crafted sentences. Influences are rarely concealed, as there is a Madonna song, a Marcel Proust title, a modified J. P. Clark line, a Hints plot and several Nollywood-like stories. Whether these are done consciously is not exactly clear. When the style is his, the reader can discern a refined style and one hopes, in the future, this style would get the space it deserves.

The graphic title might lead one to believe that the sexual passages might be quite an event. This is not so, Mr. Kan appears to have the Hints hangover as all there is are: sucked, kissed, and fondled breasts; huge manhood digging; tickled nipples and other clichéd sexual expressions. Contemporary Nigerian fiction has since graduated from these expressions and Mr. Kan should realize that his audience has changed. A collection of stories is not a soft sell magazine.

Overall, it does seem like his life, or at least, the occupational facet, influences his art, as there seems to be an impatience to be done with a story and move to the next one. Hence, he does not bring the intellectual vigour so often seen in his non-fiction into this collection and the literary emaciation is a result of this primary deficiency.

For lovers of literary fiction, the first story and The Passion of Pololo are perhaps the keenest of the lot. He also gets praise for the visionary story Age of Iron.

There is a good side to this: when Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, a reviewer commented that, “She has set herself a hard mark to match with a second book…” Mr. Kan luckily would not have this problem. The reader can only hope he aims, not to match, but to overwhelmingly surpass this work. He can start by taking the admonition of one of his own characters in Age of Iron:

“The subject does not make the argument. It is the fervour you bring to it.”

Heeding this advice would make the characters neighbours; the incidents narrated would be prescient or at least would educe real or imagined nostalgia.

And yes, that titular bed would creak louder.

First Published in The Sunday Sun, 25 April, 2010.

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