What’s Small Degrees all about?:
Small Degrees is about a man who works hard to develop his own typing face but risks losing his wife as a result.
What did I think?:
Kevin Brockmeier is such a beautiful writer, even if I’m not keen on the story he is trying to tell I always appreciate the dream-like quality of his writing with absolutely stunning sentences. Small Degrees starts almost like a fairy tale where we see a young child growing up staring at books in his parents library. His parents are desperate that he shouldn’t become a “fool” when they see him looking at blank pages, so decide that finding a trade is the best thing for him. He becomes apprentice at a typing foundry, a job which turns out to suit him very well as he loves staring at the letters that are being produced, much like when he was a child.
The story progresses quite smoothly, much like our characters life. He marries, has a few children, raises them to adulthood until they leave the family home. Throughout all this he works tirelessly at the foundry until he retires and stays at home. It seems that he cannot let this part of his life go as he suddenly decides that he should make a typeface of his own. Again from morning until night he works until his hands are black and stained from the ink to make the perfect letters for his new alphabet:
“He wanted to design a typeface that would recall his hours of childhood watching m’s and n’s and commas that read as fluidly as the swaying of long grass in the wind; b’s and d’s, p’s and q’s, like lampposts reflected in a pool of water. He was willing to work gradually, assembling and re-examining each stroke of each character, the hairline of a V or the wedded bowls of a lowercase g, over a period of several days.”
I love that paragraph, it’s a perfect example of Brockmeier’s lyrical prose, especially how he describes the letters i.e. g with the wedded bowls, it’s truly beautiful and I could read it over and over again. Meanwhile, while our narrator has been working his fingers to the bone, his poor wife is feeling rather neglected. She had always kept his house clean, looked after the children, cooked his dinner etc and had already been feeling pangs of loneliness since the children left when all the housework had been done and she had nothing to do but wait for her husband. She was hoping that when he retired they would spend some more time together and now he is spending all his time developing a new type face she feels pushed to the side and tells him so in no uncertain terms. In the end, exasperated by his lack of communication she leaves him. How our narrator deals with this and realises what he has lost is written with such subtlty by the author that it almost broke my heart. The house becomes dirty, our narrator does not look after himself properly but since his heart is only given away in “small degrees,” his loneliness and love for his wife comes out in his work. It might take a bit of magic to bring them both together again.
This is such a gorgeous story, I can’t rave on enough about the beautiful language – you get it, right? After I finished this story I immediately had to read it again just to read it a bit slower and appreciate every single word as it should be read. I liked it even more on the second reading as with other stories in this collection and believe the author has a real talent for poetic phrasing and word arranging, if that makes any sense? I can’t wait to read the next story in this collection.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: Airshow by Jon McGregor from the collection This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You