shining the spotlight on short story collections
Salt Publishing 2012
“… the love question is harder to solve than the Grand Unified Theory of Everything.”
From All I Know About Gertrude Stein, by Jeanette Winterson
Prepare to be amazed, horrified and delighted! From the quirkiness of Will Self’s iAnna via the surrealism of HP Tinker’s Alice in Time & Space and Various Major Cities and the pure, cinematic light of Stella Duffy’s To Brixton Beach, to Jeanette Winterson’s bold and exquisitely written All I Know About Gertrude Stein, this eclectic anthology encompasses an astonishing variety of style and content, bound together by two book-end pieces, each set in a library.
Psychological thrillers with a strong magical realist element delve deep into the human psyche, where a rich feast of darkness, death and melancholy awaits (and perhaps this says something about the predilections of Nicholas Royle, the editor). If you can read Michael Marshall Smith’s Sad, Dark Thing without the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, I would be surprised. The atmosphere of the story and American style of this English-born author recall the work of Flannery O’Connor, where so little is said and so much left to the increasingly terrified reader, for whom there are no answers outside her own imagination.
Similarly, Robert Shearman’s horror fairytale, The Dark Space in the House in the House in the Garden at the Centre of the World, is a tale somehow immediately familiar to those raised in western cultures. Biblical in atmosphere, this story manages to reduce humankind to the naïve, undersized playthings of an all-powerful and unfeeling god. Ramsay Campbell’s The Room Beyond, which begins as an innocent return to scenes of childhood, and descends into the horror of nightmares. However, for me, the tale with the darkest message is Joel Lane’s Those Who Remember. Set amid the violence and darkness of a run-down city, the plot follows the main protagonist, as damaged and tenebrous as the setting, in his never-ending search for revenge.
Many of these stories in this anthology consider that eternal preoccupation of writers; the nature and end of love. Alison MacLeod’s extraordinary The Heart of Denis Noble, (already reviewed for The Short Review in Litmus) combines thought on the science and high art of cardiovascular surgery with the search for the source of love through poetry and music. MacLeod’s words on the subject are worth reading and rereading.
Also interview-based is Julian Gough’s I’m The Guy Who Wrote ‘The Wild Bunch’, which takes the reader into the rough, unbelievable world of the Hollywood movie scene. Gough’s style is tough and straight-talking, like the guys and girls he writes about.
Mourning, too, is a recurring theme. Dan Powell’s Half-Mown Lawn is both gentle and powerful in its depiction of the immediate response of a woman to the sudden death of her husband of many years, whilst a tiny gem of a story by Socrates Adams, Wide and Deep, peers briefly into the mind of a dementia sufferer (about which so many wonderful stories have already been written). In two or three beautifully written pages, Adams reduces a whole lifetime to a narrow prison of loss and childlike delusion. Stuart Evers’s What’s in Swindon? is a blunt warning of the bitter taste of the end of hope and love.
As I read this anthology, it was fascinating to note how many of the stories, particularly those by well-known writers, are heavy with reference to iconic figures, real and mythical: Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Bill Clinton, Adam and Eve; heart surgeon Denis Noble, Alice in Wonderland. Such characters speak to the writer’s imagination and that of the reader with powerful voices, whether from the depths of the western culture or from history itself. Jaki McCarrick’s, The Visit, takes the reader deep into old sadnesses and life-changing feuds which still burned under the surface of Irish society at the time of Bill Clinton’s visit, whilst Jonathan Trigell’s story of the end of love, Aperitifs With Mr Hemingway, echoes the dark pathways of the man himself.
Stella Duffy’s To Brixton Beach is both uplifting and magical. A poor boy swims with his brother into fame, wealth and history, whilst real and imaginary figures blend into a warm collage of images, lit by sunlight and captured in the waters of a London pool as if on ancient celluloid.
Neil Campbell’s delightful tale of two other city boys, Sun On Prospect Street, considers the a friendship when it has hardly had a chance to begin before it comes to an abrupt end, as definitive in its way as the slow, dark end of the young friendships in Jon McGregor’s We Wave and Call.
How can I categorize Will Self’s iAnna? The answer is I can’t, any more than I can categorize Will Self himself! A psychiatric condition, iPhrenia, which can be treated only with an … well, I’ll leave the reader to discover that for herself. This is truly a tale for the modern world. As usual, Self creates a universe which is at once entirely believable and highly improbable. Great fun!
Jeannette Winterson, how often have I felt scared of you, of your talent? And don’t I sometimes have to admit to having felt a little sorry for that person you always call Mrs Winterson staring out from her lonely northern bubble at your wild search for youthful self? But All I know About Gertrude Stein speaks to your reader beautifully and delicately of your true emotional fragility, of your desperation and inner isolation, whilst drawing unmissable parallels between your tortured self and your characters. Your emotional fluency is unique amongst modern writers.
I have to confess I was puzzled at first by the opening story in the collection, Emma Jane Unsworth’s I Arrived First. Is this a game? If so, is it for one or two people to play? The subtlety of Unsworth’s narrative and dialogue style hold the key. Both this and the last story in the book, A K Benedict’s The Last Library, presage darkly another kind of loss; the possible end of a cultural and literary era, one which both writers and readers everywhere on the planet will fight to keep alive.
Read Jeanette Winterson’s story from this collection in Granta
About the reviewer: Sue Haigh lives in a cave-house in France and has written a collection of Scottish stories, The Snow Lazarus, two novels, a play for radio, and a children’s book. She is currently working on a biography of Hugh Fox, first critical analyst of Charles Bukowski.