shining the spotlight on short story collections
Subito Press, 2011
“When the furniture began to sweat, I knew that the world I’d known until then was gone.”
Death-in-a-Box is that it is different from most other fiction I have read. Mostly, this is a commendation. There are macabre stories about a man who eats his own brains, and a girl who loses her hand. Quirky and esoteric stories such as the character who “puts on” her feelings every day as if they are items of jewelry. There are stories that might conjure up Alice-in-Wonderland type adventures. Yet, hidden not far below the surface are realities which the writer and/or characters struggle to escape: living in a communist state, where reporting against ones friends or colleagues is encouraged; the memories of living in a concentration camp; the death of a twin sister.
As a collection, Death-in-a-Box is unexpected, clever, thought-provoking, and never predictable. There are repeating patterns in the book about not-existing or being a shadow self, about people or objects that are not real, or become transformed from real to imaginary, imaginary to real. Some stories are only a page or two long, and could be described as unfortunate fables or little warnings about reality.
Some of these early stories in the book were too short for me to get my teeth into. They were a little esoteric, exploring complex notions of time and existence, with the main characters being “the humans” or “this woman” or “No One”. Sometimes, the stories feel more theoretical than poetic or literary, and a few of these stories tried to convince me of a reality or “unreality” that I couldn’t quite relate to. I could appreciate the beautifully surrealist imagery on an intellectual level, but at times felt like an outsider reader and, more than anything when I read, I like to be inside the fiction, a participant not an observer.
I admired stories such as Going Back, which has the striking opening lines: “Today as I was tying my shoelaces, it suddenly occurred to me that everything we do in life, every single insignificant gesture points to the future, whether we are conscious of it or not”. Taking a simple action and using it to explore some of the fundamental philosophical issues we can battle with in life, is clever and interesting, but didn’t engage me in the way I want to be engaged by fiction.
I suppose this is a matter of taste. Fiction that tackles existential issues head on, ponders and questions, argues and explores, creates the potential for hours of musing about the nature of life, society, time, and relationships. Shattered Hourglass as an example, contains beautifully complete statements, such as this: “We think we live inside time, but time doesn’t exist. What exists is our body holding our mind within it, which thinks of us as time-driven creatures because we see time in the eyes of others.” A reader could think about this statement, unpick it, and wonder about it for a long time, if so inclined. It depends what you are looking for in your fiction.
As the collection, progresses, there are longer and more intimate character-driven stories to be discovered. And this is where this collection delivered what I look for in fiction.
So, a story like Mrs Q’s Drugstore is much more alive. Even though the character cannot smell the candy in Mrs Q’s drugstore, the character is conscious of what is missing from her experience. It is a story is about desire for what is out of reach. The description is sumptuous and vivid. The writing is more sensory and located in the body rather than the head. And at last the stories come off the page and enter into a fictional world I could inhabit.
Stories like The Missing Hand which, although surrealist, explores reality on a more emotional than cerebral level. Reality is “ground as if by a food processor”, and the narrator speaks directly to the reader, inviting him or her to empathise. In all probability most of us have never lost a hand, but the emotions are universal: “the feeling is one of complete aloneness, a loneliness so raw that your very skins seems an insuperable wall cutting you off from the world.”
It is almost as if this collection “warms up” in its ability to emotionally resonate with a reader, or perhaps this reader simply started to engage on a deeper level with the stories as the collection progressed. Stubborn Memory explores the poignant consequence of a world where scientists can erase memory. The main character keeps being confronted with his past life in a concentration camp, and finds it difficult to erase these memories completely.
The Garbage Woman is one of the longer stories of the book. It spans 10 pages, and explores the detailed life story of a girl how grows up wanting to live with garbage. I felt an affinity with this character, even though she is nothing like me. Twin Sisters is intriguing. It is a fairy tale in its best sense, dark, mysterious and with questions left at the end for the reader to engage with. I wanted immediately to read it again.
Perhaps the most accomplished story in the collection is False Memories of Not-myself. It reads like a sequence of prose poems or tiny fictions. Each can stand alone perfectly, but together they form an overall narrative arc that takes us through the life of a Romanian girl. This story felt auto-biographical, perhaps due to the authenticity of emotion in the story. The voice is a child voice, an innocent who talks to a hole in the wall in her bedroom; yet at the same time she is very knowing. The story explores existence, and non-existence, though false memories that appear very authentic and convincing. It is a deeply sad story, without ever stating anything sad in a knowing way.
Subito Press say they look for “innovative fiction and poetry that at once reflects and informs the contemporary human condition.” Alta Ifland challenges many of our notions of the contemporary human condition by turning the realities we are familiar with upside down and inside out. She challenges the reader, and this means that perhaps not every story will appeal to every reader, but there are more than enough stories in here to please, and several that I will find it difficult to forget.
Read a story from this collection in The Redwood Coast Review (PDF)
About the reviewer: Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007. Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies, magazines and online, including the following Comma Press anthologies: Brace; Litmus; and Lemistry.