shining the spotlight on short story collections
Unthology No. 3
Unthank books, 2012
The pie base slides down the steel slope and comes to rest just beyond my fill gun. I nudge it back so the end of the gun rests inside the lip of the empty base. I take account of base gloss, fill odour, ambient conditions and miscellaneous factors. I alter my finger pressure accordingly. I do not alter the speed or diameter of the circle I draw with the fill gun.
Any anthology, even an unthology, is likely to be something of a mixed bag. A couple of stories in this collection genuinely thrilled me and made me delighted to own the book. It’s also true to say that a few left me cold; they just weren’t ‘my bag’. It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey (even though there’s some sex in it). The editors told me so in the introduction – which now, from the far-distant perspective of 2013, seems a curious 2012 period piece.
A number of stories in Unthology 3 explore the emotions of losing someone who’s both intimate and yet distant. Hachiko by Sarah Dobbs is set in a time and place that’s internationally recognisable and makes an incomprehensible loss more poignant by describing a sole instance of bereavement. Sandra Jensen’s So Long Marianne captures some of the strange intensity of a long-distance friendship that waxes and wanes. Its jokey, colloquial tone belies its utter seriousness. While The Theory of Circles, by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, convincingly replicates the way that an online identity in tweets and blogs can open a person up to a stranger.
Some of these stories are about the distances between people, however close their physical proximity. The stories Terms and Conditions and My Oldest & Dearest both examine the distance of cohabiting, marital detente. The latter is an interesting portrayal of the separations in friendships.
A couple of stories in the collection stray from the realist with elements of the fantastic: The Monolith and The Ringing Stone. Both set up intriguing situations but I felt both stories fail to deliver a worthy ending to match the premise. Other stories proved just a bit too clever for my own preferences, but they may make others gasp with admiration at the tricks they pull off. The Triptych Papers is weird, self-referential and revisionist and I freely admit that I just didn’t get it. David Rose has two stories in this collection and an illustrious literary career past and present. But I equally freely confess that his story Terra Cotta failed to fire me up. It appears to feature a man leading blind people around an art exhibition. It’s an intriguing idea and the story is full of beautiful description, but it left me feeling unengaged.
By contrast, Even Meat Fill by Gordon Collins is one of my favourites in this collection. It’s a Kafkaesque portrait of life in a pie-filling factory, although this description does no justice to the joy that it brings me. I’ll be looking out for his forthcoming novel, Extremely Normal. Another gem is Angela Readman’s Before The Song, which re-tells the story of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. It would work as a stand-alone story even if you’d never heard the song. Fleshing out the characters, it makes the lyric’s tale of a boy who jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge seem close and personal. These two stories are chalk and cheese in their setting and style but both really captured my reading imagination, in terms of what they attempted and what they achieved. They made me marvel and feel glad to be a reader.
Speaking of readers – C.D. Rose’s A Publisher Surveys the Changing Literary Scene offered a welcome dose of black humour. It’s a sort of ‘print noir’ vision of the gritty, cut-throat world of publishing.
“He couldn’t be complacent; you had to be careful with writers. Highly educated and poorly paid, they’d always be dangerous.”
In the end, the perpetrators turn out to be a class of people even more dreadful than writers.
This collection has many stories with meaty ideas and themes. Personally I’m not all that hot on ‘big ideas’ in stories. I’m more of a ‘It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it,’ reader, which is probably why I find myself bowled over by a story about meaty pie-filling instead of some of the others. But it’s undeniable that Unthology offers plenty of food for thought quite apart from filled pies, which is certainly a good thing.
Read the introduction to Unthology No. 3 here.
Read Time Bomb by Gordon Collins, one of the authors in the anthology, here.
About the reviewer: Pauline Masurel is a big fan of un-things…although she enjoys other things as well.