shining the spotlight on short story collections
The Stone Thrower
Comma Press, 2012
‘Wilkie put both hands flat on top of his head and gazed up the edifice of limbs. Many of the bodies were wearing suits. Smart shoes stuck out here and there, still laced. Women’s bare feet with painted toenails. Wrists and watches that were still ticking. ‘You should be more scared that you’ll run out of land and they’ll stop your subsidy,’ Wilkie laughed. ‘Then you’d really be screwed.’
‘You can always dig deeper,’ James said.
‘Very profound,’ Wilkie said. ‘Come on Stephen Hawking, let’s get this shifted before the sun gets hot.’
The Stone Thrower begins with Fewer Things, one of the strongest opening paragraphs I have read in a while, immediately reminiscent of the late Iain Banks. The rest of the story doesn’t disappoint. There’s a great deal of action, physical movement and the rocky relationship between a father and son, even if it’s only rocky in the boy’s head. ‘I imagine whacking him on the back of the head with the saucepan.’ The melancholy is perfectly tempered, not melodramatic. ‘Packet mixes, feet on the table. These are not things that would exist if mum were here.’ It is a snapshot of a vivid but grey world-by-the-sea that inspires empathy, and is a primer for the rest of the collection.
Dead Fish, the second story in the collection, is a fast-paced, present tense bonanza. In the opening lines, the phrases, ‘algae strangle,’ ‘skinny as wicker,’ and ‘pale toes cowered together,’ bring about a strange awkwardness, a disconcerting read. The main character, Rupi, another young lad in trouble, whips through the scenes, running at full pelt. The pace reminds me of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, whose narratives cover so much ground in a couple of paragraphs. Nonetheless I felt a little disappointed with the cleverness and style, which took precedent over the characters and plot. I will say, however, lines like, ‘His erection twangs a chord in the soupy air, and he grabs a t-shirt from the bed to suffocate it. His knees hit the floorboards and his spores fly,’ have a pace and the vibrancy that are filmic, animation-like at times. There is a violence and pressure, which builds up to a stark and unsentimental conclusion.
Tamagotchi is a wonderful story about the universal parental anxiety about children fitting in, about how hard it is being different and having conditions which they can do little to help. There’s nothing flashy about this story, it’s beautiful; lines such as, ‘There was something soothing in the way the chef was searing tuna in the pan that let my heartbeat soften by degrees,’ have an unforced poignancy.
In a similar vein, Remember the Bride who got Stung? is slow going at first but makes for a satisfying read after the initial puffing and panting of a father carrying a picnic basket some distance to find a beauty spot, trying to deal with work colleagues on his mobile phone, which his wife and son were obviously hoping he would leave behind. Knowing you’re in safe hands with Marek, you naturally anticipate a twist. There are some sensitive children and disappointing parents in this collection; when Nate gets stung by a bee his father falls short of what is required of him, even though he thoroughly believes he is doing the right thing. These are strong characters, including Nate, who hardly speaks at all. I don’t doubt the commitment and hard work it takes to chisel stories this tight and ambitious.
Something that interests me throughout the collection is the way in which, for the characters, their situations have been normalized. There’s an ordinariness to each extraordinary story or observation. These characters are desensitized to violence, the deaths of animals, the loss of parents, the admiration for individuals known to be corrupt, the handling of dead bodies, the lies told to children to protect them from the awful truth.
Some of these stories would fall under the category of science fiction. Without a Shell is an unusual story about a school or academy where the uniforms the warmongering kids wear medically mend them if they are injured. I couldn’t follow the premise; I found I was more interested in the human psychodrama aspects of these stories. In Burying Chiyoko Sasaki a dead grandmother releases her grip on her younger relatives, who are afraid to speak badly of her and hold a wake in her memory. Again, there’s a killer last line: Marek is a resourceful and deliberate writer. I believe in these characters, who seem repressed by this death in their family. It’s as deft as Haruki Murakami. I came across a real gem in The Captain, a dystopian nightmare that feels like the opening to a Lars Von Trier film. The writing is light, matter-of-fact and driven by an increasing momentum. His descriptions are telling, the undertones ominous; there’s a truck full of corpses dumped on a doorstep like it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s written so casually you don’t see it coming, the ending. It is a powerhouse of a story. The dry humour of the line, ‘come on Stephen Hawking, let’s get this shifted before the sun gets hot,’ is perfectly timed, necessary also. It’s frankly staggering. Its climax had me glued to the spot, mouth agape. This collection is visionary, loud and ridiculously, effortlessly slick.
Read a story by Adam Marek here
About the reviewer: Melissa Lee-Houghton’s first poetry collection, A Body Made of You is published by Penned in the Margins. Her second collection, Beautiful Girls is due out in November 2013. She won The New Writer poetry collection competition in 2013 and her work has been widely published in anthologies and magazines, including most recently, Tears in the Fence, The White Review and The Reader.