shining the spotlight on short story collections
“At that point he realised that what was wrong with the world was not that we didn’t talk to each other enough, but that we talked to each other too much. There was just too much pointless connectivity. At that point, he writes, I resolved never to say or write another word ever again. From then on, he says, I decided to Become Quiet.”
– from The Last Words of Emanuel Prettyjohn
Dot Dash is like a good pair of hiking boots: light but solid. The stories skip and stride through precipitous versions of reality.
A couple of pages in, I began to wonder what strange forces had possessed me to request Dot Dash. I’m a habitually po-faced reader. I gravitate toward books that are sad and harrowing. I like to claw through a couple of hundred pages in which nothing much happens only to feel emotionally wrenched at the end. Yet I had unwittingly invited Dot Dash onto my bookshelf. It was shooting jokes at Steppenwolf and trying out cheesy chat-up lines on The Bell Jar.
It only took a few more pages for the fissures to develop in my scowl. The collection contains a massive fifty-eight stories, but every other piece is only a couple of lines, the length of a joke. Pinnock swiftly proves himself a master of the amusing anecdote. The tiny stories, or ‘dots’, toy with language and poke fun at human, as well as animal, behaviour. Perfect Moment, in its entirety, goes as so: “I want this perfect moment to last forever,” she’d said. But after a century together in the time bubble, he was beginning to annoy her.
Like jokes, some of the ‘dots’ are smart and shrewd and funny while others fall gracelessly flat. The longer stories, or ‘dashes’, add flesh to the funny bones of the tiny pieces. Still Pinnock always cuts clean to the punchline without lingering over description. There’s never extraneous space for the mind to wander, there are no loose ends to distract. There isn’t any beautiful prose either, but Pinnock’s razor-sharp humour and watertight plots make up for any lack of linguistic distinction.
At first I found many of the characters abnormally sophomoric. In The Birdman of Farringdon Road, a businessman is duped by a beggar who claims to be able to see people as if they were animals. In How I Became a New Man and What Good it Did Me, an office worker undergoes a series of traumatic procedures in order to attract a woman he’s only spoken to once. Yet Pinnock’s trademark setting is a deftly butchered version of reality, and so I accept that it’s necessary to stretch his characters beyond the bounds of plausibility in accordance with their surroundings and circumstances. They don’t resemble real people because this isn’t the real world.
Anniversary Feast, for example, takes place on a mission to colonise space. The Problem with Pork imagines a society in which the consumption of meat is so heavily regulated that every pig comes with an information pack and every man is expected to complete a night class in humane slaughter techniques. The convalescent in Convalescence undergoes a pioneering form of brain surgery which is both horrifyingly unethical and faintly believable. But reality is rarely pushed to breaking point, and such last-minute restraint is immensely effective. So What Are You Up To These Days? is a perfect example of the balance struck. While attending a college reunion the protagonist finds himself making stilted conversation with an old acquaintance who now has a day job ‘in the torture business.’ It’s an awkward situation we’ve all experienced, yet with a terrifically menacing twist: ‘…I try to act as if this is nothing unusual, and start asking him questions like “what’s the best thing about being a torturer?” (all the foreign travel), “what’s the worst thing about being a torturer?” (again, all the foreign travel) and “how do your kids feel about this?” (no problem, apparently, and they certainly don’t get hassled in the playground any more).’
Despite the general zaniness, the stories of Dot Dash are not entirely apolitical. There’s a particularly plucky piece entitled Possible Side Effects which begins with a man in a ransacked room with a dead body in the hall and then works backwards through a sequence of episodes which reveal what led him to debauchery. To my mind, it’s a uproarious criticism of the careless fashion in which mind-altering drugs are being prescribed by the medical profession at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry.
There’s also a fistful of stories which allude to the soul-crushing scourge of petty small talk. In addition to So What Are You Up To These Days?, there’s Making Conversation and Frogs, in which two frogs exchange frivolous pleasantries whilst being slowly boiled to death. These three share a certain amount of ground with Farewell Symphony, about a troubled musician’s final manuscript, and The Last Words of Emanuel Prettyjohn, about a cult whose members each commit to a vow of lifelong silence. Despite the collection’s recklessly high body count and slightly opaque characterisation, Dot Dash is by no means devoid of poignancy. From behind the noisy and buffoonish book jacket, it’s author emerges as a somewhat unexpected advocate for the virtues of silence.
Read the story Nature’s Banquet here.
About the reviewer: Sara Baume reads and writes in a small house on the coast. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published online and in print, from HTMLGIANT to The Stinging Fly.