shining the spotlight on short story collections
Robert Hale, 2012
“That disembodied voice was like some new, imperious God issuing His commandments from on high. If only He would command the garrulous woman never to speak another word in her life, or hurl a convenient thunderbolt at her poncy, puce-pink phone.”
Wendy Perriam’s I’m on the Train! (2012) shortlisted for the 2013 Edge Hill Short Story Prize, is her seventh published collection, a blend of ideas, emotions and styles. Central to Perriam’s success as a short story writer is her ability to write humorous stories that contain an edge of social commentary that allows her to provide snapshots of the contemporary world. I’m on the Train presents a heterogeneous bunch of characters, from an 84-year-old ex-colonial to a menopausal woman, through to a bereaved daughter. The anchoring impetus of the collection is that all of these characters are challenged in some way – they experience change, confusion or mishaps that somehow shape or impact their lives.
Individuals breaking down boundaries in moments of intensity are nowhere more apparent than in the title story, I’m on the Train. The protagonist Stephen, on his way to a job interview, winces as a fellow traveller talks loudly on his mobile telling the caller ‘I’m on the train’. An activity and scene that many readers could relate to instigates a humorous and compelling tale and Stephen’s thought that ‘mobiles should be banned, apart from strictly business calls’ is one that will surely divide readers. However, no matter what opinion you take about this you are sure to be hooked on the ensuing story.
This narrative typifies Perriam’s style in many ways as it captures the nitty-gritty of the everyday, from the phone-pest through to the ‘crisp-eater’ munching away as the noise invades Stephen’s mental space. It is also marked by a notable sense of the now, for the twenty-first century context is palpable. From iPods to Blackberries, the technology that has come to dominate modern life is alive in this story. Moreover, the woman’s open conversation that dissolves the boundaries of public and private can also be understood as being symptomatic of modern times. Here, as in the collection as a whole, Perriam is aware that she is depicting the zeitgeist as well as critiquing society’s habits and norms.
Perriam truly scrutinises the politics and dynamics of the personal. For example, in Brief Eternity a wife becomes a golf ‘widow’ as her husband – unable to turn from the television – barely acknowledges her existence. She leaves the room and enters a dream-world with her ‘unruly Sicilian lover’. By undoing the boundaries between reality and fantasy. the narrative forces the reader to question the protagonists’ lives by plummeting them into a very specific world.
Perriam describes the short story as ‘a one-night stand, as against a long-term relationship, but, however brief the experience, it should still be passionately involving.’ Perriam’s advocacy of the genre’s potential is fantastic. Further, invoking her own words, all of the stories in this collection are in some way ‘passionately involving’ – both for the characters and for the reader.
Read the title story from this collection here
About the reviewer: Emma Young is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Lincoln researching contemporary British women short story writers and feminist politics. She is a steering group member of the Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network and has published journal articles on Emma Donoghue as well as on the British short story (forthcoming).