shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2012
“Make me up, Joe. I could be anybody you like. Make me up. Like a story.”
Several of the stories in this collection bring back the teenage thrill of reading the likes of Philip K. Dick or others in the sci-fi stroke speculative fiction genre. Ware’s stories always have an intriguing premise at their core. It’s fascinating to see how that premise is unpacked. In Witness Protection a man has been assigned a new identity, with a new wife and daughter. In Hostage a drunk woman gets on the wrong train and stumbles into what she thinks is her own house and her husband’s bed. In In Plain Sight a poor chicken farmer finds out that the president of a distant powerful country has announced on television that he is an evil threat.
A common thread is that the identity of the self is elusive. It can be redefined from outside or is liable to be suddenly warped. In some stories the character is at risk of losing his identity and memories.
In perhaps the most effective story, Do I Know You?, an attractive woman initiates a flirtatious conversation with a man with the line: “Excuse me, are you Joe?” The man sees an opportunity and playfully counters: “I could be.” We never get to know his real name; he’s called Joe thereafter in the narrative. “Make me up Joe,” the woman urges him. He soon finds himself out of his depth in this game of masques. In Plain Sight is another story that hits the right note of allegory and irony.
Ware’s prose is simple and effective. It’s the playing out of the narrative which sparkles. This is generally a kind of fiction that I love – yet several of Ware’s pieces did not live up to their initial promise. There is occasionally a tendency to push the narrative along with episodic events rather than deepen it in intensity. The dazzle of a quirky premise begins to fade when more unlikely events are piled on.
Hostage is very enjoyable exploration of what happens when a drunk woman mistakenly ends up in the bed of a strange man. He leaves for work in the morning without realising the woman in the bed is not his wife. It’s plausible that this could happen. The woman’s elusive sense of having a second life, and her chats with her workmate are sufficient material for a short story. But rather than following this intriguing premise through, the story skips to the stranger’s missing wife, his problems with their mortgage account, and their conjoined twins.
Some of the stories contain details that are obscure on a first reading. There is nothing wrong with fiction which challenges the reader, but when there is no apparent reason for this obscurity it is simply annoying, particularly when the prose is otherwise a model of clarity. In The Truth for example the reader may hazard a guess that a ‘Black Duck’ is a rifle or gun, but is there a purpose to this ambiguity? All Downhill from Here, a retelling of the biblical flood story, leaves the reader unsure of the basic situation for several pages, and again it’s hard to see what the story gains from this.
Some of the more effective stories are the shorter ones. Weathering takes the form of a rigorous deconstruction of what exactly takes place when a man tells his beloved, “you’re beautiful”. It’s a piece that bears multiple re-readings. Aria with Different Variations is a love story intriguingly structured by the classical music the main protagonist listens to as he jogs.
Ware has an uncluttered prose style and a willingness to stretch the boundaries of fiction. His sensibility is finely tuned to those grey areas of experience where identities shift, where people forget who they really are. No other writer springs to mind as a ready comparison to Ware: already he has defined a unique thematic territory. However in a few cases the stories lack a certain commitment and courage, or stray from their core premise and lose some of their impact.
Read a kindle story from this collection here.
About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, and property magazine editor. In November 2008 he won the biannual McLaverty Prize for short stories. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Prairie Schooner, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review. His short fiction collection Greetings Hero will be published in March 2014 by UK-based Honest Publishing.