shining the spotlight on short story collections
Unthank Books, 2013
“And when we got to the shabby waiting room, a half-dozen assorted souls were waiting, young and old, not ashamed to acknowledge that we are not as simple as we would wish. … And I understood that even those who seem the most uncomplicated, the bar stool tenants, the flag wavers who have never read a book in their lives, even my own parents too, were all constantly circling a vortex of thought…”
A line-up of the more strait-laced traditional along with stories with a distinctive surreal, dystopian edge make for an eclectic but thoughtful anthology of stories that was interesting to read. It’s not a fast read for me, many of the stories were very densely told, with an atmospheric quality to the prose that suggests entire novelistic worlds, and I had to sieve the sediment and let the liquid run clear to see what’s most memorable.
Interestingly, the more traditional stories seemed to have been offered up by more of the women writers in this collection, while the story offerings by male counterparts have allied themselves with the more surreal — worlds contoured by nebulous parameters that send the mind searching to define, explore and categorise. I’m thinking of Joshua Allen’s Administration: An Intern’s Guide where ants seem to have established dominion and words no longer mean what they’re supposed to mean, i.e. an internship requires a “seething intern, who knows there is no ‘I’ in salary, to implode our nest of dust-busters”. I’m also thinking of Michael Crossan’s beautifully poetic Eden Dust where a woman dies in the opening sequence, and there’s some kind of epidemic killing people off right and left, leaving in its wake uneasy alliances and forced pairings: a male survivor and a baby in need of parenting. In Marc Owen Jones’ The Murder of Crows, the wide scale disappearance of birds causes a chain reaction of effects, ranging from no-time-for-bullshit liaisons to a mother slowly becoming mentally unmoored, and through it all, a sense of apocalypse reigns. Rodge Glass’ A Real T.O.A. (triumph over adversity, for those of us not conversant with such acronyms) gives us throughout its narrative only the mental map of a man on vacation— a mental map continuously awash with emotions he tries to hold at bay, but not completely succeeding. Tension menaces his thoughts which ends up being super-imposed on his girlfriend and their disintegrating relationship.
Many of these stories are framed within boy-meets-girl relationships, but dig deeper and what you find is some form of mild-to-serious pathology, and yet, unexpectedly, the hope of redemption (Sarah Evan’s The Angel — referred below— has the protagonist thinking “All of them turned to nothing in the end, to lumps of flesh left to rot or be incinerated. But that didn’t mean you had to live your life that way, as if it were nothing”.) I’d wager that Carys Bray’s excellently written, more traditional narrative in Treasures of Heaven will resonate particularly with those of us who have had a religious upbringing — whether Mormon or some other religious persuasion — and it’s the image of the Bishop in his Top Man suit, with his clasped hands on his desk where “they rested like a stack of hairy sausages” as he runs through the Law of Chastity that is hard to shake off and leaves a sweaty, clammy residue of guilt and self-loathing.
Religion or faith in tradition makes another appearance in Sarah Evans’ The Angel — here, even with a dead girl’s body discovered in their pond, the protagonist’s wife refuses to excuse him for forgetting to stuff his son’s stockings for Christmas Day. But the question of Christian religious facade versus morality surfaces like the dead girl, and shows its hypocritical underside in a marriage breakdown spurred by adultery. Sarah Bower’s Finished documents a woman’s life lived in the straitjacket of traditional expectations — marriage and children and middle age — but the work of finishing (the term here takes on delicious layers of meaning, if you track the trajectory of each time the word is used in the story — finished as in finishing schools? ready for the world? equipped for marriage? emotionally spent? incomplete? unending nature of growth? the business of dying?) Charlotte doesn’t even seem to begin until she meets a sculptor (conveniently symbolic!) who awakens her memory of sex and taste.
Barnaby Walsh’s Violet also documents a relationship — a boy here falls for the wrong girl — or perhaps he’s the wrong boy, grown up on the wrong side of the world (“maybe better if it were some bloke else, pretty much anybody else, but he was all she’d got”), and therefore, destined to break her heart. Melanie Whipman’s Suicide Bomber goes at it the other way round — wrong girl (the self-titled ‘suicide bomber’) meets boy, girl gets dumped because she doesn’t give it up — but wait, there’s a counterplot to this story involving a teacher with one tit, and the girl’s undeserving rescue by said teacher that brings out the heart in this girl, so maybe it’s right girl, wrong boy, after all.
Many of the protagonists in these stories are jagged, ill-fitting in the roles or self-projections they believe they’ve been cast in, most viscerally encapsulated in Rowena MacDonald’s Burning Man — a soldier deformed from a stint of duty out in Iraq, but secretly a Buddhist and eats vegetarian and practices meditation and ends up richer in spirit than a rich boy with a penthouse. And what about Simon, in Aiden O’Reilly’s The Laundry Key Complex — no definition really fits him, this global itinerant multi-lingual self-righteous know-it-all, other than ‘loser’ with a capital L, and even that is just a facade — a judgement imposed by others?
Animals add a bit of whimsy to these otherwise quite serious and sombre stories, what I’d almost term “stories with IQ- intellectual quotient” — showing up on the cast list are birds, crows, ants, one ominous cat inspiring a fatal obsession in Adrian Slatcher’s Cat, cockroach and gerbil in an animation film in Ruby Cowling’s Little Things, and angels and relics of dead saints. I could have done with a bit more down-to-earth humour, there’s certainly room for it in a group of stories so packed with intellectual vigour, but this is an anthology series to watch out for.
About the reviewer: Elaine Chiew lives in London. Her fiction has won awards (including the Bridport), and been shortlisted (Fish Short Story Award, Top 25 Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writer Award). She has written a short story collection and a novel, both of which are out in submission. Many of her stories can be found online at journals such as Metazen, Per Contra, Pedestal, African Writing Online, among others.