Series editor NICHOLAS ROYLE
(My previous reviews of this writer are linked from HERE)
(My previous reviews of this publisher are HERE)
Featuring stories by: Charles Boyle, Regi Claire, Laura Del-Rivo, Lesley Glaister, MJ Hyland, Jackie Kay, Nina Killham, Charles Lambert, Adam Lively, Anneliese Mackintosh, Adam Marek, Alison Moore, Alex Preston, Ross Raisin, David Rose, Ellis Sharp, Robert Shearman, Nikesh Shukla, James Wall and Guy Ware.
I hope to gestalt real-time review this book over the next few months in the comment stream below…
My reviews of this series of anthologies continued from here:
The Smell of the Slaughterhouse
A million thoughts crowd in after reading this vignette of soap. Or is that an exaggeration? No, a million more just flooded in. And another million women who have just left cruelty behind. Cruelty in hands that do dishes, that clean as soft as hands that do dishes…. And so it goes. Never washed off humanity.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/alison-moore/
“On the slope nine ravens stood at a distance of twenty metres from each other. It was as if they had been placed there by a film director who’d graduated with a special interest in surrealism.”
Enchanting dislogisms of literature – and of find art and monster movies, and heightened shortisms. As Doodles, so named, follows the path of fiction’s truth around Hampstead Heath and his soap-slippery past. It was like walking through the original canvases of several paintings, still framed and packed vertically against each other in a pound shop, from Reynolds towards Magritte. Though the latter is not mentioned. (Strange that, in 2013, the date of this book, I wrote a real-time review of two Nicholas Royle first novels that I headed ‘Novel Doodlings’: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/novel-doodlings/).
“Jakey gets to choose the radio station. He chooses pop music. He sings along.
‘How do you know the words to all these songs?’ I ask.
‘Mum listens to this radio station,’ he says.
I do not like pop music, but I do like to hear Jakey sing.”
When I went looking for that quote after finishing this story, I realised why I wanted to quote it and I nearly cried at the thought. It should have shown the answer to what young Jakey and his dad were chasing on a windy English day. Surely not tornados. Foolhardy driving in bad weather on a wind’s whim, even eating lunch off one’s lap while driving… and the yellow rapeseed surrounding an aerial photo of the house (photo hung in the toilet of the house), man and boy both with cornfield coloured hair, and the sun coming out at the end…after seeking impossible tornados to pull each of them like Earth’s ghostly teeth. No wisdom in that, I thought. And I nearly cried again. And if any work of fiction nearly makes me cry, it is tantamount to full-blooded crying in real life.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2011/#comment-11797
Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon
“It wasn’t perhaps what people usually did in their lunch hours, dream up their own headstones,…”
The second story in a row where I nearly cried. The ending is the most poignant you will need to go far to find, but you will indeed reach that ending, as this stream of consciousness within the mind of the owner of the repetitive refrain of incantatory eponymous name (in gestalt with the false Mrs) is infectious, as we enter the mind of this black lady living in North London (black, before it passed away, being neutral in old electricity terminal terms), working in an old people’s home, with her imagined fiction of her husband Preston (himself an electrician) and her fictitious children also in her head, but as this is her own fiction within an ostensible fiction ABOUT her, I sense this ready-made family is exponentially real – a suspension of disbelief that then retrocausally infects us with a belief in HER, too. Fiction ointment, for the plumber’s joints.
When You Grow into Yourself
“…the creeping anxious thought that if he stayed there listening for much longer then he might begin to cry himself.”
At first I was put off by the footballese, the training of young men so that they can join league teams, the mooning through coach windows, the managers, the coaches themselves, the girl-seeking night clubs, the well-known accoutrements of such a world, and, by alternate turns, the Balbriggans or Barry Bennells of our world today, or so I imagine. But I am glad I persevered with reading it, as this story eventually fitted into a literary feel, one of the ‘nearly cry’ gestalt, as I followed the character trying to grow into himself, as he tried to impress his Dad, got a position in a minor league, but was easily led, easily led more perhaps by himself than by others, failing to grasp his deadpan instincts, following his seemingly intrinsic instincts at one moment, but not at the next moment, by alternate turns. Swaying with the trends, playing left field one day, right field the next. An interesting, unpinnable character study, a symptom of our times, by alternate turns, complex and simple times. The times were not always thus. Or have I forgotten? In denial? The deadpan paint tins, and the shocking-white pitch-lining, meanwhile, somehow resonate somewhere. More a shrimping shed on the backwaters of the past, if me, too?
J Krissman in the Park
“I need to ask, is there a law which states that if the Universe can exist, it must exist?”
An old man in touch with his lights – as a concomitant of his liver – which turn out, at the end, as sparsely sown stars. I can empathise with his hatred of the ordinary and small talk (call it aspergic) , and with his philosophy of retrocausal pre-existence. And his knees-anointed menthol in synergy with this book’s earlier sevlon. This is Beckett crossed with Self. No-one will know that’s what I think, as my reviews are unpublishable. But I have more than just empathy with Krissman, I guess, and with the squirrel drays in a narrow park. And it sort of straightens out the Ellis Sharp for me. I loved Del Shannon in 1961, my first 45 single.
The Swimmer in the Desert
“There is a religion of water here. He can understand that.”
The man who remembers idyllic loch swimming with a sweetheart, is now in uncushioned desert duty abroad, amid war’s booby traps, standing his own watchtower. Aching for a swim. To which he succumbs, the whole land is in that waterpool he chooses, human spit and sawdust (sand) and so forth. A booby now trapped. His own shape of water. Shot through with a poetic destiny. If only all such destinies are thus poetic, that might take the expected plume of pain away from us in retrocausal hindsight? The final understanding. (Preston the name Mrs Sevlon invented?)
“He had a vivid sense of the speed of the massive ship as it forged ahead into the darkness, of the mist as a solid substance through which it moved swiftly, unendingly.”
Who is the narrator? – as he regularly eats badly cooked coq au vin with Stalin and Mussolini (now reincarnated as Trump?) and Franco and other figures of similar ilk, some seen partially, on an endless voyage. Endlessly resonant, too, as well as constricted with tight collar and tie – and often ill-lit darkness in one’s cabin. This is a relatively brief word version of televisual Poliakoff ship ballrooms and much else I can’t define. Alone worth the entrance price of this whole book, I say. The best truths derive from obliquity and fable.
Cf ‘An End To Perpetual Motion’ (2017) by Mark Samuels (reviewed HERE), being about a voyage of similar significance, with a Zeno’s Paradox of endlessness. The ship is SS Pyrrho. Another Pyrrhic victory to match?
‘I feel fine, David,’ she says. ‘Apart from, you know.’
The nearest ‘nearly cry’ I may ever find in a literary story, barely holding me back from full-blooded tears. The story is told from the eyes of Helen, having returned from hospital whereby I gradually infer what the ‘you know’ it is that has happened to her there, why she was there at all, and now back to her nearest near-perfect husband David, well, she once thought him perfect, without perfectly understanding what she meant by that. He collects fossils as a hobby, builds bones of what the fossils once were, perhaps, and he runs a shop where he theatrically spools out rich cloths and materials across the counter for his customers to see. Well, you know, much else happens, and I will go up to the point of spooling out the plot that Helen has lost, just up to the point, too, of spoiling that plot, but not quite spoiling it at all. The curtains she makes from David’s shop remnants, the puppy he buys her, the puppy who oozes urine where she oozes blood, or is that going too far? What damage the puppy is imagined to do to the curtains (and the cushions she makes, too, and please see ‘uncushioned’ earlier in this my review above of the book in which this story is contained), and the fact that ‘curtains’ sometimes is an expression for death itself, and the room upstairs where she seeks refuge, and where emptiness has replaced what was once meant to sleep in that room. And the bony configuration as objective-correlative of that emptiness by evidence of what she found in David’s fossil room when he was not there. Yes, as I say, I nearly cried at this ‘perfect’ story, but I think I, too, had already vanished by the time I actually did cry.
Wow. Thank you so much.
“Drink. Cry. Edit.”
A woman’s story made up of made up instructions to the self to fulfil the expectations of others, fulfil some ambition of self, too, to fulfil PhD doctorate just like your soon to be dying dad did. The formulae of life these days. Fads and fancies and showmanship and love affairs, distant or otherwise, sealed with an x, or not. The onanism of technology – and carrels in a university library. Leaving, at the beginning of this story, your dreary job cleaning cards, leaving it so as to fulfil these empty ambitions of equivalently accretive academic rote and they give you an aloe vera as a leaving present, a plant you later use as a form of savlon ointment upon a self-inflicted wound of self-harm at the end of your story. Two sides of the same self that cancel each other out? Nearly cried. Edit.
Bedtime Stories For Yasmin
“, and even then Mrs Timothy had had to edit out the bits where Robbie had chewed at his carrots,”
There’s a definite deadpan quality like Ellis Sharp’s earlier dislogistic monsters here, a telling portrait of synergy in telling scary bedtime stories to children, synergy where the scare turns round and starts scaring you, from the child to you. Here tied up with marital dysfunction, each parent being responsible for what he or she tells their child, and a backstory of bedroom visitors when you were a child being told stories, ones that infect the future. And this story itself is one I might I have read aloud to my own children, wall to wall, grimmer even than Grimm, in the callow days of my role as parent, stories now come back to haunt me as punishment for scaring my own children, at the time when it was good to scare. Scaring is perhaps not good after all, in our current times, with a moral that whoever writes horror stories will be haunted by them. I might ask Mr Shearman, should I get the chance, whether, since 2013, it has proved to be the case with this story itself. Thinking about it, ‘shearman’ as a word is like a shadow that bleeds…? Not editing so much as letting in.
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/?s=Shearman&submit=Search
Almost immediately, cross-referenced this Shearman story with the flash Gilbert short short here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/murmurations-edited-by-nicholas-royle/#comment-12068
“A thought pops into his head as he sees a wriggle in the churn and launches himself forward, finding the culprit to be a plastic bottle: on all roads I’m alone.”
A telling amoral fable of business and hobby as a gestalt of control, creating software for, say, self-service Tupperware, hands free goals, which now seems ironic in the light of that plastic bottle and this character’s doing business alone off his own back after redundancy, so as to keep his wife in what she is used to – and in the light of the equally lonely road of hobby diving, holding his breath that the breathing equipment works, with a prototype speargun for catching fish. More a fish out of water when he’s skiing, though, I note. Shot through with destiny like the Preston swimming story. And Mackintosh’s expectations of others. Stormchasing dreamcatches, by holding back the tides?
Dancing to Nat King Cole
“His anger makes her start, like tasting sour milk. She traces a line across the books in front of her but isn’t really looking.”
A touching tale of an ageing dementia where a man mind’s tanking. Although it is also horrific as well as tragic, and I just cast my eyes over Nat King’s song titles and most could be twisted to apply (ironically or not) to this situation as well as Unforgettable. The wife and their daughter and the difficulties they face just to take him out for lunch. Particularly hard on his wife, and the inevitable non-recognition of the other by the other. Assuming there are two of them to be an each other to each other. And I’m getting old enough myself to lose the plot, sometimes, or to think that posting all these reviews is like talking to a brick wall. Yet you need two people to dance. Well, that used to be the case before the Twist.
My Wife the Hyena
“She jumps up and flops onto the bed and noses her privates, licking and picking.”
Potentially shocking, but in many ways shares the tantalisingly empty twist of the previous story. Almost a form of early dementia? This man stuck in a routine office job with a wife who fails to mix with the other wives at social gatherings. Not today’s Gender Pay Gap debate so much as a Gender Perception one. Imagine his wife, as he perceives her, telling Shearman stories to their children; Grimm would take on a new grimness. A Mackintosh PhD in bestiality, perhaps. A ‘growing into oneself’ of the Jungian mind as thoughts and desires are funnelled by it to your specific consciousness? Thought provoking, as you can see.
“Daily, the world reveals more of itself.”
…towards a gestalt, as does this Lawrence Durrell type impressionism not of Alexandria but of Budapest, and maybe not of Budapest at all. Such an impressionism of characters shifting in and out of focus and sexual proclivity. In and out of POV, too. Animals and children, also. Like, as it says itself, a reading group discussing a book and its characters. Like putting your hand over an empty glass to refuse a drink but giving the impression of a conjuring trick. More a confidence trick, I say. Like treating the reader as if he or she is a child asking naïve questions. About a spider or the habits of rabbits?
Just Watch Me
“Get a power-shower, Gina says. Gina picks holes when she comes home now — get a this, get a that — and brings rubber gloves with her. However did they spawn such a clean-freak child, and out of that lovely dirtiness?”
We have a daughter who grew up like that. 🙂
There I depart company with this ageing couple, other than, of course, the ageing bit! And maybe a bit of their dirt.
A compelling story with a believable backstory of marriage with passing moments of attrition, a marriage symbolised by dirtiness, a couple, that grubbed around, tawdry habits with bedside bidets on dirty weekends they role-played and a gradual fulfilled suspicion (however initially far fetched!) on the wife’s behalf that he was having an affair with a woman called P. I guessed the P stood for Pauline, but I have no idea why! In the end, events were followed and then deadpanned out, scores patiently settled. As they do.
Not so much this book’s earlier smell of the slaughterhouse, but more those social or business occasions where the wife is not necessarily a hyena nor the husband later humming to a Nat King Cole backing track? Or maybe they are. My turn next.
“Autumn had almost collapsed into winter: the last leaves huddled around streetlights like pickets at a brazier, throwing the pavements into irregular, shifting shadow.”
Pickets at a brazier remind me of ‘The Good Terrorist’ novel that I happen to be real-time reviewing simultaneously here. And there is an oblique resonance with that book, that I feel I could easily have had a life as one of the characters in that novel, if I had turned left instead of right on one particular day. Feeling that indeed parts of my memory-life are in packed piecemeal in various ready-formed alternate worlds. There are percentage chances for every eventuality, and here in the Ware, a woman vanishes from a man’s life and their twin daughters, but with a further layer of taking the nuclear option with choices, an act of terrorism or an act of status quo, where one twin died as parasite of the other, a sort of reversed suicide bomb. And we also see the missing woman (the twins’s mother) and her own choices, and she once turned a different way and ended back where she belonged. Or several times she did that, like a recurring dream for the husband, reality to her. Permutations seem to go with percentages, but there is only a 1% chance I became a reviewer of fiction and suddenly discovered this story. Daily the world reveals more of itself.
Cf 4321 by Paul Auster
Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes
“My father didn’t wear a watch but seemed always to know the time.”
Australia, heat. Later an OJ drunk. A mainly plainspoken tale. A male nurse returns to his flat after the graveyard shift in the hospital ward. Finds his Dad – a doctor with his own surgery – on the doorstep with a pineapple as prop if not as a gift. Their backstory, one where the mother and wife, had left home, but why? Recriminations endemic between them are evident. The circumstances of her leaving unclear. It now seems Dad is here to gloat that the son’s wife has left home, or so Dad infers. We gain that impression, too, via the POV of the son. An agonising duel of emotions between the two men, both finding it difficult to say what they really feel. Men often do, I guess. The lost love between them that perhaps needs regaining before it is too late…. and as to myself, meanwhile, I am trying to fashion a meaning for the pineapple. One of them indeed mentions “pining” for something. I prefer an assonance with “pain”. Or a head with a pretty topknot. You need a pair to polka. (Or just another father and son stormchasing?)
“A story all right, what a gift of a story she had strayed into!”
One of those old-fashioned horror stories (with ‘birds of prey’ mentioned at least twice, as a nod to my simultaneous real-time review of another Royle anthology entitled ‘Murmurations’), a horror story where a woman — combining a holiday abroad with reportage of a revelatory story for a newspaper about the industry of wine — is in the wilds of this foreign country and ends up lost in trying to reach an advertised wine tasting ceremony but what turns out to be a sort of wicker man role-playing game with lots of people turning ugly as well as full of potential terrors as well as wine’s terroirs. I expected some literary twist that would add the grist of meaning, a thoughtful moral. But, no. It was what it was, for its own sake, an old fashioned horror story culminating in the worst horror of them all, that the whole of its aim was to achieve cruelty to a dog.
‘Let’s play a hostage game, shall we?’
From ‘Hostage’ above:
“She would plough on, knowing it would make no difference now that she had come this far, knowing it would work itself out anyway.”
Incredibly, another Regi Claire, just now: but that is not the only surprise! See: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/murmurations-edited-by-nicholas-royle/#comment-12181
Pingback: Synchronicity rampant… | DES LEWIS’ GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS
Eleanor – The End Notes
“She always preferred live performances where the mistakes would be carried by the inspiration of the moment, forgotten.”
…as I do. The perfectionism of gestalt real-time reviewing is its own challenge to meet, but so much, thankfully, like a live performance, too.
“Just as we were going to call it a day, a robin flew down and perched on her bow. She was childlike in her delight.”
Not a nightingale, but that other story about Regi Claire’s robin song, I guess, linked above. While this story includes, I think, a true story of a cello and a nightingale, the BBC and someone called Beatrice. And this delightful story, also reminiscent of the tone of some of Mark Valentine’s music stories, is a fine ‘dying fall’ climax to the book built on the musical arcs of this book so far, about perfectionism itself, and the act of performing classical music, another form of this book’s earlier unrequitedness gestalt, here between instrument and player, the grafts and patches of recordings, too, and those same patches and grafts as narrative devices needed for this own story’s own arguably unrequited romance between the aging male narrator as music impresario and an eventually bodily-fallible perfectionist-performing lady who plays some of my favourite composers, Delius, Szymanowski, Messiaen, Havergal Brian….
A poignant perfection in itself. Privileged to have read it. A work whose lark ascended.
“That, ultimately, it is the achieved artifact that is important to the world, whatever the means.”
My previous reviews of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/david-rose/
I shall be continuing in due course my reviews of this series of anthologies here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2014/
All my BBSS reviews linked from here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/best-british-short-stories/