SALT PUBLISHING 2019
Series Editor: Nicholas Royle
My previous Best British Short Stories reviews here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/best-british-short-stories/, of this publisher here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/salt-publishing/ and of this editor here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/14748-2/
Includes stories by Melissa Wan, Stephen Sharp, Sally Jubb, Sam Thompson, Ann Quin, Nigel Humphreys, Adam Welch, Vesna Main, John Lanchester, Vicky Grut, Naomi Booth, Julia Armfield, Robert Mason, Elizabeth Baines, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Ruby Cowling, Ren Watson, Paul McQuade, Kieran Devaney, Sophie Mackintosh.
When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
THE HUSBAND AND THE WIFE GO TO THE SEASIDE by Melissa Wan
“‘What noise, darling?’
‘It sounds like breathing.’”
This is grey, naïve, sad – well it is not necessarily these things in itself, but about a couple who is. A couple intent on a healing holiday. The dulled excitement of arriving in the outerior dark of their terraced cottage, already brightly lit inside with off-putting prior attentiveness to their arrival, and a tin of spaghetti in a welcome hamper, but afterwards they go their separate ways, without really noticing, amid the loud workmen next door, and other local people only too ready to make a naïvely instinctive summation of this couple. And act accordingly. Without our really seeing clearly enough, through the veil of chip fat in such a seaside (a word resonant, if by sound alone, of a lonely self-inflicted death?)
But which one is deader than the other? Who helped flush the unbroken loo, before idly dealing with other water hammers in the head as well as the plumbing? That last bit, my own inference without prior hint. Teachers, both of them. Oxbridge. Or just one of them? And is porter a sort of beer? I find myself excited by the sublime art of the wan and the weary. No mean feat.
“…he was going to see the bore from the pier.”
“…they were a bunch of bores when they got together.”
CUTS by Stephen Sharp
“Anthony Burgess reviewed one of his own novels.”
So do I. But not pseudonymously. Still I am so old I need very little sleep. This, meanwhile, is a compelling series of pithy statements of fact, statistics, strange Fortean things, real people, entertainers, politicians, names we recognise, some facts slanderous, peculiar habits, some true, some fake news, with a developing real-time gestalt that whoever is telling us these things is not all there, and one fears the narrator is about to commit the previous story’s ‘seaside’ rather than kill their brother.
“I watched the news channels because they were live and people on live television could read my mind.” (This is a real-time review, thus live.)
THE ARRANGEMENT by Sally Jubb
“Eat your baby for breakfast.”
“Eat your kiddie.”
A series of jokes or ‘fooling around’, or just simple or spare turns of phrase, much implying that jokes are often used to hide things. Whatever, there seems something insidious with deadpan or oblique motives here, this item or arrangement of a named man and woman in a relationship of sorts and running a shop selling antiques and taxidermy, running over other living items of life, too. The readers left for dead, unlike the birds and animals?
THE HEIGHTS OF SLEEP by Sam Thompson
“writing was too serious a matter for writers to be allowed to get in its way.”
As with me, this narrator straddles Lovecraft and Virginia Woolf, and other such bridges of sleep, I guess. The narrator as the sort of person I would like to meet, having been inspired by his other publications of fiction, had he written them before I die. I might even write a short story about him, but it wouldn’t be as great as this one. Can anyone call a writerly self-referential, meta-fictional work compelling? Or page-turning (if not as in an old man turning over his catamites) and, yes, this one is page-turning for me. Lawrence Durrell, is mentioned, too. He is the one who got me reading literature when I was in my teens. Lovecraft got me into horror, at that time. Anne Cluysenaar (a bit like this story’s Cynthia Cleaver?) got me at that time into words as tasty objects, stylistics, and hence into Gestalt Real-Time Reviewing (my own eventual invention); a reviewing process of, inter alia, seeking connections across a canon of books seems germane to this story. A hidden pattern, a secret autonomous figure awaiting to appear from the text, something Fortean or preternatural. I actually believe in J.S. Gaunt. And his wife and daughter look like mine.
“In a review, there are so many ways to be lazy, dishonest, timid, ignorant, bullying, spurious, inexact, ungenerous or unjust, and so few ways to be true.”
My previous review of this author (now even more remarkable in recalled hindsight, not re-read till I had written the above review!): https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/07/19/black-static-64/#comment-13275
Cf the reference to Burgess reviewing in this review above, Burgess who once wrote a famous first line involving the word ‘catamite’!
NUDE AND SEASCAPE by Ann Quin
A painterly, if matter of fact, story about someone gratuitously manhandling a woman’s pink or not so pink body amid the rocks and caves of this book’s sound-alike ‘seaside’.
The eventual headless mouth of the body obliquely reminded me of the pink masks being pried off from amid the embedded flesh here in the Westlake a day or so ago.
I read and reviewed the next story here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/infra-noir-the-literary-gazette-issue-no-1/#comment-14177, as follows…
BEYOND DEAD by Nigel Humphreys
As if life is stymied by an eternal stammer of death. No articulation, so only humming or whistling possible. A revisiting recurrence of what one was before being beyond-dead, a consciousness of self as culprit (cf the Peacock Island), here absorbing the shrouded shapes of others, emerging as if from darkness at the cusp of life and death towards earthly life again and punishment by death again. I was entranced by the awakening of this self as an infra-noir status, ‘beyond dead’, as he puts it to himself on this page. Not beyond death but beyond dead, just another stutter-line of existence, as if life is a strobe. Like being beyond angry (as some people express it when they are furious or enraged as they are more often than not these days) or beyond oneself, out of control, yet still controlled by one’s previous consciousness and conscience of deeds, a strain to express things or get the words out, until, as a baby, the words smoothly kick in, unless you stay ever thus, with all the knowledge in the head but still handicapped by what one cannot say. Write it down, I say, while you can. As here.
You see, it may be a key to unlocking the Zeno’s Paradox.
TOXIC by Adam Welch
Quite a ride, this! Effectively written in so many different ways. Imagine Swift’s Modest Proposal in toxic takedown without even the excuse of irony. Where takedown is itself the goal. It is a picture of our world today seen through such a lens, a picture via a Chinese drug drive on our 12 year old children, with all manner of rank smell, acne and unwashed touching of those you would not normally want to touch were it not for the all enveloping spiritually scatological situation swaddling you. And much else such as the internet modes, the solitary solipsisms, the new normal of anything goes. Even when the drugs are inverse or progressive snortable lines of powder with no active or negative ingredients at all. This is a telling complement to the brainstorming of ideas of in-your-face on-lineness that I am concurrently grappling with here in Chiang’s new collection, Exhalation…
“I am not sure I was comforted or disgusted as I breathed in his stale Diet Coke breath and unwashed armpits…”
A HAIR CLASP by Vesna Main
“Was this really happening?”
A diverted vignette, instead of growing naturally, thus much longer than the two pages of this book it uses up. A mother watching her beautiful grown-up daughter swimming in the sea. Effectively disarming. Promises to stay with you. Or you with it, having placed the eponymous prop in it yourself, when the author wan’t looking. To stop its growth into areas of least resistance.
‘…seeking a line of defence’, my previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/best-british-short-stories-2017/#comment-11722
REALITY by John Lanchester
“She knew the rules of seeming.”
…and of ‘forever’ and ‘for ever’, and the echoes of lies.
At first, this engagingly written story of three young women and there young men arriving separately in this Mediterranean (?) house, with changing colours for each part of the day, I assumed the colours were natural even though this was a sort of Éric Rohmer film being filmed in the guise of a story, a treatment of filmic fiction and reality. But the more I realised what was actually happening, I thought I was losing interest, because the viewers of these young people in bikinis or with rippling muscles were not metaphors of an audience, but such viewers were real people, too, viewing their projected selves in real-time, the house guests being moulded by the telling choice of clothes to appear non-deliberate but subtly something else, killing two birds with one stone manoeuvres towards the gestalt or solipsism of gamesmanship….
The fact that I had this doubt — as to whether it was gradually not working as a story when I eventually became clear as to what was actually happening — made it SEEM potentially even more interesting as a reading experience, if sometimes too obvious a depiction of screen entertainment these days!
Part of the rules of seeming?
ON THE WAY TO THE CHURCH by Vicky Grut
A marriage that sounds if it is in a grut, if that’s a coinable word for the literature of the disappointed. Yet there is more to any name, like Bowie. Reminded of Bowie’s death in another review this morning here. The married couple having a baby late in their marriage, the husband’s mother now arranging a Church Christening in the inland mining town where he grew up, the couple and their pram then diverted on the way to church by his friends from the past. Vinyl et al. But what has been growing inside the husband alongside the baby inside the wife? This book’s initial ‘seaside’ syndrome transferred inside, if not inland.
CLUSTER by Naomi Booth
“…back-to-back in Meanwood you grew up in, and now, here you are, back…”
Another gestalt grut, a telling cluster of a woman’s observations (categorised as ‘yours’) — the needs of her baby first heard inside, its sleeping father, the scenes outside in the ginnel, scenes of marital strife and drunks and druggists and strange engineers that not only stay with her but also stay with you, and instinctive thinking of death and anti-natalism by her or by someone else; even the baby itself, the baby herself, I should say, has a cluster of being and touching and being touched…
“: you can’t remember how to forget all of the things that have hurt you; you can’t remember how to forget that all of the things that should be joyful have also hurt you.”
SMACK by Julia Armfield
“The child can be no more than three, jangle-boned […] whose legs have only very recently been introduced to one another.”
Faded outlines on the wall of removed paintings, what are they called? Rhombus ghosts? Meanwhile, this story seems to be an apotheosis of this book’s often general subsidence towards ‘seaside’, here of a QVC addicted woman whose marriage has broken down and here she is squatting and eating crackers in her husband’s beach house that is to be his dog’s manger in the divorce settlement. A beach recently smacked by a plague of jellyfish. Apt that her husband is addicted to jelly sweets? And it is a dead jellyfish that attacks the child on the beach mentioned above. A pile of seaside’s slimy detritus soon to be bonbonfired. Apt, too, that the soon-to-be-divorced woman’s mentoring sister is the Elizabeth to her Margaret, the father calling at least one of them a ‘princess’. A nigh perfect story, I thought, one with things picked out by all the right words.
“— her left hand is too clever for her right.”
CURTILAGE by Robert Mason
“The silence is invisible, of course, but I choose to picture it as a kind of vast, translucent jelly, hovering like some movie mother-ship…”
A frightening, even shocking story. One that stands out as a violator of its own literary soul. Well, I genuinely found it so. Possibly because I live in such a bungalow as the one in this story, the bungalow whose curtilage is violated. The story has nailed the nature of such bungalows, many of which surround my bungalow, and the nature of the people in them. Yeti with zimmers. I came here relatively early, but I am becoming like those described denizens, as is the wife. And I bet you anything this bungalow in the story is a seaside one, although it does not say so explicitly, but the ‘jelly’ above reminded me of the earlier jellyfish — and ‘bird shit’ is also mentioned. I hope I never have to sell our bungalow, but when I do, I will search out this story again before inviting estate agents to invite interested viewers of it. My spirit level still has its print intact, by the way. And, oh yes, I also moved here from the Croydon area!
KISS by Elizabeth Baines
“A couple stop…”
To kiss or together be kissed?
A striking slice of three people’s lives leading to this moment, as if the future creates the past. It all depends on chance, such as the accident of falling upon what is in your backpack. Yet my reading and linking of literature has now taught me that there’s no such thing as chance. Only fiction can draw these things together and perhaps stop them? Or make them happen? Like Vesna’s hair clasp? And other things like those shown so far back in this book. How Stories Do Or Don’t Get Told.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/best-british-short-stories-2014/#comment-12306
Another such fateful moment in the next story, too…
BADGERFACE by Lucy McKnight Hardy
“Haven’t got any less ugly, have you, Badge?”
A badge as tattoo, is surely indelible, except if someone dies and you need to get it altered? Not that I am going to tell you what happens. Think whining electric pylons and a blind spot near one of them where your Mum can’t see you from the house. And an optic as another blind spot to voluntarily spike a drink in the pub. A down to earth story of two young brothers, and a rough man called Dod back from duty in Afghanistan, a sort of rough end replacement for a Dad. Initial passion for his loyal waiting woman, the brothers’ Mum, but then Dod’s flings and rawer emotions or potential rages around the place. One brother’s instinctive telling touches upon someone else’s hands when lighting a fag. And a sudden tipping point when his other hand is waving. Very moving, a story right in your face, but with subtleties, too. I felt the intolerances. The inchoate sorrow, too.
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/lucie-mcknight-hardy/
ON DAY 21 by Ruby Cowling
“Its machine world was either/or, yes or no, on or off, zero or one.”
This wife’s laptop world, her OCD world where she even imagines having Alexa like switches on and off for her children, even for her husband. She, as narrator, also wields many striking metaphorical descriptions of her own nature and what happens one day in Asda. (They do have neat well-margined parking places, I can vouch!) And her need to play neat rôles. She hints at one point, though, that she suffers a form of metaphorphobia. And I was chilled by a chance reference to Saddleworth. This story will grow to become quite haunting, I guess. Time will tell
OPTICS by Ren Watson
“Beth thinks of footprints in the snow, of paper dolls who ought to have been joined at the hands,…”
There were yeti I pointed out in an earlier story of urban life. This engagingly poetic story (amorphously cosmic, by implication, as well as pointillist) is of another OCD mother, less ominous perhaps than the one in the previous story, who spots see-through pinpricks of light, like stars, separately, from day to day, in different positions in her daughter’s body. Her husband calls them sky-sions, after lesions, but not signs of sins, I guess. Incredibly, there was a ‘blind spot optic’ in an earlier story in this book, a phenomenon I actually mentioned above. Now at the opticians, “He checks for blind spots by asking her to stare into the dark and count tiny pinpricks of light…”
A GIFT OF TONGUES by Paul McQuade
“Only when I cover it with my hands can I see what it is inside: a long slab of meat. Pink, glistening.”
…and, at that point, I had only half-glanced at the title of this story before reading this slice of text. So I was immediately taken with its startling resonance with the pink meat suddenly delivered out of the blue in my review of a Rix novel a few days ago, that in turn resonated with a third concurrent review, one of a Vernon Lee story! The importance of the McQuade title only later dawned on me, as I entered the absurdist world of tongue transplants as a means to rapidly speak a different language as part of a romance between two people… or so I believe. It is so absurd, it admirably ceases to be absurd at all, as we follow the path of a tongue, and somehow with the meat image still clinging to me, I found it highly appropriate that the dialect of German that the new tongue commanded was that of Hamburg! A trade in tongues, too. And if I told you what I believe the ultimate sense to be of what is happening and what it tells us about life, the universe, everything, it would be a spoiler, if not a dubious extrapolation of Elizabeth Baines’ Kiss.
SITCOM by Kieran Devaney
“Nothing happens again and again.”
All set out on http://www.Sit.Com?
This idea for a pilot sitcom at least, that remains a pilot forever. The man who has his sentence of 250 years for being a serial killer, a serial killer in more ways than one, viz. an endless soap opera killer as a loopy serial? We’re all upon the pilot’s plane as he crashes forever? That’s me just rambling, as this ‘story’ itself does in different ways, evoking, as it does, various reactions from the readership, as it is still doing, the near-immortal man’s sentence lasting forever, or at least sentences end to end, beyond the normal range of a single human life, with his becoming a cult, or messiah, creating polarities of rage and debate in us, all about him, until he is taken out in a Brexit Van? My ending, not the story’s.
NEW DAWN FADES by Sophie Mackintosh
“You are being haunted by yourself, you think half-seriously, considering the mystery of the screen. You are your own worst ghost.”
A relatively short poetic prose coda to the whole book, as if preternaturally intended as such. The screen half-seriously divided into halves, too, I infer. Like glaciers are calved. Joy and grief at such releases of Proustian memory shorn from the icy motherlode or shoe-horned into gestalt. The dangers of screens with webcams and too easy an ability to send unintended things. Like this review of it. Halt with the finger on the send button. And the maps and territories of google maps, plus a haunting, clinging postcode that I surmise to be this book’s ‘seaside’ one, seaside that resonates with another word of despair. That retirement bungalow of the future. Or the childhood home of a now false nostalgia. “…and you finally understand.” Diluted vodka or not. And the man who fixes the tap, no hair clasp from earlier in this book, with hair flushed down the toilet.
Yesterday, as it happens, I reviewed a story here, as if it was already in synchronous inadvertent mutual-synergy today with this Mackintosh one before I had read it! Below is what I wrote about it yesterday at that internet hyperlink:
[[THE MAP RATHER THAN THE TERRITORY
A relatively short piece intriguingly evoking the different world where we pin steps on real streets while holding real maps, and the real world of google maps I know only on the internet where I pin unreal stars on different steps via different links. Translations, too, are different from translation to translation of the same text. Any other reviewer would have done this review differently.]]
My previous review of this author: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/05/22/well-never-have-paris/#comment-15979