-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Described as ‘Twelve stories of obsession, loss and getting in a state’ Ashley Stokes’s The Syllabus of Errors is a collection of unnerving tales about people struggling to cope with their disappointments. Having read Stokes’s ‘The Swan King’ in the process of reviewing Unthology #2 for Sabotage in 2011 and found it an intriguing and melancholy read, I was keen to see if The Syllabus of Errors followed in this trend. Stokes doesn’t disappoint with these stories and each, like ‘The Swan King’, challenges you to read between the lines though you can’t help but rush forwards as the momentum pulls you towards the climax of the story.
As well as the themes mentioned above, the stories are linked by an almost academic fascination with language, naming and categorising. The Syllabus of Errors even introduces a couple of playful new terms, used by different characters in a few stories, such as the unforgettable adjective ‘shoutybollocks’, presumably referring to an obnoxious and overbearing individual. Teachers and intellectuals also form the main source matter for the material – from students given to over-analysis to self-deprecating teachers who are thwarted in their desires by those they resent as intellectually inferior.
Despite the humour however all the stories have a dark, disturbing edge, epitomised in the first story of the collection. ‘Island Gardens’ serves as a statement of intent for The Syllabus of Errors with its delicate balance of paranoia, insecurity, disappointment, wry humour and unnerving tension. Unfortunately for the protagonist, and for all the characters in the collection, it seems that though their hopes may never be realised, their fears almost certainly will be, however self-deprecatingly the protagonist may try to foresee this eventuality.
In ‘Island Gardens’ our narrator, mild-mannered English teacher Grant Woods, is waiting for his maybe-girlfriend ‘V’ in the centre of a London that he barely recognises. Killing time and to stave off nerves he ponders how homogenised his surroundings have become since his last time in London, which has been newly populated by what he calls ‘Adverts’ and ‘Loomparettes’- young people wearing gaudy labels or excess tanning lotion.
‘V liked these words as well. She said she enjoyed learning all of the silly names
he gave to things and people’.
As Grant indulges in nostalgic musings, he creates wry character sketches of the surrounding people, and an ill-judged hesitation while fantasising about the back-stories of a couple indulging in public displays of affection turns the situation from a daydream tinged with anxiety into a tense and inexplicable manhunt.
Grant has been experiencing ‘ahnen’, the ‘sensation that something is wrong without knowledge of its cause’ throughout his wait, but he is in denial that the threat he faces isn’t the disappointment in love that he fears, but rather that of senseless, unprovoked violence that he refused to give credence to from the surrounding people.
‘You well bate, blood,’ said the boy, separating his fingers and stabbing his thumb upwards.
‘Pardon?’ Said Grant. As he stood up it crossed his mind that back in Alex’s unforgiving pool hall world this one’s opening shot would have been a ‘Reverse English’.
Grant and his antagonist, the ‘Reverse English’, are lost in translation, and Grant inadvertently escalates the situation by refusing to be threatened by someone he still considers an extension of his daydream – safely labelled and given a fantasy history, thus neutralised. But he has misjudged the ‘Reverse English’ entirely and Grant’s refusal to be drawn further into confrontation has consequences.
‘Abyssinia’ follows in this trend of intelligent, lovelorn academics trapped in a dialogue that wrongfoots them. ‘Abyssinia’ opens with Mellis, a disgraced lecturer, waking up in hospital in urine-stained trousers and piecing together the events that have landed him there while preparing for his final act of defiance. A more visceral tale than ‘Island Gardens’, ‘Abyssinia’ plumbs the physical as well as emotional humiliation of its protagonist and extends the character sketches to farcical levels.
Mellis’s character weaves a dystopian narrative that flits back and forth in a framework of aspirations and hopes frustrated by bureaucracy, coloured by the fog of alcohol abuse and its requisite humiliating half-memories. Facing up to the events that have led to his most recent rampage he recalls a significant stand-off between himself and his HR manager, who is pioneering a new era for their institution (earning him comparisons with Mussolini) and who is also his love rival:
‘Now, you know why we’ve called this meeting, because we spoke last year about your redeployment…’
career ending […]
‘…and we did ask you to supply us with your CV so that we can assess what you can do for us…’
what else you can rob from me
As well as sharing the analysis of language, its meaning and interpretation that is in ‘Island Gardens’ (and there are a few moments where the protagonist mentions certain ‘types’ as well for good measure) ‘Abyssinia’ is also another tale reprimanding the protagonist for daring to dream of romance, a theme that unites all the stories in this collection. All the tales are:
‘embroiled in the oldest and most mysterious story of all. A boy strikes out, following some girl or light or icon or whispered promise, and whatever he does, whatever he finds, whatever he overcomes, whatever the frontiers he crosses, he never comes back’.
Overall The Syllabus of Errors is a tense, exciting and thought-provoking series of stories from the point of view of the alienated or underdog, encompassing humorous experiments in form such as ‘A Short Story about a Short Film’ and full of references to the return of the repressed and the major wars of the twentieth century – especially World War II and its Nazis, Fascists and Communists. There is also sharp criticism of the current state of society – the ‘types’ that Stokes’s characters see all around them are obnoxious, self-interested and materialistic, and many of the stories are set against a backdrop of recession and its effect on the arts and society, with all its accompanying ill-advised and compromising stop-gap measures.