-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney–
The stories are introduced as interpretations of ‘modern society’ conveying foreboding, dreams and apprehension. I think that one way of gauging decent writing is to see how well it reflects its socio-political environment (among other criteria, of course) and to my mind these stories do the job more than well. They are also well-written and entertaining.
Editor Dan Formby’s ‘Dead Stone’ opens the collection. The eloquent language, and the feel of the story, is reminiscent of Dostoevsky, which sets up certain expectations in the reader. His narrator sketches his initial journey:
I would not say that the exploration I undertook was much of an adventure. It did not require the traversing of treacherous chasms or unknown lands, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be; a removal of society from my life – or at least, the society that I was a part of and had come to deplore.
There is a sure hint of Raskolnikov in his seeking to escape from ‘a country at the height of vulgarity’. The narrator’s life among the homeless, and his meeting with a self-styled leader of homeless men, who speaks verging on the flourish of an orator, also takes the reader into the short stories of Franz Kafka, and Kafka’s often anonymous characters’ search for a self that cannot exist in the world around them.
It works very well on an allegorical level, although the story remains open-ended, leaving the reader wondering, and with the option to decide what might happen next.
The main character in Felice Howden’s accomplished ‘Stop Gap’ is in transit in small-town Britain after a visit to the US. His encounter with a kid in a run-down pub has a genuine sense of foreboding to it. There is a telling moment of chill when Roger realises that he ‘had nowhere else to be until the next day, and the kid’s eyes were suggesting something deadly that roused a sharp interest in Roger’s mind.’ The story imposes a kind of helplessness on the reader, as well as on Roger. It is full of sharply-drawn characters, instantly visible, unforgettable: a boy with ‘blonde hair and a jaw that could slice through stone… shudders like a mirage’, another vomits, looks up ‘with eyes like black holes in his head’, and a big guy is ‘laughing, scared’. Since Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, it’s difficult for any writer to come up with a new take on the stoner household, but Felice Howden achieves it with great verve.
One of the themes running through David Whelan’s ‘Viral Marketing’ is the western world’s voluntary entrapment by tools that we should be controlling, such as TV and computers. It also focuses on the sometimes strange relationships between people who meet in cyberspace, in this case while rivals in a bidding war. The losers decide to meet in real life:
The next to enter was a woman. She told him her name was Norton and that she wasn’t particularly good at conversation.
‘Conversation?’ Rupert asked.
‘Yeah – you know, talking. I prefer to write. It’s hard to say what you mean, but it’s easier to write it.’
Norton is a gem of a character, her meeting with Rupert one of the best scenes in the story, which cements the senses of fracture and dislocation – a disturbing scene, rendered with expertise and understatement. In other stories within the story, a man undergoes the paradoxical scene of a shared experience – watching a football match in a pub along with a roomful of football fans – in which nobody shares anything, as nobody is aware of anybody else. Whelan has nailed the condition of many people in our modern, western life in these scenes; most of his characters have become desensitised to whatever might have once seemed normal. Nobody has done it to them; they have used those tools that could be a boon to destroy themselves in this way and to lose what people may once have called their souls. This motif reminded me of Greek myths and, of course, the misuse of the free will given to people in Christian mythology.
That’s not all that is going on in this multi-layered story – there is the encroachment of America into the Middle East, China’s taking on of the western world, and the small matter of nuclear war. There is also an anxiety about the world’s scarcity of water, and, of course, the greed for it as for any scarce commodity. Whelan is addressing the fears of our times here, a big ambition for a short story. And he pulls it off; the black humour lifts it soaring beyond po-faced environmentalism or up-itself sci-fi.
You have to feel sorry for Malcolm in James Mcloughlin’s ‘This Hopeless War’, chained outside Liverpool Crown Court to hassle passers-by in protest at the incarceration of his brother, Justin, convicted of manslaughter after a trial by media. His protest, emotional and rather romantic, soon becomes that staple of British life, the ‘town centre nuisance’.
The words made sense to him, through the fog of injustice; he just couldn’t render them into any sort of coherence for others, so he had become a joke, scorched by the burning belief inside and the twisted image out.
It is this lack of coherence that is one of the pitfalls of translating emotion to protest; what can be a good idea in principle can go wrong when it is executed. But worse, there is the apathy which follows when novelty wears off, leaving Malcolm ‘at the mercy of his own estrangement from society’.
Ryan Whittaker’s ‘Climb’ is full of haunting images, framed in an expedition up Everest, which stands as a challenge to mountaineers, a religious focus for the Nepalese, and, ultimately, a graveyard, studded with decomposed bodies still wearing designer sunglasses and cold-weather jackets, with heart rate monitors blinking out a steady zero. It is also the search for a lost son, and a lost relationship.
On the same theme, Nathan Ouriach’s ‘Patrick’ traces a relationship to a phrase that sums up its seeming decline: ‘Looking back at the bed I see she has dribbled on my pillow. I used to think it was sweet but now it is just her saliva on my pillow.’ This tale is made up of such statements, putting the reader immediately into the story.
I’ve heard rumours of the short story’s demise ever since I started reading them, but on the evidence of this collection, it’s alive and well, and it’s good, and a relief, to see it in the hands of writers so young and talented.