-Reviewed by Nick Murray-
Gordan Ramsey. Heston Blumenthal. Nigella Lawson. Raymond Blanc. Jamie Oliver. Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. All incredibly renowned chefs in their own right. Capable of feats of culinary wizardry. Though if they were to all team up it would be a disaster. You see where this is going, I’m sure.
The problem with too many cooks is not that the result is bad, but that it is difficult to discern what is really going on. A dozen difficult styles and not one theme. This is the issue with Unthology 4. The stories contained within are nearly all magnificent. There are writers in there who clearly deserve to be publishing solo collections immediately. However, there are a multitude of styles and handful of genres going on in the book, and while each story on its own is captivating, it can be hugely jarring to go from a quietly considered coming-of-age tale into a post-apocalyptic survival story. At several points throughout the collection the reader has to pause to mentally reset. Perhaps this is down to the editors for their curatorial choices, but aside from that I applaud their choice of content.
While the editors are on the chopping block, I would like to mention their introduction. It is an extensive list of constructed ‘isms.
Tickboxexotica. Decontentization. Flashism. Tedium Worship. Carver-Palaverism. Flock-of-Seagulls Haircut-Realism. Insider-Artism. Trustafarian Minimalism. Kneejerk Liberalism. Coffee-Table Facism. Retro-Radicalism. PoemEnvy. Reflex-Surrealism…
Reading through it, I struggled to see what it was really telling me about the stories that followed. It reads as a conceptual manifesto. The editors’ voice made visual. How much of a voice should the editor have? If any, surely it should be a voice and no more. Timbre and tone with the words, and the focus, coming from the writers.
With the gripes out of the way, the stories in Unthology 4 are truly brilliant. Stokes and Jones (the editors) have made bold and clearly astute choices as to who should be featured. The collection opens with the line:
“Your eyes have been closed so long that the light seems artificial now, surely too bright to be real.” A Real TOA by Rodge Glass
It’s a fantastic way to start a book as well as a story. The reader becomes immediately aware of the last time they blinked. The story continues as the internal monologue, done unusually well, of a man on holiday in the fading days of a relationship. (There is a smattering of stories that dabble with this theme in the anthology.) This sets the tone for the rest of the book to follow, which is bolstered by the second story, ‘Treasures of Heaven’ by Carys Bray. The protagonist deals with the memory of a strict and dogmatic religious childhood while trying to navigate an intimate encounter with a colleague. From this point on, the order of the stories breaks down, but the quality remains high.
A humorous break in the collection – most of the work has a fairly serious tone – comes from ‘Administration: An Intern’s Guide’. Joshua Allen’s story is a surrealist plummet through the bizarre shape-shifting office of Holistic Boom, housed inside an amphitheatre and ruled by swarms of ants. It is a times silly and funny, yet manages to keep hold of a sense of tension that rises with the climax of the story. Another piece well deserving of a mention is ‘The Angel’ by Sarah Evans. The story settles quickly into a pattern of unease as a family (again, in the midst of a crumbling relationship) finds a body in their back garden. At no point is the story overly grotesque as Evans follows the golden rule of ‘never show the monster’. Instead the discomfort of the family comes from Michael, father and protagonist, who tries desperately to make sense of what is going on around him despite his protestations.
With such an array of stories and in such different styles, Unthology 4 is a book that is better on its second reading. After becoming familiar with which stories are which, the reader can dip back in and enjoy the excellent writing in an order and selection that suits them and the experience is all the richer for it. Who knows how the third reading will go. Unthology 4 certainly deserves it.