15 Minutes by Erinna Mettler

-Reviewed by Edward Rowe-

One thing I know about 15 Minutes is that the stories were not written in fifteen minutes. They were developed over years and I heard Erinna Mettler read early versions of some of them at Rattle Tales live shows in my home town of Brighton. Erinna Mettler and I were among the founders of Rattle Tales and we have since worked together on the Brighton Prize annual short fiction competition.

I little realised at the time that I was hearing part of a thematically linked series. Perhaps I should have. Mettler’s first volume, Starlings, consisted of linked stories about the sorts of characters you can meet any day in Brighton, eccentrics, people at the edges as well as at the centre of life

Fame is the connection in this volume, and 15 Minutes refers to Andy Warhol’s much-quoted remark that everyone will have their fifteen minutes of fame at some time in their lives. Many of us will have a brush with a famous person sometime – if not personally achieving celebrity. Perhaps as a bystander to a momentous and newsworthy event we can relate to others, something instantly interesting.

Mettler populates 15 Minutes with ordinary people from all walks of life, from urban tramp to surgeon, and many others in these 22 stories. They are going about their lives, variously surviving and enduring the miseries of existence, on the streets, urban neglect, bullying, bereavement, relationship breakdown, the stresses of a family gathering. Settings from the American Midwest to Yorkshire to the distant future are the backdrops to her characters as we observe through their eyes special events or encounters, some remembered, some directly experienced. Their lives continue unaltered or they are profoundly affected, propelled in new directions, their pain repaired, their lives restored, weaknesses exposed and tensions pulled to breaking-point. In this volume, encounters with real and in some cases dead or fictional celebrities can be the agents of change. But affected or unmoved, the characters in 15 Minutes show true responses by their diversity, and Mettler has resisted imposing a straitjacket of a uniform narrative arc across the stories. The theme of fame is loosely applied. She has captured her characters’ unique voices in each of the chapters making them all the more believable. It is a nice inversion that the ‘stars’ have bit-parts, it is the ordinary people who are the stars of their own stories and their lives.

Often, when there is something to be reported, ordinary people are used as witnesses by the broadcasting media, be it a shooting, a natural disaster, civil unrest. Erinna Mettler has given her characters enviable powers of observation, witty, graphic, and laced with unusual, unexpected metaphors. Such descriptive abilities are typically locked away in people’s thinking and are rarely articulated. In these stories, they are, so we engage in their narratives. The celebrities’ intrusions illuminate the characters’ relationships, which are superbly evoked, and often catalysts to catastrophe.

The scope of the stories is broad. Three examples of famous events are described on the dust cover – the shooting of John Lennon, a Mohammed Ali fight, a Harry Potter film – as a means of escaping from grief. My favourite story is the rural-futuristic ‘What Me and Pa saw in the Meadow.’ I’m not giving away the discovery in this one. There are many more which I also won’t tell as I believe that reviews of books and films can reveal too much.

Mettler’s greatest achievement in this volume is to make the characters, their outcomes, the stories themselves, so memorable. They linger in the reader’s mind, will intrude into your day-to-day thoughts like an episode from a good TV drama. The essence of a great short story is that it should be memorable. Like your brush with celebrity. Like the stories in 15 Minutes.