-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Unthank Books’ second Unthology opens with the note from the editors: ‘We are sure that all of these stories deliver on the surprise factor, engender in us real thought, and enable us to look at the world with different eyes and our balance readjusted’. The collection is formed from a broad sweep of styles, subjects, and lengths with the only unifying motif being, apparently, ‘surprise’.
It is surprising however that Unthology 2’s first short story, ‘Stuck’ by Sarah Evans, seems so normal: a tale about a man who becomes disengaged from the reality of his impending nuptials while at a stag do in Prague. Psychological distance from his bride-to-be and what she means to him (as well as physical distance, the title ‘Stuck’ referring to his being trapped in a foreign country, among other things) is expressed through our narrator’s self-consciousness, an awkwardness that allows us to sympathise and even find reasonable his growing resentment of his fiancée. The story is easily accessible in a melancholy way, casting his marriage as a product of his stumbling through life from one happenstance to another rather than the romanticised result of fate. And if you follow my logic about stumbling there’s a bit of an ironic twist (ahem) at the end…
From being firmly reminded of the dependably uncertain nature of relationships we are transposed to ‘Differences in Lifts’ by Lander Hawes, a punchy follow-up that investigates what might happen if human nature’s inclination toward self-preservation should be warped into the institutionalised refusal to take responsibility for anyone else, and what happens when someone rebels against the code. Hawes’s vision is a humorous read with the disturbing edge that it’s fairly credible that some of his imagined societal regulators could easily be the next logical step for some of the systems already in place. Take for example an incident our narrator witnesses between a gang of youths and the police ‘it was clear that they’d strayed into a higher credit zone than they could afford, or that they’d stayed too long in a luxury credit zone and their accounts had depleted to zero’. In her ‘127 Permutations’, Stephanie Reid deals with the complexities of relationships by strategically disrupting the harmony of a shared household, occupied by characters A – G, whose acts remain nameless as Reid cleverly strips out character detail to build a skeleton tale peppered with wry insights.
The stand-out story for me in this collection however is ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes, a longer contribution than most in this book and one that gently turns, delicately playing with assumptions about the narrator and the story that unfolds, capturing a period of time where our protagonist is ‘Living through an interlude, an anomaly’ to throw him into (albeit) hazy relief against the background events. I confess I had to read this story twice to really feel I had a grasp on it, the first time to take pleasure in the mystery, and on reading it again to appreciate the subtle way the reader is challenged to accept or dismiss stereotypes in order to get to the heart of the tale. This theme of people not being quite what they seem is picked up again with a less sinister overtone in ‘Nine Hundred and Ninety Something’: ostensibly a bawdy traveller’s anecdote about a brush with a band of gypsies or ‘Romanies’ as the narrator calls them, loathe to offend the reader, conjuring up a story replete with almost David Foster Wallace-like asides and snappy cultural observances and reflections.
Many of the stories share the theme of alienation in some form or other, and seem set in places where human beings find it hard to connect and express themselves appropriately. We veer from dealing with addiction and alcoholism with a comic touch in ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ where the protagonist reveals quite frankly about his drinking ‘I do it because it makes me who I’m meant to be’ to an insight into the minds of the bereaved in ‘Hang Up’ by Shanta Everington, where a lonely woman who visualises herself as a child unwittingly converses with a bereaved father working as a telephone counsellor. ‘Hang Up’ follows a conversation that is unravelling through the counsellor’s distraction and inability to deal with his own issues, and we are left with the uncomfortable thought that the results of his ineptitude could be terrible given the context. ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ is more brutally in your face, creating a caricatured cast of misfits who’ve been flung together haphazardly to rehabilitate while our protagonist decides to make his own use of the ‘therapy’. ‘The Poets of Radial City’ by Paul A Green again deals with appropriate expression – but this time for the identity of a City that proudly declares itself to have an ‘ongoing pulse of literary invention’ while it investigates its own artists on suspicion of verse as a tool for radical sedition. It also presents one of the most interesting uses of the short story form in this collection, breaking the story into chunks of action that run parallel to the Bureau’s close analysis of poems for their potentially dangerous content.
Unthology 2 does, I believe, what it has set out to do; there are such a variety of short stories in the mix that perhaps may not surprise incredibly in all instances but will amuse, disturb and give pause for thought. Not all of the 13 stories on offer are equal in quality, with those that go more down the meanderingly descriptive path or those with a self-consciously abrupt style leaving me a little cold. However the majority made a more substantial use of the form to challenge snap judgements and play with preconceived ideas. With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.