Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

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It has been a very long time since I woke up early to finish reading something. To put this in context, I am a teacher who is six months pregnant in the second week of the school holidays; early should not be in my vocabulary. It is then, testament to this stunning debut collection from Eley Williams that I was propped up in bed just after seven yesterday morning (awoken admittedly by husband, duly departing for his commute), tea in one hand, Attrib. and other stories in the other.

To my mind, this is all the more impressive given that it is a collection of stories rather than a singular page-turning narrative. There is a coherence and a commonality to these tales that make them compelling as a body. It is hard to identify stand-out stories because the texture of the book altogether is so fluent and careful in construction. The stories are patterned with images of colour, wildlife, sounds and an overarching concern with the difficulty and problems of language in communicating meaning and connection. They are at once unified and various.

The stories are in some ways very different, from a beached whale to the tussle of the tube to kissing (or failing to kiss) in an art gallery; Williams shifts time and place with a deftness that seems effortless. The fluidity of the prose makes these movements natural, they ripple into one another like the ebb and flow of the first person that dominates the majority of these stories. The ‘I’ ever-circling back to ‘you’ with unfazed depth of affection and feeling. To say it is a collection suffused with love feels cheap, it is suffused with love yes but with all that word connotes too, everything that goes with it: the joy and difficulty of relationships, the closeness and intimacy as well as the gaps and the near-misses.

There is much that is special about these stories, not least the confidence and clarity of Williams’ own voice. She is playful too, especially in her use and consideration of language. One of my favourite sections is in the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’ in which the narrator offers their own visual interpretation of each letter, as a child’s poster might, and:

U comes as a grin, grossly extended, or an empty jar – if there were forty we would be ready for fairyland thieves, and because you ruin things with beautiful practicality let’s line up an amphora with the lip smashed clean away by vandals: V. Two such amphorae: W. The next letter marks the spot, a kiss or something like the waiter’s brace-suspenders against his fresh white shirt-back: X

The opening story makes her concern with frustrated expression and interpretation explicit in exploring the dissociative effects of aphasia and the diminution of expressive power that such a loss of language leads to. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry (though the hormones may have lent a helping hand). The text is littered with unusual words and definitions that urge close examination of each, often very brief, moment of experience as she holds it up to the light.

All this makes it sound like hard work but it isn’t. It is clear and precise and, in being so, illustrates the limitations and frustrations of communication between people. Her characters are isolated but beautiful in their isolation and their efforts to break from it. Fittingly, to justly describe Williams’ prose is tricky: words like lyrical and poetic don’t seem to apply. They feel outdated. The fluency and rhythm they evoke have been updated to include paint swatches and sound effects; it feels fresh and expansive. It is tempting to use the word raw to convey emotional depth but this would suggest something unpolished where Williams is meticulous.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was at university with Eley briefly and though we have not stayed in touch with any regularity, I have always liked her (yup, she’s lovely and talented). I say this, not in some sad effort to claim paltry connection to a rising star but lest any of you realise this and think it’s just me bigging up an old friend. As such, I feel bound to point out that I am not the only one who thinks she has produced something rather wonderful. Attrib. and other stories was fabulously reviewed in The Guardian and has been shortlisted for Best Short Story Collection at the Saboteur Awards. Joanna Walsh wrote in Granta that, “There’s no one working in the UK quite like her.” As far as I can tell, she is right.

As I sit here, gushing away, I realise that reading this book is making me (well let’s face it, it’s probably a work in progress) a better writer. I do not want to put a word out of place here, nor ever again.

Bravo, Eley. Bravo.

 

A note on contemporary literary fiction

Contemporary literary fiction is a problematic term. It is extremely difficult to define and as a result, any discussion risks devolving into either an exercise in exclusion and inflexibility, or, an augmentation of the nebulous that becomes so vague as to be entirely diffuse. These issues have been well-documented and well-bemoaned in recent years, as have countless debates on the quality of writing that is being produced in the name of contemporary literary fiction; or rather more frequently, the lack thereof. I wouldn’t pretend to have any answers (should such things exist…) to these central problems and I certainly would not dare to make any such sweeping judgments about ‘the state of literature today’; rather, I thought I’d lay out a few points, which to me, feel most pertinent to the discussion.

As I have said already, literary fiction is incredibly tricky to define; I suspect though, that most would agree it is a label implying a sense of seriousness and technical ambition. It is certainly distinct from ‘genre fiction’ (crime, fantasy, romance) and is by and large perceived as superior, perhaps wielding a bit more intellectual clout than its genre siblings. The ‘contemporary’ element is an interesting one: whilst in this context, we may safely assume ‘contemporary’ to mean current, the majority of academic courses that cover ‘contemporary’ literature reach back into the late seventies or early eighties, further complicating any judgments or statements we may wish to make about contemporary literary fiction.

Putting aside these complexities of definition for a moment, it may be more helpful to consider the ways in which both reading and writing have changed since the early eighties. To my mind there have been two significant influences on the mechanics of writing and publishing, the first being the proliferation of creative writing courses at academic institutions; the second being, of course, the internet.

In The Salon article I linked to above, creative writing courses were being held responsible for raising some terrible writers to a level of competence and thus further abetting the corruption of contemporary literary fiction. Whilst I am sure that this is to some extent true, I think these courses have also had a wonderfully clarifying effect for writers. They offer a real sense of a craft, of an apprenticeship and encourage a critical, self-appraising approach to writing, formalising aspects of the creative process and helping writers to hone a style. There are the inevitable arguments that these courses are factory-like and become criteria-centric, churning out little replica Raymond Carvers whilst stifling originality. That is to say, graduates of these courses come out able to write in a very disciplined, carefully constructed but totally unimaginative way. To this, I am inclined to say: rubbish. I’m sure that it can be and is true of some writers but what does a truly creative mind respond to more fervently than an establishment, or ‘old school’ to react against?

Further to this, I cannot see how learning the basics in a formal context can do any writer any harm. Art is a useful point of reference here, consider Picasso’s early work: he learnt to draw under his father and mastered academic classicism, a far more realistic (is that fair to say?) mode of representation before developing the Cubism of his masterpieces (NB massive over-simplification for sake of brevity). Surely, it is far easier to break and reinvent the rules if you have developed a proficient, working knowledge of them?

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the internet on literally anything, let alone the way we write and the way we read. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume of material available through the internet is staggering and this in itself requires a more discerning approach to both reading and writing; the reader must filter through the rubbish and make judgments on quality that we were previously not empowered to make. The writer must decide where and how their work should be distributed; they in turn have to filter through the extraordinary levels of chatter to find their audience and speak to it. We are exposed to an awful lot of stuff and some of it is, of course, dreadful, the dreadful has outlets that it did not have before and so more is required of us. We have to work out what we don’t like and why we don’t like it, which is – as both writer and reader – a really useful exercise; and just as YouTube gives a stage to some terrible singing, it has also brought to prominence some very talented musicians (and cats). New voices have any number of ways to speak, the difficulty of course is making yourself heard above the noise.

Writers, as we all do, now have far greater access to information than ever before. This sounds incredibly obvious but just as information is now available second hand so is experience. This has real implications for both the scope and authenticity of contemporary writing: if I want to write about the war in Afghanistan there are plenty of first hand accounts, videos, news-reports, blogs, poems, photos all available to click on and immerse myself in. On the one hand, research has never been easier and the experience of others more accessible; on the other, exposure becomes increasingly removed from experience. I can expose myself to all number of materials and build a narrative around them without feeling the heat of the desert. Now this is not to suggest that first-hand experience is a prerequisite for effective storytelling but it is to say that as our knowledge of the world and its affairs is increasing, our experiential understanding of it is shrinking.

This evaluative obsession with quality does appear though to be a very contemporary preoccupation and I do wonder whether it is in itself indicative of our culture of self-reflection and introspection. It seems to me that the ongoing dissection of literary fiction might be considered as much a symptom of this culture as that infamous emblem of social media, the selfie.

The Red Room, New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës

 

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This collection of short fiction is another Unthank publication (I recently reviewed their new writing Unthology here) in which editor A. J. Ashworth has gathered together twelve new stories inspired by all things Brontë. As she explains in her Introduction, the collection came about as part of an effort  to celebrate the Brontës’ association with the village of Thornton where, “Our nation’s most famous sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne” were in fact born. A percentage of the proceeds from the sales of this collection will be donated to The Brontë Birthplace Trust by Unthank, not only to support the promotion of Thornton as a tourist attraction but also to contribute to ongoing fundraising to purchase 72/74 Market Street which appears to be currently be in private hands.

In addition to these stories, the collection also features ‘Emily B’, a poem by Simon Armitage that effectively captures the essence of the Brontës’ or at least, their essence as it exists in the collective imagination. Armitage conveys a wild, hard-edged natural energy, inextricable from the setting of the moors  and the ‘dry wind that rushes’ there, whilst alluding to the inherent tragedy of Emily’s, and indeed all the sisters’ lives, as ‘bad water/leaches the graveyard’ and premature death becomes inescapable.

The stories gathered here are variously dark, playful, sad and eerie. Some extremely accomplished writers engage with the work and lives of the Brontës in different ways, whether it be through the figure of the lost little boy or the isolated governess, the limitations of poverty set in contrast to the freedom afforded by wealth, or most consistently through the weather and landscape of Yorkshire, so integral to the tales they tell us.

Alison Moore’s opening piece is an eerie re-imagining of Catherine repressed in a different time. It draws on familiar ideas of religion and marriage as tools of masculine oppression, even, it is suggested, as the sinister Mr Blakemore puts “four fingers and a thumb inside her mouth so that she would not forget” of physical violation. Elsewhere, the tone shifts to a more playful one, Zoë King’s ‘My Dear Miss…’ imagines a correspondence between the ever-meddlesome Emma Woodhouse (of Emma fame) and Jane Eyre, troubled under the pressure of St John’s proposal. Other stories engage with the influence and impact of the works themselves, Sarah Dobbs’ portrait of a young boy in the anguish of grief and the impressionable teenager in Elizabeth Baines’ ‘The Turbulent Stillness’ both feel the import of Wuthering Heights in one way or another.

The writing is at times moving and reverential in its treatment of the sisters and their works and at others entirely irreverent and ironic. I teach both Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights and I see daily the lasting effects that those two works specifically (sorry Anne!) have on students and the longstanding power they hold within the imagination. Part of the pleasure in any tribute is tracing the lines and patterns to the originals, spotting the references and enjoying the sense that you, like a conspirator, are in on the secret. This collection is rich with clues of this nature but it is, in places, wonderfully original with them and invites you, with the contributors to meditate on your own, personal encounters with these wonderful, ill-fated sisters. I read this at home with my family for the half-term break and it’s a good job too as I find myself reaching for my own, rather dog-eared, first and very special copy of Wuthering Heights once again.

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The Inner Landscape

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I was unbelievably excited to come across this beautiful – look at it – *beautiful* specimen while I was hiding amongst the books in Camden Market. It’s a 1970 edition (inscribed on the title page with ‘rare’ by the bookseller) of three novellas variously from Mervyn Peake, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldriss. The three stories are as different as their authors but each compelling, eerie and provocative in its own way.

I Boy in Darkness, Mervyn Peake

The opening story of the collection follows a fourteen year old boy’s escape and descent from the towered kingdom he rules into a deserted underworld, strange and terrifying in equal measure. The Boy although unnamed in the story has been identified with Titus Groan and the world Peake crafts here is recognisably that of Gormenghast in all its atmospheric gothicism. The Boy finds himself in a strange landscape where the pervasive evil of the Lamb has transformed men into sloping, animalised versions of themselves. Peake plays with conventions of symbolism to offer a nightmarish hellscape presided over by the Lamb, all the more sinister as a subversion of traditional image of Christian humility and innocence.

Whilst the physical movement of the narrative charts the descent of the Boy from his tower to an underground cavern might suggest some sort of allegorical exploration of the Fall (an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood, a lost heaven, a vanquished demon…) the imagery of the passage complicates an resists such a reading. The tower he sets out to escape begins in darkness and fire, he is returned to it by those he initially sought to escape. The result is a chilling exercise in ambiguity and atmosphere. And that I’m going to have to re-read Gormenghast…

II Voices in Time, J. G. Ballard

Whilst it’s possible to see the Peake story as strangely extra-generic in its placeless and timelessness, perhaps settling somewhere between horror and fantasy, this is much more firmly rooted in science fiction as we understand it today.

The images of a scientist, struggling in his lab with old audio recordings of a deceased mentor; strange and unearthly creatures in tanks and cages; an odd, unfathomable sickness creeping up on humanity are so much the stuff of ‘classic’ sci-fi that they are thrilling to encounter even as individual components in the story.

Ballard examines the fundamentally human preoccupation with time and mortality: the narrative is punctuated by diary entries simultaneously weaving different countdowns around and into one another and fracturing chronology so that the reader too is drawn into the dream-like patternings of time throughout the story. It is subtle and unsettling in the extreme, it plays with ideas of consciousness and sleep to excavate the tenuous and delicate relationship between human experience and scientific intervention. Reading this back, I feel like anything I write will be reductive: it is multi-faceted and intricate both in its technical construction and thematic explorations. It would make an excellent introduction to Ballard for those unfamiliar to it and for those of you who already know/love it… Well, you won’t need telling…

III Danger: Religion! Brian W. Aldiss

The final novella gathered here is again, firmly fixed in science fiction as it uses a multiversal world to address social concerns with a strong focus on the power of religion to enslave. The buffoonish an fairly dislikeable narrator, Sherry, is drawn into various matrix of differing degrees of similarity to his own in which World War 4 has been fought resulting in the irradiation of a good proportion of Western Europe.

The most striking aspect of this work is the portrayal of a militarised Church, not simply complicit in slavery but active in the subjection of a whole class of people and the manipulation of ‘extramatricial’ tribes to serve as an army in its name. It explores choice and stacks evolutionary possibilities for the human race up against each other in order to elucidate the relationship between religion and enslavement from different angles. Religion is, in this world, less an opiate more an active weapon of suppression and subjugation. The hypocrisy of the narrative voice and the single-minded ness of those he encounters are clearly intended to reflect back at the reader in questions about our own society.

The prose reminds me a little bit of G. K. Chesterton, the blow by blow fight scenes are cinematic in their precision and detail and the world(s) conjured are vivid and clearly drawn.

The title of this collection is ‘The Inner Landscape’ and it is a useful unifying idea. All three stories face the reader with alien worlds and value systems that explore what it is, fundamentally, to be human. ‘Really good sci-fi’, a friend of mine once said, ‘is about ideas. It tells us about ourselves and is about ideas.’ A statement I hold to be true and illustrated beautifully in this collection.

Unthology 4

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Unthology 4 is – as the title suggests – the fourth anthology of short fiction to be published by Unthank Books. It showcases new and established writers, “drawing its energy from the wanderlust and shape-shifting tendencies of the contemporary short story.” I am ashamed to admit that this is the first Unthology collection that I’ve read but I hope to redeem my failings in a swift ordering of the previous three.

The anthology itself is carefully constructed and offers a sense of thematic cyclicality: the opening and closing stories explore the intricacies of perspective and perception in fracturing relationships. The stories seem to lead you on from each other, however different the subject matter, however unique the narrative voice, each tale is unified in its concern with the  plasticity of human experience. Each character we encounter figures reality in their own terms and we watch them grappling with their version of the world in their own various ways. In Marc Owen Jones’ haunting piece, ‘The Murder of the Crows’, we meet a blind girl who wakes one morning to discover that the birdsong has ended and the birds have disappeared; Joshua Allen offers a surreal and bizarre response to the world of work in his exciting experimental contribution, ‘Administration: An Intern’s Guide’ (WARNING: if you don’t like ants or swarms – avoid!). Sarah Evans’ ‘The Angel’ charts the psychological impact of paranoia on memory as remembered events begin to shift and warp under the pressure of repeated questioning and implied guilt.

Unthology 4 deals in the darkness and strangeness of life with subtlety and precision. The writing is varied but it tends to play with conventions of narrative and form to destabilize the reader’s own experience and expectations, drawing them into the sense of dread that underpins the collection. On more than one occasion, I found myself reading with gritted teeth, tensed against what may come next. There are moments that are extremely powerful; to add to those stories I’ve already mentioned, the end of Melanie Whipman’s ‘Suicide Bomber’ had me entirely in thrall as did the painfully raw ‘Treasures of Heaven’ from Carys Bray. This collection feels incredibly relevant to the  contemporary: our experience of the world, emotional and physical, is being fractured, remoulded, restructured through almost every medium and as such our understanding of ourselves and how we connect to the world is becoming increasing unstable. The stories in this collection lay these changes bare for examination and what’s more, they project the questions and ideas they raise onto the experience of reading itself.

Contributors:

Rodge Glass

Carys Bray

Michael Crossan

Sarah Bower

Barnaby Walsh

Rowena MacDonald

Adrian Slatcher

Melanie Whipman

Joshua Allen

Marc Owen Jones

Aiden O’Reilly

Sarah Evans

Ruby Cowling

A bit of light summer reading: ‘In the Penal Settlement’, Kafka

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I haven’t read any Kafka in ages. I have a vague recollection of a very teenage, angst-driven encounter with Metamorphosis and Other Stories (the very copy and collection that this tale is from) many years ago and so when at some juncture back in the semi-haze that was last term another of my  fantastically clever friends mentioned ‘In the Penal Colony’ in passing, I nodded, smiled and thought: ‘I sort of know what you’re talking about but I’m not 100% sure’ before resolving to go back and read it again as soon as the holiday began.

Well, more fool me. I read it late at night (error) and the result was a series of extremely unpleasant, eerie and increasingly gruesome dreams. The worlds Kafka draws are nightmareish and surreal at the best of times (of which there are very few to be lighted upon in his prose) and on my first night in a new house with no curtains, well let’s just say I slept with the light on.

If you are yet to come across this story, it tells of an Explorer (although I have heard from various sources that this translation is erroneous and would be better served by the word Researcher? Or Traveller? Anyone who can confirm or deny this please do…) who is invited to witness the execution of a Condemned Man effected by the Officer who is assisted/hindered at various intervals by the Soldier.

This fly-by-night synopsis may seem innocuous by our Hollywood/instant-news/TV-conditioned standards: gun violence, stabbings, even sexual violence have, these days, become entirely unremarkable in their appearance in popular culture or indeed on the news. The chilling power of this story is derived not from the plot but from the narrative voice; the characters’ various responses to the plot and of course, the horrifying piece of appartus that sits, menacingly, at the centre.

The narrative voice is entirely detached. It offers no judgement, no censureship of the fanatical Officer, proponent of the old order as epitomised by the Old Commandant and the machine that he designed. The machine in question scores the sentence into the flesh of the condemned repeatedly over a period of twelve hours using a series of needles and teeth. The Officer explains its workings to the Explorer with a kind of religious fervour, he caresses the machine as he readies it for action and will not permit another person to touch the plans that he carries with him in a briefcase. The narrative voice offers no comment. It relays the setting, a “small sandy valley, a deep hollow surrounded on all sides by naked crags” and recounts the actions and reactions of the characters but the tone of total, moral and emotional indifference remains. It remains in the face of an ingenious vehicle for human violence and an absurd justice system – the Officer is firm in his belief that no defence should be allowed because “guilt is never to be doubted”.

This indifference permeates the text and is perpetuated in its characters. In spite of the horror before him, the Explorer is hesitant, reluctant to intervene against the Officer citing his position as an outsider as protection from that responsibility. It is only when the machine begins to malfunction and its victim (I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t read it…) is subject to, “plain murder” as opposed to, “exquisite torture” and the moment of spiritual enlightenment this supposedly offers that he is moved to intervene.

The inaction and indifference of the Explorer is in many ways, more disturbing than the fanaticism of the Officer. The Officer is an absurd character, unreal in the extremity of his adherence to an impossibly cruel and inhuman system. The Explorer, however, stands on the sidelines with faint fascination and a sense of unease when confronted with torture, injustice and cruelty; he intervenes only when the aesthetics of the process are threatened by the bloody reality of “a great spike” thrust through a forehead; he beats back those who would escape their unsavoury world with a knotted rope.

It is not the machine, nor the human ingenuity that gave rise to it that perpetuates the sustained sense of dread within this story (although the sheer nastiness of it does go a long way) but the familiar indifference of the voice that tells it and those who watch it unfold. Is it surprising then, given all that is going on around the world today that since I’ve re-read it, I’ve had real difficulty sleeping?