The end of the world is nigh: the latest short stories reviewed

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

Only Helen DeWitt would start a book with an epigraph of her own pop-culture mash-up poetry and end with an appeal to buy the writer coffee. The author of just two previous published novels (about a multilingual child prodigy, and an encyclopaedia salesman turned sex-peddler, respectively), DeWitt keeps a pure flame, and doesn’t want to hear why others won’t.

She and her characters inhabit an intellectual, emotional and physical triangle between New York, Berlin and Gloucester Green bus station, Oxford. ‘It would mean a lot to me to work with [an editor] who admired Bertrand Russell,’ one of her narrators remarks… about her children’s book. Another one has ‘views on the Kaddish of Mr Leon Wieseltier’. And DeWitt’s endnotes reference the cost of pigments in Renaissance painting, the clever-clever comics website xkcd, and a proof found in another of her own unpublished novels, on the distinction between X and x.

The abiding theme of Some Trick: Thirteen Stories (New Directions, £22.95) is thwarted genius — especially where that genius is female. The art world features heavily, as do publishing, music, languages, maths and computer programming. In a story full of distribution graphs, a typical DeWitt sentence runs:

Peter had written a book of robot tales with a happy beginning which had made, as it turned out, what seemed a lot of money, and yet not enough money to mitigate contractual relations with persons who had professed to love it yet sought to remove references to ewiπ.

Beneath this is a four-paragraph-long note, rolled over from the previous page, on information design. Yet it’s all perversely readable, and entertaining. Some trick.

In Certain American States (Granta, £12.99), Catherine Lacey’s first protagonist is a man knocked for six by a short story his ex-wife has just published. Another woman clears out her dead husband’s closet. A narrator cares for an unloving godfather. A businessman notes that the letter firing him reads like a haiku. These certain American states are, in the main, discomfiting and sad. Lacey’s prose is free, and full of pinpoint observations. There’s a type of shirt ‘meant to be borrowed from a man’.WWJD? bracelets are a mug’s game, since Jesus had ‘supernatural powers… not the options the rest of us have’. The great, flat, modern statement: ‘I wasn’t in the mood to be a person.’

But why is everyone so lost? The last thing any of these Americans are is certain. Most are on the brink. One worries that she’s ‘the only woman I know who swings hetero any more…. It feels unevolved’. A second that she ‘can’t see how anything is organised’. You can’t help wondering if they ‘feel’ too much. Is nobody at peace in that whole damn country? To the stiff-lipped Brit there is a slight so-what-ishness about the inner lives here.

Such airy ponderables do not intrude on Oisín Fagan’s Hostages (Head of Zeus, £8.99). His first story (90 pages) is told from the perspective of a bomb. A riot breaks out in a ‘semi-rural, pre-suburban’ high school, a Lord of the Flies environment of scatological attacks, handjobs and waterboarding. Of the last: ‘Here lads… you can only do that for a couple of minutes, or he’ll die.’ Ahh, but ‘what is life but the promise of love?’ muses the bomb. The other three big stories — of a plague of dead bodies, Tanzanian diamond mining, and a hyper-local tribal matriarchy — share this whiff of allegorical dystopian future history.

The end of the world is seemingly always just around the corner. But Hostages is funny and cheerful for all that. ‘Cross-eyed with sobriety’ ranks among my all-time favourite throwaway descriptions. And Fagan renders his DayGlo-Bruegelish nightmares in a careless, cliché-free Anglo-Irish (‘the quaintness of never having a pair of shoes’), with nods to South Park, Roy Keane, Alien, ‘Cotton Eye Joe’, and a generous dose of black wit. As queues form at the corpse-disposal sites, a speaker says: ‘I know the ladies’ committee who’ve worked with Tidy Towns before have had similar experiences…’

Ben Marcus is often referred to as a genius. It says so on the cover of Notes from the Fog (Granta, £12.99), amid some other strong claims. But I am new to him —and this collection may not have been the place to start.

In yet another vague, bleak, technologically distorted near-future a young boy threatens his parents; couples argue; people get sick. The premises are interesting, the characters comprehensible, the dialogue good. Marcus has a talent for the barbs of domestic passive aggression and the terrible cruelty of children, and there are some tremendous branch lines for his trains of thought (terrorism as ‘a tax on comfort’, anybody?).

As with Lacey, though, it is what’s running through his characters’ minds that is the problem. Most of these people are — or should be — medicated. Some are actually the subjects of experiments; but they are all, as the Americans would say, ‘in their heads’. And Marcus’s relentlessly agitated prose (there are a lot of similes) is perfect for their truly epic levels of overthinking: ‘Wasn’t every bit of motion, anywhere, an invasion?’ Well, no. Some child wears a teacher’s skin as his ‘shirt’. Except he doesn’t, obviously. It’s all just intellectual noodling, and page by page it comes to feel like writing aimed at other writers, neither unreadable nor brilliant, just rather pointlessly obtuse. Perhaps this works in lit mags, individually; but in book form the end result is hard work.

Novelist, playwright and gentleman revolutionary in the 1905 go-round, Leonid Andreyev was particularly infamous for his story ‘The Abyss’, in which a scholar and his sweetheart, out walking in the woods, exchanging poems, are set upon by a gang of drunken peasants (‘I’m not scared,’ said Tolstoy, proto-bolshily). The rest of this collection, The Abyss and Other Stories (Alma Books, £8.99), some of it in English for the first time, is every bit as grim and Russian as the title number. A man with toothache goes to see the Crucifixion. A provincial official goes mad. A priest wants to convert to Islam. And almost everybody dies.

Andreyev’s tales may not be as contemporary as all these other authors’, there may be a ‘fateful inevitability’ for their protagonists, and one of the stories may, in fact, have caused the first world war. But at least — like all things, good and bad — they end.

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