A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I came to this book with more than a slight bias as I’m a great lover of short story collections and, really, there can never be enough of them. The blurb on the back cover of this one tells us the following:
“The Floating Order is a unique and innovative collection of stories. Erin Pringle’s world is filled with the dreamlike, nightmarish narratives of children: children in danger, children at the mercy of their parents, children in all kinds of trouble. Children who continually rise, return, and haunt the pages.”
Yes well, my thoughts precisely – it’s a hugely irritating blurb and the editor in me wants to strike out the word “dreamlike” as it’s just hanging around in the text making a nuisance of itself. Not only that but, if you’re anything like me, then the very mention of children is more than enough for you to sling the book at the other side of the room and go and read something more adult instead. Thankfully, however, in this case, my advice is to ignore the blurb as it does the collection no justice at all. The children aren’t as heavy-handed or all-consuming as they appear …
That said, I do have major issues with how this book starts off. The first story in a collection is very significant and should, if there’s any literary justice in the world, act as a guide to the rest of the stories that follow it. I must admit therefore that when I read the first story here, which happens to be “The Floating Order” itself, I was in equal measure bored, bamboozled and deeply disappointed. Though on second thoughts, the boredom factor did win by a nose. And those same sensations followed me through the long, sad and increasingly disheartened trudge through the following two offerings, “Cats and Dogs” and “Looker”. Really, I have no idea what they’re about or what the point of them is. So please don’t ask me. I think here we have an author allowed so much free literary rein that she actually ends up hanging herself, and us, several times over. I’m not saying there isn’t poetry and rhythm here because there is, but it simply doesn’t add up to anything you can grasp. Here, for example is a passage from the title story:
“They say crazy is muddled. If I’m crazy, this isn’t true. My friends’ words are clear. Not blah blah blah but do this and this and this. That morning it was save them save them save them. Very clear. Like an empty church and then one voice. Then two. I sang in the church choir when I was little. My robe was white and went to my knees. I always wished it went past my calves like my mother’s. She still sings in the choir.”
And, later on, in “Looker”, we get this:
“Understand only a few jumped the fence and everyone else died or divorced.
Understand 2,880 condoms if I were still smoking by the river.”
And so on and so on. Eh?? All very exhausting with very little reward. Yes, someone will probably tell me that these three stories have been nominated for every award under the sun but, frankly, I don’t much care if that’s the case. There’s a vast difference between competition work and work suitable for a collection that’s actually … um … readable. As the reader in question, I felt as if I was being pelted by a vast hailstorm of words with no particular meaning or theme behind them and that I was in very real danger of going under. Actually at one point, whilst reading over my morning cereals, I got quite tearful and wondered if the ordeal would ever be over.
Thankfully it was. When I got to the fourth story, everything changed and the author’s very unique voice really began to motor. Suddenly and so delightfully it almost did take my reading breath away, the prose finds its pace and meaning, and the characters and plot begin to travel together rather than dangerously apart. Then the collection finally begins to sing. “Losing, I Think” is a very subtle and equally clever series of tiny prose poems arranged to make a story where the themes of motherhood and the gradual vanishing of an unreliable partner are cemented by the practicalities of everyday things: blisters, birds, bonfires. And it contained this stunning line: “Holes in throats where words fester.” Astonishing. As an aside, this fascinating technique of prose poems building up a story also appears in “Wednesday Night Reflections, Edited Thursday”, where the theme is once more the jagged nature of relationships and domestic life.
Anyway, from that welcome fourth story, the tide of reading pleasure turns into a veritable ocean. “Sanctuary” is beyond doubt the pièce de résistance of the collection. The perfect story about a grisly discovery in the inner workings of a church piano that turns into a story about a marriage and one man’s survival of childlessness. Buy this book for this tale alone and it will be more than worth it.
That said, I must also mention two other stories which are up there in the collection’s “must read” category: firstly, the sheer audacity of “Halfway There” which starts off with such innocence and ordinariness and then rolls outwards from the familiar to become a scene of horrific and widespread crime. Fabulous – just how I like my literature. The heroine, Natalie, is particularly strong and I’d certainly be interested in hearing more from her … Secondly, the child’s voice and the sudden, achingly poignant realisation of what’s actually happening in “Park” are both well worth the journey. Indeed, Pringle has a talent for taking what seems ordinary and turning it inside out so that nothing is what it at first appears to be. Such a gift is only to be admired.
Similar powerful surprises appear in the intense psychological pressure of the relationship between two very different twins in “Raw as Hands”. I particularly enjoyed the way the story turns between the siblings in the last page and a half; as a reader, I love to have my assumptions changed. And how can you help but admire this kind of prose:
“My twin sister washes her hands until they bleed. The bathroom mirror reflects her parted hair, furrowed brow. After she towels her hands dry, she hovers over the doorknob and can’t remember washing her hands. Unsure and unable to convince herself otherwise, she bends again to the faucet. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. Tears splashing off her burning knuckles, chapped joints. Rewind. Play.”
Heck, we’ve all been there in some measure. And it’s a perfect depiction of character, both of the twin who watches and the twin who is watched. Moreover, it’s clear and powerful, unlike the descriptions in the first three stories, and possesses a perfect economy of tone.
Some of the stories here are fine examples of flash fiction – which I enjoy very much as I prefer my collections to have a mix of lengths within the offering. For instance, “Every Good Girl Does Fine” manages to convey the tension and curiosity of being a child, together with a near disaster, in only three pages. Marvellous.
The final tale, “And Yet”, carries the faint hint of Murakami (always a good thing, to my mind), but I accept that may be as it starts with a lift (well, elevator – the author is American after all) and I do associate Murakami with lifts. In any case, this story is a strong depiction of a mother’s sense of impending loss filtered through her relationship with elevators, calendars and hospital visits, and her dying son’s reactions to her obsessions. There is indeed something alien about a hospital. I also found the shifting viewpoints to be very powerfully written.
So, by the time I’d finished this collection, the reading experience misery of the first three stories I encountered was completely forgotten, and I would most definitely seek out more of Pringle’s work. So, yes, I am more enthusiastic than Scott Pack was in his very brief review: ‘Enjoyed’ really wouldn’t be the right word. ‘Impressed’ would be nearer the mark. Hmm, this book deserved a far more generous comment than that, to my mind. I hope The Floating Order sells enough to merit a second edition – but I would suggest that, in that case, Two Ravens Press rip out those first three tales, start with “Losing, I Think”, and (please!) revisit that blurb. For all our sakes.
In the meantime, you can find out some fascinating snippets about Pringle’s working method and why she writes as she does at Kimberley Jones’ article at the Austin Chronicle and you can also catch up with the author herself on her MySpace page.