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 must say straight away that this mainly fascinating and occasionally frustrating collection of short stories has had rather a rocky ride through my reading life. I first picked it up casually at an airport bookshop as the title appealed, and I was gripped by the first few lines of the first story, “Heavy Shopping”:
He was on a high-intensity bash in Stirling when the news came through. Phil McAllister, the operations manager, found him in the corridor.
‘I’m a father,’ Alan said, blowing his nose. ‘She’s in an incubator. She’s OK.’
‘That’s cracking, Alan,’ said Phil, in his dull Dumfries voice.
‘She’s two months wotsits – premature.’
‘It’ll be alright, Alan. They can do anything, these days. You don’t need a womb.’
Such a wonderfully ordinary start, I thought, with the menfolk floundering through the big things of life. And from there the whole tale disintegrated in a generally quite clever way. Much like my attempted read of the collection really – which had to do battle with: the fact that I didn’t buy it at that point (luggage overload); my own work life hit a serious overdrive; my writing career, such as it is, went into a rather charming freefall; I started my regular and this time worryingly long bout of the winter blues (dammit); then I was simply too busy to write a review immediately after I’d finished the book; oh and another holiday intervened. So it’s had a heck of a lot to contend with, but it has at least ended the ride relatively intact and with its head (just) above water. So here are my thoughts.
Back to “Heavy Shopping”, it’s one of those stories where you simply want to scream at our utterly realistic Mr Everyman protagonist to just get out of that business meeting and go see your wife and child. Now! It’s a supremely frustrating read (in the best sense, this time) and reminds me in miniature of Ishiguro’s vast and classic-to-be novel of indecision and un-events, The Unconsoled. Which is praise indeed, I can tell you. That said, I don’t think the ending of this particular story actually worked. There were too many hints that something truly dreadful was about to happen (though, again cleverly, it’s not actually told). I’d rather have been left with the uncertainty.
Still, it’s obvious that Thorpe, along with the quirkiness and sense of human instability, is not averse to keying into the darker side of experience either. “The Problem” takes a young boy’s difficulty with buses (and it’s good to know that I’m not the only one with a mild form of bus phobia, by the way: and they are out to get me, you know …) and twists it into a personal obsession with the trickiness of fate. Somehow it borders on fantasy but keeps a realistic edge that I can only admire.
My favourite of the collection is however “The Silence”. Here a child’s partially reconstructed point of view of a terrible and bloody family tragedy becomes a central question in his life that can never be fully answered, as the words or the right time to say them can never be found. In its place, the child makes up a fantasy based on the small gestures and phrases used by the adults around him that serves to fill the lack of knowledge he carries. It’s devastatingly good and I was thinking about it for a long time afterwards. The inclusion of pristine ordinary detail is particularly worth nothing, and is a sharp contrast to the growing sense of confusion and loss felt by the child:
What I remember is waking up to my mother’s screams over the rumble of my air-conditioner.
Westinghouse, it said, in silvery letters.
My next memory is of my ayah, with very red eyes, taking me out into the garden. Our garden was one huge lawn with thick shrubs growing all round it, and the grass was always soft.
I also enjoyed the wonderful disintegration of a marriage in “The Concert Interval”, where a hugely irritating wife finally gets her come-uppance from her long-suffering musician husband. I was entirely on his side all the way through, and the way the noise of the concert eases into ultimate silence as the husband walks away is both profound and very clever.
“Dead Bolt” deals with a quasi-criminal security consultant whose lack of strong moral compass reveals the heart of emptiness in this tale. It’s an arresting (sorry …) mix of strange humour and an underlying darkness, particularly in terms of the scams the business is involved in and the depths they will consider in order to keep their company alive. I did enjoy how the reader is made to sympathise with the protagonist, even in the face of his highly dubious morality.
There’s also a lot about writing and writers in this collection. For instance, “Bright-Green Trainers” is the story of a student too thoroughly caught up in his ongoing dissertation about a minor poet, an obsession that makes the life he lives somehow a lesser one. I was particularly amused by this passage:
Hugo’s supervisor has warned him that he might grow disappointed with it after a while, striking endless shallows in a way one never did with Emily Dickinson, whose simplicity yawned to great depths in which one might fight for air and light. Dorothea Tremlett shared many characteristics with Emily Dickinson, his supervisor had intoned, save one: that of profound despair. Tremlett is too contented with her lot, he had said, lighting his cigarette and smiling. And she was not, like Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte, an inveterate masturbator. This had made Hugo blush. He’d had no idea.
Indeed. That certainly wasn’t something we learnt during A Level English. Or beyond. I obviously didn’t go to the right university. Ah well …
However, amongst the dark realities of life here, there is also a lot of charm. I loved the story, “In the Author’s Footsteps”, where a very keen reader travels the length and breadth of the country to follow in the footsteps of a mid 20th century travel writer, no matter what or who is in his way. How can you not warm to the ever-patient wife, who accepts that her husband must do what he has to, however many times she must see him causing havoc on the local news:
David’s hobby was a statement, of course. Gillian knew that. If anyone asked, Gillian would say he was a hiker, that hiking was his hobby. Really, what she wanted to say was that he was an awkward sod.
In the midst of the story’s humour, there’s also a very loving elegy to how Britain used to be, and the relationship between people and a rapidly disappearing countryside, that I found easy to relate to. Some essential things have most definitely been lost.
Having said all that, there are a couple of stories in this collection that, for me, simply don’t work. “Trolls” is very confusing and has far too many people in it. In the first page, we had Anthony, Gillian, Clive and Tobias all in a bundle together, and I still have no real idea who was who (though Gillian was, I admit, slightly easier to pick out …) or who only had the one foot. I didn’t even realise about the foot until the end, though I did think something was missing. Perhaps I simply read this story at the wrong time? Or I was still too much engaged with my own issues of life? It’s possible …
I also thought the title piece, “Is This The Way You Said?”, was rather too clichéd and too long for my taste. I enjoyed the two viewpoints of the publisher and the aspiring author (again, that writing focus …), but it could have done with being cut by at least a third. And it felt old fashioned, as if it had been written before, by someone else. Still it had a very bleak ending (which I always enjoy) that reminded me of Wagner: a hell of a long opera but the final few notes are out of this world. And might possibly be worth the pain of the rest.
All in all, Thorpe is a strong writer, and his central theme of human lives coming apart but scaffolded into some kind of shape by quirky wit and precision is on the whole appealing. And something I could, at the time, take entirely to heart. But I’m not absolutely sure I’m a Thorpe convert yet – there are parts of his repertoire that didn’t sing, or at least not entirely in tune, and I note I haven’t rushed out to buy any of his other work. It’s not airport or holiday reading, and I’d probably give it a miss if you’re feeling at all vulnerable. And definitely if you’re missing a foot. However, it’s always good to see a short story collection making a strong bid to hold its own in the face of the overwhelming wave of novels on the shelves, and this one is certainly an interesting and worthwhile addition to the genre.
Is This The Way You Said? by Adam Thorpe (Vintage, 2007), ISBN: 978-0-099-47989-5
[Anne tends to view stories about writers and writing with some suspicion as she prefers people with real jobs in books. To assess her current state of disintegration, please click here.]