Tuesday, November 27, 2012
By All Means is one of the first of the Hotwire imprint from Nine Arches Press; it’s a hundred pages, something like a novella’s worth of short stories. There are nine stories in all, and I’, inclined to put them into three groups: the artfully constructed personal histories, the metafiction-y ones, and the rest. What’s most striking though is what they share: eight and bit of them are written in the first person. I wonder how I feel about that; usually the narrators are distinct characters, but often they seem to be middle-aged men, so that you wonder if that’s a theme or if the narrators are all versions of the author grappling with versions of his own concerns (actually that’s probably two ways of saying the same thing).
My least favourite stories were the metafiction-y ones, which on the whole I felt didn’t put their cleverness enough to use: ‘Fractals’ is about making up a short story, blurring the boundaries between the two; ‘Method of Loci’ similarly imagines a meeting on a train, then interrogates its own imagining. It’s the sort of thing Borges did vertiginously, but the margin for error is tiny, and I’m afraid I didn’t feel much vertigo.
Much better were the pieces which left cleverness behind, and just told stories. The most straightforwardly realist story here, ‘The Big Climb’, depicts a father and son after the mother’s disappearance. ‘Do you know where she is, Papa?’ ‘She’s having a holiday.’ It’s focused, retrained, and moving.
I liked best the personal history pieces, which usually throw us into a present moment and then unspool backwards to show the narrator’s past. The technique is complex but well controlled. ‘Olga, December ‘76’ starts off by seeming to be about the extrovert Olga, but gradually refocuses on the quieter narrator and his gradual drift and re-calibration from radical-dabbling youth to conservative middle age. It’s very good. I also liked ‘Doors and Windows’ and to a lesser extent ‘Late’, both of which have a broadly similar MO. ‘Dreams’ pushes the technique almost beyond narrative into personal-historical reflection, without quite achieving the satisfying resolution I wanted – it felt like a piece which needed and deserved a larger space in order to develop fully. But the ambition of showing how lives are knitted together, while eschewing the Big Meaning, is impressive and worth pursuing.