Saturday, June 18, 2011

Various Authors: Stories from The Fiction Desk 1 (2011)

Various Authors: Stories from The Fiction Desk 1, edited by Rob Redman, The Fiction Desk, 2011. 188 pp

There seems to have been a number of new journals appearing over the last little while, literary to genre, Prole to Dark Moon Digest, and many others promising to appear soon. The quality of these journals tend to be a little all over the place, especially when first starting out, attempting to recruit talented writers, uncover good slush, and hopefully pick up a few readers along the way. I like to support new publications and urge the reading and (especially) writing public to do so as well, since a healthy subscription allows for better long-term quality, and, if nothing else, at least survival.

And if it weren't for these new journals, we wouldn't have such excellent books as Various Authors. I have read a number of new and established fiction journals over the past two years, and Various Authors is without hesitation the strongest, most compelling of the group.

Various Authors is the first anthology published by the fine blog The Fiction Desk, by Rob Redman. The book is attractive, more book-like than journal-like, with a nice cover and great, easy-to-read layout. The quarterly's great looks are surpassed by its consistently readable contents. There is not one bad story among the dozen collected here, and at least half are above the average. Of course this can range from one person's taste to another person's, but the variety here is immediately noticeable, and I am pleased that the journal is unafraid to print serious fiction, from short stories to sketches, serious and comedic, along with fantasy and the absurd. It is this variety that is missing in many contemporary journals, especially the most established ones. Journals with broader readership might feel that, since they have wide and loyal readers, they need to cater to the tastes of their perennial subscribers. If the people at The Fiction Desk maintain this level of consistency, I will be a perennial subscriber. Indeed, I am already itching to see issue number two.

As for which is the strongest story of the group, The Fiction Desk offered a generous prize for the best story, as voted by its authors. There was a three-way tie, so book blogger John Self (The Aylum) was brought in to select one of the three, and the prize went to the excellent "Crannock House," by Ben Lyle, which would probably have been my personal second choice.

"Two Buses Away" by May Lynsey. 6/10
This is a character sketch of a young, lethargic man that plays itself out in a triptych of scenes: Gerry on the bus on his way to visit his parents; Gerry at his parents'; Gerry waiting for the bus after having visited his parents. It's a simple and generally underwhelming series of events, but a subtle yet powerful change occurs in its course. While at his parents', Gerry learns that things between his folks are not too healthy and that his mother has moved out, possibly permanently, yet nothing concrete is offered. Permanent or not, this little chip in Gerry's universe alters his attitude and world-view; the world is not as stable and predictable as it may have been for a child. The adult world is unreliable, and Gerry's self-contained bubble has burst. While the most interesting portion of the story is its middle, a very well written scene between son and father, with tight dialogue and an immeasurable weight of tension, the two bookend moments are the ones that illustrate the change in Gerry. It is through his interaction with strangers, commuters specifically, that we note the transformation, for the once seemingly harmless figure in the world have now become potentially deadly.

Though a great little sketch and well written, I would not have chosen it to open the volume, but would have the subtlety nestled between two more "active" stories.

"How to Fall in Love With an Air Hostess" by Harvey Marcus. 5/10
In this humourist piece of self-referential fiction, the author/narrator/protagonist places himself on a train seated not too far from an attractive stewardess (air hostess, if you want to be politically up-to-date), and considers how he should approach her. The goal is, of course, not so simple as love, but a consideration of eternal happiness amid the wasted past, a past enveloped with youthful apathy. The piece is inconsistently funny though the humour is there, and though it evokes some interesting ideas, it only touches upon them, so that thematically it becomes as light and evasive as our protagonist's world-view. While it lacks both the subtlety and depth of the first story, it is nonetheless enjoyable, and a good contrast to the darkly serious opener. Somewhat reminiscent of Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer," though not as funny, nor as subtle or memorable.

"Crannock House" by Ben Lyle. 7/10
At Crannock House boarding school, an alternative education school in rural Scotland, a young teen befriends Mervyn, the new, eccentric Mathematics teacher. More accurately, the teen narrator forces friendship onto the other, a quiet recluse seemingly content with his home-brew cider, crossword puzzles and made-up games.

The story title is misleading: it's not about the school itself, though it at first appears to be, but about the two men, their friendship, and about the notion of friendship itself. It's not a fuzzy friendship story, but rather shows the darker implications and the inherent responsibilities of friendship. Ben Lyle has put together a multi-dimensional story, at times comic, always vivid, and finally powerfully tragic. Amid these vast dimensions are smaller, creative details, such as the word games and how "nutant" and "beriberi" get incorporated incorporated into the text. An excellent work, and deserving of the prize for Various Authors's best story.

"Rex" by John Wallace. 7/10
Rex's wife has been grieving now for some time since the loss of her beloved dog, so Rex is surprised when he hears playful voices and laughter coming from the bedroom. He enters the room to see her with a dog, as we expect, but surprisingly (and a great surprise it is) it's not a dog so much as some guy in a dog suit. Rex soon learns the dog, William, is an actor (a method actor, I suppose) who takes his role as beloved household pet very seriously, so seriously he is even willing to eat dog food. Well, feeling that it would be best not to disappoint his wife, Rex decides to play along along her wounds begin to heal.

"Rex" is a truly enjoyable story, not just for its quirky fun and originality, but the idea of how far one must go to keep up appearances becomes pleasantly crazed. The little complication that Rex never cared for dogs is a nice touch, and the story is not so much about Sylvia's coming to terms with losing her companion, but about Rex having to face and deal with glitches in their relationship. While he appears to want what is best for his wife, Rex is actually thinking only of himself. Fairly passive and non-confrontational, Rex takes advantage of the advantages of the situation, learning from William his wife's secrets (since people talk to their dogs more openly than to their spouses) rather than learning to listen and understand his partner's needs. He is disinterested in her interest in dogs, and it's likely she wants a companion because Rex himself is so withdrawn. Indeed, he is happy whenever William informs him that she wants to be alone, taking advantage by having drinks with the guys or simply walking by himself in the park (perhaps the same park where Sylvia takes William to share her secrets with). Of course this is all speculation since little detail is even offered about their past and the evolution of their relationship, but there is a reason why the story is titled "Rex" instead of "William," "Sylvia" or something silly like "Dog Day Afternoon"; the story is about the guy and not the grieving process, and the guy's name, Rex, is a name common to dogs, while as the dog's name, "William," is not only common to human males, but generally evokes the image of a decent man (as opposed to something like, say, "Butch").

"The Puzzle" by Alex Cameron. 5/10
An elderly stroke victim bound to a wheelchair in a retirement home is surprised when a stranger leaves him a small package. His attending nurse, Bertha, opens the package to reveal a jigsaw puzzle, and helps him to assemble it. Once involved in the art world through shady means, secrets from the man's past come back to challenge him.

A quiet narrative, and though well written I did not find it as engaging as the other stories. Much of the back-story is told through exposition, and the ending is just too dramatic and overdone for something so quiet, especially that final paragraph. Yet the prose is good, visually precise and, ending aside, smooth and consistent.

"Dave Tough's Luck" by Matthew Licht. 6/10
A former drummer turned drumming teacher takes on a new student, Andy Shrover. Andy is the member of a large, musically talented family, yet through a birthing accident was left brain damaged. Drumming instructor soon discovers, however, that little Andy has talents of his own, and does not merely ape what he hears. Through his idol, the great Dave Tough, our narrator tells of his attempts to bring Andy's talents to light, but the parents won't listen, especially since we're talking noisy drums rather than classy violins. Andy, like the drum, is society's perceived "retard."

I liked the story well enough, with its interesting ideas and energetic writing, the fragmented sentences that often sound like percussions themselves. The structure, however, could have used some tuning. For such a short story the preamble is too long and I was waiting and waiting for the story to start. To me it started at the line, "The first time I saw Andy, he had a kooky smile stretched over his entire face," and I wondered why the author didn't start it here, fitting in the necessary preamble info later and doing away with padding. The title, however, is quite neat, evoking the expression "Tough luck!"

"Assassination Scene" by Jason Atkinson. 7/10
"A government job means that you are set for life... if you suddenly fade out... They'll find a little corner for you in the complex mechanism and there you will sit until retirement."

Middle-aged Washington DC government employee Daniel is about to encounter change. In fact, he will soon be assassinated. When he calls young rookie employee Sadie to his office to warn her that it has become apparent that she is the first to leave for the day, he learns that she has been busy directing a play: William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Well, it turns out they need some smaller roles filled, and Daniel might do. In fact, when he proves to be a good reader, Sadie asks him to try out for the part of main man Caesar himself (though of course we all know that Caesar is not the star of Shakespeare's play, but a middling character, along the lines of the ghost of King Hamlet). This is a simple story with a simple lesson, yet well written with a great last line. The tone and language is distant, very formal, like Daniel himself, and like Daniel it wants to be more. The interview with Sadie is well constructed, with Daniel fighting between wanting to be a part of her project, and his official government side creeping in to warn him it is not a good idea. The assassination is, of course, a metaphor, a symbolic death, a removal from the corner Daniel has been shuffled into.

"Celia and Harold" by Patrick Whittaker. 8/10
As a result of re-routing of train lines, a man finds himself waiting for a transfer in the village of Midwick. While biding his time at the local pub, a resident barfly warns him to leave for his own good. What seems like an ordinary story premise soon becomes quite original, so original and engaging that I don't wish to discuss it anymore for fear of removing any of its inherent suspense for other readers. Hopefully this story will re-surface in another anthology over the next couple of years as it needs a wider audience. "Celia and Howard" is my vote for the best Various Authors story.

[Spoiler: Elements of fantasy and literature combine for a tight piece that can be read on many levels, from an unusual yet horrific form of apocalyptic plague, to a story about a man finding his place in the world. Our narrator is unnamed and, in many ways, unformed; he is a professional working in the city and living in its outskirts. A modern English everyman. What he finds in Midwick (perhaps named in homage to John Wyndham's Midwich) is the opportunity to begin anew, to leave his generic work and self behind, and head out, no longer alone, to redefine himself. The story's sense of the absurd is wonderfully rendered in a straightforward, realistic tone, that the fantastic is almost ordinary. Reminiscent of the stories of the neglected John Keefauver.]

"All I Want" by Charles Lambert. 7/10
While teaching English in beautiful Italy, a pair of roommates befriend a local couple, and spend a weekend at their house on Lake Garda. Teddy is interested in the woman, Anna, imagining a wealthy woman who could spoil any man with material wealth, while Simon the narrator is interested in Luigi, a somewhat dark, even mysterious traditional Italian man who carries a gun in his suitcase. Yet another well written story, with some great character portrayals, excellent dialogue, and a story filled with fine contrasts and disturbingly repressed emotions.

"A Covering of Leaves" by Danny Rhodes. 6/10
Train station employee Webster is at work following a tragic train wreck. He is watching the sparse crowds, the ample leaves that he is sweeping from the track points, the incessant rain, and the cars abandoned in the parking lot. These cars, he speculates, belong to victims of the wreck, and watches as one by one they are claimed, except for the little red Nissan parked at the far corner. A sad sight indeed, until one day the Nissan drives away... all by itself, and Webster quickly pursues. An eloquent fantasy dealing with grief and loss, loss of people as well as places. The loss of one's past is also affected, especially when attached to memories of those we have loved. A nice, quiet little story.

"Sometimes the Only Way Out Is in" by Ben Cheetham. 5/10
Ten year-old Finn runs away from from home as his mum lies in a drug-induced stupor and the social worker has come to (re)claim him. He decides to seek out his dad, and from a family trip a few years ago, he believes dad is living in Wales, so he heads off on foot. Meanwhile, Finn has a voice in his head named Zack who is more mature and rational than he, so I suppose they both head off. Frightening things happen in a the darker edge of town as some shady figures appear in Finn's path. This story, the longest in the collection, failed to grip me. I thought it well written and interesting enough, but I read it slowly, a couple of times checking to see how many pages were left, and all in all, it left me unsatisfied. The problem for me was that the story never seemed to have any concrete direction, that it just wandered aimlessly, and the fact that a ten year-old with a voice in his head had more purpose than his narrative is indicative of its weaker points. Why am I reading this? I wondered, and as soon as I was done I stopped wondering about the story altogether. Moreover, I did not care for the title.

"Nativity" by Adrian Stumpp. 6/10
Adrian Stumpp's "Nativity" begins as a kind of rant, the kind of rant on middle-class suburban life and the dark and looming reality of fatherhood a stand-up comic might deliver. Only, the story is not terribly funny, the writing stiff in that attempt to generate comedy through the serious learned language of an academic. Yet the narrator of this rant, thirty-five year-old Dr. Edward Devereaux, is an academic, and the more we learn about him, the more the ungrounded opening begins to make sense. The narrative swerves from ranting to a portrait of Devereaux's upbringing, so that we can understand where his anxieties come from. Despite the almost irritating beginning, stemmed from the fact that the narrator came across as whiny and selfish, "Nativity" is a powerful story about inherent family ties, responsibility, faith in one's self, and so many other little interwoven things that culminate quite nicely.


Jason Atkinson said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful review!!

Casual Debris said...

Thank you for a well written story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the review! I was very interested by your thoughts on my story and the collection as a whole. I'm a Lynsey with a 'y' though, we're a tricky bunch I know :)

Casual Debris said...

How terribly inattentive of me. I've corrected the error; thank you for pointing it out. Though perhaps you should have said you're a "trycky" bunch, you Lynseys.

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