Friday, August 10, 2012

Unthology No. 1 (2010)

Unthology No. 1, edited by Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, 2010.

Unthank Books webpage
Unthology 1 at Goodreads

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog instead.

More of a neglected book than a forgotten one, this anthology, the first in an annual series, was released under the radar, which is truly a shame as it features some fine writing and more variety than we normally come across in similar publications.

The editors over at Unthank Books kindly asked me to review some of their publications, and I broke a streak of declining such requests by happily accepting. (A footnote to handling review requests was posted here.) The first two unthologies came to my door in a single envelope, and excited as I get receiving books in the mail, I tore the envelope open... actually that's not quite right. I was at home heading out to get work done in a coffee shop, needing a change of setting with a deadline looming not far ahead, and nabbed the package from the mailbox on the way out. At the coffee shop I sank into a cozy chair with a cup of dark coffee, and rather than plunge toward meeting my deadline I opened the envelope and admired the two books. I liked the paper feel--no glossy plastic here--and the colourful and detailed front cover. I would gladly place them on my too organized shelf dedicated to my nicer literary journals/periodicals (yes I have such a thing), but half-way through the volume I had an accident with a mug of coffee and sadly destroyed the cover. The pages are mostly fine but the cover is utterly mangled, warped beyond recognition. I felt terribly, even though it's "only a book," especially since I take good care of such volumes, and don't normally leave the house with them.

But I digress...

Unthank Books is a small press located in the UK that focuses on alternative, non-commercial fiction and non-fiction. They specialize in daring, experimental writing, as displayed on their home page and as discussed in the unthology's brief introduction. We need daring, unconventional short fiction, the editors are claiming, and I totally agree, particularly because most high profile journals prefer to play it safe and publish standard, semi-marketable mainstream fare. (I say "semi-marketable" because terribly few literary periodicals are straightforwardly marketable.) "Unthology is an attempt to reverse this trend," the introduction states; the trend of essentially marginalizing and constraining the short story, a form that once was a common portion of the publisher's agenda. The mainstream public, according to J. G. Ballard, has lost the gift of reading short fiction. I'm not sure if the ability to properly read short fiction is a gift but more of a practiced aptitude. I wouldn't like to call my own abilities a gift, but rather something I've developed through study and practice. ("Gift" does sound nicer, though.)

I do wonder why there are two novel extracts in a book promoting the standards of the short form, but then again Unthology has "no agenda," no limitations on theme, form or length. I'm glad there is no agenda, since the two excerpts are surprisingly among my favourite selections in the volume.

Unthology is certainly different. Unlike most periodicals or anthologies, this volume contains a wide range of styles among its seventeen selections. On one hand this offers a great reading challenge, as our minds must get accustomed to each individual story. Many periodicals like the über popular Glimmer Train don't offer this challenge, each story so similar that the brain is set to monotone mode and the reader might as well have picked up a novel. On the other hand this variety offers a risk, since human tastes vary and each reader will likely encounter two or three stories they are not particularly fond of. Personally I didn't dislike any of the stories here, but there were a few that just didn't grip me, though each was well written. My two favourite entries are those by Viccy Adams and Ashley Stokes, but others that stand out for me are those by Mischa Hiller, Laura Stimson, Sherilyn Connelly, Sarah Dobbs and Tessa West.

extract from "Doing it by the Book" by Viccy Adams. 7/10

I don't always read excerpts. In fact, I'm pretty mixed about the concept. I find sometimes it's merely a form of advertisement rather than a valued piece of writing that manages to stand alone. "Doing it by the Book" stands strong on its own, that I'm actually surprised it's part of a longer project. (I tried to learn more about the project and understand it was part of Adams's dissertation, but haven't been able to figure out much about the project itself. You can visit Dr. Adams's website here.)

Our narrator hero is riding home on a train. He's got his coat, his book and his nice red suitcase with him. He takes a moment to step into the train's washroom and when he returns his entire life has been turned upside down. There is a man sitting in his seat, with his coat and his book and his nice red suitcase, and suddenly our narrator's life has become suspect. As we follow this amnesiac and possibly schizophrenic man across several hours of losing himself, we witness a systematic breakdown of a rational civilized individual, and discover, sometimes abruptly and at times subtly, that this seemingly stable narrator is a downtrodden, coldly violent and deluded individual. There is desperation mixed with a strange form of sincerity and the ridiculous that is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The ending was, as expected from an excerpt, not too satisfying and a little too much like a punch-line.

Very well written, with an appropriately cold and precise prose, I would be interested in reading the work in its entirety.

"Write or Die" by Sandra Jensen. 5/10

A teenage girl's confession over killing a man reveals the dark side of a rural working community. The narrative is at times amusing and there is quite a bit of suspense, but the side-tracking and repetition of what's going on down in that cellar, writing that confession while the men with guns are upstairs, served as unfortunate interruptions, removing me from the narrator's story as soon as I've managed to settle in. With shades of Equus.

There is an inherent problem with the idea that an uneducated country person trying to piece together a comprehensive written narrative. Some words are misspelled and there are obvious typos, but most sentences are well crafted, properly subordinated and really, there just ain't enuff errerers for som 1 who ain't ever used a typewriter before, or even barely written anything more complex than a grocery list. It's written as though speech is being transcribed, and would have worked better had it been transcribed speech, a recorder rather than a typewriter. Besides, I don't believe anyone, even an expert typist, can piece together such a "fession" in ten minutes. Of course I'm being nit-picky, but the logic itches at the back of my hed as i reed the storie nowin n relity da ritin and typps ud mak et al unredble.

"The Burning" by Mischa Hiller. 7/10

I reviewed Hiller's story "Room 307" from All These Little Worlds (The Fiction Desk, 2011). Though both that and "The Burning" deal with burdened, crumbling relationships, they are utterly different. I liked "Room 307," but I like "The Burning" even more.

The tension in this short piece is incredibly thick, beginning with the immediate action as Jack breaks Helen's concentration reading the paper when he places his key in the front door. Told through Helen's point of view, every action and every detail is fraught with layers of complexity, from Jack's selection of the chipped tea mug to his sighing and not turning on the lights. A successful biological stem cell researcher, Jack is evidently more involved in his research than in his marriage. Stem cell research is broad and can involve many facets of science, from saving endangered species to research into cancer and other diseases. It is Jack's cold statement, as delivered through Helen's thoughts, that he does not want any children that makes me think his work deals with cloning. But of course this is my own invention.

It is the awarding of a prize and the letter invitation from Stockholm that sits between them like a lump of lead, and acts as a kind of deus ex machina to hurl us to the final act of burning and an almost resolution. What we learn is that Helen herself is troubled internally, troubles that are aggravated by Jack rather than caused by him. A solid story burning for a second read.

"The Latvian Motorcycle Princess" by C. D. Rose. 5/10

A character sketch of a Latvian motorcyclist passing through the UK town of Thetford. Fairly well written but not gripping as it lacks a bit of direction. And lacking direction when on a motorbike can be dangerous.

"Turtle" by Melinda Moore. 6/10

A little girl in the town of Milford Haven is curious about death. Living by a funeral parlour feeds that curiosity, as does the fact that there have been an unusual number of deaths these last few weeks, and an increasing number of flies. "Turtle" is a subtle story that deals not with death but with neglect and consequence. And yes, there is a turtle in the story, though briefly, which kept reminding me of Lonesome George.

"Herringbone" by James Carter. 5/10

A short, playful piece about herrings. Sort of. Also about a person with paranoid delusions. Well enough written but this one didn't grip me either.

"Post Day" by Laura Stimson. 6/10

Frances is bored on post day, the day her mom sits drinking wine and opening her mail. A tight and interesting short sketch of a broken family through the point of view of a little girl. Unlike the previous two stories I found this one vivid, evocative and even gripping. Interestingly, this one as well as "Turtle" features a girl wondering who she will stay with if her parent dies.

I've read of editors complaining of stories written in present tense, first person. Apparently there are too many being written these days, so it's a kind of trend that, from what one major editor told me, is more conscious of its voice than the story being told. "Post Day" is a fine example of how a first person present tense story should be employed. The story, for one thing, has no finish and no sense of a finish, as Frances and the reader are caught in time, faced with an impression. In fact, the story acts less like a story and very much like a painting.

"Waiting Room" by Martin Pond. 6/10

A boy is seated in a waiting room, waiting for the test all boys his age must write. We are in the near future, and overpopulation has forced the state to implement a test to attack the problem. I am being vague, since the story is told through the boy's point of view, and the narrative relies on irony as the reader slowly learns the tragedy of what is really going on in this world, while the boy sits patiently to write that all important test.

Another first person present tense story, it actually relies much on the past tense to tell its tale.

"The Mall" by Deborah Arnander. 6/10

A woman walks through church grounds where she sees, through the window, a childhood friend's mother. The incident triggers a series of reflections on this friend and the tragedy that made up their relationship. A strong story, well written.

"The Last Dog and Pony Show" by Sherilyn Connelly. 6/10

A clingy transsexual joins a dog and pony show to be near his/her girlfriend, deciding to take on the role of a cat since she feels attuned to the feline instincts for solitude and self-preservation. Told through the point of view of the cat wanna-be, the narrator is annoying with his/her clingy needs, yet manages nonetheless to garner sympathy from the reader. The narrative is funny and the emotions genuine, the story is a pleasure to read. There are some unfortunate obvious typos in the text, and while there might have been typos in earlier parts of the book, I didn't notice them.

"Extract from The Lemonade Girl" by Sarah Dobbs. 7/10

Married to a loving wife and father to two children, Michael's world faces potential tension when his ex-girlfriend, presumably dead, might be trying to get in touch with him. Unlike the previous excerpt, this one does not hold up as an individual story, so I can't comment too much as it sits in the middle of the anthology unfinished. I did, however, enjoy these opening ten pages, and am impressed with Dobbs's ability to capture the male voice (though there is perhaps too much focus on his... but I digress). Some humour and quite a bit of suspense, I do hope the novel gets published.

"Impilo" by Jenni Fagan. 5/10

This surreal tale of severed limbs and strange relationships is well written, but unfortunately its characters don't stand out as we're introduced to too much gore before we get the chance to properly meet them. I did find myself getting unexpectedly pulled into the story, but by then I was already on the last page.

"Dick's Life" by Maggie Ling. 5/10

A middle-aged man in crisis mode reflects on past expectations, being "trapped" in marriage, his mentally disabled daughter, aging wife and notions of guilt. The story lulls during its mid-point, particularly as the narrator wallows in self-pity, but is bookended by a good opening and last couple of pages.

"Parallax" by Tessa West. 7/10

A woman has the opportunity to apply for an ideal position, a position that would require a move. When her husband is less than supportive, downright dismissive of the career opportunity, the woman wonders at his extreme reaction and wonders if she is ever less than supportive toward him. This is pretty much all the story contains, along with a near climactic deus ex machina, and yet the piece works well on several levels. Structurally we are presented with a series of terms borrowed from photography, a passion of the husband's, and these terms expose (pun intended) the nature of not just the relationship, but how people view different aspects of their lives. The story appears so slight that it can easily be overlooked, and yet its quietness is what gives it so much strength. My personal favourite of the shorter pieces.

(Sorry Green Lantern fans, but this has nothing to do with that Parallax.)

"The Soul of Cinema" by Karen Whiteson. 6/10

Like the previous "Parallax," this story enlightens its thematic elements by contrasting them with appropriate cinematic concepts (cinema in place of photography, a related though younger art form). Here the concepts come across as part of a lecture at a film conference, and are played against the narrator's thoughts on a gossiping colleague. Whereas the previous story was more concerned with theme, "The Soul of Cinema" is more conscious of language, and there are some fine turns of phrase, some well structured sentences that manage to eke out a bit of humour.

"A Short Story about a Short Film" by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

"A Short Story about a Short Film" is a great example of how a structurally different story can be both entertaining and act a proper medium for its thematic content. Outwardly the story is bland, as it can be summed up as a pretentious and insecure young filmmaker struggling with his obsession with his ex-girlfriend, and through that obsession achieves an important moment of self discovery. Yet there is depth in the unity between narrative and structure. The story is a screenplay of a short film inset with a series of footnotes. The short film emulates the great shorter films of mid-century Eastern Europe, while the footnotes are by the filmmaker as he has pieced together his own kind of director's commentary, and uses that commentary to reveal the behind the scenes drama amid the filming of the short. The idea of introducing footnotes is not original, but this is likely the first time I've read a story in which the footnotes act as extras on a DVD, a concept which I like since I'm a sucker for good extras. Overall it's well presented, particularly as the story manages to create various layers and connections between the short film and the self-indulgent love story, making it engaging and often funny.

Our filmmaker Stasi Lloyd is not very likeable. He is weak and self-interested, obsessed with film and with his former girlfriend-cum-former lead in his debut film, Kaliningrad. What begins as a pretentious undergraduate film project of a pretend totalitarian society replete with its spies, its mysterious women and its relentless clacking typewriters, not to mention vodka and onions, the little film turns out to be little more than a dramatic love triangle, emulating real-life behind-the-scene events. The entire thing is ridiculous, but in a funny, engaging and even thought-provoking way. There are a myriad themes interconnecting the fantasy of film and of the real-life drama, as love and lust are secretive, even persecuted (by a jealous third party), and the real life director becomes the shady spy of his own film, sneaking into his former lover's parents property, taking the entire film crew to the vicinity as an excuse to be there in the first place. The dark film society he portrays is illustrative of his own dark, guarded nature; he tries to rationalize the situation by being removed and understanding, but is essentially driven by a stronger form, that of raw emotion, so that the melodrama of life is so much greater than that of film. And what is it all for, since like the film, life too is short. I was surprised, though pleasantly, that the narrator gains some insight through these straining experiences.

The story is perhaps a little too long.

Which got me thinking about the title. Certainly it's about a short film, but technically it's a novelette, so it should be titled "A Novelette about a Short Film." But it's not about a short film, particularly since the film's ending is changed due to life's influence. In many ways the city embodies both the film and the filmmaker's final transformation, so I thought a good title would be "Kaliningrad with Footnotes." Though that sounds more like a painting than a film.

"Bleach" by Michael Baker. 6/10

A visually hallucinatory narrative about a paranoid delusional man, possibly schizophrenic. The zaniness of the narrative is fun at first, but I grew quickly tired of it as the story seemed to lack direction. It does improve with a healthy dose of morbidity just when a sense of hope is creeping in, but I would have preferred it had it begun a little sooner.

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