It’s that time of the year again: one of Britain’s swankiest and most lucrative prizes for short fiction, the BBC National Short Story Award – managed by the BBC in partnership with Booktrust – has just announced its winner and runner-up, and Comma Press has bundled all five short-listed stories in a rather fancy-looking pocket-sized paperback. (The stories were also broadcast on BBC Radio 4, but I avoided them because I knew I’d be getting my filthy hands on the book and I didn’t want spoilers spoiling my spoil. I probably missed out, there – more fool me.) Anyway, here’s my review of last year’s anthology, if you’re up for some comparing-and-contrasting. Meanwhile, you’re (hopefully) wondering: what’s this year’s crop like? I’d say solid – quite stylistically varied, if not especially formally daring; there’s a focus on relationship breakdowns and a lack of communication; there’s two road-trips, one boat non-trip, and two scientific discovery-type stories; and they’re all rather character-driven. Each of the stories deals with love in some form; I would think that this wasn’t a deliberate consideration or preoccupation on the judges’ part, but it does mean that the anthology feels thematically coherent, which is a rather nice detail for the casual (non-judging) reader. So, it’s about time I mentioned who the short-listed authors actually are: MJ Hyland, Alison MacLeod, Jon McGregor, KJ Orr and DW Wilson.
So! Going by order of appearance, let’s start with MJ Hyland. ‘Rag Time’ is actually an adapted section of her novel-in-progress, but you wouldn’t know it to read the story; as short fiction, it’s perfectly self-contained and coherent and has a blunt emotional resonance that was difficult to read, but was very compelling, in a Larry David sort of way. The narrator, James – though it’s not clear if this is his actual name or a pseudonym – and his wife, Trudy, have scammed their way on board a cruise-ship moored in Sydney Harbour. For Trudy, tired of her drab, stalled life, the liner is as good as it gets: she’s got this long-standing fantasy of sex in a luxurious bed in an on-board penthouse suite, and now she’s got a chance to make it happen. Posing as prospective passengers, the couple plan to bribe the purser into allowing them brief access to a cabin, where they’ll do the long-awaited deed. I won’t give away the ending, because part of the strength of the story lies in how Hyland builds tension around the will-they-won’t-they plot; the husband’s simultaneous recognition of his wife’s delusion and his desire to please her mean that the whole thing tips on a knife-edge of almost excruciating empathy. Hyland’s prose is direct and simple, and she is, as usual, master of the significant detail (Trudy’s changing accent, the boy who dusts the tops of the doors). The crumbling relationship; its horribly awkward and desperate intimacies; the hyper-real, hollow, opulence of the ship itself – it’s almost difficult to read, and all the better for that – and an excellent taster of the novel-to-come.
Alison MacLeod’s ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ fictionalises the life of real-life Denis Noble, a systems biologist whose work used computer models to make the first virtual human heart. MacLeod’s Noble has had a heart attack and is undergoing a transplant; as he drifts in and out of consciousness in the run-up to and aftermath of the surgery, he recalls his early research into the functions of the heart and his then-foundering relationship with his future wife, Ella, an English student attending DH Lawrence’s obscenity trial. MacLeod’s concerned with the heart and with love, and with how and where the two intersect, and so the biological detail works well alongside snippets of Lawrence. The two time-scales of the piece – Noble’s present, in surgery, and his past, rushing about between his flat and an abattoir and his research lab – segue beautifully between one another; MacLeod captures the dreamy confusion of pre-op sedation brilliantly. And her attention to detail is superb – Noble’s descriptions of the intricacies of the heart and its ionic operations – its potassium channels – are both fascinating and gorgeous. This is one of the longer stories on the list, but it’s not overlong, and it’s a very lyrical and absorbing read – and the ending, though (I think) pretty implausible, works nicely, underscoring a rather serious (though lovely) read with a good dollop of humour.
Next up is Jon McGregor, making his second appearance in a row on the Award’s shortlist; this year’s piece, ‘Wires’, is pretty different to last year’s sad and claustrophobic, ’I Thought You Should Know’. ’Wires’ is narrated by Emily Wilkinson, who’s just been hit in the windscreen, on the motorway, by what she thinks is a sugar beet. The story is her shocked post-accident monologue, as she pulls over, unhurt, onto the hard-shoulder and waits for roadside assistance. So it’s light on action, but heavy on contemplation, as Emily’s thoughts ricochet from her social network status to her dodgy relationship with an older, condescending, PhD student, her degree at Hull, and her irritation with the two do-gooders who’ve stopped to help her out. It’s a witty and irreverent piece of fiction that nevertheless handles the complexities of Emily’s life and relationships with sensitivity and consideration. It’s stylistically dissimilar to McGregor’s recent work – less experimental, perhaps, but more immediately engaging and colloquial – and this makes his forthcoming collection seem even more enticing, as it gives a greater idea of his range as a writer. And, as it happens, ‘Wires’, just like ‘I Thought You Should Know’ last year, has been named runner-up in this year’s Award.
KJ Orr’s ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’ is a different beast altogether; here, the narrator’s husband has just come back from a manned space mission and she has to watch as he adjusts – or fails to adjust – to life back on Earth. His body-clock shot, he’s dislocated physically and emotionally from ordinary life, while Eleanor, the narrator, who’s crossed the Atlantic to set up home with him, has to wait and see if their life together can still work. The success of this story hinges, like Hyland’s, on the small details that define a relationship – sleep patterns, patience, a quick, tight hug. The astronaut’s interaction with his fellow crew-members is wonderfully handled – the desperate camaraderie of people who don’t know how to resume normal life – and you can’t beat a set of nicknames that include Corpse and Shrink Fit. It’s a low-key, contemplative story, with plenty of tenderness and anxiety thrown in; not the most unusual of the short listed pieces, but very carefully assembled and quietly powerful at that.
And, finally, DW Wilson, whose alphabetical position in our list coincides conveniently with the good old best-till-last routine. ‘The Dead Roads’, this year’s Award-winner, is the story of a road-trip, a post-adolescence near-catastrophe of sexual tension, complicated friendships and stalled love. Duncan (the narrator), his best friend, ‘north-born shitkcker’ and ’lone ranger’ Animal Brooks, and Vic, Duncan’s sort-of sometime girlfriend, are off down the Trans-Canada highway on one final outing before Vic returns to university. The story’s slight, as far as plot’s concerned – the trio meet a peculiar Native American kid pulling gas, they strike camp on a hillside, and Animal narrowly avoids death in a hit-and-run – but really it’s a poignant elegy to almost-lost love as Duncan sees his chance to stay with Vic slipping ever faster out of reach. This was the most manic and linguistically distinct of the selection – Animal’s got ’that hurting lurch, like a scrapper’s swag’, and the horizon ’glowed from the park lights and the treetops resembled hundreds of heated needles.’‘The Dead Roads’ starts off all raucous and demented, but by the end, the huge unspoken burden of Duncan’s feelings for Vic give it an emotional depth that makes you ache – like Denis Johnson at his best.
Any Cop? All five are strong, well-written stories, and different enough from one another that each ought to remain memorable when you‘re done with the anthology – so that‘s good. And although I’m not sure that any of them will stay with me the way Sarah Hall’s ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ did in 2010, I think Wilson’s was a worthy winner – I’d also give a shout-out to McLeod’s piece, to which I’ve found myself returning in the week since I read it. Overall, this is a fantastic introduction to the work of five very talented writers, all of whom except Orr have collections and/or novels out already (and I expect Orr will be joining them before too long). It’s well worth a gander and I’ll bet that you’ll be searching out those back catalogues pretty quickly after you’ve raced through this little number.