Editor Rob Redman has wasted no time; only months after he released the first Fiction Desk anthology, Various Authors, he’s already put together a second. All These Little Worlds doesn’t disappoint; it’s a more assured collection than its predecessor, with a set of funny and poignant stories that flag up the Fiction Desk series as one to keep an eye upon in the coming years.
First up is James Bemore’s ‘Jaggers & Crown’; Kevin Crown, aging actor and comic, reads his own accidental obituary in the newspaper, and begins to recollect his life and career with the BBC – particularly his working relationship with Sonny (Alan) Jaggers, a depressive gay comedian, pressured by the establishment to disguise his sexuality on air. It’s an entertaining piece – funny and bittersweet, but not especially memorable – I probably wouldn’t have opened the collection with this one. The second story, though – Jennifer Moore’s ‘Swimming With The Fishes’ – is a lovely, idiosyncratic tale; it’s about a small girl who gets a miniature little diving man (John!) for her aquarium, much to her brother’s disgruntlement. Moore’s matter-of-fact treatment of this rather surreal situation is excellent – it reminded me of Aimee Bender – and the ending was inevitable in a heart-rending way. I wish Redman had started with this one – it’s a much more arresting piece of fiction.
Next came Charles Lambert’s ‘Pretty Vacant’; Lambert appeared in Various Authors, too, where his was one of the more original pieces. This new tale is equally engaging – an unhappy Italian teenager is sent to an English-language college, in England, for the summer, where she meets a local boy, and together they orchestrate the kidnapping of one of her more insufferable classmates. Lambert nails Francesca’s voice – the defiant, miserable tone of the unloved child – and manages to make her sympathetic, when she could easily have been dismissed as spoiled and apathetic. The story, though by far the longest in the anthology, absorbed me completely, and it’s redoubled my resolve to look up his novels.
Mischa Hiller’s ‘Room 307’ is about a businessman whose sex-life has taken a turn for the worst after the birth of his infant twins; away with work, he meets a woman in the hotel dining room, and, on the verge of adultery, he decides that it’s a set-up by his wife, and so he resists. I had mixed feelings about this one; I thought the writer’s treatment of the wife’s post-partum emotions wasn’t the most insightful, and the scenario (will-he-won’t-he) wasn’t especially interesting – but the final page, which suddenly plunges the characters and the reader into a huge moral conundrum, rescues the piece, and I’ve found myself returning to it. Not the strongest entry, but a thought-provoking one.
Redman says in his introduction that the inclusion of three school-stories wasn’t a deliberate thematic choice, odd as that may seem; the first of these, Halimah Marcus’s ‘Dress Code’ is another stealthy one; the story of a misfit teacher who fancies one student and is intimidated by another’s popularity, it first struck me as being fairly trite, but as the story progressed, and the teacher’s misguided approach sealed his doom, I was caught: the last scene, the main character’s final debasement, is a peek-through-your fingers affair that made me cringe – but in a good way. Skipping forward, Ryan Shoemaker’s ‘After All The Fun We Had’, the second school story, is a different beast: told in the first person plural, it’s about a school’s attempt to jazz itself up to stop the kids from dropping out. The efforts themselves are a little unimaginative, hinging around a sexy, but incompetent, female teacher and the provision of moves and pizza, but, again, the final section brought a sudden change, as the kids plead, disastrously, for true affection, which, of course, they’re summarily denied. An otherwise unremarkable story that was transformed at the end into a proper heart-breaker. The last school-story is the book’s closing piece – Jason Atkinson’s ‘Get On Green’, which stars Tonya, a four-year old kid determined to be labeled a good kid (‘green’) and make her way to college. The naïve voice irritated me at first – shades of Emma Donoghue’s Room, so fine if you’re into that – but as the story develops and erupts into frustration and violence, and the shitty extent of Tonya’s life is revealed, I found it really powerful, and a great ending to the book. Atkinson also had a piece in Various Authors – ‘Assassination Scene’ – and together they indicate that the writer’s a real pro when it comes to building up atmosphere. One to watch.
Reversing, now, back to Andrew Jury’s ‘”Glenda”’, we find a narrator who’s unwilling to openly admit to the sexual tension between him and his ex-wife’s mother, the eponymous Glenda; here, I thought Jury sets the scene wonderfully – Charlie’s initial irritation with his mother-in-law segues almost imperceptibly into full-on sexual desperation and longing – but I felt the low-key ending lets it down, and the potentially fascinating character of Glenda herself isn’t fully explored. Back further, we’ll end with Colin Corrigan’s ‘The Romantic’, the story of a one-armed poet who spends his life writing dreadfully optimistic doggerel. When Aoife, an American tourist, gets drunk with him one night, the carefully repressed memory of his accident – the loss of his arm – comes abruptly flooding back. This was a story of contrasts – Martin’s cheerful, loving verse and his lonely existence; the quiet Connemara life and the hidden violence in the characters’ lives. The reversal at the end – and the abrupt ending of the story itself – was excellent; this was one of the more startling pieces in the anthology.
Any Cop? Yes, definitely. An improvement on its predecessor and worth a read – there’s quite a few writers in here that you might want to watch out for over the next few years.