Years ago, when I first started reviewing books, I was not afraid of writing a bad review if I felt it was necessary. Irrespective of your likes and dislikes, we can all agree that there are both good books and bad books in the world. Some of the good and bad is subjective (one man’s meat etc) and some of the good and bad is objective (because books can be technically bad, badly structured, badly written etc). As a younger man, I was not averse to giving a book a sound thrashing if I thought it warranted it. And then I grew up a little, received a few sound thrashings myself and tried to find the good in things – if there was good to be found. I haven’t been drawn, truly provoked, into actual anger by a book for a long time and now that I have I find myself wanting to resist because I’m not sure what it achieves beyond upsetting the people responsible for the book. So – despite my strong feelings to the contrary – I’m going to speak softly, tread carefully and attempt to articulate precisely what has so got my back up about Freaks, a flash fiction collaboration by Nik Perring, Caroline Smailes and Darren Craske.
What we have here are a number of short shorts, some written by Nik, some written by Caroline, some the product of collaboration between the two, all of them illustrated by Darren Craske to a greater or lesser extent. Craske has a large part in the look and feel of the book. Although the book strives to resemble a comic, it doesn’t quite, never entirely shaking off the sense of illustration. The super hero aspect of Freaks is half-cocked and somewhat misjudged. It feels like a book conceived after reading Andrew Kaufman’s infinitely superior All My Friends are Superheroes. In addition to the artwork, each short story comes with a flash bubble indicating what super power the story exemplifies. Frequently, the flash bubbles feel like add-ons, crude binding mechanisms crow-barred on to stories that don’t need them.
Conversely, while the framing of the book feels overworked, many of the stories themselves feel underworked, like first drafts. Of the fifty or so stories in the book, only a small handful genuinely work as good examples of the form. Many are either banal (a girl goes to the cinema with a boy, glimpses the slightly unsatisfactory future the two of them will share, dismisses it in favour of appreciating the moment), silly (a mother has the ability to create copies of herself but her daughter does not, a fat zombie hairdresser lies about herself on a dating profile to get men) or dull (a girl wishes she was invisible so she won’t get bullied). Some abuse the Brautigan ‘Scarlatti Tilt’ rule by zipping by with precious little to say (see ‘They Are There To Listen’). Some induce either eye-rolling or groaning or both (see ‘Hello’, see ‘One Day’). And some have a single idea and don’t know what to do with it (see ‘The Plastic Boy’). From the exclamatory title through the illustrations to the tone of a great many of the stories, Freaks feels like a mis-step for all concerned.
All told, Freaks feels like the kind of a book published by a school with too much budget, an exercise to make pupils feel better by giving them all the opportunity to see their names in print (‘Dear You’ is probably the best example of that). It lacks sympathy for its subjects and sincerity in its intent. Do I feel bad saying this? I do.
Any Cop?: Not for this reader. A disappointment, if I’m being kind. A car crash if I aim for the jugular. If you want an entertaining collection of fantastical flash fiction, check out The Exploding Boy.