‘Coming from a good place’ – Life-like by Toby Litt

lltlWe’ve spoken before about short story collections masquerading as novels (see Rachel Sieffert’s The Dark Room, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted); what we haven’t seen so many examples of are short story collections that could just as well be called novels. Now. We understand why authors might want to disguise short story collections (or commercial pariahs as they are sometimes known); for an author to present a virtually deconstructed novel in the form of a social pariah says to us, here is an author who is less concerned with how many people read his stuff than just how good the finished article is and, more pertinently, that it is named appropriately, irrespective of the effect that has on eventual sales. This, we feel, is: a good thing. This we feel demonstrates integrity. In this age we live in (see Adam Curtis’ latest broadside to understand our view on that), integrity feels pretty scarce, something to be lauded etc. Know then, before you begin Toby Litt’s third collection of short stories, that we think it’s coming from a good place and warrants excitement.

Some of these stories – ‘John & John’, for example, which won the Manchester Fiction Prize in 2009 – have been in circulation or appeared elsewhere. It is their cumulative weight, though, that makes Life-Like the best of Litt’s short story collections (and we say that already liking both Adventures in Capitalism and Exhibitionism a great deal); we’d even go so far as to wonder if it might in fact not be Litt’s best book to date (despite the fact we liked Hospital a big lot too). Why is that, I’m sure you’re asking. There are a few reasons. What we have here, in Life-Like, is twenty-six or so stories, that begin with Paddy and Agatha (who will be familiar to Litt readers from Ghost Story) – and enlarge to include people they know or come into contact with. Throughout the course of the book, we follow Paddy and Agatha’s troubled marriage and the difficulties they have being parents, as well as the trouble marriage of their friends Henry and May; we touch in with John, who Agatha shags on a writing retreat, and Kavita, who Paddy almost has a one night stand with. There is also a girl called Veronika from the Czech Republic who Paddy and Agatha employ as a nanny for a short while, a man called Joseph given to standing naked in gardens, a woman called Yaminah who throws a big spanner into the works of a number of lives and a bunch of young kids travelling by online monikers who inhabit a virtual roleplaying game. Amongst others. The audacious storytelling techniques Litt has been employing for the last couple of decades are at the fore here (there are stories in tweet form, stories in the form of a screenplay, stories where the text formatting ranges across the page) but they never get in the way. The key thing you notice as you read Life-Life is the acuity and precision of the words Litt chooses to explain what he needs to explain. There are frequently occasions when the verisimilitude of what Litt is describing (particularly when it comes to the scurrilous things that go on inside the heads of men, or the way in which parents and children interact) roars off the page. Life-Like is, to put it simply, very, very good.

Now, we don’t quite understand why Life-Like is being published by Seagull Books and not Penguin who have published Litt for a mighty long time – it may be that Litt has taken stock, decided to leave Penguin and take his chances elsewhere. Or it may be that Penguin has decided to let Litt go. If the latter is true, Jesus but Penguin have made an almighty mistake. We are not usually at home to such things as the Granta list of the best writers under 40 but Litt warranted his place on it and Life-Like demonstrates that he is only getting better. We eagerly anticipate what he turns his hand to next.

Any Cop?: An essential purchase for short story fans but an equally essential purchase for anyone who likes great fiction. Litt is on top form.




  1. Dear Bookmunch reviewer:
    Thank you for this wonderful review of the book. Having edited and designed the book myself, I am delighted to know that you have enjoyed the book so much and recommend it so heartily to all readers.
    However, I am appalled by the last paragraph of your review which makes Seagull Books sound like a totally insignificant entity. Perhaps you have not had a chance to look at the list of authors Seagull publishes. The company that Toby Litt now keeps is enviable. It includes authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Max Frisch, Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, Christa Wolf, Mo Yan, Ivan Vladislavic, Zakes Mda . . . Perhaps you have not heard these names because they are not UK-based English-language Granta folks. But they are, by even the most exacting standards, some of the greatest writers of twentieth-century and present-day literature. Seagull’s list has been developed over many years and, at least within the publishing community, we are now seen as one of the most important independent publishing houses in the UK and the US. Anyway, it is fatuous, I believe, to speculate about why an author changes publishing house. The important thing is good work is being published and reaching a readership it deserves.
    Thank you.

    • Dear Bishan,
      Thanks for your mail. Glad you liked the review. Sorry you were appalled by the final para. Have to ask, though: appalled? Seriously? By something fatuous? My first reaction to that was: you need to get out more. There’s lots to be appalled by in the world but a passing ponder at the end of what is by any definition a glowing review… Think you need to get some perspective. Second: books are niche. Ok? We live in a world where books are niche. They mean what they mean to a diminishing number of people – and those diminishing number of people are interested in why a celebrated author moves from one publisher to another. It may be Seagull is known and cherished by the publishing community. I’m very glad about that. Long may you reign. Moving from Penguin, though – who you must admit are, you know, somewhat bigger than you – to an independent publisher raises a question. Sorry. It does. IMHO. For whatever that’s worth (which I’m willing to admit, isn’t much). You make a point about ‘look who else we publish, look at the company Toby is keeping’ – again, I’m glad Toby Litt is moving in such exalted company. He deserves it. I’ll let your silly Granta comment slide. You don’t do yourself many favours when you add a comment that is basically:

      Thanks for the excellent review

      Sounds like you’re taking things a mite personally. As well you might. The fact is: I haven’t heard of Seagull before Toby’s book. I’ve worked in publishing of one kind or a good long while and I’ve been doing Bookmunch for over a decade during which we’ve reviewed several thousand books published in both the UK and the U.S. Seems to me you might want to think about marketing yourself a bit better. Again, just my humble op, etc.

      Any way. Thanks for reading. Good to hear you. Wish you well in all your endeavours. Keep up the good work etc.

      • Dear Pete:
        Thanks for your reply. I understand my comment (impulsive, I agree) came across as rather strong—which it was. It’s just that as an independent publishing house, we are constantly having to jostle for space dominated by the major multinationals like Penguin Random, etc. And of course, we are trying our best to market ourselves better, and a lot more has to be done. Anyway, thank you for your wishes, and thanks again for the great review.

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