We’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.