Fugue: A Collection of Contemporary Short Stories is the first anthology from The Siren, an independent press that, since 2013, has specialised in “quirky, intelligent fiction” and seeks to publish anyone, from debut writers to previously published authors. Some of these were invited to contribute by editor Lucy Carroll, others were selected via an open submissions process, and it definitely makes for an unusual and imaginative mix and may indeed go some way to back up the website’s claim that “it is testament to the resurgence of an influential art form: the short story”.
The title Fugue is taken from the opener, by Here Comes Everyone magazine deputy editor Adam Steiner, and the word, we are informed on the back cover, is defined as “selective memory loss: a distorted state of mind in which somebody typically wanders from home and experiences a loss of memory relating only to the previous, rejected, environment”. It’s an inspiring theme: in these 14 stories we encounter amnesia, dreamscapes, paranoia, psychosis and other mental health issues, and plain, good old-fashioned surrealism.
Brandon Robshaw’s half-naked protagonist serves up wooden food at an anxiety-induced dinner party while Stephen Scott’s not-quite-reformed alcoholic lead dishes out coq au vin and tiramisu and beef and ale pie and sherry trifle to his estranged wife – and a tuba full of booze to himself. Meanwhile, specially commissioned Charles Yu, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, might want to avoid the cheeseboard just before bed – Mother always did advise that too much Cheddar gives you nightmares and his voodoo-esque Cheese-Me figure is definitely the stuff of that.
Another sinister but funny tale is Darren Lee’s Ergonomics, a kind of office chair-incited zombie apocalypse, while, equally well written, though more sick than sinister, is Neill Randall’s Council Flat Caviar, about one loner and his loves and losses. Ambit fiction editor Gary Budden’s poetic and philosophical story feels (justly) inside out, while the similarly named Gary Budgen’s The Institute presents a dystopian alternative existence using intelligent but unfussy language and a strong narrative drive, underscored with a real sense of nausea-inducing dizziness and losing touch with reality.
Adrian Slatcher’s epistolary Dear Papa sees us decamp to a Middle Eastern war zone where the boundaries between technology and humanity blur as a cookery correspondent (nice tongue-in-cheek joke, there) writes home to her father about her recent nuptials. It’s interesting to hear a female voice in the collection – most points of view here are male and, in fact, only three women have been selected as contributors.
The first, Roisin O’Donnell – shortlisted for last year’s Bath Short Story Award – tells a touching tale of Sheffield’s Steel City liquefying as a relationship goes into meltdown in Titanium Heart, but winning me over from the whole book is Tracy Fells’ White Sheets. Terrifically put together, this kept my interest piqued throughout with a robust plot, some clever techniques (including a TV interview laid out as the text of a play and some well-executed analepses and prolepses) and various unexpected twists and turns. Fells’ understanding of how and when to employ a reveal is sympathetic and effective, giving the reader a nice surprise (or, at least, a genuine one), rather than the feeling of something shoehorned in, which can so often be the case and, unfortunately, which does on occasion crop up elsewhere in this volume.
Another criticism I had with some of the stories in Fugue was the use of cliché; sometimes in metaphor, sometimes in the choice of title (I’m afraid the name The Crack-up Addict, for a story about a stand-up comedian, didn’t float my boat). My proofreader’s eye picked up on a number of errors with regards to spelling and grammar or simply where words were missing or superfluous, and I spotted some inconsistencies and continuity problems (for example, something first called a “Reaper” on the next page becomes a “Rapier”). Understandably, literary magazines and anthologies are often run on a shoestring, or actually on just the plastic tip at the end of the shoestring, but it does detract slightly from an otherwise nicely packaged and well-rounded product.
Any Cop?: Out of fourteen stories on the theme of disenfranchisement, of course some are going to leave you feeling alienated, but there’s enough here to keep you turning the pages – and some will even keep you thinking long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf. Not bad for a first anthology from a small independent that’s actively promoting short stories and backing emerging talent as well as more established writers.