We’ll start by admitting that we haven’t read the Unthology series before, so we’ve no way of assessing how volume 7 fits in with its predecessors in terms of quality or style, but on the latter, if the eclecticism of this one is anything to go by, it’s probably safe to assume that the editors been consistently true to their remit of ‘allow[ing] space for stories of different styles and subjects to rub up against each other’. Unthology 7 features pieces we’d roughly class as everything from domestic realism and science fiction to so-called literary experimentalism, and so we reckon they’re chasing (and have probably found, given the series’ longevity thus far) a fairly wide audience. And, style aside, it’s a plus for UK-based short fiction fans to have an apparently robust anthology series on the go, with the lifespan of literary magazines everywhere looking shakier each year. But – back to the first criterion – is it any good?
Like any diverse anthology, that’s a slightly tricky one to answer (and, yeah, we’re all up on the ‘what does good mean, anyway?’ debate). First off, taking into account the eclecticism of styles and genres on display, we think it’s unlikely that all of these stories will appeal to any single reader: the overt literariness of George Djuric’s opener, which reads more like a non-fiction autobiographical manifesto than a story, for instance, or the metafictional stylings of Ken Edward’s ‘Infinity’ – a Borgesian sprint through life in the guise of a series of bewildering, interconnected rooms – seem unlikely to score points with the same audience as might applaud the realistic, if slightly maudlin, reminiscences of Debz Habbs-Wyatt’s ‘Open Windows’ (a woman mourns the death of an almost-beau from her teenage years) or the nostalgic musings of Gary Budden’s narrator in ‘The Hollow Shore’, who’s forced to return to his childhood home after a breakup and a redundancy. Meanwhile some of the pieces are relentlessly fanciful – Roisín O’Donnell’s Gaudi, in ‘Death and the Architect’ chases Time through the streets – while others, like Sonal Kohli’s ‘One Hour, Three Times a Week’, are squarely rooted in social realism. But it’s pretty much a given that if you’re going down this kind of diversity route, your readers won’t like the entire selection, so let’s throw them that bone.
Secondly, though, while we admire the variety on show, we’re not sure the standard of the prose is as consistently impressive as we’d like to see in a publication that’s getting to be as (locally) high-profile as the Unthology series. There’s a tendency in many of the pieces to run with a good concept at the expense of precise and/or original language: we like Gaudi, say, but we’re not fond of lines about ‘ladies of the night […] with their coy bosoms and dangerous eyes’. Similarly, the notion of a homeopathic murderer is excellent in Adrian Cross’s ‘The Morning Person’, but the characters, especially that of the victim, felt secondary to the idea, and redundancies like ‘a vain, futile striving’ didn’t help win us over. Charlie Hill’s ‘Love Story’ gives us a neat juxtaposition of the start and the end of a relationship told in literal parallel – in twin text columns – from the two partners’ perspectives, but strip the formatting away and there’s not much startling or intriguing about either plot or prose.
On the other hand, a handful of the stories blew us away. Elaine Chiew’s ‘Chinese Pygmalion’ is a staccato tale about online grooming built around the ‘total enmeshment’ of a headphones-on soundtrack; it’s verbally bombastic in just the exact way you’d expect from a freaked-out music-obsessed teen narrator. Elizabeth Baines’ ‘Looking for the Castle’ manages to evoke the confused bewilderment of returning to one’s childhood town, and the weird task of grappling with the altered scale of the geography and the unexpected slippages of memory, without ever edging into melancholia; her story is also notable for its refreshing economy – nothing’s over-explained here. Dan Powel’s ‘Free Hardcore’ manages to temper a quiet story about a marriage breakdown with a liberal pinch of surreal horror: this story has a League of Gentlemen-esque mania to it, alongside a disquietude that feels grimly inevitable and just as grimly memorable. Our favourite, though, has to be the final story: Barney Walsh’s ‘My Lobotomy’. If Irvine Welsh and Kelly Link were to collaborate, they might come out with this oddity – what’s a better ending than a junkie zombie, after all? Superb dialogue, buckets of humour, and the most disturbing sex scene you’re likely to read without delving into some decidedly non-literary websites – and it’s still enormously moving. Top stuff.
Any Cop? The book as a whole is mixed – we didn’t like it all and we don’t suppose anyone will be utterly enraptured by every inclusion – but the highlights were high enough to keep us interested in the series.