OK, you are in an art gallery, a massive art gallery, like the Prado or the Met or the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Massive. Super massive. Paintings everywhere. You know the sort of thing. Now, in this mega-gallery there will be rooms full of stuff from lots of different places and times, movements and groupings. You won’t like all of it and that’s fine. And, somewhere within the labyrinth of art, there will be a room filled with paintings by one painter, from one decade, and you will be drawn to one of these paintings but only one. And as little as the other twenty or so paintings move you this one painting will completely consume you. Own you. You will fall in love with the painting, not the painter but it will still be obvious that the painter is important and that the painter is great.
And that is what reviewing short story collections can be like. Sometimes you just don’t click with a collection that you can see is very good indeed.
For the record, the story I did love in The Not-Dead and The Saved was ‘Irene’, which, in twelve pages, says more about family and the passage of time than most novels manage to. I liked the rest of the collection well enough but I didn’t fall for it. Not hard. Not deeply.
The majority of the stories are about people whose lives all too often go untold. If I am totally honest with myself, this is the main reason for my distance from the collection – I believe the writer’s duty is to the reader, not the character – and despite the obvious high quality of the prose in each story, too often the plotline seems bound to follow a predestined route, marshalled by an author’s need to rescue somebody from the margins instead of a desire to tell a story. This is, obviously, a personal take on what a short story should and shouldn’t do (and an argument can easily be made that the writer’s duty is to the character) but I found myself too often wishing a story could be freer or less focused.
Which is not to say that the stories are conventional – some are, but many are experimental, and some occupy an interesting space somewhere between the two camps – but that they are set up to do a job. They are, to fudge an analogy, trains not cars. They cannot change lanes or route. Their destination was decided long before they commenced their journey. Could it be argued that this is a trait common in writers who write both poetry and short stories? That the economy and drive required to write a good poem can perhaps become a hindrance when working in the longer form? Maybe. But not by me. Not today. Because I don’t want to claim this collection is anything other than what it is: a brilliant collection that just happens to be one I didn’t fall in love with.
Any Cop?: You can’t love everything that is clearly very good. The Not-Dead and The Saved is clearly very good.