Welshman Thomas Morris has been helming Irish literary magazine The Stinging Fly for the better part of the last two years now, and as the Fly’s best known for championing emerging talent amongst Ireland’s short story writers (alongside their book imprint – see our reviews of Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, Mary Costello’s The China Factory and Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island), we’ve got to admit to being ever so curious as to what Morris was up to behind the scenes.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a collection of ten stories set in the writer’s hometown of Caerphilly (near Cardiff, if you’re not in the know, and the birthplace of Tommy Cooper, who, in fact, gets name-checked in ‘Nos Da’, the book’s final story). Morris’s (anti)heroes are floundering cases of various ages, for whom the promised security and comfort of adulthood hasn’t quite panned out. In ‘Bolt’, a young video-store employee, living with his ex-girlfriend’s mum, has a fling with the town’s ‘only psychiatrist’ (who also does a nifty impression of a horse); in ‘Fugue’, Bethan returns home at Christmas to a lukewarm reception from her old-friends, and inadvertently gate-crashes a single mother’s disastrous party; in ‘Strange Traffic’, twice-widowed Jimmy tries to go on a date; in ‘Clap Hands’, Amy’s struggling to keep her home running when her bathroom sprouts mushrooms and the Council sends round a fake plumber having an existential crisis; in ‘Big Pit’, a brother’s putting up his sister when she takes a Japanese student under her wing and makes her visit an old mine. There’s more, of course, but you get the idea: precarious moments, unstable folk, volatile happenings. Morris writes in a clear, straightforward style, regardless of the oddities he’s transcribing: the implication is that this could totally happen to you. And his setting – the small town, its bewildered occupants, the desperation of the new-build estates amidst a failing economy – is both specific enough, and yet transferrable enough, that maybe it could be you: his protagonists are teachers, shop assistants, unemployed graduates, neighbours who fixate upon other neighbours. The result is a funny, but uncomfortable read: we don’t know what we’re doing – do we?
Although the collection as a whole is solid, two stories in particular stood out to us: ‘All the Boys’ and the afore-mentioned ‘Nos Da’. ‘All The Boys’ perhaps owes a debt to Stinging Fly alumnus Kevin Barry, and his most famous story, ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’; as in Barry’s tale, here a group of men set off on a boozy journey – a stag trip to Dublin – that doesn’t come off with quite the rousing spirit of laddish camaraderie as the best man had hoped. Morris controls and individualizes his large cast with skill and tenderness even while he’s sketching out its misbehavior in pubs and chip-shops. We can’t get to the nub of the story without a terrible spoiler, but we’ll say, anyway, that a Liffey-side bench is a hell of a place for a good, sad, scene. Oh – and we’re not sure when we last read a story in the future tense that didn’t make us think, gimmick; rather, Morris uses it to convey an awful, powerful sense of inevitability. ‘Nos Da’ is another downbeat one – not that the book’s riddled with jaunty stories, but this story has a bit of a slipstream twist (sorry; light spoilers are included here): Richard’s living in an afterlife, working for a company that manufacture ‘Memory Tapes’ (edited version of a deceased person’s life) to pay for his addiction to the Viewing Booths that allow him to spy upon his still-living wife and children. But the afterlife is Caerphilly all over again – albeit with the added bonus of ‘live’ Tommy Cooper gigs – and, much as Richard struggled with his marriage to Karen before his death, here he’s failing to hold down a relationship with Lisa. Memory, loss, regret, new starts – it’s not so much subtext as superliminal billboards, but it’s still affecting, poignant, and very, well, memorable.
If we were to criticise the book, it might be to suggest that the stories are, at time, a little too quiet – that the characters, in their insecurities and incompetencies, blend together a little too much – but that seems unfair: you can’t be that hard on a book with lines like, ‘Outside, autumn lurks like a mugger.’ It’s a great debut and we’re already looking forward to the rumoured novel.
Any Cop?: A lovely collection if you’re on the hunt for Christmas presents for that disaffected Millennial sibling.