Way back in the mists of time – oh, okay, in 2011 – we reviewed one of KJ Orr’s stories, ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’, when it was shortlisted for that year’s BBC National Short Story Prize; we called it a ‘low-key, contemplative’ piece, that, while not being especially unusual (in terms of style, that is; the subject matter was pretty off-beat), was ‘carefully assembled and quietly powerful’, its success hinging on the tiny details of human interaction. We also reckoned that, like her fellow-shortlistees, Orr would have a book in the not-too-distant-future, and so, here we are: Light Box is her debut, an eleven-story strong collection that includes and builds upon this early piece.
Orr’s stories focus on moments of inconclusivity; her characters grapple with a moment, or with the memory of a moment, or with a situation that they can’t, or won’t, process, and the stories, then, play out a snapshot of that struggle without offering much, or anything, in the way of resolution. It’s a very New Yorker-esque trope, in some ways, though there’s a quiet, dark tone – lacking in humour, maybe – here that differentiates Orr’s work from some of the less minimal works that TNY jumps on. Anyway, the point is that these are subtle pieces that don’t wrap neatly up or offer us much in the way of immediate emotional satisfaction. In ‘The Human Circadian Pacemaker’, the partner of a returning astronaut struggles to contend with how they’ve grown apart (played out in his increasingly idiosyncratic sleep patterns and behaviour). In ‘The Lake Shore Limited’, the main character meets, and tentatively, reluctantly, comforts a mourning widow on a train, and it’s only towards the end that we realize he’s fled his dying wife’s bedside; his capacity to open himself to grief is displaced, but not confronted. In ‘Disappearances’, a retired plastic surgeon who has spend his life in Buenos Aires ‘unraveling women’, who has seen them as ‘the sum of their parts’, meets a waitress whose father ‘disappeared’, who sees the narrator as a doctor, a hero, rather than a collaborator with the most powerful; through their limited meetings, he begins to reassess his place in the world, until, of course, she learns the truth, and he is left more alone than before. In ‘The Shallows’, a woman remembers the humiliation, as a teenager, of getting her period on a seaside holiday, of a day on the beach when a young child died in front of her and she didn’t notice – bodily shame and guilt are knotted up in a way that continues long afterwards to contaminate her relationship with herself and others.
Amidst the gloom, of course, there is redemption, or, more accurately and tenuously, the possibility of attempting redemption. In ‘Blackout’, a forty year-old man’s slowly degenerating eyesight gets rapidly worse and he starts to recall his childhood friend, Max, who also went blind, and who died – probably killed himself – at fifteen, and whose friendship he had rejected; now, late on, he recognizes that he’ll have to ‘rediscover the world’. In ‘The Ice Cream Song is Strange’, an old businessman hides out on a package trip to a Tokyo hotel, remembers his son, gets drawn, unwillingly, into contact with the other guests, is forced to see himself anew, and isn’t sure he likes it.
It’s an interesting book, and Orr’s skill is evident on each page; the scope of the stories’ relationships, settings, plots, is impressive. It doesn’t feel like a debut; it’s not far off Sarah Hall’s short fiction in terms of surety and diversity. Not all the pieces are equally successful, of course – the shorter ones (‘Rehearsal Room’, ‘Still Life’) felt as if the writer was attempting particular effects rather than fully drawing out an imagined world, and there was a consistent lack of levity that felt (to us, anyway) a little relentless. But that, perhaps, is a matter of taste, and if you like your fiction terse and worrisome, you’re definitely in the right place.
Any Cop?: Yes: Light Box is a very confident collection from a talented writer who’s living up to her early promise.