So here’s a debut story collection from a major press (John Murray being part of the Hachette empire these days) – colour us shocked, eh? But JM Originals seem determined to actually bank on quality and literary ambition rather than cookie-cutter sales-guaranteed templates, so kudos to them, and hurray for Rebecca Schiff. Though if you’re getting published by Knopf in the US and getting blurbed by Ben Marcus, you’re probably already on the up, right? Anyway: The Bed Moved is a twenty-three story ensemble piece that’s unified, more or less, by a consistent concern with sex, death and families in the contemporary world; it’s a snappy, energetic book made out of short, focused stories, and Schiff’s voice is assured and strong – we can see why JM lunged for it.
So what’s it like? The stories range from a page or two in length to more rangy pieces; the writing style is direct, declarative, and (mostly) bullshit-free; the topics swing from cancer and bereavement, to first (and subsequent) sexual encounters, and to a kind of meta-discourse on the whole book-writing process; the final story, ‘Write What You Know’, runs through the implied narrator’s repertoire as follows:
‘I only know about parent death and sluttiness. […] I know about liberal guilt and sexual guilt and taking liberties sexually, even though I haven’t actually done any of the liberties I know about’.
The parent death and the ‘sluttiness’ could well be the book’s subtitle, as the collection works through a series of permutations of these scenarios, sometimes combining both, as in ‘http://www.msjiz/boxx374/mpeg’, in which the narrator finds her deceased dad’s stash of internet porn (starring topless female boxers) and tries to work out how to feel about it. There’s more than a tinge of Lena Dunham’s Girls about this piece, and, in fact, the combination of uninhibited female sexuality with existential angst, friendship and parental crises runs through the book in a very deadpan, matter-of-fact way that refuses to mask itself behind pretty language. The downside, is, perhaps, that the humour and the frank disclosures could themselves be read as a little superficial: is there much actual depth of characterization behind the shock and the comedy? We reckon that what resonance Schiff does create is a culminative one: if you approach the text as a series of linked pieces (and many of the individual stories’ narrators do in fact, have a lot in common, even leaving out the unifying hints of ‘Write What You Know’) then you get an accumulation of experience and revelation that’s more satisfying than the bite-sized anecdotes served up in many of the shorter pieces.
However, quibbling aside, it’s a good read – funny and fresh – and not everyone’s got to be pulling an Alice Munro. Our favourites included ‘Longviewers’ (the narrator’s dad campaigns against their neighbours’ one-way street plans), ‘The Lucky Lady’ (a woman becomes a groupie for a media-savvy cancer sufferer) and ‘Sports Night’ (‘We slap five, the kiss of nerds’). Some fell flat: ‘Communication Arts’, a series of letters/emails from a writing teacher to her students and colleagues, felt unoriginal; a couple of others, like ‘World Trade Date’ felt a little gimmicky – concept-led more so than driven by character or incident, and thus came off a little shallower than they might have done. But the book as a whole is a quick read, entertaining and humorous, and the way it integrates the painful (bereavement) with the excruciating (adolescence, dating) is spot-on.
Any Cop?: If you liked Lauren Holmes’ Barbara The Slut, you’ll like this.