Knowing Bookmunch readers as we do, we know we could just list the names of the authors included in this short story anthology, and that will be enough to persuade many of you to read this. Of the 21 tales contained herein, there are new stories from Ben Marcus, Tower Wells, Claire Vaye Watkins, Damon Galgut, Alan Warner, Clare Wigfall, Kevin Barry and Ali Smith. And, of course, new stories from editors Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs too. What’s more Sex & Death bucks the anthology rule – ie, anthologies, being comprised of many different writers, will invariably feature stories you don’t like, to the extent that you will read keeping a mental tally of the ones you like and the ones you don’t in order, finally, to adjudicate whether or not it is in fact a good collection – by only including stories that are good. Some stories, we should add, are great; some are only merely good but good is as bad as it gets, if you follow our drift.
The title lets you know roughly what to expect in terms of parameters (the intro from Hall and Hobbs explains,
“With its concentrated dosage… the short story form is the perfect vehicle for our ecstasies and our agonies, for reminding us what we already know but can’t quite reconcile – the cognitive dissonance of living and dying, the attempts at loving in between.”).
But let’s talk about those stories we think are great, shall we? These are the ones that should propel you through the door, cash out and ready to snap up this baby. “George and Elizabeth” is the first story by Ben Marcus we’ve read that has us going “Yes! Yes! Yes” (the way Homer says “Yes! Yes! Yes” when he is rocking out). Over the course of 25 pages, Marcus creates a short story that feels like a novel (which always feels like high praise to lay at the door of a short story). There is a man, George, who we sense has possibly not made the most of all of the opportunities available to him; and there is Elizabeth, his sister, who goes by the name of Pattern and who, we sense, has probably made a little too much of the opportunities available to her. They exist in very different worlds but they are brought together, very briefly, by the death of their father, a man neither of them particularly admired. Marcus’ story feels like a terrific Paul Auster novel. Massive thumb’s up from us. Well Towers’ story, “The Postcard”, focuses on a woman called Cora who is in the midst of a late flowering burst of adultery. Her husband finds out about a single indiscretion and she considers the error of her ways, for a bit, but then finds herself on track to commit another indiscretion – and the title clues us in to the fact that maybe just maybe things won’t work out so well this time. Tower is terrific on the minor shifts of like/dislike that can happen even over the course of a single conversation. He also has an admirable way in making up words: twordled, zazzling. Sarah Hall’s contribution, “Evie”, is narrated by a husband who doesn’t quite know what to make of the changes in his wife – she discovers a new found love of sweet things and then pushes for a whole lot of spice to be added in the bedroom department (he isn’t sure he likes it, even as he is swept up). It is that nagging sense of ugly self-discovery (“he thought of it, often, more than he should”) that will keep “Evie” in your mind when you’ve done reading. Damon Galgut’s “Visitation” sees a man fleeing a crime he committed in Cape Town, returning home and witnessing a death along the way that he quickly extricates himself from, not needing the complication; he returns home to his father and we glimpse the sand the man’s life has been built on. It’s one of the shorter stories in the book, but it’s neat and runs on tight lines and has a masterful exactitude in its relation of small details. Alan Warner’s contribution, “Porto Baso Scale Modellers” is a joy – the best Alan Warner we’ve read since Morvern Callar (and a story we wonder if Magnus Mills read as he was putting together The Forensic Records Society). Three ageing men whose lives revolve around model airplanes have their little club invaded by a rather exuberant young woman who came to modelling as a result of drugs and sex addiction. Beautiful comedy and gentle sad wisdom commingle. Every word lands like the punchline of a joke and Warner is shrewd in his use of a nice callback at the end of the story. Again, as with the Marcus, the Warner packs the punch of a good novel. Peter Hobbs’ story, “In the Reactor”, seems to concern a visitor’s centre in either an abandoned nuclear reactor or a nuclear reactor that has never been functional and was only ever intended as a tourist destination, looked after by Todd, who appears to be employed there as a kind of indentured slave in order to pay off his debts. There is a warm, lackadaisical quality to Hobbs’ telling, and Todd is a sweet, slight, detached character who the reader enjoys spending time with (he’s a kind of Murakami style narrator). There is a sort of relationship at the heart of the story, and a little bit of sex, but again, it’s a fully realised world and you’ll look up as you reach the last page and remember you’ve been reading (and not, you know, actually there). Clare Wigfall’s “The Fortune Fish” is also a delight – two former lovers meet accidentally at a party, remember their youths (Wigfall is just thrillingly good at recreating Haight Ashbury, would love to read a novel by her set there) and then revisit an occasion that only one of them seems to truly remember well – but the memory is enough to jar our narrator and leave him, all Gabriel Conroy-like, changed forever. Stunning stuff.
There are a few stories that seem to unintentionally tread similar ground or riff off each other – so for example Lynn Coady (a writer who is new to us but whose short story collection Hellgoing we will definitely be checking out) contributes a story called “Fin” (with its sense of end rather than fish appendage) which centres on the move into a new house and the death of a relationship and isn’t a million miles away in tone from Alistair Macleod’s “The Closing Date” (also a new house, also the death of a relationship – albeit running alongside the closest Sex & Death gets to a good crime story); Claire Vaye Watkins’ “10-Item Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale” works (in a McSweeney’s sort of way) through the eponymous list, which is also incorporated in Ceridwen Davey’s (sorry) slightly superior story “Fixations” – which revolves around the distance an individual’s painful, intimate problems can put between them and the world (sex and death hover like twin spectres in Davey’s story). Some stories – Robert Drewe’s “Dr Pacific”, Yiyun Li’s “The Days After Love”, Kevin Barry’s “Toronto and the State of Grace” (enough with stories related to barmen in pubs now Kev, eh?) – pale in comparison with the other dizzy highs, but this is a strong collection and well worth shelling out for.
Any Cop?: We didn’t expect to enjoy it half as much as we did and we recommend all our short story reading readers to snap this one up because it is a treat.