Although those of us who love short stories find it hard to fathom, we know that short stories don’t really sell as well as novels. Debut short story collections, as a result, tend to be the province of the especially gifted. Or that would seem to be the inference. For a publisher to take a chance on a writer to the extent of publishing an entire collection by them, when that writer is offering a short story collection as a debut, it must, surely, be the short story equivalent of a sure thing. Here, naysayers, must be the kind of book that would convince you of the genius of short stories. Read this and weep (and laugh and run the gamut of all emotions). At the very least. If a publisher with the pedigree of Granta (publishers of Tower Wells, you’ll remember) offers up a short story collection (even a short story collection that has already appeared in the States and garnered extremely positive reviews) you should at the very least raise an eyebrow / look askance across the bookshop / wonder if it’s worth taking a peek.
What we have here are five stories, one of which, the climactic story, ‘Vulnerability’, runs to 70 pages with the other stories running to between six and 30 pages. I mention the length here because again, for a debut short story collection to run to 175 pages, every story has to wow. We’re not saying every sentence or even every paragraph, but cumulatively every story has to have you sitting back in your seat at the close thinking, alright then: consider this the arrival of a bright new talent. You’ve probably guessed from the tone that we didn’t think Virgin & Other Stories did this.
Let’s talk about the stories themselves a moment. Title story, ‘Virgin’, opens proceedings and concerns a faltering marriage and an infatuation. The meat of the story centres on Jake and his relationship with Sheila (imagine a slightly more erudite take on the back and forth between Steve Martin and Kathleen Turner in The Man With Two Brains), and the eventual distraction provided by a monied humanitarian with “absurdly beautiful” breasts. ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ is basically a Sex in the City style sketch, which has its moments (there is a great passage in which their similarities and differences appear like a logic problem:
“Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression and anxiety and one of us had tried to kill herself and one of us had been raped and one of us had been molested and two of us had small aged whie dogs and one of us had a kid.”),
but overall the story circles about itself and doesn’t have a destination. Despite a title straight out of the McSweeney’s tricksy rulebook, ‘The Way You Play Always’ may well be the best story herein. We follow Gretchen to her piano lessons and watch as she becomes enamoured with her piano teacher’s slightly wayward brother. It takes its time getting to where it’s going but Lawson creates a world you can feel with your fingertips, a world perhaps more importantly you’d actually like to spend time in. ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’, from its title on, feels absurdly pleased with itself, as if we were reading the short story equivalent of a cat proudly unfurling itself before you on a rug by the fire. It centres on a funeral our teenage narrator Connor is taken to by his mother, the funeral of a transgender friend, memories Connor has of said friend; there are confrontations and oblique interactions but, perhaps shockingly given how pleased it is with itself, it is defiantly meh.
It isn’t until you arrive at ‘Vulnerability’, however, that the problems with the book come into sharp focus. The story revolves around an affair the narrator has, having contacted an artist (H), with the artist’s “celebrated art dealer”. Lawson’s writing is fussy. Here is a sentence from 30 pages in:
“But when by the light of day I stood in front of the darkened gallery window (the place closed for business on Sunday), it seemed as if I were not crazy at all but simply meeting a man I worked with for a coffee, and the sense of destiny I’d felt in the taxi all the way there, as through a window I peered out at pedestrians in sunglasses and shorts, more leisurely congesting the sidewalk to wander and browse on a Saturday afternoon, had no more hold on me than a racked dress I might’ve noticed but not bought, had I been one of the ones to wander aimlessly about the city rather than arrive here, dreamily expecting my life to change.”
I mean, my God. Editor. Or someone. Tell Lawson about full stops. And reading writing aloud to yourself before unleashing it on the world. There’s a sentence on page 158 that goes on for two pages and you don’t need me to tell you it would be vastly improved by full stops. It gives the writing the breathless quality of a bore. We’ve all met them haven’t we? People who love the sound of their own voice and can’t help but tell you, darling, about all of the adventures they’ve had, the people they’ve met, the things they’ve almost done, the wild times, oh my goodness, how wild those times were…
All of which goes some way toward demonstrating that we didn’t get along with April Ayers Lawson’s debut, Virgin & Other Stories. We wouldn’t recommend it. And it would take a pretty sustained media froth and some recommendations from people we really trust before we’d dabble with anything else by her. Sorry and everything. But not for us.
Any Cop?: A surprisingly underwhelming offering from Granta, a publisher we can normally trust to deliver the goods.