“Later, when we are in her filthy bed, orange-juice stains and sticky-rib boxes, she rolls over onto her knees and tells me to pray with her. I don’t recognise the words. She might be making them up, I think, but their fluidity suggests otherwise, especially the part about this numbersnake who counts the universe. Or something. I stumble, make mistakes. She says amen.”
‘Susan Frankie Marla Me’
The world is full of rules. And societies lay down etiquette: currents understood only by standing in them. Have you ever been spurned in love? Or left unnoticed by the one you covet? What option was there, but to take it on the chin. And as for all those micro-aggressions, expertly sized to slip through your fingers… How do they do that? Leave you burning inside, and yet give you nothing to grip. And so you swallow the insults because…because. Because life isn’t a movie, justice is for others and besides, you’re already fighting on a dozen fronts. So if all that’s left is to take the edge off, it’ll have to do.
In Exercises in Control, the debut short story collection by Annabel Banks, the author examines the powerless – those at the mercy of whimsical winds. Unable to right their world, they instead open a valve – release some pressure. Banks’ stories are, ultimately, about ownership – taking back (a semblance of) control.
The collection opens on firm ground, only to wrong-foot the reader. An office space – all neat lines, provocative art and arresting colour combinations. Thought-maps scribbled onto white-boards. But just out of sight, there’s another story. Of dysfunction. Of someone paying a terrible price. Of a shitstorm, getting ready to blow. The pattern repeats elsewhere, in story of a young couple, dating on a beach. Her – bubbly and keen. Him – nervous and in his Sunday best. What could be more reassuringly familiar? But Banks frontloads the story with menace – some disturbance, not yet fully-formed. Both stories bristle with the same dis-ease.
But it’s in love, lust and hate that the collection’s heart beats. In those spaces in between, the dead-zones, where the unrequited lick their wounds. Where those spurned, or left unnoticed, won’t simply take it on the chin. ‘Susan Frankie Marla Me’, a piece about the measured cruelty of men, and the concomitant comfort to be found among women, is one of three stories to surf this current – and ride it flawlessly. Beyond faultless, though, the story is breath-taking – inventive, unorthodox, elliptical. Simply brilliant writing – prose that kicks. Once again Banks wrong-foots her reader, the emotional gauge moving (unexpectedly) from ‘warm’ to ‘febrile’. By the last line, I’ll admit to feeling…discomforted.
‘A Theory Concerning Light and Colours’ is just as inventive. A man, a woman, a coming together…then a falling apart. As per the rulebook, the man is bound by a code of honour: defeat must be accepted with grace. But there is a darkness visible in Banks’ stories and for her male actors, there is no such book. No Queensbury rules. Instead they seethe, resenting the etiquette that holds them back. Rendered impotent, they can only tap the bile rising within them, to prevent wider spillage.
But the title story is where this venom is distilled right down. Picture this.. You see someone every day – same time, same place. Just passing through. You notice them, but they don’t notice you. Will never notice you. In this great big world you are oh so small and it cramps you up inside. You can’t just take it on the chin.. So in some way, you must re-assert yourself – stamp your authority on the universe. In terms of (male) psychology, it’s brilliantly observed. And in terms of a short story, it is absolute perfection: oblique, unusual. And its payload, when it hits – wholly unexpected.
Any Cop?: Exercises in Control brims with capped violence. At times, Banks’ prose punches in the guts…leaves the (male) reader bruised. For contemporary short fiction, this collection is a showpiece.