Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

"All the Bananas I've Never Eaten" by Tony Williams (Salt 2012)

I've been reading Don Paterson's commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets. He's not keen on many of them. Wordsworth and Coleridge thought many were bad too. But of course amongst the inexplicably bad there were many fine pieces. Those sonnets were written over many years. The 72 pieces in this book were written over a few short months. Nobody's going to like them all. The question is, are there enough good pieces to satisfy most readers? Where should the editor draw the line? Similar issues arose when I read David Gaffney's The Half-Life of Songs. How many of a story's standard features (plot, character, etc) can be removed while still satisfying a typical story reader's taste? Is it possible to concentrate/intensify some features, or does less simply mean less? Or do readers need to become more literary, making adjustments to their aesthetic parameters?

I can think of several ways to shorten a story. The result might be

  • A summary
  • Extracts - one or 2 parts
  • A sketch - same proportions as a story
  • A slice (just the sounds, maybe, or ...)
  • A fable (a received form that allows omissions)
  • A piece with a backstory, no past/future
  • An interesting set-up followed quickly by a punchline rather than by character development.
  • In a form - a shopping list, an application form, a questionnaire, etc.

The Bridport Prize's web site suggests that Flash "contains the classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications and resolution. However unlike the case with a traditional short story, the word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten: hinted at or implied in the written storyline". Many of the pieces here are scaled-down short stories. There's a variety of situations and PoVs. No duds, no forms, and few genre pieces - few puzzles either, except for those that have a punchline twist (though p.5's narrator is hard to pin down). Even then, there are few enigmas, nothing tricksy or meta-narrational. All have narratives, the narrational duration being anything from minutes to years, but there's always some backstory - it's not prose poetry. Language isn't put under pressure. A few employ magic realism - with so many pieces the author can afford to experiment a little, to be hit and miss. Apart from the odd banjo piece they're not literary. People who binge-drink their prose will have to content themselves with some wine-tasting - a few sips and you're on to the next bottle. On the back cover it says "you can sneak them one at a time whenever you have a spare minute", which is true. Treats or nibbles? Partly it's a matter of presentation - a little pool of nibbles on a big white plate is asking to be savoured as a delicacy. But a collection of them? Don't eat them all at once.

In such stories, titles and punchlines bear extra responsibility. Sometimes I wondered whether the double meaning of a title was a trigger for the story - "Call of Duty", "Partners", etc.

Yes, I've doubts about the viability of the concept, whether the reader will be content with the inevitable hit'n'miss nature of such a collection. The author's highlighting of wordlength leads readers (this one at least) to radically query this factor of the stories: after a good first paragraph, why not stop there? I was hoping to get the views of a novel reader I know, but they're too engrossed/immersed in their current book to be interrupted. I was tempted to go through the book marking stories as either "yes" or "no". If several people did that, the results might be of value. When I didn't like them it was usually because of inconsequentiality, though sometimes I guessed the punchline too early or felt that the ending came too soon. Of course, the question is whether most reader share the same opinions on which stories are best. Maybe the stories here are designed to cater for various tastes.

Once I got used to the style I become more discerning, trying to categorize the pieces. Here are some comments grouped broadly into themes.

  • Plots - p.5 - plot driven. p.46 and p.47 are rather linear and extrapolatable.
  • Endings - p.17 - I was puzzled by the ending. p.64 - what's the suit at the end - a police suit? p. 101 was strange
  • Length - p.18 feels unfinished. p.21 is surreal and unfinished - someone picks up a sandwich that had caused someone to choke. They see a speck that becomes a building. p.58 ends too soon
  • Punchlines - p.25 - I guessed the punchline (actually I thought the death would be on the anniversary). p.35, p.38 - punchline doesn't work so the story doesn't work. p.128 had a successful punchline making it a successful story. p.32 - Gran has 2 good, story-saving lines.
  • Dislikes - p.13, p.36, p.66-86, 131 - No (except for p.86). p.66 was the start of a sequence that didn't grab me - me in a phase, or the writer?
  • Likes - p.10 is a neat story. p.37 I liked - haven't I read it before? p.51 is simple and short. It could so easily have formed the symbolic theme of a story. p.142 I liked, though it felt like a missed opportunity. p.92, p.102, p.108, p.112, p.147 I liked

My lasting impression is being impressed by the author's imagination - sketching out so many stories in such a short time, with so little shared imagery (weeds between concrete slabs being an exception). If only he had time to flesh them out, I found myself thinking. Or would that only have added flab? I don't think I'd have been asking such questions if the best 10 of these stories had been published in a pamphlet, but marketing-wise short story pamphlets combine the worst features of poetry pamphlets and story collections, so such pamphlets rarely exist.

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1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this, Tim - I appreciate it. I think 'Don't eat them all at once' is probably a good rule for reading flash!