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.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

"Ten stories about smoking" by Stuart Evers (Picador, 2012)

On the back cover it says that Alice Munro echoes throughout (I couldn't see it) and that the stories contain "Writing sequined with sparkling descriptions" and are "Brilliantly restrained". They "find dignity in quiet lives and beauty in dark corners". The main character is usually much the most thoughtful and literate one in each story. There are many break-ups and house-movings. There's excellent use of smoking.

In "Some Great Project" a newly orphaned man finds comfort in organising family photos. He discovers that he has a stepbrother. His unfriendly stepbrother says there are several more. The persona's happy that he now has several family trees to research. He realises now why his father didn't want him to research family trees. The story has some phrases that for various reasons puzzled me, partly because of their diction - "work, which had long nourished me" (p.4); "I wondered what my brother was doing at that moment in time" (p.11), "listening to the admonishments of parents" (p.16) - and partly because I had trouble understanding the analogy, or the point of the phrasing - "it felt oddly formal, like we were two old ladies discussing the local gossip" (p.8); "It was about a man with a serial killer as a brother; a joke just for my benefit" (p.11). Also would a waitress really give free extra portions as on p.13?

In "Things seem so far away, here", Linda visits her well-to-do brother and young family. Each adult has a turn or 2 at having the PoV, during which we find out what they hope to get from the encounter. Linda, who's had some problems in the past, comes to believe that her future depends on whether the little girl will like the gift Linda's knitted her. When she readies to give it, Linda realises that it stinks so much of her bedsit's smoke that she mustn't let the girl see it. But the girl's knocking on Linda's room expectantly.

I wasn't so keen on "What's in Swindon?". Also I couldn't gauge "I made sure that she came first; I could have done it with my eyes closed" (p.61).

"The best place in town" is my favourite story - vivid characters and a sense of displacement, of something wrong with reality. Not sure about the ending though.

"Underground" is plain. "Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle" is a framed monologue that didn't interest me. The writing's mostly ok - e.g. "It was a twenty-minute walk through shit-smeared sidewalks and gutters bearded with spent crack vials" (p.120) - though on p.128-9 there's a succession of sentences whose verb/preposition pattern is repetitive - "it was a", "There were ... on", "There was ... on", "On the ... was", "there was ... .on", "On the ... were". Maybe it's intentional.

"Eclipse" (more episodic than the others) ends well

'I love you too,' he says, but too quickly. I put my cheek next to his and breathe in through my nose as much as I can. There is nothing, not even a breath. And then, for a moment, I think I can smell cinnamon and plums, and her, and then cigarettes, and then beer, and then just the smell of the outside world (p.156)

In "Real Work" the male narrator's female partner turns a job down to become an artist. He doesn't like her new circle of friends. It's in the first person, addressed to a "you", so it sounds strange at times

  • You never liked staying at my house (p.166)
  • This is what you said: (p.188)

After initial doubts I liked that story too.

In "Sometimes Nothing, Sometimes Everything" a man who's recently split from his girlfriend leaves his old place

The flat looked distressed and naked without Andrea's things; like a clown without make-up. I walked down the hallway where there should have been a Portuguese Vertigo poster and a signed photograph of Sophia Loren. In the lounge where the large mirror she'd bought at a car boot fair used to hang, there was simply a white space with a nicotine-tinged halo (p.197)

He isolates himself then emerging to visit Asda he seems full of love for the human race. But he takes too long to ask someone out (a street-trader, selling foreign cigarettes), rationing dialogues to one a week. There's a good final page. Actually the whole story's pretty good.

"The final cigarette" is fine - the only story where cigarettes dominate.

So it looks at if I like at least half of the stories - for me, a strikingly high proportion.

I had to look up "hair metal". There's a typo on p.160: "ofa".

Other Reviews

  • Francesca Segal (Guardian)(The author's spare, Carver-esque minimalism can skate a bit too close to shorthand ... Raymond Carver's influence is strong throughout, culminating in the final story in which Carver himself appears, dying of lung cancer and reflecting upon what would be his own final story, "Errand" (itself a homage to a man in his last hours, Chekhov). It's a dark joke of Evers's to put it at the end here.)
  • Leyla Sanai (Independent) (It is peopled by outsiders ... Memory, faulty or tormenting, and its twin reflections, idealisation and demonisation, feature often. Rare lapses ... are easily overlooked because of the tales' haunting potency)
  • Nicholas Royle (Independent) (This is the extremely promising debut of a serious short-story writer .... Two or three stories are less effective. "Underground" plays the same card Iain Banks played in his story, "Piece", but in a different game. Whether it works or not is a question of taste. "Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle" should work: ... but there's no magic. One or two stories feel like exercises – successful ones ... – but still exercises. ... "The Best Place in Town", which is the best story in the book)
  • Ceri Radford (Telegraph) (My favourite story of the collection, Things Seem So Far Away, From Here)
  • Alex Preston (New Statesman) (In "Eclipse", the paranoid imaginings of a new mother suffering from post-natal depression, struggles to rise above a melancholy whisper. Much stronger is the earlier story "Things Seem So Far Away, Here" ... Evers is unashamed of depicting strong feelings, and this wallowing in emotion occasionally descends into kitsch ... This exquisite slice of Anglo-Americana deserves to be read)
  • Catherine Smith (The Short Review) (Perhaps my absolute favourite in the collection - and there were several stories I re-read several times, admiring the clarity and sharpness of the prose, so this wasn’t an easy decision - is 'Things Seem So Far Away, Here')

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